Want to give your kids a diet that meets their high nutritional demands and keeps them healthy? Well, what you don’t give them to eat is just as important as what you do.
Nutrition in kids is a constant source of concern for parents. Processed, artificially-flavoured savoury foods and sugary, additive-rich snacks feature in the diets of today’s youth like never before, and our youngsters are paying with their health – increased obesity and risk of diabetes, and poorer concentration, mental function and fitness levels.
While it is impossible to constantly monitor what your children eat beyond a certain age and compel them to follow a 100 percent fresh, organic and additive-free diet, you can help encourage them away from nutritionally sub-standard foods and steer them towards healthier alternatives. Here are 12 foods to ban or moderate – and 12 all-round better options to tempt them with instead.
1. Sugary cereals
Children’s cereals tend to be extremely rich in sugar. Nutritionist Natalie Savona, author of Wonderfoods for Kids, warns of those that ‘try to give the impression that they’re healthier by using words like “wholegrain” on the box.’ She adds: ‘You can have all the wholegrain in the world but if you’ve got 35g sugar per 100g of product, it’ll give them a poor start to the day.’
Savona acknowledges that it’s tough finding a healthy cereal that appeals to children, but argues that if they’re not habitually fed sugary cereals, kids will get used to unsweetened varieties. Or try smoothies instead. ‘Make smoothies with natural yoghurt and fruit, and add oats and a little hemp oil for extra omega 3s,’ she says. ‘Add to that some wholemeal toast and peanut butter and it’s a terrific, sustaining and nutritious start to the day.’
2. Fruit juice drinks
Fruit juice drinks contain juice, water, sweeteners and perhaps other flavourings. ‘Some have smart packaging with pictures of delicious looking fruit, but look at the label and there can be as much as 15 teaspoons of sugar in an individual child’s bottle,’ says Mandy Francis, a nutrition researcher and author of Healthy Cooking for Children, adding that those boasting “No Added Sugar” may contain artificial sweeteners.
‘Unsweetened pure fruit juice is much better,’ says Francis, ‘but dilute it 50:50 with water as juices have a lot of natural sugars and can be very calorific. Use fizzy water to make an attractive sparkling drink.’
3. Chewing Gum
‘Chewing gum offers nothing nutritionally to children,’ says Savona. ‘It’s just a habit some kids get into, but it’s confusing for their digestive system, because the constant chewing and production of saliva prepares it to receive food which never actually arrives. This can eventually interfere with kids’ ability to correctly interpret hunger signals.’
After a meal, the occasional sugar-free gum with xylitol – a sweetener known to reduce tooth decay – is okay, but because gum-chewing is a more a nervous habit than a food one, encourage kids to channel their energies into activities such as arts or sports, in order to distract them from the temptation to chew.
4. Supermarket/Takeaway Pizza
Two words: fat and salt. ‘Those pizzas with processed meat toppings are particularly bad,’ says Francis. ‘And the takeaway varieties with processed cheese-stuffed crusts just needlessly add extra fat. Terrible.’
Francis suggests DIY pizzas which children love making, and offer an ideal opportunity to sneak in extra vegetables – like tomatoes, onions and capsicums – into their diets: ‘Get them to make individual snack “pizzas” using halved brown muffins or bread rolls, tomato passata with herbs, vegetables of their choice and a little grated cheese, and putting them under a low grill for a few minutes.’
5. French Fries
Kids love them, but they rank lowly in the health league due to a high saturated fat content.
Ready-made oven and microwave varieties tend to be better than takeaway fries as they’re lower in fat. But just because your kids love chips, doesn’t mean they won’t eat other vegetables. Francis suggests making ‘fries with sweet potatoes, cut into chunks, parboiled, then baked with a little oil. Offer them other “sunny” vegetables too. Surveys suggest that carrots and sweet corn are among childrens’ favourite vegetables. ‘It’s interesting that warm-coloured varieties come out on top, when you think that kids’ favourites of burgers, fries and chicken nuggets are all similar in colour,’ says child psychologist Dr Pat Spungin. ‘Even though they’re green, kids love peas because they’re quite sweet,’ points out Mandy, ‘and they contribute one of their all important daily portions of vegetables too.’
A perennial children’s favourite, typically made with wheat flour, fats, salt and sugars – they have very little to redeem them nutritional.
A much better option are oat cakes and biscuits that don’t raise children’s blood sugar levels as sharply as refined wheat biscuits; with lower glycaemic index and load (GI/GL) values, they’re more satisfying and less likely to be overeaten. Alternatively, try making natural homemade cookies with your kids, which allows you some control over ingredients and fat and sugar content.
7. Potato crisps
An obvious source of salt – as well as other artificial flavourings such as monosodium glutamate, and of course saturated fats. Kids aged one to three should have no more than 2g of salt a day, those aged four to six, 3g, those aged seven to 10, 5g, and those 11 and over, 6g. A 25g bag of crisps can contain 1g.
Savona says crisps are okay in moderation, but problematic when they become a key feature of kids’ diets. For lunchboxes, rather than giving children a whole packet, pop half into an airtight container.
8. Processed cheese snacks
Cheesy “straws” or cheese’n’cracker snack packs are typically high in salt, fat and flavourings. ‘Again, some manufacturers may try to distract the consumer with “good source of calcium” on the packaging, but it’s important to check the ingredients,’ says Francis.
‘Kids like to assemble and dip things and eat with their fingers, so give them mini pitas, bread sticks, raw vegetable batons and a dip such as hummus or guacamole,’ says Francis. ‘They can sometimes surprise you with their sophisticated tastes.’
9. Processed meat “takeaway” products & burgers
Cheap meat pies and sausages are two of the worst foods you can give your child because they’re dripping in hydrogenated fats. The meat in the sausages and low-quality burgers can be low grade and mechanically recovered, and pies are sometimes deep fried, further adding needless fat.
If you really must, the best “takeaway” alternatives to a fast-food outlet tend to be the fish-based ones. Choose a good piece of cod – or even a fish burger – with some vegetables such as peas. If the fish is battered, trim some of it off and you’ll be left with a wholesome portion of fish.
10. Cereal bars
Often considered better alternatives to sweets and chocolate bars, these can be deceptively high in fat and sugar. ‘Imagine several spoons of sugary cereal which needs something to bind it all together,’ says Savona. ‘As far as the main commercial brands of cereal bars go, that something is yet more sugar in the form of glucose syrup or honey.’
‘Try pure fruit bars,’ says Savona. ‘Some are pulped up with grains too, and although they can be quite sweet, at least your kids are getting all the nutrients in the fruit.’
11. Ice cream
High in sugar and, often, artificial colours – as well as fat, if cream is included in the mix.
‘You can make great home-made ice creams by using smoothies or pulped fruit poured into a mould and frozen,’ says Francis. ‘Kids love it if you let them choose their own combinations. Alternatively, try freezing fresh bananas, then blend it into a sort of “ice cream” – a terrific and healthy alternative to the real thing. Trust me, they’ll barely notice the difference.’
‘Just like with adults, caffeine gives kids a boost, followed by a crash, and is bad for their energy levels, concentration and moods,’ says Savona. ‘A child with any form of hyperactivity should be protected from caffeine and its effects.’
Choose a fruit drink rather than a soft drink. Most kids don’t like coffee or tea, but chamomile tea is a good, mild caffeine-free alternative, as is redbush tea, which can be taken with milk and is a lovely deep red colour that children often like. Chocolate contains caffeine, but white chocolate has very small amounts – again, though, check sugar levels very carefully.
– this article was kindly supplied by My Child magazine