Children learn very quickly which foods are 'good' for you and which are 'bad', fresh fruit and vegetables are good, chips, crisps and sweets are bad. Find a home or cooking magazine and cut out a library of pictures of different foods. Look at which ones are healthy and which ones are less so. Explain to older children why each food is good or bad, and explain what goes into processed foods such as jam, fish fingers, chips or butter.
You may not have thought about it, but so many foods that we eat today are processed in the sense that they are factory-produced. This doesn't automatically make them bad for us although processed foods do have a propensity to have higher levels of salt, fat or sugar, even all three!
Older children can be taught about salt, sugar and fat levels in food. Explain how to read the nutritional breakdown found on nearly all products and have them start comparing different foods. Take a nutritional value, such as salt, and explain that high salt levels are less healthy than low salt levels. Pick out five products from your kitchen cupboard and have your little ones place them in order of salt content, from low to high. Reiterate which end is more healthy and which are less healthy. Do the same for fat and sugar levels too.
This exercise will quickly teach about food health in a basic way as well as an ability to understand quantities, and it's fun to play along the way!
When childminders give children snacks and meals, the Early Years Foundation Stage statutory framework requires that they be 'healthy, balanced and nutritious'. It's fairly easy to whip up a meal that fills the criteria because you can balance a meal with fresh vegetables and use fresh ingredients.
If you are providing processed foods such as sausages, ham, nuggets, fishfingers or burgers then check the ingredients and the nutritional breakdown of the foods you are buying. To buy the healthiest options, compare the fat, sugar and salt content. Processed foods are often far more laden with salt and sugar to create flavour than if you were to make the same fare at home. When comparing fat content of products, go for ones with the least saturated fat which is more harmful than unsaturated fat. Better still, try make your own products at home and then you are aware of their contents. You can easily make burgers, fishcakes and breaded chicken or turkey nuggets - slightly time consuming but not difficult.
Try to ration meat to two or three main meals a week, offer vegetarian options (eg. jacket potato and baked beans, mild vegetarian chilli, vegetable lasagne etc.) and fish (fishcakes, jacket potato and tuna, breaded fish etc.) on other occasions.
Processed snacks can also be much less healthy than you might imagine. Snacks are often packaged to make them appear to be healthy but when choosing snacks, again, make sure you compare the fat, sugar and salt content. It's very easy to give children a high salt diet without realising and some healthy looking snacks contain more saturated fat than a packet of crisps! Better still, make snacks yourself. Fruit and vegetables chopped into portions perhaps make the best snacks. Buy yourself a hot air popcorn maker and make fresh popcorn but without the salt or sugar.
Providing healthy, balanced and nutritious food isn't difficult but it can be deceptive if you are offering factory processed foods. Check the food labels and know what you are feeding your little ones.
All parents and childminders worry about what they feed to their children, and yet it can be surprisingly difficult to get a real idea of how healthy food products are. That's all set to change as the EU has agreed to enforce food labeling standards. There has been demand for the EU to enforce the 'traffic light' schemes helping consumers see at a glance how foods fare, but that isn't the route they are going. Instead the EU will require the breakdown of Calories, carbohydrates, sugars and fats.
Most foods already have these breakdowns, so what's new?
To date there hasn't been a standard in the way that labels are displayed. This has lead to various 'tricks' used by food manufacturers to hide certain facts about their food when they aren't entirely complimentary. For example:-
- Sugars are carbohydrates but many sugar-laden products only display a carbohydrate count, masking the sugar content.
- Many foods high in saturated fats (the more dangerous type of fat) don't display that, simply showing the amount of total fats. For some products, saturated fat can account for almost all of the fat content.
- Values are often broken down by 'portion', but a portion is often unrepresentative. For example, 500ml bottles of fizzy drinks are usually broken down and displayed as 2 portions, whereas many consumers will drink a whole bottle at once. Some 'portions' of soft drinks can contain 30% of the adult recommended daily amount of sugar, but by consuming the whole bottle, you are consuming 60% of your recommended sugar limit. The EU regulations will ensure values are presented in a uniform way making it easier to compare foods directly.
- High salt levels are often masked as 'Sodium' values. For actual salt levels, multiply sodium by 2.5 and you're just about there!
The new rules will also cover ALL packaged foods so you will start to see labels on products that you haven't seen them on before, such as prepackaged fruit and meat.
The more information we are given as consumers, the more informed are our choices. Of course we can have the odd treat, or we can choose to ignore healthy foods altogether, but at least we can make that choice. When it comes to feeding our children, we often go that little bit further, buying more organic produce or foods with established provenance. The more we know about our food, the easier it is to feed our children the way we choose to!
The new EU regulations have been established this month and large food manufacturers have 3 years to comply, smaller food producers have 5 years to comply. We won't see a massive change overnight, more a gentle evolution of current practices over the next few years.
Having a child with a sweet tooth, is not necessarily a problem, if you handle it well; the secret is to handle sweets, chocolate and all things sugary not as a rare treat, a reward or something exciting, but instead treat it as something just like all the other food groups you offer your child.
- To start with, introduce your baby/toddler to unsweetened foods and postpone offering sweets until they are older. Offer sweet fruits and yoghurt for dessert rather than sugary things.
- Sweeten food with honey or fruit.
- If your child is old enough for sweets, and if a relative comes round to visit with a bag of sweets, allow them to have one or two and save the rest for later. Try not to allow them to eat them all.
- Keep a note of how much sugar your little ones has in a day. It should be no more than 1-2 teaspoons each day and this includes all sugar in foods.
- Read the labels on prepared food - even toddler food. There is often a great deal of sugar in pre-prepared meals.
- Talk about sugar and the harm it can do if eaten in excess. Talk about fruit, vegetables and other great tasting foods that are also so good for you!
- Allow your child to choose which fruit and vegetable to buy at the shop.
- Drink water before bed and never sugary drinks.
- Try not to use sweets as a bribe.
- Lead by example and avoid snacking on sweet things yourself...
How frequently do you see the words 'No Added Sugar' splashed across products in the supermarket, but perhaps more importantly, do you know what it means? Don't automatically think that products with 'no added sugar' are good for your children - this may be far from the truth!
'No Added Sugar' refers to the fact that no refined sugar has been put into the product. However, this does not mean that the product is necessarily healthy, or indeed that it is even low in sugar! Such products are able to state this even if they have high levels of naturally occuring sugar. Natural sugars include:-
- Lactose: found naturally in milk
- Sucrose: sugar that is usually refined into granulated sugar, occurs in sugar cane, sugar beet and other plants
- Glucose: natural sugar found in carbohydrates, including rice, grains, potatoes, fruit and vegetables
- Fructose: natural sugar found in fruit and vegetables
- Honey: made from nectar, mostly fructose and glucose sugars
- Maple Syrup: made from the sap of maple trees, mostly sucrose
Fruit has high concentrations of natural sugar so a fruit juice may not need to be sweetened, but it could still have a high sugar content.
'No Added Sugar' can also be applied to food products that have been sweetened with other artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharine or sucralose. Most 'No Added Sugar' fruit squashes contain artificial sweeteners, some of which are suspected of being linked to their own long term health issues.
Our modern diet contains much higher levels of all types of sugar than our ancestors ever consumed. Over consumption of different sugars has been linked to many different health problems including obesity, diabetes, heart, liver and kidney disease and tooth decay and plaque.
Be aware of the different sugars in foods and fruit juices, and don't automatically associate the label 'No Added Sugar' with being a healthier product. Babies and children should be given fruit juice in moderation, and generally diluted with water. The best drink of all for them is plain water becuase that has none of the sugar contained in squashes, fruit juice or milk.