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Healthy Nutrition as Reinforcement for Children's Spirits During Wartime

The emergency and anxiety affect our children's eating and health. Understanding the difficulties and recommended actions will help parents, teachers and others in the community protect their health.

The turmoil that we've all been experiencing since the events of the massacre on October the 7th and the subsequent war has been affecting each and every one of us to some extent. Our children and teens of all ages are influenced by this situation that changes from child to child. Some children and teens have experienced the massacre firsthand or have lost a loved one; there are families with small children who have been evacuated and no longer live in their homes; the majority of the population in Israel is dealing with sirens, concerns over the safety of a loved one who has been recruited, and more. The dominant discourse everywhere and in the media revolves around the events of the Black Saturday and updates on the war situation.
So, why should we even talk about nutrition? Our healthy habits in general, and our eating habits in particular, are the first to be adversely affected in situations of stress, fear and anxiety.

How does this situation affect our children's eating habits?

These adverse effects can manifest themselves in changes to the children's eating habits like reluctance to eat, compulsive eating, regression in the variety of foods that picky children are willing to eat, preference for snacks, sweets and soft drinks over healthier foods. You are not alone. There are so many reasons why it's so difficult to maintain healthy nutrition during wartime:

  • Children have difficulty resisting temptations around them. In light of the situation, their exposure to snacks, sweets and soft drinks is greater than usual, as well as long term. For example, children and teens who volunteer to make snack packages for soldiers and displaced persons and are asked to bring snacks and sweets, children who have been evacuated from their homes and who are temporarily staying in hotels where every main course is accompanied by desserts, in addition to the snacks and sweets that they received and that are in their rooms.
  • Disruption of daily activities due to changes to the Home Front Command's guidelines, due to a parent being recruited for reserve service, due to being guests of another family, and other changes typical for these times.
  • Parents who themselves suffer from trauma, stress and anxiety have a natural and normal reaction to the situation. They may have less inclination, energy and time to maintain and preserve the eating habits that have been commonplace at home. They may be more lenient, enabling and loose in light of the situation towards food that many perceive as food that provides comfort, which makes us happy, and which makes us feel like home on the one hand, or that makes us feel festive on the other hand.

Early detection of trauma-related eating disorders is of utmost importance in preserving optimal nutritional, mental and physical condition, as well as in preventing future complications such as nutritional deficits, growth problems and the development of clinical eating disorders. If you are concerned or worried that a loved one may be developing an eating disorder, you should contact your primary care physician or seek help from a qualified nutritionist. This is key to the success of nutritional treatment. In the case of children and teens, you need to include family therapy and long-term nutritional monitoring.
Excerpt from the position paper by Atid Association and the Nutrition Division in the Ministry of Health

And why should we invest in healthy eating anyway?

  • A regular eating routine throughout the day will help keep track of it and will make it easier for you as parents, and for your children to remain full, comfortable and revitalized.
  • Healthy nutrition reinforces your body and its ability to cope with complicated situations.
  • "Healthy mind in a healthy body". When your children eat healthier, you will be able to help them cope better with stress and anxiety thanks to the various nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and healthy fatty acids that are in the list of healthy and recommended foods according to the food rainbow.
  • Since we do not know when the war will end, it is important that we maintain our basic healthy eating habits, so we do not need to cope with physical damage and bad habits later down the road.

Let's take our children and teens hand in hand and lead them on a new road that will be suitable both to the situation and to themselves. Let’s preserve old habits, create new ones and set some appropriate boundaries that will support the new situation. This road will give them a sense of security that is very important during these times and help them maintain a healthy mind and inner peace within the chaos that they experience both externally and internally.

healthy nutrition

What can be done to improve our eating habits during wartime?

