Friday, April 20, 2012

Getting Children to Eat Healthily

It's the start of a new term at the school and we have been cooking up a storm.

Cooking for children is a different affair from cooking for adults. Firstly, you have to ensure there's good nutritional content. Secondly, you have to make it interesting. Thirdly, you have to be mindful of the seasoning.

Living in KL, it seems like many people are used to heavy flavouring. We baked banana bread the other day with (almost no) little sugar and less butter. A parent was around and we offered her a slice and her immediate response was, 'where's the sugar?' While it may take awhile for adults to get used to enjoy food in its original flavours, children (especially the younger ones) are like blank canvas. Given the right exposure, children can enjoy healthy nutritious food.

We had a 3 yr old child who is a very fussy eater and prefers to drink soup and milk. That is if he is not eating lots of snacks. He is my biggest challenge - our in-house chef and I are always trying out new recipes and tricks to entice him to eat. After three weeks with us, we have weaned him off junk food (in school), introduced him to several new food and he had put on one kilogram since he joined us. I don't know who is happier - his mom or me. :)

Here's some tips we find work very well in feeding our children.

1. Nutrition dense meals
A child's stomach is small (assuming no overfeeding and wrongly conditioning a child to over-eat), so a child's serving is way smaller than an adult's serving. We try to make every bite goes a long way.

We use antibiotics free chicken, kampong eggs and if available, free range or organic produce. The cells of a child are growing rapidly, and the harmful effects of chemicals in our food can have a bigger impact on them.

Some popular (and successful) meals with our kids are:
- soup with mixed lentils, broad bean, chickpeas, ABF chicken and brown rice
- ABF chicken pomodoro with Japanese sweet potato served with pasta, purple cabbage and peas
- Avocado and mango smoothie made with Greek yoghurt (less sugar, twice the protein and thrice probiotic cultures to normal yoghurt), whole fat milk and dash of golden flaxseed

2. Soupy / wetter meals
Perhaps it is easier for the child to swallow a soupy meal or chew softer food. We find that our children enjoy their wetter meals to dryer ones. Be mindful that they might not have a full set of teeth yet, or children being children might be too impatient to chew properly. So prepare the food from a child's perspective.

Adding a little more water to the rice, or cooking the pasta longer than the ideal al dente make the food a little more palatable for the children.

3. Variety - mix it up!
The breakfast, snacks and meals are different each day so even the small eaters get a good range of nutrition throughout the day (and week). The attention span of a child is short, make sure you keep them interested by introducing variety.

For instance, breakfast could be weetabix and snack is mixed berries smoothie one day. The next day, it would be oat porridge with homemade date sauce and wholemeal cheese and tomato sandwich.

4. Make it fun
We always start off with a 'choo choo train' trip to wash the hands, and a 'choo choo train' trip to the dining area. The teachers and children will eat together which is great because i) the children get to observe the teachers, ii) kids eating well have a positive externality on the fussier ones.

We encourage the children to feed themselves and assist only if necessary. If they drop food, that's fine. They are creating memories, acquiring life skills, not creating a mess. We can always clean up later. Uninterrupted eating (without someone always cleaning up after them, chiding them if they drop something, wiping their mouths constantly) allow the children to enjoy their meals.

5. Make it child friendly
Make sure all cutlery and crockery are child size, BPA free, fun looking and user friendly from a child's perspective. I found this lovely saucer with the right depth and a knobby handle. So a child can hold the knob to secure the bowl or for manoeuvring if needed.

6. Timing is everything
Physical health and good nutrition are two important features of the school. We feed the children every three hours or so that they don't go too long without food, maintain an optimised sugar level and it makes a big difference to enhancing their mood.

When the child starves for too long, he might be too hungry to eat properly. So we pre-empt with regular good portion of meals and snacks throughout the day.

With fussy eaters who prefer their milk, we offer solids first. A teacher will guide the child in feeding, encourage his progress and in some cases, we help with the feeding. The preference is for the child to gain independence and competence in self-feeding, but it's also important to get good nutrition into the child.

7. Keeping trying, but do not force feed
For fussy eaters who reject food, we keep trying and encouraging. Don't give up. Every mouthful is a small victory. If the child shows unwillingness to eat and spits out the food, we would not force food. Instead, we would monitor the child, offer alternative (say milk) or bring forward the next meal when the child is ready again.


Healthy eating can reap lifelong benefits. A good diet makes a big long run difference to a child's physical and mental development and boosts his immune system. In the short run, feeding our child wholesome meals increases his learning ability and lifts his general mood.

Designing meals and cooking for children can get challenging, but the results of good diet can be immediate and are very rewarding.

Some good resources I use often are:

Hope you get some recipe inspiration and have fun cooking for your family this weekend. If you have any tips or great recipe, do share with me too.

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