Cooking for your family

Cooking for your family

Louise Fulton Keats
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Ben Dearnley

Family meals: Why they matter

You’ve probably heard before that it’s a good idea to sit down as a family each evening and eat dinner together, sharing the same foods. But why is that?

As a starting point, there’s the obvious benefit of not having to shop for and cook two separate meals each night. After all, the average mum with school-age children, including those who work full-time, spends over an hour a day on family meals – and that doesn’t even include the grocery shopping! For the average dad, the figure is closer to half an hour a day.

Beyond the fact that it takes up a huge proportion of our time, there are a whole range of benefits for your child that have considerable implications for her physical and emotional wellbeing. Let’s take a look at them.

A more nutritious diet

Quite simply, kids who eat the same food as their parents eat better than kids who don’t. Studies from around the world have found that children who eat more frequent family meals consume more key nutrients, vegetables, fruit, fibre and protein, and eat fewer processed foods, sweets and soft drinks. What’s more, there’s evidence that the meal patterns and food choices set in childhood persist into the adult years, so the effect continues for years to come. There’s also evidence that children who eat frequent family meals are less likely to be overweight or obese, which is not surprising given their healthier diet.

Interestingly, a recent UK study found that it was this particular aspect of family meals – children eating the same foods as their parents – that was the most strongly associated with better diets. While sitting together and talking brings a range of social benefits, nutritionally what matters is that children are eating adult food, not a different ‘kids meal’. The problem with meals designed specifically for children is that they’re usually of inferior nutritional value. So, on those nights – and we all have them – that sitting down together isn’t feasible, it’s useful to know that preparing one meal is still worthwhile, even when it’s served at different times.

Of course, many parents face a constant struggle with getting their children to eat the same foods as they’re eating. It’s one reason the best approach is to start as young as possible. If children have only ever known one meal shared by the family, they’re less likely to resist it later on. When you do get into the trying toddler years and beyond, the key is consistency and persistence – calmly persevere with offering varied foods even when they’ve been rejected before, and keep less-healthy options out of your house.

Developing taste preferences

Children are born with innate taste preferences – such as an innate preference for sweet and an innate dislike for bitter. But despite these early preferences, children develop in vastly different ways according to their food environment, which is largely shaped by their parents. To start, a baby’s taste preferences form according to what she tastes in the womb and in breastmilk, which makes her mum’s diet a crucial influence on her own likes and dislikes. But once a child starts solids, her taste preferences develop according to the food that’s put on her plate.

Interestingly, scientists have done quite a bit of research into children’s food preferences and they believe that children’s early taste experiences – during their first year of life – can shape their taste preferences for years to come. For example, one study found that children who were given a sour-tasting hydrolysate formula milk in their first year were significantly more likely to prefer sour-flavoured apple juice at 4–5 years old. Although the theory is yet to be tested extensively, it appears that the first months of life may constitute a critical ‘sensitive window’ for flavour learning, potentially with lifelong consequences.

With this in mind, introducing solids as part of family meals provides the perfect opportunity to expose your child to as many different flavours as possible. By bringing your baby to the family table and simply letting her share your home-cooked meal – whether in puréed form, or as finger foods – you’ll help her to develop a liking for a wide range of ingredients and a taste for your home cooking. Plus, she’ll also have all the fun that comes with getting stuck into a proper meal – squishing some avocado, diving into some noodles – undoubtedly more wondrous than any toy you could buy. Compare that with a baby who only experiences packaged baby food in her first year, with such limited flavour and texture experiences, it’s no wonder that approach seems so often to produce the pickiest of eaters.

Mental health and academic performance

Once children are a bit older, and particularly during their pre-teen and teenage years, clear evidence emerges of the positive impact of family meals on their psychological wellbeing. A number of studies have found that family meals are associated with fewer depressive symptoms, fewer suicidal thoughts or attempts, better emotional wellbeing, greater life satisfaction and higher academic performance. Interestingly, this link has been found even after adjusting for demographic factors, such as wealth and education. In other words, family meals seem to offer protection against mental health problems in their own right, despite the characteristics of the particular family.

In one US study, girls who had more than seven family meals per week were almost half as likely to have attempted suicide as girls who ate no family meals. In another US study, teens who had frequent family meals were twice as likely to report having high self-esteem, a commitment to learning, being engaged at school and resisting negative peer pressure than those eating few or no family dinners.

While the psychological impact of family meals is clearest in older children, which is where most of the research has been focused to date, a recent US study found that being involved in family dinners was linked with better social-emotional health even in pre-school aged children.

Eating disorders

Numerous studies have also found that family meals help to protect children against developing an eating disorder, particularly where the atmosphere at mealtimes is positive. For example, one US study found that girls who had only one to two family meals per week were more than twice as likely to engage in extreme weight control behaviour as girls who had three to four family meals per week. Another US study similarly found that teens who had frequent family meals were half as likely to engage in binge or purge eating as those who had few or no family meals each week.