  • Keep regular mealtimes: regular meals will serve as an anchor of routine in the chaotic turmoil of everyday life. Involve your children in choosing the meals, take into account their preferences and create together a weekly menu (it is recommended that you give the children the opportunity to design and decorate the menu in order to make it more accessible for them).
  • Eat together: share some time with your children around the meal, allow them to set the table (according to the child's age), put the various dishes in the center of the table and eat together with them. Try to keep this routine in as many meals as you can throughout the week, in order to reinforce a sense of belonging and the familial-social context of eating.
  • Keep the pantry and the fridge stocked with healthy food, and make sure that fresh water is within reach: taking your children with you to the supermarket can be a helpful way to introduce your children to healthy foods and to encourage them to choose them. Compose a grocery list together and explain your choices, but also allow the children to include some of their preferred items on the list, even if they are less healthy. However, do follow the restrictions that you set for your home.
  • Positive attitude and discourse: both towards ourselves and towards our children, even when it's difficult to make healthy choices. Avoid anger and guilt if your child makes unhealthy choices. Instead of these feelings, join together in shared activity and think together (according to the child's age) about the actions that will help the whole family make healthier choices.
  • Create an interesting and engaging agenda with your children. Sometimes eating is the result of boredom.
  • Allow your children into the kitchen and let them cook, either with you or alone (according to their age). Involve them at all stages of the process, from the selection of recipes and until cleaning the counter and the kitchen after preparing the meal. This is an excellent way to expose them to healthy food, to reinforce their sense of independence and self-confidence, spend some quality time with them or allow yourself some time for rest and relaxation.
  • Teens can volunteer, either as a group or as a family, in such places as packing houses for fruits and vegetables, helping with the harvest, cooking in communal kitchens and more. On the website of Leket Israel, you can find numerous ideas for such volunteer activities.
  • Prepare with your children a booklet of family recipes for dishes that the whole family likes. Can you think of ways to improve certain dishes to make them healthier and more nutritious?
  • Practice mindfulness exercises aimed for children. These exercises will help them cope with emotional eating. For example: describe a food or a dish according to its appearance, taste, smell; listen to the environment around us. Listen to the sound of cars driving by, children playing in the park, the running of the air conditioner's motor, and more. For further examples, see information about mindfulness on the Ministry of Education's website, or watch the video on mindfulness and health on the Ministry of Health's website.
  • Make changes to your children's eating habits. In the case of children who show signs of struggling to eat, it is important to introduce them to suitable food such as shakes or softer forms of food or non-sweetened, plant-based pudding cups, and avoid offering them sweetened drinks as substitute for food.
    Furthermore, in cases of extreme changes to the children's eating habits, you may want to consult professional nutritionists.

Additional ideas for improving the eating habits of preschool and school children in times of war and trauma

Volunteering in the community

  • Preparing healthy food packages for soldiers and evacuated families: the students can prepare and add some healthy nutrition slips, like tips on how to maintain their health, explanations about the importance of the food items in the package for the recipients' health, health slogans and more. For further information, enter the following links:
    Healthy Food Packages for Soldiers
    Food Deliveries for Families Evacuated from Their Homes
  • Agriculture: many moshavim and kibbutzim all over Israel remained without agricultural laborers and so their agricultural produce is at risk of going to waste. It is recommended to organize volunteer task forces to help with the harvest and local food production. This is an excellent way to both help the community and expose the children to the various fruits and vegetables and the way that they are grown.

Lesson packages about healthy nutrition

In the pedagogical portal, there are various lesson packages for students of different age groups on the subject of healthy nutrition. This is an opportunity to browse the various lesson packages, deliver them in class and connect the students to healthy nutrition through experience-based learning. Below are the links according to the students' age group.

Enriching activities

  • Prepare with your students a booklet of beloved recipes from home. For dishes that contain ingredients that are not so healthy, can you think of ways to improve them to make them healthier and more nutritious?
  • Story time for preschool children: reading books on the subject of healthy nutrition.
  • Arranging classroom games on the subject of healthy nutrition: you should select one subject and let the children come up with a story and role-play it.

Joint meals

Shared meals, for children of all ages, help reinforce the sense of belonging and their social ties and contribute to their ability to make healthier choices. You should consider eating your 10 o'clock meal together, even if by Zoom, and if you have the option to dedicate more time to it, you can prepare breakfast together, give out lists of foods or ingredients and bring them to class for a shared meal.
Here you will find a link to the "Cooking Efsharibari" activity, through which you can learn how to prepare a simple and healthy meal together.

In conclusion, bringing back your sense of control over your eating will reinforce your mental fortitude and relieve anxiety, and thereby will help you cope with the difficult situation in which we found ourselves.

Further reading

Wartime Nutrition: Explanations and Practical Tools (Hebrew)
Children's Wartime Nutrition: Explanations and Practical Tools (Hebrew)