A healthy diet for kids' sake

PHOTO: A healthy diet for kids' sake

A few of my former schoolmates are planning a special jubilee next year for those in our cohort.

Like Singapore, we will be turning 50. We intend to hold a party in the school canteen and make it a grand affair.

As an ongoing joke goes, better do it now as we are unlikely to do anything similar when the century milestone comes up, if we are still around.

As it is, a few of us, sadly, won't see 50. One died in a freak accident while three others, perhaps more, were felled by diseases - the dreaded heart attack and cancer. This scares me.

It's only in the last 10 years or so that I have developed a keen awareness of and interest in healthy living. I think becoming a father was a key factor. I don't want to die young. But I'm even more afraid of dying prematurely with young dependants.

My daughters, Yanbei and Yanrong, are only 10 and 12. I want to see them grow up, build careers, get married and have their own children. In that order, I hope.

I know my life is not entirely in my hands. But there are factors within my control that can improve the odds. Eating sensibly is one.

When I was growing up, nobody around me bothered much about nutrition, except to wonder if there was enough food on the table.

I remember being asked by well-meaning relatives and family friends if my mother was feeding me well, given that I was rake thin. Being chubby was a sign of affluence and ruddy health.

As meat was expensive, I ate a lot of vegetables and so grew up on a relatively healthy diet.

But when I grew older and finances improved, I ate out more often and developed a taste for greasy food and bad eating habits such as having late-night suppers.

I was also hooked on char kway teow. This was terrible on two counts: the amount of saturated fats in each serving had the potential to clog arteries and there was also the danger of carcinogens entering the food from the ink on the newspapers commonly used to wrap takeaway food back then.

My diet went from bad to worse when I started working at a fast-food chain. As meals were provided as part of staff "benefits", I ended up consuming lots of deep-fried food. Once, I ate 19 chicken wings at one sitting.

Thankfully, I quit my job after two years.

However, I continued to consume loads of deep-fried food as well as my favourite char kway teow.

It took several annual health screening reports, which showed an unmistakeable trend of rising cholesterol levels and weight, before it got through to me that my unhealthy diet was a ticking time bomb at a time when my family was starting to grow.

So I consulted a nutritionist, who told me I didn't need to give up all my favourite foods. I could go on eating them, with minor tweaks.

I also make it a point to take one completely healthy meal a day.This comes in the form of breakfast, which consists of oats with no milk and sugar, with a sprinkling of cranberry, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and chia seeds - a surprisingly palatable mixture.

My daughters have benefited from my desire to eat healthily. When they started on solid food, my wife and I fed them all kinds of vegetables and fruits. Equally important, we avoided fast food and other greasy foods.

Yanrong doesn't eat French fries or drink soda. She does not mind bland food. In fact, she often declares her mum's soup as very good even though my wife doesn't use sugar, salt or MSG.

Yanbei is the more adventurous eater. She prefers food with strong flavours such as curry and laksa. On the positive side, her penchant for strong flavours extends to bittergourd, a nutritious vegetable which few children like to eat.

Alas, now that they are older, the girls have inevitably developed a taste for less healthy fare such as burgers and chicken cutlets. It's harder to regulate or monitor what they eat, especially Yanrong, who often takes her lunch in school as she has to stay back late several days a week.

Nonetheless, the foundation my wife and I have laid for them remains firm and the girls continue to enjoy their kale, broccoli and strawberries.

But I don't wish to be a health fanatic, like a former classmate of mine. He has four children, the youngest of whom is 15. He is very strict about their diet and makes them eat at home almost all the time.

He also scrutinises food labels diligently.

"Avoid ingredients that say 'permitted flavours or colourings'. They contain chemicals that are harmful above a certain threshold. That's why they need a permit to add those into the mix," said my friend, who used to work as a chemist at a food manufacturer.

Even vegetables get his thumbs-down, if they are cooked commercially. He doesn't trust eateries to wash them thoroughly to get rid of residual pesticides.

"Don't your kids kick up a fuss?", I asked.

He sighed. "Sure they do. But I tell them, 'Someday you will thank me for this.'"

I don't know about his kids, but I have a feeling my daughters are thankful I'm not like him.

dennis@sph.com.sg

This article was published on May 11 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.