Drug and alcohol use

Family meals have been a major research focus of the US National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. According to the Center, over their years of examining how to prevent drug and alcohol abuse, parental engagement at the dinner table has emerged as ‘one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children’. In a recent study, they found that, compared to teens who have dinner with their parents five to seven times a week, teens who have fewer than three family dinners per week are three-and- a-half times more likely to say it’s okay for teens their age to get drunk and almost three times more likely to say it’s okay for teens their age to use marijuana. Similar links have been found elsewhere, with another US study finding that teens who had frequent family meals were half as likely to report using alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs as those who had few or no family meals each week.

Family cohesion

Not surprisingly, the research into family meals has also revealed that families who regularly eat together are more likely to be a cohesive, supportive unit. For example, the US National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse has found that, compared with teenagers who eat few family dinners per week, teens who have frequent family meals are five times less likely to say their parents know ‘very little or nothing at all’ about what’s really going on in their lives. Another US study has revealed that teenagers who eat frequent family dinners are three times more likely to report having family support, positive family communication and parental involvement in school, than those who eat one or fewer family dinners per week.

Aside from all these statistics, family meals are a precious time to step away from the computer, put down the phone, turn off the television and talk to one another. It can be really hard to put that into practice in the everyday craziness of our lives (don’t I know it!). But for those nights you can manage it, rest assured that over the years the investment will pay off.

Baby and family meals

Making the transition from milk feeds to solid foods can be a daunting time for many parents. There seem to be so many rules! If you would like a comprehensive guide to feeding your baby – including meal planners and recipes for different stages – you can find it in my book Cooking For Your Baby and Toddler. Below is an overview of the key points you need to know.

The best age to start solids is a controversial subject and official advice has changed over the years. However, based on the latest research, ‘around 6 months’ is now widely recommended as the ideal age, including in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

Although the phrase ‘around 6 months’ is typically not defined, it’s often interpreted in practice to mean between 22 and 26 weeks, which equates to between 5 and 6 months.

You sometimes hear certain groups, including allergy associations, argue that solids should ideally be introduced before this time – as early as 4 months – but there are good reasons not to be in a rush to begin. For a start, breastmilk is the ultimate food for your baby, and starting solids too early can interfere with her milk supply. Furthermore, young babies have immature kidneys and digestive systems that simply can’t cope with much solid food. By around 6 months, their bodies are more developed for processing solids.

Conversely, introducing solids much later than 6 months is also problematic. Babies’ iron levels start to deplete at this time and they need iron-rich foods to restore them. Furthermore, there is some evidence that delaying solids may increase the risk of food allergy. Solids are also needed at around 6 months for the optimal development of certain motor skills, such as chewing.

When to introduce certain foods: The old rules that stated you should introduce solids in a particular order – such as rice cereal on day one, pumpkin purée on day two, avocado on day three and so on – are no longer based on current science. Thank goodness for that, because they certainly made starting solids a high-maintenance, anxiety-inducing task!

The latest thinking is:

–When you start your baby on solids at around 6 months, you don’t need to delay introducing any food. In fact, delaying common allergens, such as egg, appears to increase the chances of your baby being allergic.

–With the important exception of certain contraband items, you can give your baby any food you like from the beginning, preferably plenty of iron-rich foods.

–You don’t need to worry about introducing foods in a particular order. It doesn’t matter if you give rice cereal first, then sweet potato, then apple. The idea that you have to follow a strict order is nonsense.

–You don’t need to wait 3–5 days before introducing a new food. Although this will help you identify the cause if your child has an allergic reaction, the majority of children won’t have a reaction and the waiting game is a nuisance. Giving new foods in quick succession does not increase your child’s allergy risk.

Food and drinks to avoid:

–Although the rules around introducing potential allergens have relaxed, there are still some foods you shouldn’t give your baby. The main culprits are cow’s milk as a drink (babies should be having breastmilk or formula milk instead) and foods or drinks with added salt or sugar.

–As a general rule, if you’re giving your baby home-cooked foods made from fresh ingredients without sugar or salt, you’re probably doing the right thing. But, it’s definitely worth being familiar with this list to make sure you’re aware of the potential risks.

Getting the texture right

To help your baby develop proper chewing skills, it’s important to adjust the texture of her food over the passing months. When your baby first starts solids, you will need to keep her purées very smooth, with a semi-liquid consistency similar to runny custard. Mix as much liquid (water or your baby’s milk – you can use expressed breastmilk or formula) through your purées as you need to achieve this texture. You should also avoid any big lumps as they’re a bit much for a young baby to cope with.

As your baby gets the hang of eating, start to move to lumpier purées and mashes, which are very important for learning to chew. If she kicks up a fuss, you can make the transition more gradual, but make sure you’re also giving her plenty of finger food for her chewing practice. Also, you may find your baby is more comfortable with a thicker, overall lumpier purée, than a thin purée with the occasional big lump. For those of you trying ‘baby-led weaning’ you will skip purées and begin with finger foods from the time of starting solids.

