Healthy Eating for Children
It’s never too late to start talking to your kids about what “real” food is, where ingredients come from and how to cook homemade meals. Give them the gift of knowledge and an open mind. Calgary Avansino shares her Top 10 tips.
Calgary’s Top Ten Tips for Healthier Kid Meals:
- Start as you mean to go on
It’s never too early to start getting your children eating well! From the moment your babies are weaned off milk, give them vegetables first. There is no reason babies should have sweet fruit as their initial foods. Get them used to the savoury side of life in the first six months, it’s a gift you can easily give them. If you haven’t done this already, don’t worry – just get them changing their habits as soon as possible. Attitudes towards food and eating are learned early on, so don’t wait for tomorrow – start today! If children have puréed vegetables as a baby, are used to eating a side dish of steamed spinach with their chicken or fish as a toddler or drinking smoothies in the morning, then they won’t be hesitant about “healthy eating” as they get older. Just make healthy eating a normal part of life, not something difficult or battle-provoking.
- Lead by example
If you truly want to see your children eating well, then you really do need to take the lead on this one. You can’t expect them to want to tuck into lentils and tofu for dinner if you’re cooking yourself a pizza, or ask them to snack on chopped veggies and hummus while you’re eating a bag of crisps. Making the decision to eat well needs to be a decision made by the whole family. Sitting down at the table to eat dinner collectively reinforces this and shows them you’re all in this together. Actions DO speak louder than words so don’t expect to see changes in them unless you make changes yourself.
- Clear out your cupboards
I say this quite often because it applies to adults just as much as children, but one of the crucial first stages in beginning a healthier way of living is by cleaning out your kitchen cupboards. If you and your children are hungry and there are a lot of unhealthy options available, you will be more inclined to make poor food choices. Yet this can so easily be prevented simply by not buying those items in the first place – for them and for you. Put a ban on any junk food or sugary items entering your house. This will stop so many unnecessary arguments with your children about why they can’t have a chocolate bar before dinner or croissants for breakfast. If you haven’t got them around, the answer is a straightforward “sorry we don’t have any of those”. You’ll also be able to sigh with relief when you see them rooting through the cupboards unsupervised as all they will manage to find is something healthy and wholesome. You hold the power to decide what populates your kitchen – use that power wisely.
- Keep an eye out for hidden sugar
It’s probably obvious that the first things that need to go are candy bars, soda, sweets and pastries. However, it is equally important to keep an eye out for hidden sugar – there’s tons of it! Many foods you may not expect rank high in the white stuff: fruit juices, “healthy” cereal, granola, canned fruit, snack bars, dried fruit, fruit-flavoured yoghurts, tomato sauces, salad dressings, soups, and many items marked as ‘low-fat’ or ‘diet’. Start reading the ingredients label of everything you choose and try to buy more food that doesn’t need a label in the first place! When looking at the ingredients, keep an out for the word “sugar”, yes, but also all the other ways that it can be sneakily described by manufacturers: glucose, maltose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, lactose, molasses, sorbitol, xylose and dehydrated cane juice are just a few of the terms.
- Attack breakfast
Research has found that children’s breakfast cereals can contain as much as three teaspoons of sugar per serving. That’s the same as putting two and a half chocolate biscuits on their plate each morning. So this really is a meal we should be attacking in our bid to start a healthier eating lifestyle for the whole family. We need to rethink the types of foods we are giving our children first thing in the morning. Moving away from sugary cereals, fruit yogurts, pastries, bars and spreads and instead thinking about more wholesome, “real” options that will fuel their day. Whether you make a batch of overnight oats (they only take two minutes to make), some low-sugar granola (great to make on Sunday and have for the week), omelettes, hard boiled eggs, toast with tomatoes and cheese or a green smoothie, there are lots of healthier ways to start the day that also don’t take a lot of time to pop on the table.
- Plan ahead
For busy parents (what parents aren’t busy?), part of the difficulty in getting children to eat well is simply lack of time. Passing them some crisps to eat on the way home from school or sticking a ready-meal in the oven often seems like the easier option. However, with a little planning and preparation it doesn’t have to be this way. I always find it beneficial to sit down on Sunday and look over the week ahead. I assess when we are going to be out? How many packed lunches do I need? How many late nights at work will there be? Etc. etc. Then I have a better idea of what we need to get us through the week. I try to do a big shop on Sunday when I have the most spare time and then prep as much as I can in advance. This usually involves washing and chopping veggies and greens, cooking a portion of quinoa to use throughout the week, making a soup to freeze, making a large batch of low-sugar granola or overnight porridge, or whipping up some savoury muffins to keep in the freezer. Whatever you can get done ahead of time on your prep day speeds things up during the week and is often a lifesaver when the clock strikes dinner time and you’re feeling tired and uninspired.
