How to…cook for children

f8ec11d51a4249ea2ebc17425b370862One of the best discoveries I made last year was Cooking Them Healthy, a brilliant blog set up by three mothers (sisters Georgie and Minnie Soskin, and nutritionist Jo Saunders) providing inspirational recipes, nutritional advice and ideas on how to encourage your children to eat healthily. One of the things I love most (apart from the recipes which are really delicious) is their A-Z of Health focusing on specific ailments and the foods that can help alleviate them (which is probably just as useful for adults). With delicious recipes and invaluable information, it is my new must-read site when it comes to cooking for my boys…

Georgie at work in the kitchen

Trained chef Georgie at work in the kitchen

What gave you the idea to start Cooking Them Healthy?

Georgie: Since training as a chef my life has been all about cooking (I teach regularly at Leith’s School of food and wine).  When one of Minnie’s daughters was diagnosed with Coeliacs disease, we combined our knowledge to create recipes that she could eat to build up her strength again. This was really when our interest in children’s nutrition began. We were amazed at the impact small changes to our children’s diet could have on their lives.  My son’s asthma and eczema cleared up and all our children seemed to have much more energy and vitality.

We adapted traditional children’s dishes in accordance with modern nutritional advice (less gluten and dairy, more grains, fresh fruit and vegetables) whilst at the same time keeping them achievable and most importantly delicious.  We had such positive feedback from friends that we decided to set up the blog.

Jo: With a young child myself, and regularly seeing children in my clinic, I am only too aware of the need to to improve children’s nutrition. Cooking Them Healthy focuses on recommending specific foods to boost and avoid for certain health conditions, providing mothers with the tools to help improve their children’s health. Our aim is to be realistic, knowing only too well the time constraints of motherhood, and to tweak the ‘classics’ and give them a nutritious makeover.

Jo, the nutritional expert behind Cooking Them Healthy

Jo, the nutritional expert behind Cooking Them Healthy

What tips can you give for encouraging your child to eat a healthy, balanced diet?

Georgie:  I think the best way is to take small steps.  You don’t have to get a whole new repertoire of recipes in order to start adopting a healthier diet.  Just think a bit more about what you are eating now and start by adapting a few things.  Here are a few simple steps:

  • Swap store cupboard staples from white to brown such as white rice, bread and pasta (change to wholegrain/wholemeal varieties).
  • If your child likes yoghurt, make a swap from shop-bought sweetened yoghurt for natural yoghurt honey with fruit compote and a drizzle of honey.
  • Swap sugary cereals for porridge (sweetened with fruit & honey) in the morning.

Once you’ve established a few simple changes you can start thinking about trying new ingredients and recipes, gradually introducing a broader range of nutrients into your child’s diet.  Aim to give them a good mix of protein (such as lean meat and fish as well as grains and pulses), unrefined complex carbohydrates (whole wheat pasta, brown rice and oats) and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetable in a rainbow of colours.

How would you recommend going about introducing new foods to your child?

Georgie: I find that involving your children in the whole process is a great way to increase their enthusiasm to try new things.

  • When shopping with them, ask them to choose the vegetables for that week – in doing so they are much more likely to eat them.
  • Try to get them involved in preparing food – for example, if you are making a smoothie ask them to choose the fruit they would like.
  • Try not to underestimate what your children will eat; I’m often surprised at what they like.  There is no reason why children cannot be introduced to herbs and spices and a wide range of textures and flavours.
  • When introducing new flavours, just a mouthful will help their tastes develop and diversify and quite often encouraging them to just try a small amount will lead them to eating more. If you make a big fuss children pick up on your anxiety it can make them react badly.
Minnie, who on discovering her daughter is a celiac, was inspired with sister Georgie to set up Cooking Them Healthy

Minnie, who on discovering her daughter is a coeliac, was inspired with sister Georgie to set up Cooking Them Healthy

What about snacks? Do you have any healthy, easy-to-make snacks you can recommend?

Sugar-free honey flapjacks

Sugar-free honey flapjacks

Georgie: Healthy baking really isn’t that different to normal baking- you just have to think a bit more about the ingredients you are using.  In general I cook with spelt flour rather than white flour as it is easier to digest and contains more nutritional properties.  Try and get the sweetness in your baking from fruit (fresh or dried) or natural sweeteners such as honey and maple rather than sugar.  Here are a few of my favourite recipes that the kids love:

Honey flapjacks– just as morish as normal flapjacks but without the sugar.

Rice crispy squares– with brown puffed rice, almonds and apricots which provide fibre,  a variety of vitamins and iron.

Healthy muffins – These have grated apple, which add a delicious moist sweetness, and a sprinkle of seeds and nut, which create a tasty crunch whilst also providing essential oils.

Try to make large batches, freeze on a flat tray and then store in zip lock bags- a couple of baking sessions can last for months. Rather than having biscuits and cakes in the house stock your cupboards with fruit, dried fruit, oat cakes and rice cakes. These are a great alternative to have when you need the kids to have a quick snack.

Rice crispy bars

Rice crispy squares

My child is just getting over a nasty cold, what do you recommend for building them up again?