Finger foods

If your baby can sit upright with little or no support, there’s no reason you can’t start offering her finger foods from the age of 6 months, and certainly by 8 or 9 months.

Don’t expect her to start munching and swallowing finger foods from the start. To begin with, they’re just a fantastic plaything, undoubtedly more amazing than any toy you could give her. But as the weeks progress, you will notice your baby start to get a good handle on them, get them to her own mouth, have a little gummy chew and – finally – swallow.

When choosing finger foods, go for larger shapes that your baby is able to grasp, and avoid any choking hazards, such as nuts, whole grapes, popcorn and carrot sticks. Make sure that your baby is sitting upright, and never give her food if she’s not closely supervised. Also make sure you know what first-aid steps to follow in the event she does start choking.

To begin, finger foods should be soft so that your baby is able to mouth them. One exception is rusks, which should be hard enough that your baby can’t bite pieces off and choke on them.

Adapting family meals for babies

When your baby first starts solids, you might like to have a week or two where you give her quite simple purées, such as chicken and pumpkin, or apple and rice cereal. Once she’s accepting these and you’re not detecting any food allergies, you can start to be more adventurous. All you need to do is prepare her the same food that the rest of the family is eating, puréeing and mashing it in the early months and then transitioning to finger foods as she gets older.

Unless otherwise noted, all of the recipes in this book are suitable for babies aged 6 months and older and each recipe provides adaptations both for younger babies (6–9 months as a general guide) and older babies (10–12 months). Remember not to add sugar or salt or other ingredients that aren’t appropriate for babies, such as honey, raw eggs and any choking hazards.

Preparing purées

There aren’t many foods that can’t be puréed although some foods – such as fruit, vegetables and meats – will obviously work better than others, such as salad or crispy foods.

The first step for preparing a purée is to choose an appropriate blending appliance. Your options include:

–a hand-held stick blender for smaller quantities – they’re also good for putting straight into a saucepan;

–a blender for medium quantities and foods that blend easily;

–a food processor or a high-powered appliance, such as a Thermomix, for larger quantities or foods that blend less easily.

The next step is to add as much liquid as you need to achieve the appropriate consistency for your baby. In some cases, such as a casserole, you may not need to add any, as the cooking liquids may be adequate.

Where some liquid is required you can use water or your baby’s milk – expressed breast milk or formula milk. A little cow’s milk from time to time is also fine, it’s just not as nutrient-dense as your baby’s drinking milk, and it definitely shouldn’t be served as a drink.

It is generally recommended to give babies under 12 months cooled, boiled tap water, rather than water straight from the tap. However, if you’re confident that your water is of a high-quality drinking standard, you may feel comfortable serving it to your baby from 6 months. Most purified water is also fine, although it may not contain fluoride, which is important for dental health. Avoid sparkling water as it can have added minerals, including salt, which aren’t always suitable for babies.

Plain (unsweetened) yoghurt can also be mixed through a purée to achieve the right consistency.

Where a purée is too runny – such as a soup – you can use a number of different ingredients to thicken it including rice cereal, quinoa, couscous and pasta stars.

Storing purées

Once you’ve prepared a batch of purée, you can set aside one serving and then put the remainder in individual storage containers to use later. Pop them immediately into the fridge or freezer. Purées will typically last up to 3 days in the fridge and several months in the freezer.

Don’t freeze foods more than once. The exception to this is frozen raw ingredients which you then cook. For example, it’s fine to put frozen peas in a beef casserole and then freeze the casserole.

If you want to avoid a case of food poisoning, it’s useful to know that the ‘temperature danger zone’ at which maximum bacterial growth occurs is 5°C–60°C. To keep out of this zone, you need to keep cold foods below this range and hot foods above it.

Eating together

In the early months of starting solids, it can be virtually impossible to time dinner so that it fits in with your baby, so you might prefer to leave it to weekends to include her at the family table. As your baby gets older and her routines change, you might be able to bring dinnertime forward. However, ultimately, your sanity is more important than having your baby at the table. So if a relaxed late dinner with your partner is the highlight of your day, then don’t change a thing. Once your baby reaches the toddler and pre-schooler years, eating together becomes far more feasible, so it will happen all in good time.

Developing taste preferences

While it may often feel like the reverse is true, as a parent, you have an extraordinary amount of control over your child’s taste preferences. Babies first experience taste in the womb, via the amniotic fluid, and then as a newborn, via breastmilk. There have been studies showing that breastfed babies are more accepting of fruit and vegetables than formula-fed babies if their mothers regularly ate these foods themselves. Mums can expose their babies to different flavours by eating a varied diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Between the time your baby starts solids and the age of 2 or 3 years, when ‘food neophobia’ (a fear of new foods) often starts to really kick in, there is a lot you can do to expand your child’s palate as much as possible.

