grandfather and grandson with cloud

I am mum to two small children so I understand very well the challenges of encouraging children to eat healthily. Children can be very fussy eaters and my two certainly have their moments! They go to parties and eat happily whatever is served. Indulgent relatives buy chocolates and sweets as treats. They love puddings and ice cream on a hot day! But as long as these events are in a minority and I know that when they are at home and I am in control they eat a largely good diet then I am happy.

The following pointers and ideas have helped me over the years and may be helpful for other mums and dads navigating through frustrating food battles:

  • It is a good idea to introduce children to a wide variety of flavours and textures of food at an early age. Babies often enjoy strong flavours – foods do not have to be bland – ie. vegetable curry rather than plain pureed vegetables. Be experimental and don’t assume that you child will not like a food due to more sophisticated flavours.
  • Children can go through phases of eating well and then refusing certain foods. Keep putting healthy foods on your child’s plate, even if they do not eat everything. Over time they may finally decide to eat what they have refused for so long.
  • Try to eat the same meals as a family – this may not always be practical, however aim to conduct at least a few meals per week in this manner. If children have eaten family meals from an early age they will be accustomed to the flavours and foods that they will be served as they get older. Preparing everyone in the family something different at mealtimes creates more work and leads to children viewing “adult” meals as different from “children’s” meals.
  • When eating out try to avoid the “Kid’s Menu”. It is usually standard fare of chips and chicken nugget type meals. Have a look at the Starter Menu – this often has tasty dishes that may tempt children. Or if there is something on the Adult Menu that may be suitable, ask for a child sized portion of that.
  • Do not let your child snack too close to a main meal. Make this a rule from an age when they understand. Distract them with other activities so that they are not thinking of their stomachs. If you have to placate them with something, then choose foods that will not fill them up too much – a few apple or pear slices, a handful of blueberries, a homemade very watered down real fruit juice ice lolly – the lolly is a particularly good idea as it takes a while to eat so buys you some valuable time!
  • Do not let you child drink too much either before or during a meal – this can make them feel fuller quicker so that there is less room for food.
  • Create a reward chart for meals, or give gold star stickers when a meal has been eaten, or even when a new food has at least been sampled – even if it is not subsequently liked.

MACRONUTRIENTS

Carbohydrates, proteins and fats constitute the major food groups in our diet. We need all these foods for a balanced diet. The following ideas may help you to ensure your child has a balanced diet.

CARBOHYDRATES 

Grains:

  • It is not generally difficult to get children to eat starchy foods like grains. Most children like bread, pasta and rice. Opt for wholegrains to maximise the nutritional value of these foods. Try to prevent your child however from eating excess amounts of grains at meals – these are filling foods and if they are not hungry then they will be less likely to eat other important foods such as vegetables and proteins.
  • Breakfast is generally a grain-dominated meal – try to avoid refined cereals at breakfast – ie. cheerios and rice crispies. These types of sugar laden cereals do not have much to recommend them – something like porridge would be much better – make with whole organic milk or a non dairy milk – if you need added sweetness then instead of reaching for the sugar, grate in half an apple or add a handful of blueberries or a tsp honey. Add a pinch of cinnamon for extra flavour.

Vegetables:

Different coloured vegetables contain different nutrients, so a multicoloured array of vegetables through the week would be ideal – many children however limit themselves to just a few types of vegetables, if any at all. The following ideas may help to increase variety and intake:

  • Use vegetables as finger foods from an early age – carrot slices, peas, mini sweetcorn, mangetout, chopped avocado, cherry tomatoes, peas, broccoli etc. Put a few bit of veg on the side of all main meals.
  • Alongside visible veg on a plate, you can ensure your child actually eats a decent amount of veg by hiding it within foods, Put finely chopped, grated or pureed veg into another dish that your child likes – ie. spaghetti bolognaise, curry, chilli con carne, cottage pie.
  • Make your own tomato sauce with an array of veg – you can then use this for stirring into pasta or rice, or use as a pizza sauce to make your own pizzas or to spread on toast or pitta and top with ham or melted cheese. Here is an easy sauce recipe:·         1 small onion, chopped
    ·         3 cloves garlic, chopped
    ·         4 large tomatoes, chopped
    ·         150g butternut squash, peeled and chopped into small cubes
    ·         1 medium carrot, chopped
    ·         Half a red pepper, deseeded and chopped
    ·         2 tsp tomato puree
    ·         250g passata
    ·         Handful of kale
    ·         1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
    ·         1 tbsp honey
    ·         2 bay leaves
    ·         ½ a large avocado or one whole small avocado, peeled and de-stone
    Method: Fry onions until soft. Add garlic and tomato puree and stir. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for 1 hour or until all veg are soft. Remove the bay leaves and puree until smooth. Makes enough for a few portions of sauce. I freeze in ice cube trays and use as needed.
  • Soup – make up a large pot of thick soup for the whole family. Smooth pureed soups tend to be more palatable for children as there is not so much of a texture issue. A soup with a base of slow fried onions or leeks is great as these take on a delicious sweetness when cooked slowly. Here is a recipe that my children will eat – it is a good balance of sweet and savoury:
    • Butter or oil for frying
    • 1 leek, chopped
    • 2-3 cloves garlic
    • 200g butternut squash
    • 1 medium carrot
    • Handful of kale
    • 1 apple
    • Enough water or stock to cover ingredients
    • Handful fresh coriander
      Method: Fry the leeks in butter or oil until soft and sweet. Add garlic and stir. Add the rest of the ingredients (except for the coriander) and simmer for 30 mins until cooked. Add coriander and puree until smooth. Serve with a swirl of natural yoghurt mixed in if you wish.
  • You can even use vegetables as ingredients in sweet foods such as cakes and brownies. Carrots, sweet potatoes and beetroot work very well. Here is a recipe for sweet potato brownies (wheat and dairy free) that you may enjoy:
    • 1 sweet potato – peeled, chopped, cooked and mashed or pureed
    • 3 eggs, whisked
    • ¼ cup coconut oil, melted
    • 1/3 cup honey
    • ¼ tsp vanilla extract
    • ¼ tsp cinnamon
    • 3 tbsp coconut flour
    • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
    • ¼ tsp baking powder
      Method: Whisk eggs. Mix in sweet potato, coconut oil, honey, vanilla extract and cinnamon. Mix in baking powder, coconut flour and cocoa powder. Pour batter into an 8x8inch baking tray. Cook on 180⁰C for 30 mins. Cut into squares and keep in the fridge, or in the freezer and defrost for 30 mins before eating.

