Kids’ Guide to Eating Right

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Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to another episode of Wellness Curated. As you know, the aim of this podcast is to help you lead a healthier, happier, more hopeful life. And we do so by bringing you tips, tools, techniques, approaches from literally all over the world. And today’s episode is something that’s very, very close to my heart and I know to the heart of a lot of mothers. It’s nutrition for children. And today we have Sophie Bertrand, who’s a registered nutritionist, co-author of Forking Wellness and also a parent. And we have registered nutritional therapist Monisha Mahtani, who is also a parent and has won a whole load of awards. Welcome to the show, ladies, and thank you for making the time to be here with us today.

So Sophie, I’ll start with you. Tell me, what are the most important nutrients that children need for optimal growth and development?

Sophie Bertrand: I mean, like us, they need a balance of carbs, protein and essential fats. But some more specific nutrients to be mindful of include calcium, iron, vitamins A, C and D, which should be supplemented from six months old. Also Omega-3 is a really important nutrient for optimal brain development. And if you are raising your child vegan or plant based, you might want to look at B-12 as well. So it is dependent on the child. But like I said, calcium is really important, iron is really important, and you want to make sure you’re offering your child as many diverse ingredients as possible, because that way you can ensure a variety of nutrients.

AB: Thank you. And Monisha, what common nutritional deficiencies do you see in children and how can they be addressed?

Monisha Mahtani: The first one that comes to mind is vitamin D— it’s known as a sunshine vitamin because natural sunshine and daylight encourages its production. I think those with darker skin tones find its heart and metabolize the nutrients in their body. So that’s when you would get it from the diet. It’s very important in children, especially growing teens because it’s needed for healthy bones and teeth. Calcium absorption supports your immune, brain, nervous systems, and cardiovascular function, it helps to regulate blood sugar levels and I think symptoms can sometimes present as immunity with frequent illnesses and slow wound healing. It can help mood fluctuations, back bone and muscle aches and pain. And I think sometimes children feel tired and fatigued and that tiredness just isn’t going away. So in terms of how they can be addressed, I think if children spend enough time with the sunshine, that’s definitely one way of addressing it— spending time in those peak sunshine hours. Also from the diet, you can have oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, herring, and tuna; you can eat red meat, egg yolks, and dairy products. I think for vegan children, or for children that like more sort of plant based foods, then you would perhaps fortify them with supplements, as Sophie mentioned, or perhaps even fortified food such as orange juice, plant based milk, such as soya milk, almond milk, oat milk. Those are some ways to address that.

AB: Thank you. And Sophie, just following up from that, what common nutrition related concerns do you see in children and how can they be prevented or treated through diet?

SB: I mean, unfortunately, there are many statistics at the moment showing that children are consuming too much sugar and salt. So a diet that’s actually quite high in processed foods. It always baffles me that the kid’s yogurt, for instance, in supermarkets, is actually a lot higher in sugar than the adult yogurt. So reading the labels, making sure that the diet that you’re providing to your child isn’t high in added sugars, added salts, is a huge problem. And it is something that will affect the child in later life, whether that be in the next few years or right into their adulthood. It increases chances of things like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and other health related issues. But like I said, try to opt for more of a healthy diet. A lot of the readily available child’s foods, like pouches and snacks on the shelves, they’re fine in moderation, but ideally you want to be cooking foods at home, things like beans, lentils, pulses, quinoa, fresh vegetables and fruits, or frozen fruits and vegetables. There are cost effective ways that you can feed your child, in a really healthy way. You just need to be a bit savvier. And I think it is important to note that the caregiver or the parent, they’re the supply chain. These children don’t have a choice in regards to what they’re eating. So it is up to the person looking after them to try and educate themselves and take a little bit of responsibility. Because, like I said, we’re actually seeing a very large proportion of children in the UK and the US who are consuming more of a processed diet than a healthy diet.

AB: Yes, and processed diets sort of can be very tasty to the child because they’ve got hidden sugars and the like.

SB: Yes, they are very palatable.

AB: Exactly. And then if they’re given, say, chicken nuggets, frozen chicken nuggets at school that are made in an oven they come home and that’s what they want. So Monisha, I want to ask you regarding this. How do parents encourage healthy eating habits in children? And I know you’ve got some nutritional bands to help, so can you talk us through both of those?

MM: I think it’s really important to create awareness around healthy eating and food groups and what each of those food groups are needed for, specifically by not eliminating any food groups and focusing on the benefits of long-term health and nourishing the body. And I think that should be the focus— developing the taste of food without additional sources of condiments and flavours. So as they grow older, getting them involved in shopping, cooking, any kind of preparation with a positive emphasis on enjoying meals. Children sometimes like to feel in charge, especially teenagers. So I think it’s really important to encourage them to do the research around the foods that they like as well. You asked me the question about the nutrition bands. So they are basically different coloured bands which represent different ways of eating. We have blue bands for pescatarians, green bands for vegans and yellow bands for vegetarians. And it’s really important to open up the conversation around foods and what other children are eating, because sometimes children don’t even know why they eat the way they do. It could be cultural, it could be that it’s just something that the family has developed, or it could be that they have allergies— and that’s really crucial for safety and to alert other children. Teachers, dinner ladies, people in the school, and sometimes you have lots of supply (substitute) teachers— it’s really essential to alert everybody that the child has an allergy, because allergies can be quite life threatening. So it’s important to open up the conversation. If other children have any questions, then it’s easier to answer those questions and it’s just basically to normalise eating habits.