The most important thing is to keep introducing new and different foods, even if your child is not keen. Familiarity is one of the key factors dictating whether a child will eat a particular food. The best way to build familiarity is to give your child plenty of opportunities to taste, see and touch different foods – both raw and cooked, in a variety of different forms – from the time she starts solids.

So, don’t just give her kiwi fruit purée, let her see and touch the whole fruit, point out its fuzzy skin, let her watch you eating some, give her a wedge to squish and try to bite.

Going hand-in-hand with familiarity, repeated taste exposure is another key factor in building acceptance of a food. It may take up to 10, even 15, tastes of a food before your child will accept it, so definitely don’t give up after a few rejections.

What is baby-led weaning?

‘Baby-led weaning’ is an infant feeding philosophy that rejects the idea of feeding babies puréed food from a spoon. Instead, it says that babies should be given finger food and encouraged to feed themselves from the time of starting solids at 6 months (no earlier). One important feature of baby-led weaning is that the baby decides how much she eats – her parents do not put food in her mouth or try to encourage her to have more.

Supporters of baby-led weaning say that it is preferable to conventional spoon-feeding because it helps teach children to enjoy food and reduces the likelihood of fussy eating.

Baby-led weaning can be a bit nerve-wracking for parents because of the concern that a baby may choke on her finger food. It’s one reason to ensure a baby can sit upright properly and never to leave her eating unattended. It’s also very messy, something some parents find difficult to cope with.

While baby-led weaning really suits some babies, it’s not appropriate for all – particularly those who can’t sit well by 6 months or who aren’t adept at getting food into their mouths. One concern I have is that if children aren’t managing to eat much, they’re at risk of iron deficiency, as their natural iron stores start to deplete at around 6 months.

I believe the best approach for most children is a hybrid approach, drawing a happy balance between the baby-led and conventional spoon-feeding methods. Ultimately, taking a flexible, relaxed approach will produce the best outcome.

Watching out for food allergies

Monitor your baby closely when you introduce the following nine foods, which cause over 90 per cent of food allergies: cow’s milk, egg, fish, shellfish, peanuts, sesame, wheat, soy and tree nuts (such as almonds, cashews and walnuts). If your baby has an allergy to one of these, you’ll probably know about it within a few hours of her eating it, possibly even a few minutes.

Getting through the first taste of a food doesn’t mean she’s not allergic – she may not have any reaction until the second or subsequent taste.

If you have a family history of allergies, you should have a chat with your doctor, who may have particular, individual advice for your baby.

Baby nutrition – key points

–Food groups: Once your baby is well established on solids, she should be eating some food from each of the major food groups every day – grains and cereals, vegetables and legumes, fruit, meat and eggs, and dairy.

–Fat: Make sure she’s also getting some fat in her diet, for proper growth and development. Go for healthy sources of fat, such as avocado, olive oil, nuts, seeds and oily fish. In moderation, the saturated fats found in meat and dairy are fine for babies, although as your child gets older, it’s generally advised to keep a closer eye on her saturated fat intake.

–Milk: Until she is over 12 months, breastmilk or formula is your child’s most important food source. From 6–12 months, she needs about 600 ml a day. After her first birthday, gradually reduce her milk intake in favour of other foods, although she’ll still need at least 250 ml a day (more if she’s not eating other dairy foods).

–Water: Once your baby starts solids, you should also be offering her water regularly, although she may not take much interest at first. Don’t serve her juice as it’s been linked to tooth decay and excess weight – milk and water are the only two drinks she needs.

–Wholegrains and high-fibre foods: Don’t overload your baby on wholegrains and other high-fibre foods. They’re fantastic in moderation, and as she gets older you can increase her intake, but too much fibre can interfere with a baby’s nutrient uptake.

–Iron: One nutrient to be conscious of is iron, as many babies don’t get enough. From about 6 months, your baby’s natural iron stores will deplete (this may happen sooner in premature babies), so make sure she’s getting plenty of iron-rich foods – such as red meat, cooked chicken liver and eggs – from this age onward. It’s worth knowing that chicken thigh meat has twice as much iron as chicken breast, so I always prefer it for young children.

–Vitamin D: This is another nutrient to watch out for. Breastmilk contains vitamin D but the precise amount is highly variable, depending on Mum’s own vitamin D levels. Although it’s not a good idea for babies to be exposed to too much sun, because of the skin cancer risks, a few minutes of early morning and later afternoon sunlight is generally acceptable and can help protect against vitamin D deficiency.

–Preserving nutrients: Certain nutrients are easily destroyed by heat, including vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin B6, vitamin C, folate, vitamin E and omega-3 fats. Take care when cooking and heating your child’s food not to overdo it, as more of these precious nutrients will be destroyed.

