Feeding a baby is a wonderful experience. From the deep bond of breastfeeding to the enjoyment of seeing your toddler savour every forkful they carefully guide from plate to mouth, it’s the core of parenthood itself. We all want to give our children happy mealtime memories, but like so many aspects of parenting, nowadays nutrition has become a complex problem. Considering the potentially grave consequences of obesity and malnutrition during childhood, we, parents, have a great responsibility to invest in getting it right. How do we learn what good nutrition is and whether we are providing our babies with a balanced diet?
Eating habits develop very early. Most children acquire them from their parents and older siblings. They learn what to like and dislike by observing others. This is how it has been done traditionally, in Britain or any other country in the world – we saw our parents feed us the foods they ate, and we naturally want to do the same with our children. The advice we’ve been receiving from healthcare professionals and child-rearing books further supported our wish to keep the tradition. Almost unanimously they have told us, ‘By the time your baby reaches his or her first birthday you can put them on to family dinners.’
Here is where I see the problem is. This recommendation was perhaps right in the 1950s or 1960s, when most foods cooked at home were prepared with raw ingredients, as convenience food was only beginning to establish its markets. Right now, Britain is the nation with the highest percentage of obese people in Europe. According to the Department of Health, nearly one in four adults and almost a fifth of two to five year olds are obese. So if the adults’ unhealthy diets got us into the situation where we are, is it responsible to still advocate that our babies and toddlers should eat the same meals as we do?
In a poll of 1,000 mothers of nine to 36 month old children carried out by the Little People’s Plates last year, it was found that 29 per cent of the toddlers were eating take-aways at least once a week; 65 per cent of the mothers never cooked fresh meals from scratch for their children; 19 per cent of them served ready-made meals or take-aways to their toddler for most of their meals. Meanwhile, 83 per cent of the mothers interviewed believed they provided healthy and balanced diets for their children.
A lot has to be said for convenience foods, they are often the saviours for our tightly-packed daily routines. We just have to get better at understanding that the stuff that goes into convenience foods, their high salt, sugar and trans fat content, can be detrimental on childrens’ health in the long term, increasing the risk of heart diseases and diabetes.
So where do we start the learning process of cooking healthy childrens’ meals? First, we’ve got to scrutinise our baby and toddler feeding trends, keep the good and get rid of the bad. Perhaps we should also have a little glimpse into baby nutrition practices in other European countries to broaden our dietary outlook.
Building a foundation for children’s healthy diets starts right from the time of weaning. If traditionally in Britain, the first foods we gave to babies were cereals or baby rice mixed with breast or formula milk, nowadays there are many child experts agreeing that rice cereal might not be the perfect choice for the first weaning food. It is high in carbohydrates, but low in protein and vitamins. The newer thinking coming from the American Academy of Pediatrics is that the emphasis for weaning foods should be on naturally nutrient-rich foods. These include protein and fibre, in other words, meat, fish, vegetables and fruit. Additionally, baby foods should not include salt or sugar and limit or avoid saturated fats.
It might sound like it, but this advice isn’t just another whimsical change in expert opinion. It is exactly the approach to weaning that Italians and the French follow. The first weaning foods for babies in Italy and France are steamed and puréed green beans, spinach, carrots, broccoli, peeled courgettes and the white part of leeks. Many British parents start their babies on vegetables too; but often once the first stages of weaning are over, we tend to regard vegetables as vitamin-delivery tools that we ought to include in our childrens’ menu. Our recipe books teach parents how to sneak vegetables into fish cakes, meat balls, pasta bakes without children ever noticing. By doing this we do not let our children discover the rich world of flavours that vegetables present. If we fail to introduce a broad range of fruit and veg to them when they are babies, they will not develop the palate for eating and liking them later. So when they grow into fussy eaters at the age of three and four, they are more likely to grimace at the sight of raw carrot sticks, celery stalks and avocado pieces than their European friends who have been accustomed to eating those foods from an early age.
Browsing our baby cookbooks, a particular trend different from other countries emerges. It is the abundant use of ketchup, soy sauce and mayonnaise in recipes. It is rather puzzling why from very early on we teach our children that simply steamed or boiled vegetables, or grilled meat and fish taste bland. No doubt, condiments make a lot of dishes taste better, and for example, herbs should be used instead of salt in a child’s stew. But ketchup and soy sauce, depending on the brand, include high salt and sugar content, and in the case of mayonnaise – vinegar and trans fats that should be limited to protect the baby’s sensitive stomach.
While preparing children’s meals it is also important to think about cooking methods. Perusing Italian parenting resources it is noticeable that most recipes involve steaming and grilling. Italian parents are continuously reminded that boiling or steaming should be used in cooking for babies until the age of eight to nine months, as these are the best ways of preserving vitamins and minerals in the foods. At a later age, grilling and baking can be added.
Starting the baby on nutritious foods has never been so critical. Recent studies on child nutrition identify that the period between six months and two years of age is probably the most vital developmental stage. During this age, the types of food parents choose for their children can programme what they eat for the rest of their childhood and perhaps longer. Research published in “Clinical Pediatrics” suggests that the “tipping point” of child obesity could be as early as 22 months.
Changing our attitudes to eating better and feeding our children healthy foods can be a long and frustrating experience. In reassurance, we need to remind ourselves that good role modelling and our parental style are crucial for reinforcing good eating habits in our children.
Right now we can start making several essential changes to ensure our baby thrives and that we instill a fondness for healthy and nutritious foods in her from the very beginning.
Start cooking your child’s meals with raw ingredients. Switch to steaming and grilling instead of frying and roasting. Include fresh vegetables in each meal. Ask your health visitor, community dietician and your baby’s nursery manager for resources on child nutrition, including the balance of nutrients, the five food groups and healthy meal suggestions. And remember: your children will become whatever you have put into them, so take special care when feeding them.
Baby and toddler nutrition information for parents:
Little People’s Plates
The Little People’s Plates has a treasure of information on feeding babies and toddlers. Information includes the five food groups, daily nutrients’ requirements, portion sizes, advice on feeding fussy eaters, menu suggestions.
Eat Better Start Better
(The School Food Trust)
The food trust has the national voluntary nutritional guidelines for under fives in childcare. There is also practical nutritional advice for parents of pre-school and primary school children.