- Make your own tomato sauce
It’s official… kids (and parents) LOVE pasta! It’s quick, easy to rustle up and the carbohydrates help to re-fuel their energy. However, it can be made much healthier than the typical white refined pasta dish. First, try using a more wholesome option for your pasta. There are delicious varieties available made of spelt and kamut, and gluten-free varieties made of quinoa, brown rice, chickpeas and edamame. Start with kamut or rice varieties, which are the same color as the pasta they are used to and then expand their tastes from there.
Second, start making your own tomato sauce to avoid buying one that is full of added sugar. This is another quick thing I often do on my prep day and then freeze it in small portions. Rather than just making your sauce with tomato and onion, I use this as an opportunity to get plenty of added healthy extras in. Chop up vegetables such as carrots, peppers, zucchini, eggplant or fennel, roast or sauté them first, and then add to your tomato base. Once it’s all cooked, I usually throw the sauce into a blender or food processor to purée it. My children then get to eat their favourite tomato sauce without even detecting all the extra vegetables that are in there.
- Portions and timing
Children don’t need adult portions of food – especially if most of it is empty calories, i.e. white pasta or white rice. The most important thing is that at least two-thirds of their plate is filled with vegetables and plants, and then the rest with good carbs and lean protein. I always offer vegetables first. Often, before I even serve them their meal, I will put down a big plate of raw veggies with a dip and they will munch on those while I’m finishing up dinner. A fun thing to do is pretend you are at a fancy restaurant and serve their meal in ‘courses’, which in mom-speak just means starting with the greenest part of their meal when they are most hungry and then offer the rest – ‘the second course’ – after. It is also important to teach your children to stop eating once their tummies are telling them they have had enough. We should be training our brains from an early age not to over-eat simply because it is on our plate. We have a tummy alarm at our house, which goes off with a holler.
- No “Big-Deal” Eating
It is human nature to rebel against your parents – at least to a degree – so my best advice is: don’t make ‘healthy’ a BIG DEAL. The more you go on and on about how you are trying new healthy ingredients, you aren’t sure they are going to like them, they better eat them because they are good for you, and so forth, it just directs too much attention to the wrong thoughts. That kind of chatter gives kids all the ammunition they need to wind you up and push your buttons by being difficult about eating it. Don’t make food a battle of wills or power. Just present new foods, new ingredients, new ideas with a “no big-deal” mentality. The less fuss you make about what goes on the kitchen table, the better – then children have fewer pre-conceived ideas about what they like and don’t like. Let them figure that out for themselves. Remember, children aren’t born only liking bland, plain and sweet foods – we have a lot to do with that, so broaden their horizons by presenting new ways of eating without any judgement.
- Get them involved
I hear the advice “get your kids involved in the kitchen” thrown around a lot but often that is hard to actually apply to every day life. I do think it’s incredibly important for kids to participate in the planning and making of meals and here are some of the practical ways I do it:
- Do it on the weekends when you have more relaxed time. Don’t try to force it on the weekdays when there’s homework and chores to be done
- Find tasks that children can easily help with: rolling doughs (savory and sweet), tearing apart herbs and lettuce, whisking together wet ingredients, counting out a precise number of ingredients for a recipe, washing veggies, and of course, using cookie cutters to make fun shapes
- As often as possible, create meals where kids can create bespoke dishes that they have had control over themselves. Burritos, tacos, stuffed baked potatoes, stuffed baked sweet potatoes, wraps, pasta salads, rice paper rolls, etc. Chop up all the ingredients and either put them in individual bowls or lay them on a cutting board and then let your kids choose what they want to fill their meal with. The more healthy fillings you offer, the more chance you have of a healthy outcome
- Ask their opinion about recipes. When you serve something, ask them to try it and guess what some of the ingredients are or ask them to suggest some new ingredients that could make it better. Make it a bit of a spy mission
- In a relaxed way, not in an obvious ‘teaching’ way, talk about where specific ingredients come from (or have them guess) when you are eating. Do cauliflower come from trees? Do pickles come from bushes? Are avocados fruits or vegetables? This just gets them thinking about the sources of the food they eat
- When trying to figure out what to cook, we sometimes pull out a cookbook. Everyone has to close their eyes and randomly pick a page – whatever you blindly fall on is your choice. Then we look at our choices and pick one to try – whoever gets their recipe chosen is the winner
- Watch cooking shows on TV instead of cartoons from time to time and see if anything strikes their fancy to try. Then make it all together. Get them guessing what ingredients the chef is going to be using or how they think it is going to be made and then watch together to see if they’re right
- Overall just keep it light, encourage involvement but don’t force it, help them find the fun in helping in the kitchen