Fruit:

  • Children often enjoy fruit as it is quite sweet. Try to serve a variety of fruits including nutrient dense fruits such as berries. Fruit are however a high source of sugar so it is best to limit fruit to 3-4 servings per day and encourage vegetables also.
  • Make your own smoothies and fruit purees and with a wide array of nutrients including healthy fats and proteins – see below for a recipe idea.
  • Make your own real fruit lollies – either puree real fruit and dilute with water or use good quality shop bought whole fruit juice – dilute with a little water as fruit sugars are quite concentrated.

PROTEIN

  • Meat, fish, dairy, pulses, soya, nuts and seeds constitute protein foods. Proteins are a vital macronutrient and children need to consume them. Always aim to have a portion of protein with every meal.
  • Chop up meat and fish into finger foods for children. Or make up kebabs – these can be more fun to eat.
  • Burgers made with mince meat often go down well with children.
  • If your child likes some of the soup and sauce ideas above then feel free to add chopped cooked meat or fish either at the puree stage or afterwards.
  • Use cooked or tinned fish to make fishcakes with mashed potato or sweet potato
  • Encourage eggs – poached, omelette, scrambled, soft or hardboiled – these are full of nutrients
  • Dairy foods are a great source of many nutrients. Opt for full fat organic dairy produce – ideally from grass fed cows – this type of dairy has the best array of nutrients. Yeo Valley is a good brand. If you give your child yoghurt then opt for the plain varieties – even good quality organic flavoured yoghurt contains a lot of sugar. Better to add a little of your own sweetener to plain yoghurt – ie. 1 tsp honey or a handful of berries.
  • Beans on toast can be a favourite food. Beans are a source of protein. Opt for low sugar and low salt beans. Or even better, make your own – drain and rinse a tin of haricot beans – mix them with the homemade tomato sauce (as above). Freeze portions if you wish.

FAT

  • Fats are a vital part of a healthy diet. Fats naturally occur in meats and some fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel). Or there is a lot of healthy fat in an egg yolk. Full fat organic dairy products are a good source of fat. Non animal fats in nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil, olives, coconut oil and avocadoes are also great fats to include in a child’s diet.
  • Make your own chocolate avocado mousse with the recipe below:
    • 2 ripe avocadoes
    • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
    • 2 tbsp coconut oil, melted
    • 2 tbsp honey
    • 1 orange (optional)
      Method: Blend all ingredients to a smooth mousse. You can freeze individual portions.
  • Make your own nutritious smoothie containing fats, protein, fruit and veg – as below:
    • ½ ripe avocado
    • 1 tbsp coconut oil
    • 1 tbsp tahini (sesame seed paste), flax or chia seeds
    • Handful or two of berries
    • 1 banana or apple
    • Handful of raw cacao nibs
    • Handful of spinach or kale
    • Squeeze of honey (if needed to make it sweeter)

DRINKS

For as long as you are able offer your child plain water only. Once they get the taste for something sweeter they may never go back! If they prefer squash then drink as a treat only. Use whatever interesting and exciting drinking cups you need to get your child to drink lots of water though the day!

If your child really will not drink plain water then add a little whole fruit juice or a squeeze of orange to make it more palatable. Or sparkling water is a nice change from still water and may be enjoyed.

ORGANIC

Where possible buy organic produce. There is a lot of toxicity in the food industry and we are exposed to 1000’s of chemicals on a daily basis that were not even in existence a few decades ago. Reducing this exposure is important.