With lockdown slowly being phased out we realise that things might take a while before returning to ‘normal’. Parents are perhaps worried about the eating habits and health of their children during this time, but this is an ideal time to prioritise nutrition and health.

Families will continue to be together for extended periods so this is a great time to take the opportunity to refocus on nutrition and prioritise our eating habits. It is now that we can take advantage of cooking nutritious meals together, making healthy snacks and drinks available in the home and being physically active as a family daily.

The Research article “Watching TV Cooking Programs: Effects on Actual Food Intake Among Children” published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour is a thought-provoking piece that can certainly teach us something about influencing behaviour.

The study found that kids who watched a child-oriented cooking show featuring healthy food were 2.7 times more likely to make a healthy food choice than those who watched a different episode of the same show featuring unhealthy food.

Poor dietary habits during childhood and adolescence have multiple negative effects on several health and wellness indicators, including achievement and maintenance of healthy weights, growth and development patterns, and dental health.

To date, the way we have tried to influence people to eat healthier was to provide nutritional information, health benefits and the reasons why we should choose certain foods. As illustrated in this article, that is not very effective in promoting healthy eating behaviours. More recent strategies, which emphasize pleasure from eating or the preparation of food, could be more effective.

However, it doesn’t have to be a cooking show necessarily. Research has shown that when youth are involved in the preparation of healthy foods, such as vegetables and salads, they are more likely to consume nutrient-rich foods (including fruits and vegetables) and lower intakes of sugary and fatty foods, than when they are not involved in this process themselves. In addition, joint cooking by parents and children has been reported to increase children’s vegetable consumption.

Have you ever watched a movie where the actors eat pasta and suddenly you are in the mood for it? According to cue reactivity theory, food cues trigger food cravings for the primed food and subsequently lead to actual eating behaviour. This theory would suggest that priming children with fruit and vegetables in cooking programs would induce the actual consumption of these foods.

Unfortunately, the converse is also true, as the depiction of unhealthy foods stimulate unhealthy eating behaviours.

Both are consistent with the Social Cognitive Theory, which posits that children learn by observing behaviours of others.

What healthy habits and behaviours should we be exhibiting for our children?

These recommendations are made based on the South African Food Based Dietary Guidelines (FBDGs). The guidelines are brief, positive dietary recommendation messages that are used to inform consumers how to choose food and beverage combinations that will lead to a diet that is adequate, that meets nutrient need and that is, at the same time, prudent, for example, which lowers the risk of noncommunicable diseases.

Enjoy a variety of foods

Although certain foods might be a bit harder to come by, don’t fall in the trap of eating only certain foods.  Variety also means including foods from two or more food groups at each meal.

Be active

Regular, moderate exercise is greatly beneficial for getting outdoors (if you can), stress relief and improved immune function.  Try some of these lockdown ideas:

  • You don’t need big spaces for cardiovascular exercise – running up and down stairs is great; as is skipping, and skipping ropes are inexpensive cardio tools.
  • Download exercise apps for daily workouts.
  • There are many physical activity videos, including dance, martial arts and yoga, available on YouTube and other websites … try them.
  • If you have an enclosed garden or courtyard-type space, play physical games such as handball, bat and ball, mini-cricket or mini-soccer as a family or couple, combining fun, bonding and exercise.
  • Make use of the 6 am – 9 am slot to get outside, get fresh air and walk, jog or cycle together as a family!

Make starchy foods part of most meals

  • Glucose is the brain’s main energy source, and for children to fully focus and concentrate on their online school curriculum, this point is imperative.
  • Choose whole grain, unrefined foods to add more fibre, vitamins and minerals to your diet.
  • Good options to choose are whole-wheat pasta, multigrain Provitas or cracker breads, brown rice and bulgur wheat.
  • Combine whole grains with other tasty, nutritious foods in mixed dishes.

Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day

This can be challenging while we are under lockdown and want to avoid frequent shopping.  Here are some tips:

  • Choose fresh, whole fruit that is naturally longer lasting such as apples, pineapple and citrus fruits.
  • Eat fruits as snacks and desserts. Add sliced fruit or dried fruit to your cereal, muesli or yoghurt.
  • As some fresh vegetables don’t last long, blanche or cook them on the day of purchase and then freeze for later use.
  • Root and bulb veg options such as carrots and turnips, onions, garlic and ginger are longer lasting.
  • Frozen and canned vegetables are also good options.

Eat dry beans, split peas, lentils and soya regularly

  • Dried legumes are not only good substitutes for meat, fish, eggs or cheese, but can also be used as affordable ‘meat extenders’ to make meals go further.
  • If you use canned legumes rinse them well after they have been drained to reduce the sodium content.
  • Mash and heat up tinned cannelloni beans as the creamy base for a pasta sauce.
  • Save on your budget and make your own hummus from canned chickpeas.
  • Peanut butter can be used as a sandwich filling and can be stirred into porridge. ​

Have milk, maas or yoghurt every day

  • Maas and yoghurt will last longer in the fridge than fresh milk.
  • For more long-term milk options buy long-life milk, skim milk powder or evaporated milk.
  • Fresh dairy products can also be frozen.
  • Eat yoghurt, with added fruit, as a snack between meals instead of a packet of chips as this contributes to the day’s nutrient intake and does not contain excess fat and salt.

Fish, chicken, lean meat or eggs can be eaten daily 

  • Stock up on tinned fish options such as tuna, pilchards, sardines.
  • Quiches and omelettes are an easy and tasty way to use up vegetables that might spoil soon.

Drink lots of clean, safe water

  • This is perhaps the easiest time to get into the habit of drinking enough water because you are confined to one space.
  • If water is readily available during the day, it increases consumption.
  • Keep a water bottle on hand or a jug nearby.

Use fats sparingly

Choose vegetable oils rather than hard fats, and always use only a little, as fats are high in energy but provide relatively few nutrients.

The take-home message:

  • Practice what you preach
    • Remember that in the good and the bad – your children learn by observing you.
  • Involve them in the cooking process
    • Take them along when grocery shopping to show them what the different foods look like before cooking.
    • If they worked very hard on a certain dish, they are far too invested not to taste it.
  • Healthy food exposure leads to healthy eating choices.
  • Unhealthy food exposure leads to unhealthy eating choices.


  1. The South African Food Based Dietary Guidelines: http://www.adsa.org.za/Portals/14/Documents/FoodBasedDietaryGuidelinesforSouthAfrica.pdf
  2. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour 2020 Jan;52(1):3-9: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31706794/