Nutrition for children

Nutrition – a word we all recognise but what does it really mean? I asked a couple of children to see what they thought….

14 year old “wait, let me find my food tech folder I’ve got the definition in there (not allowed), ooh it’s the stuff you eat that turns into stuff you use to make your body work”.

11 year old “it’s eating healthily, 5 a day, not eating too much chocolate or fatty foods and making sure you eat at least one portion of fruit of veg with each meal”.

Vegetable KormaHmmm, obviously the 11 year old goes to a school where they’re trying hard to win the Healthy Schools Award, so what is nutrition? It actually means ‘the provision of material (food) to maintain life’. Therefore what we put into our mouths is digested and processed by our bodies to keep us alive and functioning. We are what we eat; it’s true.

Now there are a huge range of foods that we can eat, some of them are good for us and help our cells repair, help us grow, keep us healthy, keep our joints moving, as my Grandad used to say ‘eat your greens and you’ll grow up big and strong’.

How do we get this right, how do we help our children get this right when it is so easy to live off frozen food, fried food and food that comes straight off the supermarket shelves and into the microwave without even seeing a cooking utensil or a knife apart from using it to cut those little holes in the top of the plastic so it doesn’t explode during reheating?

I go into lots of schools to teach children how to cook and it’s scary when I ask ‘who’s parents cook from scratch’? Lots of hands go up only to find that the children’s definition of home cooked food is oven chips, as Mum ‘cooks’ them in the oven. Some children had no idea that chips are made from potatoes, even scarier are the children that know that chips are made from potatoes but look horrified to see a potato covered in mud and are surprised to discover that potatoes grow in the ground, in mud.

Schools can only do so much to drill in the ‘five a day’ message and they need the back up at home of parents to help carry this through effectively. Getting back to basics and making sure that as a family you sit down and eat together at least once at the weekends is key. Making sure that as parents you set your children a good example with what you eat. There is no point insisting that your children eat 2 or 3 different vegetables with their main course if you refuse to eat them too.

Take the children with you to visit the market or supermarket, not when you’re doing a big weekly shop, but specifically to choose a fruit or vegetable each to try.  If you don’t know what something is, ask, there are lots of exotic fruit and veg around you’re not expected to identify everything.  You will gain more respect from your child if you go off to find someone who can help you together than guessing and getting it completely wrong. Once you’ve chosen your items you can research together how to cook it, in cookery books or on the internet, use it as a big family adventure.

BruschettaAbove all good nutrition is about eating sensibly and making sure you eat all of the necessary food groups; carbohydrates (potatoes, pasta, rice, bread – whole grains are better than refined, so switch from long grain rice to brown rice and from white bread to wholemeal bread, it will keep you fuller for longer too), protein (meat, fish, dairy, eggs, tofu, pulses and nuts), fruit and vegetables with sugary foods and fats (butter, oil, margarine) eaten in moderation.

We eat to live, eating is about fuelling our bodies so what we put into our mouths should be ideal food to make our bodies work in the best and most efficient way. Cakes, crisps and fizzy drinks will stop our bodies working efficiently so eat in moderation. When ready made food is so easily available it is hard to see food as fuel but that’s exactly what it is. Parents are working longer hours and losing the skill of cooking from scratch, the alternative is easier, but not as much fun or as tasty. Let’s get back to basics and discover just how much fun cooking can be, make it a family activity and allocate a timeslot each week to cook together.

If you're nervous of cooking then come on one of my Real Cooking for Real People classes, affordable, no frills classes to teach people to cook and inspire people to cook from scratch.  I cooked a curry for 7 on Saturday night, one of my daughter's friends joined us and looked amazed that I'd cooked everything from scratch including the naan, or rather they made the naan in return for food.  He asked why we didn't have ready meals and then admitted that the curry tasted way better than a ready meal and with us all joining in it was fun to eat, cook and share.

This could be a Sunday lunch ‘all hands on deck’ to wash and peel veg for a roast dinner or making a tray bake of flapjack for school lunchboxes (slow release carbohydrates in oats are excellent to keep children going).

If you are not very confident in the kitchen then send your children along to one of Splat Cooking’s Weekly Cooking Clubs or a Holiday workshop to learn how to prepare and cook delicious food using seasonal ingredients, they’ll learn a valuable life skill and become more confident in the kitchen so they can cook with you armed with the recipes they’ve already made. The clubs and workshops are about learning to cook real food, not just cakes and biscuits, but proper dishes. We find children are more engaged by washing, cutting and peeling than by mixing and they love identifying fruit and veg than mixing up cakes so they’ll make home made pasta or choux pastry with ease, they’ve never been told that these are ‘hard’ to make so they don’t have any preconceptions.

One 8 year old boy left cooking club recently after making gnocci and roast tomato sauce, as he was walking to the car his Mum asked what he’d made. He replied ‘gnocci’, ‘oh’, says Mum, ‘that sounds difficult, isn’t that Italian’ (throwing me a worried look over her shoulder), ‘Oh Mum, it’s dead easy, make some extra mashed potato with lunch tomorrow and I’ll show you how to make it’. It made my day, if you don’t know how to cook let your 8 year old help you, brilliant. I was so proud. He did. They now make gnocci together regularly and as he said ‘it’s easy’.