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Don't let stress sabotage your children's diet

 Don't let stress sabotage your children's eating habits (Photo: iStock)

Like many parents, Caroline Juma and her husband Nobert Juma suddenly found themselves under immense stress when they both lost their jobs. They opened a hardware at the busy Canaan Estate in Kibera. 

They had to dismiss their house help due to financial constraints. At the time of doing so, their two sons were aged eight and ten years.

Between juggling to sustain the demand from their newly established business, there were the children too, and before they knew it, the household’s eating habits went off the rails. 

“It was so much harder to keep routines around meals and snacking, and we were constantly asking ourselves if the boys had eaten yet,” says Caroline.

She said that between attending to the customers and having time for their sons, sometimes they could not remember if the kids had, had their meals. 

Juma says the boys would start throwing tantrums during peak moments, crying that they were hungry, they would tell them to get some chips or something from the nearby kibanda. 

This family is not alone in their stress-eating dilemma.

A survey by the National Library of Medicine found that more than 25 per cent of the 8,000 participants reported weight gain from reduced activity and an increased consumption of sweet snacks and drinks. 

Sammy and Nduku Kazue who run a busy general shop at Highrise Easte, Nairobi, say that they were too busy to plan healthy meals for their three children aged between six and 12 years. 

The Juma’s and Kazue’s situation shows that the economic dynamics of balancing family life and income-generating ventures are diminishing parent’s abilities to foster healthy eating environments for their children. 

Julia Mwendwa, a nutritionist says that even the best-established habits take a hit during stressful times. 

“Science has established that forming healthy eating habits during early childhood is important to lifelong health, and when it comes to a child’s food preferences, parents are critically important influencers,” says Mwendwa. 

She further explains that parents want to help their children, while at the same time, they do not want them to have health issues that so many families are experiencing.

She says adding good lifelong eating habits happens most naturally when families eat together around established meal times, something, she says, is not always possible during stressful times. 

Nduku laments that holidays are the worst times, as they compound ongoing stress and eating issues. 

However, with the help of experts, concerned stressed-out families can get their families back into healthy eating habits by shifting the approach to food with the kids, says Mwendwa. 

Here’s how.

The Juma’s say they before they discovered that their detachment from what their children eat, had also resulted in other unethical practices. 

This included pressuring their two boys to clean their plates or not paying attention or believing the children when they cried out that they were hungry. 

Such actions by parents, says Mwendwa lead to the decline in the young one’s ability to develop and maintain healthy eating habits on their own. 

Stressful parental moments mean that the parents do not have time to discuss and encourage the children to try out less junk food or explain to them why certain foods are more healthful than others.

“I also found out that when I have a stressful day or when the children have spent a dull day, this translates to the fact that there is no energy to make healthy meals, but instead we resort to erratic meal times or indulging in more snack meals,” says Nduku. 

Caroline shares the same sentiments agreeing that if one is having a hard day, that energy to make a healthy dinner is a mirage. 

“I have more than oftentimes gone through this, at the detriment of my children,” she says.

She says that after one of the boys got admitted with high blood sugar, she has since recognised that although it is harder during times of stress to provide structure and opportunities to cook healthy meals, the benefits have forced her to rethink. 

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