I love working with babies and children. There is nothing more satisfying that watching little ones devour their food with that intense hunger that comes with new life. I feel excited when my little clients start to eat better, and as a mum I am fulfilled and relaxed when Lexi has a good appetite for what I cook her. It makes me smile when she eats; fists clenched around a piece of mackerel or a giant strawberry, and olive oil smeared all over her chops.
So, what kind of food should we be feeding our children? Well, allergies and intolerances aside, your children should eat what you eat. Now, obviously if you are eating a highly processed diet and three takeaways a week, then your children should not be eating what you eat – but then neither should you. But if you are cooking your meals from scratch and consuming a diet rich in all the essential nutrients then no matter which cuisine you prefer, be it Thai, Italian, Spanish or Moroccan, your children should be eating it too, from six months old. And yes, even chilli peppers, sea salt and anchovies are on the menu, from six months old. Of course, babies and children do have different nutritional needs at different ages, on both a macro and micro nutrient level, and you can work with a nutritional therapist or dietician to ensure you are a) aware of and b) fulfilling these needs. But otherwise, if your babe is healthy, then there’s nothing wrong with feeding them ‘adult’ food.
Starting young helps – and when I say ‘young’, I mean in the womb. Babies taste molecules from your bloodstream and will therefore begin to recognise flavours and develop preferences even before they are born, so it helps to pack your diet with as much variety as possible at this stage. If you are able to (and choose to) breastfeed then this can further develop their pallet since they taste your diet through their milk.
Once you start to wean, introduce pureed versions of your meals immediately and don’t hold back on flavour. Government guidelines on salt can all too easily scaremonger people into making their children separate, blander versions of dishes, or even worse, resorting to jarred food. Please don’t worry about salt. One or two pinches of sea salt in a large pot of home-made pasta sauce translates into a microscopic amount in the tablespoon that you are putting into their bowl. When browsing the shopping aisles try to resist the cute, heavily marketed snacks for babies and toddlers. I can’t even give you an example because I don’t buy them, but you’ll know the stuff I mean – convenient, grabbable packets masquerading as vegetable or fruit-based delights. Just give them vegetables or fruit. Little treats are important, so if you are out for coffee and cake at the weekend then share your caramel slice with the littles (or buy two!); being inclusive is sometimes more important than worrying about the nutritional content of food and embracing these pleasures is an important part of raising children without food issues.
If your children are past the infant stage, then it’s never too late to make changes. Slowly empty the freezer of ‘kids food’ (fish fingers, pizzas etc.), stop preparing them separate meals and try not to worry about their reaction. You might be surprised, I have worked with several teenagers and often find they embrace these changes towards a healthier lifestyle.
Preventative nutrition is amazingly enjoyable for me. I see many adults really struggle to manage their weight and health after years of poor lifestyle and a disrupted relationship with food, and I’m not going to lie, reversal is harder work than just starting off on the right foot in the first place. So, please, would you do at least one thing for me? The next time you are in a restaurant and the waiter asks if you’d like to see the ‘kids’ menu’, say ‘no thank you’.