Toddlers and family meals

The toddler years – typically described as between 1 and 4 years – are some of the most joyful and some of the most trying for parents when it comes to feeding children. Although toddlers are generally much easier to have at the table than babies, many of them develop very strong opinions about every aspect of their meal, down to what bowl their meal is served in and what spoon they use. As a mum of a particularly opinionated four year old, I know all too well how exasperating this can be!

If you would like a comprehensive guide to feeding children during these early years – including meal planners and toddler-specific recipes – you can find it in my book Cooking For Your Baby and Toddler. Below is an overview of the key points you need to know.

Food refusal and mealtime tension: The term ‘fussy eating’ is usually used to describe the behaviour of children who will eat only a small variety of food. In more serious cases, it may be just a few ingredients. Fussy eaters are typically unwilling to try new foods (this is called ‘food neophobia’) and are also usually unwilling to eat many of the foods that they have seen, perhaps even eaten, before. Often fussy eaters won’t eat anything from an entire food group, such as dairy, vegetables or meat.

Thankfully, there are a whole lot of concrete steps you can take to minimise fussy eating in the first place, and to stop things from getting worse if it does occur.

A common problem: The most important starting point for any discussion on fussy eating is this: fussy eating is very common. A number of studies estimate its prevalence at 25–40 per cent. In a US survey of over 3000 children, the figure was even higher, with 50 per cent of parents reporting that their 19- to 24-month-old toddler was a picky eater.

It is rare to have a child who doesn’t experience some food fussiness at least once during her childhood. Even children who usually eat well will often experience phases of picky eating. These phases will come, and hopefully go, and it is a matter of getting through them as calmly as possible. As discussed below, staying relaxed is a key part of not making matters worse.

Minimising fussy eating: The easiest way of dealing with fussy eating is to try to reduce the likelihood of it occurring in the first place. Particularly before your child’s first and even second birthday, you have a golden opportunity to set the stage for healthy eating behaviours. By repeatedly exposing your baby to a wide range of different flavours, building her familiarity with different ingredients and helping her to manage different textures – you will be well on the way to reducing fussy eating down the track.

Having said that, there are no guarantees as a parent, and despite your best efforts you may end up with the world’s trickiest eater. Hard as it is, you should definitely not see this as a reflection of your parenting. Undiagnosed medical conditions might be at play, such as tonsil or adenoid problems, or food intolerances. Other times, for no apparent reason, your child is simply one of those who just isn’t interested in food. If this happens, don’t give up. There is still plenty you can do to stop your child’s eating from getting worse over time.

Handling a fussy toddler: Having a child who is a seriously fussy eater can make life difficult. Instead of sitting down and enjoying a lovely home-cooked dinner each night, you feel like you’re going into battle.

Interestingly, we now know that most of the tactics our parents used on us – ‘You can’t leave the table until you finish what’s on your plate’, ‘No dessert unless you eat your vegetables’, ‘If you don’t eat those brussels sprouts, you’ll be getting them for breakfast’ – are counter-productive and actually tend to make matters worse.

In a nutshell, the research findings tell us that the best approach for minimising fussy eating is simply to keep serving up healthy varied foods, avoid all coercive behaviours and be a good role model by eating well yourself. Here are the key strategies arising from the research:

–Just keep offering it: One of the key predictors of whether or not a child will eat a certain food is familiarity. Children eat what they like and they like what they know. Unfortunately, many parents give up on an ingredient after just a few rejections from their child. Persistence is the key. If your child has a meltdown because the peas are touching her other food, put them in a separate bowl. Just don’t stop serving them.

–Let your child choose how much she eats: A useful guiding motto is that you, as the parent, chooses the quality (of what food is served) and your child chooses the quantity. What if your child has only eaten two mouthfuls of a meal? That’s fine. You wouldn’t want that happening every meal, but from time to time children won’t eat much and forcing them to have more will make matters worse. Ultimately, children of the same age and gender have wildly different appetites. That’s why, when you’re assessing whether your child is eating enough, it’s better to be guided by her growth (checking it against a growth standards chart) than her serving sizes. Having said that, if the sparrow-style eating persists, you may have to investigate any possible medical problems.

–Make sure she’s hungry: This sounds so obvious, but in my experience it’s one of the biggest mistakes parents (including myself) make. Before you have your own toddler meltdown when your child won’t eat her meal, stop and think about her day. How many snacks has she had? How much milk? Any juice? What time? If your child has had a muffin at 4.30 p.m. it should come as no surprise that she’s not going to have much of an appetite for dinner. I find it extraordinary the extent to which snacking affects my four-year-old’s fussiness. If he’s hungry, he’ll eat just about anything. But if he’s had a big afternoon snack or a glass of milk – forget about it; only pasta, bread and cheese will do.