Jo: Foods such as garlic, onion, ginger and chilli have natural antibacterial to help fight the battle against bugs. If you think that your child wouldn’t eat those foods, I definitely suggest you try them, you may be pleasantly surprised! Add them to soups and stews, which are easily digested so are gentle on a system that is recovering from illness. Increasing foods rich in immune boosting nutrients such as sweet potato or beetroot can help give their body a boost.

My child is a fussy eater, how can I encourage them to try new things?

Georgie: This is a hard question as children can be fussy eaters for such a variety of reasons (sensory processing issues, fear of change, asserting independence..).  I would start by looking at what your child enjoys eating.  Think about the colours, textures, tastes and try and find similar foods. So if your child likes fish fingers, make some fishcakes – if they go down well then next time, add some spinach. Again simple, small steps are the way forward.  So if your child likes spaghetti bolognaise, swap the pasta for whole wheat version to boost the nutritional content.

It can be rather disheartening cooking a dish for a child only for them to flatly refuse to eat it.  It is really worth cooking a bit extra and freezing it so that you can try again in a couple of weeks – it may go down much better and also means you don’t feel like you have completely wasted your time! Also remember that children learn by example, so by sitting down to eat together as a family can be hugely helpful in developing a positive attitude towards food.

I’d really like to start cooking with my children, what dishes can you recommend that are easy to do and fun to make?

Honey and mustard marinated chicken drumsticks

Honey and mustard marinated chicken drumsticks

Georgie: Children love to cook and get so much reward from presenting a dish they have made.  Cooking is also brilliant for helping to develop their fine motor and maths skills.  For younger children, choose recipes that uses their hands and creativity

  • Smoked mackerel pate is great as it is simple with plenty of stirring
  • Pizzas are great for letting them get artistic
  • And they love getting messy preparing fish goujons.

For older children, try suggesting that they prepare a family meal once a week.  They will get so much pleasure from presenting food for the family and it presents the perfect opportunity to sit down together for a meal.  Start with simple recipes such as honey and mustard marinated chicken drumsticks.  Talk them through how to read a recipe and guide them when needed, but try to stand back and let them do it by themselves- no one minds if it isn’t perfect.

Sometimes my child doesn’t seem to want to eat much, should I be worried?

Jo: It can be very worrying for a parent when a child is not eating a lot. I find that it helps to focus on looking at their food intake in the context of a week, rather than scrutinizing each day. Children tend to make up for their hunger later, and if they eat less at a meal they usually make it up at the next. Use their weekly intake as a guide to the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) and the vitamins and minerals from vegetables and fruit. Children are likely to experience phases of varying hunger levels depending on stages of growth, arrival of new teeth, activity levels etc. However if you notice your child losing weight, failing to thrive or appears listless and unwell, it is definitely advisable to seek advice from your GP.

What foods should I definitely be trying to include in my children’s diets?

It's important to include lots of fruit and veg in your child's diet. These courgette and parmesan chips are fantastic.

It’s important to include lots of fruit and veg in your child’s diet. These courgette and parmesan chips are delicious.

Jo: Protein is very important for rapidly growing bodies, providing the building blocks for growth, repair and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in our brains) which are important for mood & brain health.

Children’s diets tend to be very high in carbohydrates, so try to ensure you are introducing protein at every meal. This will help temper blood sugar levels, and help to keep them fuller for longer, reducing the temptation for unhealthy crisps & sweets.

A rainbow of fruit and vegetables contains valuable vitamins and minerals, essential for whole body health. We all know that some children can be fussy about eating vegetables. There are clever ways on incorporating them into sauces etc which is helpful.

And, what foods should I avoid?

Jo: Refined sugar can have a strongly negative impact on the health of young children, affecting both their immune system as well as their mood and brain function. Opt for foods that are naturally sweet, such as sweet potato. If using sweeteners, opt for natural alternatives such as honey and maple syrup, both of which taste unique so you can lose less. Also aim to reduce your children’s need & desire for sugar by gradually reducing the amount in their diet – their tastes will soon adapt.

Every child is unique, and some foods such as dairy or wheat may cause symptoms such as eczema, mood imbalances, digestive problems. If this is the case, these foods are best avoided. Intolerances and allergies is an area we have covered in plenty of detail, making plenty of suggestions for alternatives and other ways to incorporate key nutrients such as calcium etc.

Good health is all about balance, and of course birthday cakes etc occasionally are absolutely fine, just try to build a diet around plenty of the health boosting foods we recommend to support their immunity, energy and mood.

IMAGES: Cooking Them Healthy

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  • Reply
    January 14, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    This is so, so useful, I’m definitely off to check out their site! I find the major challenge though is baby play groups – there’s always a snack time and they always hand out biscuits. So far I’ve been able to slip an oatcake into my daughter’s hand before she notices the difference, but I hate the assumption that all kids will just consume sugar. We need more women like this fabulous threesome to change attitudes! Thanks Alex and Natasha for this post! X

  • Reply
    January 14, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    Thanks Grace! Do check it out, it really is fab and really inspiring! We’re big fans. My boys have seriously sweet teeth – although thankfully they do love things sweetened with honey. phew! alex x

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