Perhaps you think you have a fairly good handle on the best nutrition for your little ones, or maybe you are floundering in confusion. Either way Fiona McDonald Joyce’s useful guide could help to keep you on track
Never was the term ‘multi-tasking’ better applied than to the role of parenthood. In between being cleaner, chauffeur and chef to our children, the job also requires a working knowledge of nutritional science. I am delighted that so much attention is now paid to our children’s diets, but with so much confusion surrounding the subject – not to mention clever marketing ploys by food manufacturers – it can be hard to know what exactly constitutes a healthy diet. This no-nonsense guide for busy parents could be helpful in understanding the basics of nutrition.
Found in: grains (such as rice, oats, bread, pasta and flour), root vegetables (such as potatoes, carrots, squash and sweet potato), fruits, fruit juices and foods and drinks with added sugar.
Primary function: energy for both brain and body.
• Wholegrains – wholemeal versions of bread, pasta and flour, brown rice.
• Starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, squashes and carrots.
• Beans and pulses such as kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils, which are rich in protein and fibre as well as carbohydrates.
• Fresh fruit – dried fruit and fruit juices are concentrated sources of fruit sugars, so moderation is best.
Yano advice: limit foods and drinks with added sugar in order to avoid sugar ‘highs’, which de-stabilise blood sugar levels and can upset mood and energy and contribute to weight gain. Get your family used to wholegrain versions of bread, rice and pasta, as they are far richer in valuable vitamins and minerals than refined versions. If the high-fibre content is too much for little tummies, introduce them slowly, or mix brown and white pasta together.
1. Hummus with carrot sticks or on oat cakes
2. Fruit smoothies – a better choice than fruit juice as it contains the whole fruit and not just the juice.
3. Vegetable soup, including plenty of root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes and squash, as well as cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli or cauliflower.
4. Risotto made with brown rice or barley, with chopped vegetables like onion and peppers added.
5. Baked or mashed sweet potato. This is also a great topping for shepherd’s pie, being richer in antioxidants than white potatoes.
Found in: animal products, fish, nuts and seeds and beans and pulses.
Primary function: growth and repair.
• Eggs – as well as being an excellent source of protein, eggs are also rich in iron, B vitamins and phospholipids to support brain function.
• Meat – dark meat, such as chicken thigh rather than breast, is particularly rich in iron, a crucial mineral for young children.
• Fish – especially oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines as these also contain essential omega 3 fats.
• Dairy products – opt for full-fat versions of cheese and yogurt as babies and young children need to maximise calories from food whist their tummies are still small.
• Beans and pulses – useful vegetarian sources of protein that are also rich in fibre.
• Nuts and seeds – contain everything from protein to fats, minerals and antioxidants. Grinding them makes them easier for young digestive systems to process. Take care when introducing nuts for the first time, to watch out for potential allergies. There is a lower risk of allergies from seeds.
• Quinoa – a highly nutritious seed that is an excellent vegetarian source of protein and rich in minerals like calcium and zinc. Use it as you would cous cous or rice.
Yano advice: Western diets tend to focus heavily on carbohydrates, so make sure that your child doesn’t fill up on pasta, bread, fruit or biscuits to the exclusion of protein. Try serving the meat, fish or eggs first and then give them the potatoes or pasta, or serve a smaller portion of toast alongside scrambled eggs, for example, to make sure that they don’t simply fill up on starch.
1. Poached or scrambled eggs on wholemeal toast.
2. Fruit smoothie with added pumpkin seeds and live natural yogurt.
3. Jambalaya (Cajun spiced rice mix using brown rice, with any mixture of vegetables and meat. Try chicken, sausage, peas and chickpeas).
4. Home-made beef burgers, grilled rather than fried.
5. Firm white fish such as tilapia fillets (not too ‘fishy’ in flavour, so it tends to be better received by children), dipped in a little oil and spices like turmeric for colour, then pan-fried or grilled.
Found in: meat, oily fish, dairy products, oils and spreads, nuts and seeds, avocadoes, olives, coconut milk and coconut oil and processed and fried foods.
Function: everything from an energy reserve to brain function, the manufacturing of hormones and absorption of certain nutrients, depending on the type of fat.
• Oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines are rich in omega 3 essential fats, which are crucial for children’s brain development. Use gentle cooking methods such as poaching, steaming and baking in baking parchment to minimise damage to these valuable fats.
• Nuts and seeds – source of essential fats omegas 3 and 6 as well as important nutrients including zinc, vitamin E and other antioxidants. Introduce with caution when weaning, to monitor for potential allergies. Grinding them makes them easier for young children to swallow and digest.
• Avocadoes, olives and olive oil – good sources of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
• Full-fat dairy products – babies and toddlers have a greater need for fats than adults and older children, so opt for butter rather than low fat spread and full-fat natural yogurt rather than low-fat yoghurt.
• Coconut oil (for cooking; from health food shops) and coconut milk – both contain particularly healthy plant forms of saturated fat.
Yano advice: Avoid any processed foods that list hydrogenated fats or partially hydrogenated fats on the label as these man-made fats have been linked to many health problems. Also limit fried foods, as high temperature cooking can damage fats and lead to the formation of harmful trans-fats.
1. Bananas with live Greek yogurt and flaked almonds.
2. Smoked salmon trimmings mixed with mashed or diced avocado, with a little lemon juice and black pepper.
3. Thai style fish or chicken curry made with coconut milk.
4. Olives and cubes of feta cheese as a snack.
5. Home-made pesto, make it by blending pumpkin seeds or pine nuts with plenty of extra virgin olive oil and herbs, plus lemon juice and a little seasoning. It keeps well in the fridge for easy meals stirred through pasta, rice or potato salad.
If all this seems like yet another hurdle to climb or if you are struggling with a child who is a picky eater, a good way to start is to run through a mental tick list each day and ask yourself whether your child has eaten at least two portions of both protein (such as eggs, fish, meat or cheese) and good fats (such as avocado, oily fish or just a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil over their soup or stew), plus some fruit and vegetables. The food group least likely to cause concerns over deficiency is carbohydrates; every time you give your child a banana or rice cake as a snack or beans on toast, you are helping to meet their energy needs.
The best and simplest rule of thumb to follow for a healthy diet is to make fresh, whole foods the mainstay of your family’s diet and avoid or limit heavily processed and sweetened foods and drinks. There is nothing wrong with the odd treat, but focusing on a good balance of the foods mentioned above will naturally ensure that your child is consuming the fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients that are needed to support health and wellbeing.