–Don’t pressure your child to eat: This is a really hard one and requires mountains of patience. It means not saying, ‘You can’t watch TV until you eat all your peas.’ It means not saying, ‘You can’t leave the table unless you clear your plate.’ The biggest problem with these kinds of strategies is that they backfire. In the short term, your child may finish his plate of fish, but, in the long term, she’s less likely to enjoy fish and more likely to try to manipulate you at mealtimes. Unfortunately, lots of children soon learn that by being difficult eaters they get lots of attention and some pretty cool rewards. Keeping the pressure off means that mealtimes are far less likely to become a battleground.

–Encouraging a ‘try’ is fine: While pressuring your child to eat is counterproductive, calmly suggesting that they have a little try or a taste of a food is fine. Just watch that you don’t cross the line into coercion. There’s a big difference between suggesting your child has a try and insisting that she finishes the whole bowl. If she refuses to have a try, don’t flip out. Otherwise, she’ll soon learn it’s a great way to get you worked up. Just offer the same food again another day.

–Be a good role model: Don’t underestimate the power of your actions on your child. A number of studies have found the number of vegetables liked by a child’s parent to be a reliable predictor of the vegetable variety consumed by the child. This is one reason it’s great if your child can eat with you as a family – the more she sees you eating up your vegetables, the more likely she will be to do the same. What’s more, if you don’t like a food, try not to share that sentiment with your child. Give her the opportunity to form a liking for it, even if you don’t.

–Don’t offer food rewards: ‘If you eat your peas, you can have some chocolate cake!’ Sounds like a good deal. What’s more, it will probably work. Peas eaten, mission accomplished. If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, we now know that this strategy is likely to make your child like peas even less, and chocolate cake even more. And it’s not hard to see why. From your child’s perspective, peas are suddenly a chore, a task, a dreaded thing you have to get through, and cake is a special treat, a deluxe reward. If you want your child to eat peas, serve them to her regularly, make mealtimes a positive experience and eat peas yourself. Just don’t offer her any cake for her efforts.

–Be strict on your shopping, not on your child: The more restrictions you put on your child’s consumption of a particular food, the more likely she is to want that food. However, it’s important to distinguish between two types of restriction. The kind of restriction that backfires is when you tell your child that she’s not allowed any of the chocolates that are sitting in full view on the kitchen shelf. This is known as ‘overt restriction’, because your child knows about the thing she’s not allowed to have and she’ll end up wanting it more. However, ‘covert restriction’ – which involves keeping unhealthy foods out of the house or walking home a different way so you avoid the cupcake shop – does work. The key is to be strict on your shopping list and keep unhealthy foods to a minimum. However, when treat foods are in your house (and your child knows about them), don’t overly restrict her access to them or she’ll just want them more.

–Positive mealtimes: A child’s emotional associations with a particular food can profoundly affect her liking for it. For example, I have a friend who won’t eat apples because, as a child, he was physically bullied by some older children into eating one. He now feels physically ill at the thought of eating them. The same is true in reverse. If your child’s experience of mealtimes is positive and conflict-free, according to the research, she’s more likely to form a liking for the foods you serve her.

Adapting family meals for toddlers

By the time your baby has her first birthday, she’s covered a lot of ground when it comes to food and eating. From this time onwards, involving her in family meals gets easier and easier.

After your child turns one, you may still like to purée or mash the occasional meal, but just make sure you keep the consistency quite textured. As before, you still need to keep an eye on how much sugar and salt she’s eating, and there are certain foods she’s still not allowed, such as raw eggs and choking hazards (for example, popcorn). Finger foods should become the norm now that she’s a toddler.

Toddler adaptations are offered for each of the recipes in Chapters 2–5 of this book, but you’re the best person to know how your child likes to eat. Some children prefer to eat entirely with their hands, picking up larger pieces they can bite off, others like using a spoon, in which case smaller pieces will work better. Be guided by your child and she’ll enjoy mealtimes more.

Encouraging self-feeding

As your child enters her toddler years, she’ll probably be well on the way to learning to feed herself, even if she’s still messy. As well as using her hands, it’s a good idea to let her have her own shorter-handled spoon (you can even do this as early as the time she starts solids). As frustrating as it can be to watch a child miss her mouth and drop her food in her lap, it is important to let her have a go. As with anything, if you always do it for her, she’ll never learn.

If your child is showing no interest in feeding herself, it may be that she needs more guidance in what to do. The best way to teach her is to involve her in family mealtimes so that she can observe exactly how this whole business of eating works. Make sure you’re also giving her a wide variety of finger foods that she can hold with ease.

She may also be feeling some performance anxiety. Lots of children like to have some time and space to enjoy their food, without a parent hovering over them. Although you shouldn’t leave your child unattended because of the choking risk, giving her an opportunity to have a good play with her lunch without any interference may create the pressure-free environment she needs to have a go.

Ultimately, the best tools for her learning are a range of foods of different sizes and shapes and plenty of patience from you.

