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Growing up strong

Cooking for children can be a challenge sometimes, but there are ways to make sure they get a healthy balanced diet

“Variety and balance are key,” says Nicola Graimes, author of new book Vegetarian Food For Healthy Kids (Nourish). “It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut when cooking for children, but it’s a good idea to open kids’ minds to new taste experiences, textures, colours and flavours. It’s also important nutritionally to ensure that your children eat a good range of nutrients over a weekly basis.

“I begin the week with a mental plan of what we’ll be eating throughout the week to come. So if pasta is on the menu one day, then it will be potatoes, pulses, rice or other grains on subsequent days. Similarly, the source of protein varies – perhaps cheese, tofu, pulses or eggs – along with vegetables and how they are prepared, maybe steamed, stir-fried, roasted or left raw.”

“The key to all health is balance,” says Mary Buckley from Horans in Listowel, Co Kerry. “Try to include carbohydrate, protein and fat in every meal. Don’t skip meals and make sure they take a nutritious lunch to school, as snacks you could include fruit, granola bar (check sugar amounts) or nuts. You also need to make sure they are getting an adequate amount of iron in their diet – by eating meat, dark green leafy vegetables or dried fruit.”

“Cook with wholesome nutritious foods to ensure they are getting all the minerals and vitamins they need,” says Lucy Kerr at the Good Earth in Kilkenny. “Avoid cooking processed foods and junk food, this will help stop kids from getting into bad eating habits.”

Fussy eaters

“Make dinner look visually appealing by using foods with a variety of different colours such as sweetcorn, peas, sweet potatoes and cutting foods into different shapes and sizes to make meals look more attractive to kids,” says Lucy Kerr. “One of the most important things is to try and make mealtimes an enjoyable experience for kids by getting them involved in the cooking process.”

“Remember kids watch and learn by example, if they see you being fussy about a food they might pick up this habit too,” says Mary Buckley.

“There are so many different levels and types of fussiness, but I would say try not to panic or succumb to fussy eating,” says Nicola Graimes. “Children pick up on tension and can use a refusal to eat to gain attention, so try to deal with it calmly and without pampering to the situation. Encourage your child to try just a little of the particular food or meal in question.

“I’m a great believer in getting children involved in food shopping and cooking – and even growing fresh stuff – as this can spur an interest in eating well. I was reassured to read a recent health report which found that children who help in the kitchen and have a basic knowledge of healthy foods are more likely to be on the right path for eating healthily as adults as well as have a greater willingness to try different things.”

Sweet tooth

“You can’t keep children away from sugar completely,” says Mary Buckley, “it is all around them and more importantly they want it. All you can do is don’t have it at home, lead by example and enjoy healthy snacks together regularly. On occasion enjoy a sugary treat with your family and don’t be too rigid about sugar, as by banning it altogether you may make it more desirable.”

“Instead of using sugar-filled cereals for their breakfast try some yogurt and berries, homemade granola, porridge and fresh fruit,” says Lucy Kerr. “Avoid fizzy drinks and replace them with pure water or try some sparkling water mixed with some no added sugar fruit juice. For snacks some almond butter and rice cakes, berries and coconut yogurt; nuts and cheese are great for packed lunches.”

“Arm your kids with the facts about sugar so they are informed about the negatives and also what to look out for on food labels, the various names for sugar and the traffic-light scheme which shows whether a food is high in sugar,” says Nicola Graimes. “I’m a big fan of using spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and mixed spice as a natural sweetener and flavouring. You can curb a taste for sweet things by avoiding sprinkling sugar over breakfast cereals, and swapping shop-bought fruit yogurt with thick plain live yogurt and chopped fruit. Homemade puddings also tend to be free from colours, additives, emulsifiers and preservatives.”

When to supplement

“If your child is picky and lacking in vegetables and fruits a good children’s multivitamin can give them the vitamins and minerals they may be lacking,” says Lucy Kerr. “Through winter kids pick up many colds and flus so giving them a good kids’ elderberry, zinc and vitamin C supplement is a good way to support their immune system.”

“If a child is eating a varied, balanced and nutritious diet on a regular basis there should be no need for supplements,” says Nicola Graimes. “Iron, omega-3 fats and vitamin B12 aren’t as richly available in a vegetarian diet so it’s wise to pay special attention to including good meat-free sources of these nutrients such as eggs, pulses, dairy, nuts, soya foods, seeds, grains, fruit and veg.”

“Parents should supplement when they feel they need to,” says Mary Buckley. “If your child always gets sick as soon as they are back at school, then they may need an immunity booster, and vitamin D should always be included. I would also include fish oil for omegas to give them some needed brain food.”

Food intolerance

“It’s important to ascertain whether it’s an allergy to a particular food or an intolerance,” says Nicola Graimes. “I would seek advice from your doctor and then talk to a dietitian or nutritionist about a plan of action.”

“In this day and age when you have a child with an intolerance whether it’s dairy, wheat, gluten or eggs you have a lot more choice than ever before,” says Mary Buckley. “All health stores and most supermarkets now cater to most intolerances. The issues that might arise are outside of your home, for example birthday parties, hallowe’en, school tours and cooking classes in school. In these cases all you can do is your best to have your child prepared with something similar that they can eat so they don’t feel left out or different. Most parents and teachers will understand.”

“Thankfully now there are many alternative food options available,” says Lucy Kerr. “If you are concerned your child has an intolerance try keeping a food diary for them to see if a certain food is causing their symptoms.”

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