Pretty much every parent will be keen to ensure their little ones eat a healthy, balanced diet. A recent campaign by the food company Heinz may give the impression that this task has suddenly got a whole lot easier. According to Heinz, we can now count many of its canned foods as fresh produce. Half a tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce, we are told, equates to a full serving of fruit or veg. And just half a can of tomato soup, apparently, gives us two whole servings. Quite how Heinz has managed to draw such comparisons is beyond me. Many nutritionally beneficial elements such as fibre and certain vitamins can be lost in the processing of canned foods. Plus, such cupboard staples are laced with quite generous quantities of salt and refined sugar; two things that it makes sense to minimise in the diet. Heinz may try to give some of their processed foods a healthy sheen, but my advice is; don’t buy it.
While I think we can be pretty relaxed about giving our children the occasional serving of food from a tin, I would be very wary about relying on such foods to meet a child’s nutritional needs. To get maximum nutritional value from fruit and veg, these are best eaten in as unadulterated and untainted a form as possible. The problem is, some children seem to have an almost pathological aversion to fresh produce, which is where some creative meal planning can come in handy.
As a general rule, playing to a child’s strengths is a good tactic. Even if a child likes only a limited number of fruits or vegetables these should be provided in quantity. For instance, if a child is keen on fruit but not vegetables, keeping a well-stocked fruit bowl may reap more dividends than force-feeding him with spinach and broccoli. Likewise, if a child likes some vegetables but not others, giving him those he likes and not making an issue of his pet hates is a good long term strategy. It’s worth bearing in mind that most children go through picky-eating phases, but these very rarely persist for too long. Besides, attempting to ply a child with unwanted foods can reinforce the problem and encourage the development of some serious mental barriers to specific foods.
One useful trick for getting a child to eat more fruit and veg is disguise. For instance, a child who won’t eat fresh fruit may nonetheless be very happy to drink blended fruit in the form of a smoothie. Zizzing up a banana and with some berries (e.g. strawberries, raspberries, blueberries) with a little water and ice makes a tasty and nutritious drink for children of practically all ages. An added dollop or two of yoghurt can often give added appeal too.
Blending can also be a useful tactic for getting more vegetables into a child too. For instance, pureeing some carrots for addition into a pasta sauce can add real nutritional value to a meal without registering a blip on a child’s food radar. Some children are keener on raw vegetables, particularly when supplied with a favourite dip. Many kids find raw carrots, celery or cucumber dipped into hummus or guacamole a surprisingly attractive proposition.
Parents often find that the more they involve their child in food preparation the more likely they are to eat that food. Even small children can be encouraged to wash fruit and vegetables, or add them to a pot or blender. And one final thing; studies show that parents who eat plenty of fruit and veg are more likely to have children who do the same, and generally require little in the way of coercion to do so. As far as healthy eating goes, as with most things in life, it helps to lead by example.