Coping with waste

If, like me, you’re concerned about food waste – both the expense and the environmental impact – it’s really hard to keep serving up food you’re pretty sure won’t get eaten. Here is something to remember: if a child has seen food on her plate, it has served a purpose.

You might think that strawberry was wasted if it wasn’t eaten, but I can assure you it played an important role. Seeing a range of different ingredients on her plate is a crucial tool in combating fussiness, even if your child doesn’t always eat them.

Give your child ample opportunity to try a particular food and if she rejects it, then eat it yourself, so it doesn’t end up in the bin. So long as your own meal portions remain controlled, you can watch your own waist while avoiding excess food waste.

Toddler nutrition – key points

–Variety: As hard as it can be when fussy eating kicks in, the best thing your toddler can be eating is a wide variety of ingredients from all the major food groups – grains and cereals, vegetables and legumes, fruit, meat and eggs, and dairy. It’s wonderful if she eats an apple a day, but it’s even better if she eats an apple one day, an orange the next, an apricot the following day, then some papaya, kiwi fruit and strawberry. The more varied your child’s diet is, the more likely it is that she’ll be eating all the nutrients and phytochemicals she needs for optimal growth and health.

–Watch the sugar: Even after your child’s first birthday, you need to keep a close eye on added sugar. Not only do sugary foods cause dental damage, they also displace nutrient-dense foods, particularly when eaten before mealtimes. The best approach is to keep them as occasional treats and make them as nutritious as possible, such as an oat biscuit.

–Iron: Many toddlers don’t get enough iron, so this is one nutrient to be particularly mindful of. An iron deficiency can affect your child’s immune system and her cognitive abilities, making it harder for her to concentrate and learn. Make sure your toddler is getting plenty of iron-rich foods, such as red meat, chicken (the thigh meat has twice as much as the breast meat) and eggs.

–Snacks: Most toddlers’ tummies are too small to consume all the kilojoules they need in three meals a day. What’s more, a child’s brain metabolises glucose about twice as fast as an adult’s, so they need a more constant source of energy. The trick is to keep your toddler’s snacks just as healthy as the rest of her meals – fresh fruit, steamed vegetables, a mixed nut butter with celery stalks – and time them so that she still has an appetite at mealtimes.

–Not too much milk: Milk is a really important source of calcium, but too much can cause iron deficiency. Children who are ‘milkoholics’ tend to fill up on milk, which is low in iron, and then they have no appetite for iron-rich foods. So, definitely no big glasses of milk or smoothies before mealtimes.

–Watch the juice: Juice should be a treat, not a staple. Drinking too much juice can cause diarrhoea, tooth decay and iron deficiency (because your child eats less at mealtimes). When you do offer juice, go for a freshly squeezed option with plenty of fibre and perhaps some carrot or beetroot mixed in.

–Vitamin supplements: I’m a firm believer that food is the best way of meeting daily mineral and vitamin requirements. However, in the case of serious fussy eaters, a multivitamin can offer some protection against nutritional deficiencies. So long as it’s not used as a substitute for proper meals, and healthy foods continue to be served, it can be a helpful way of meeting recommended daily intakes.

School years and beyond

As your child starts school and eventually enters her teenage years, she will begin making many more food choices for herself. Soon enough, she will be the one choosing what goes in her lunchbox and what she orders from a restaurant menu. What’s more, her food influences will increasingly come from outside sources – particularly her friends and the media – and less from your kitchen.

Social pressures will also begin to play a role and your child will eventually start taking a greater interest in how nutrition affects her life – whether it’s choosing low-calorie foods so she can fit into those new jeans or, in the case of many boys, opting for high-protein diets to increase their muscle mass.

Having said that, as a parent, your role in your child’s food choices continues to be pivotal. Offering varied, healthy ingredients remains just as important as it was during the baby and toddler years, and including her at the family dinner table is perhaps more crucial than ever before.

The best approach to your child or teenager resisting family meals and rejecting food is to just keep serving healthy meals, keep eating them yourself and don’t make a big deal of it. As hard as it is, staying calm and not engaging in food-related battles is your best bet for overcoming them. As your child gets older, you may also step up the amount of nutrition information you give her. If you explain to your teenager how a low-GI diet with minimal processed foods will improve her acne, it might be the first time she actually follows your food advice!

Vegetarian diets

Switching to a vegetarian diet is not uncommon during the teenage years. From a health perspective, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. For a start, studies show vegetarians have a lower incidence of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. What’s more, eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes has been linked with overall good health.

Nevertheless, a vegetarian diet does have its pitfalls and there’s no question that it requires careful planning to avoid nutrient deficiencies. Here are the main concerns:

–Iron: Iron is crucial for good immune function and energy levels and it’s one nutrient many vegetarians don’t get enough of. The recommended daily intake (RDI) for boys aged 14–18 years is 8 mg per day, while for girls it’s 11 mg per day. To put that in perspective, an egg contains around 2 mg, while 100 g tinned red kidney beans also contains 2 mg. Iron-fortified breakfast cereals and other fortified foods can help your child reach her RDI, and eating vitamin C-rich foods/drinks at the same meal will help with iron absorption.

–Zinc: Like iron, zinc also affects immunity. Dairy foods are a reasonable source and vegetarians can also find zinc in wholegrains and some seeds and nuts, such as pepitas, sunflower seeds, pine nuts and cashews (each of these contains iron, too). If your child eats the occasional piece of seafood, then oysters, crab and prawns are also great sources.

–Vitamin B12: Needed for healthy red blood cells and nerve function, vitamin B12 is only found in animal-derived and fortified foods, so it’s another one vegetarians need to be really mindful of. Your child should be fine if she eats eggs and dairy products, as these are good sources. Another option is fortified soy milk. Even though seaweed and fermented soy products, such as tempeh, include vitamin B12, they’re in an inactive, unavailable form and so they’re not reliable sources.

–Omega-3 fats: Important for your child’s brain function and heart health. Because oily fish, which are a rich source of omega-3 fats, are off the menu, you’ll need to include plant-based sources in your child’s diet such as linseeds, chia seeds and walnuts. Omega-3-enriched eggs are another good source.

–Protein: There are many plant-based sources of protein, such as wholegrains, legumes, seeds, nuts and vegetables. So long as your child eats a wide variety of these foods, she’ll probably meet her daily protein requirements. If she eats eggs and dairy products, the task is much easier because these are excellent ‘high-quality proteins’ – meaning they contain all the essential amino acids that the human body requires. Quinoa is another good protein source.

–Vitamin D: As long as your child is getting sufficient exposure to sunlight, vitamin D is unlikely to be a problem. It’s also found in fatty fish and eggs, as well as fortified milk and margarine. However, diet alone rarely provides enough, which is why some time in the sun is important.

In addition to these nutritional concerns, it’s worth being aware that a vegetarian diet can signal the start of – or be used to disguise – an eating disorder. Although vegetarian diets certainly don’t cause eating disorders, there is evidence of a very high incidence of vegetarianism among people with eating disorders. Particularly for teenage girls, vegetarianism might be the first step in more extreme attempts to control food intake.

If your child adopts a vegan diet, the risk of nutrient deficiency is much greater. In addition to the concerns above, calcium deficiency can be a real problem, because dairy foods are off the menu. You should consult a nutritionist or dietician to help you plan a suitable diet for your child.

Nutrition during the school years – key points

–Calcium: Your child will reach what’s known as her ‘peak bone mass’ (her maximum bone density) in her twenties. From this time onwards, her bones will only get weaker, not stronger. In order to maximise her peak bone mass, which will give her the strongest protection against osteoporosis later in life, it’s absolutely crucial that she gets plenty of calcium in her childhood and teenage years. From the age of 9 years onwards, boys and girls need 3 or 4 cups of milk a day – or the equivalent amount of calcium from other sources – to meet the recommended daily intakes. Dairy foods are the best source, along with tinned salmon and sardines (so long as the soft bones are eaten) and, to a lesser extent, plant foods such as tofu, bok choy (pak choy), broccoli and almonds.

–Iron: Once girls start menstruating, their iron requirements nearly double. Boys also need plenty of iron to support their rapid growth. Iron is crucial for good immune function and energy levels, and it also helps with cognitive development. If your child doesn’t get enough iron, she may have difficulties concentrating at school. Eating plenty of iron-rich foods, such as red meat, liver pâté, chicken (thigh and leg meat) and eggs will help minimise the risk of an iron deficiency.

–Breakfast: It really is the most important meal of the day. Numerous studies have shown that children who eat breakfast have better concentration and attention spans and perform better at school. On the other hand, those who miss their morning meal are more likely to be irritable, tired, restless and easily distracted. They’re also more likely to be overweight. Take the time in the morning to get your child into the habit of eating a proper breakfast – you’ll be rewarded for your efforts when you read her next report card.

–Soft drinks: Around the world, soft drinks are a major contributor to obesity and dental problems. There is simply no good reason to have them in your house. They are loaded with sugar and offer virtually no nutritional benefits. Cordials are in the same boat. The longer you can keep them out of your child’s life, the better. If she wants a drink other than water then milk or a freshly squeezed juice (preferably with some vegetables) are both streets ahead nutritionally.

–Food independence: Once children and teens have the independence to make and buy their own food, their diets may suffer as sugary, fatty, low-nutrient snacks often become their preferred options. You can help your child make healthy food choices by stocking your house with the foods you’re happy for her to eat. By keeping unhealthy foods out of the house, and loading your fridge and pantry with fruit, vegetables, unsweetened dairy foods, wholegrains and nutritious snacks, she’s more likely to end up eating these foods. Teaching your child how to prepare a healthy meal for herself – how to cook pasta, boil an egg, cook a piece of fish and prepare a salad – will also help her make better food choices.

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