AB: Okay. I love the concept of education, because the bands— they’re used for alerting, but also for educating the other children, which I love because I think through education is how we will change. And I know that Jamie Oliver did a lot of work with schools on trying to educate and encourage healthy eating, which was pretty incredible. But Sophie, I’m going to ask you a very practical question, which a lot of parents ask. So the child has just come home from school. They’re famished. It’s very easy for them to just reach out and grab a cookie. Can you suggest some healthy snacking options?

SB: Definitely. Like I said before, you are the supply chain, so try and limit the amount of less nutritious snacks that you have available in the house and give your kids options. Let them know that carrot sticks are a really healthy snack when they come in. And cucumbers and cheese are a really nutritious snack as well. You get your calcium, it’s a good source of protein. It’s a very satisfying snack as well. When kids are filling up on this kind of crispy puffs or empty calorie snacks, they’re still going to be hungry. You want to be giving them foods that are actually satisfying them. So things like Greek yogurt, like I mentioned, don’t go with the children’s yogurts because they’re often flavoured and filled with sugar and additives. Just plain Greek yogurt with some berries is a really good snack. Some flaxseed that’s so nutritious, nut butters, different fruits like satsumas or bananas, all these kinds of fresh whole foods that are very easy and don’t require too much preparation. And if you do want to go a step further, you can make your own healthy snacks like oat based bars or bliss balls. I’ve got a lot of recipes on my own website. And if you can have five go-to snacks like crudités, Greek yogurt, nut butters, fruit, whatever it might be, then give those kids an option. Say, what would you like as a snack? I’ve got carrot sticks, I’ve got apples, or I’ve got some Greek yogurt. Which one would you like? And then that still gives them that feeling of having power and choice in what they’re eating. But like I said, you are in charge, you’re the supply chain. So there has to be some responsibility both ways.

AB: Okay, thank you. And Monisha, there’s a lot of vegan or vegetarian families, right? So how do they put protein into their children’s diet?

MM: Protein is really important, and it’s part of every cell in the body. It helps to build and repair muscles, skin, tissue, nails and hair. So it’s really important for growing teens, growing children and teens to get that into their diet. If you’re looking at food sources to explain about protein, you have nine essential amino acids that the body can’t make and needs to get them from the diet. These are the building blocks of protein. The best sources are usually animal products. But if you’re vegetarian, you can possibly have eggs, dairy products, such as yogurt, butter, and cheese. If you are plant based, then you can have tofu, tempeh, and soy products, which are complete proteins. They contain those nine essential amino acids. And for vegans, they can do something called protein combining. So you combine whole grains with beans, lentils and nuts to really get those nine essential amino acids and the other sort of amino acids to get better quality protein. You also have something called nutritional yeast, I love it, which is a really nutty, cheesy ingredient. You can sprinkle it on pastas and pizzas, so the kids love it. And that’s a complete protein as well. Protein helps you feel full and longer. It’s really important to have it at every meal. And if you’re thinking about other nutrients that vegans might lack, it would be perhaps calcium, vitamin A, iron, vitamin B12, omega-3, zinc, iodine— which is really important for growth and maintaining healthy metabolism and thyroid function, choline— which is really important for brain health. So it’s really important to focus on those nutrients, preferably from the diet, and then if they need to be supplemented, then they can be supplemented as well.

AB: Thank you. And Sophie, let’s get into allergies since we’re going into allergy season now. Adults very often develop a coping mechanism because some allergies wear off as you grow older and sometimes you just figure out what works and what doesn’t work for you, but for children to give them a good start in life. Would you recommend certain preventative food groups? Like, would you say, give them a dairy free diet or a gluten free diet or leave certain things out to prevent the allergy from coming on? And secondly, if a child does have allergies, how does one not make it awkward for them at school lunches or birthday parties?

SB: I don’t think you should cut out food groups as a preventative measure. When you are, you should be including allergens in very, very small amounts. You can find guidelines on how to do that because if you don’t include specific things in a child’s diet and they do go to a birthday party and they have something that they haven’t had before, they might have a reaction to that. So dairy is a very nutritious food group. However, if you’re choosing not to include dairy in your child’s diet for other reasons, whether that be ethical or animal welfare or sustainability, that’s a completely different conversation. But parents definitely shouldn’t fear things like nuts, dairy and gluten because they’re common allergies, because actually they are common, but a lot of people don’t have an allergy to them. And like I said, you are gaining something nutritious from those food groups, so they shouldn’t be cut out as a preventative measure. If you have weaned and you have found that you do have a child who has a very severe gluten intolerance or a dairy allergy, then you will need specific advice on how to deal with that from a health professional. Secondly, if you do have a child who has very severe allergies, let’s say dairy, and you go to a birthday party and it’s very likely there’s going to be cake there that’s been made with dairy, what you could do, depending on the child’s age and how understanding they are— if they’re maybe two or three years old, they might not understand that they can’t have that cake for specific reasons in regards to their allergy, so you could always bring your own cupcake along so the child can have some cake with the other kids and not feel left out, but also making everyone aware. I think I would certainly… My son’s almost about to turn two, and if someone said to me in regards to his birthday party, ‘actually, my child’s very allergic to dairy’, I personally would have a cake that was vegan just so everyone could eat it. Because I think with so many diets that are out there at the moment, parents are choosing to raise their children plant based more and more, I think it’s not that out there that we can provide cakes or whatever. It might be foods and recipes that don’t include so many ingredients that people might be allergic to. When it comes to kids, I think adults particularly are very, very understanding, particularly when they’re parents themselves. So, just like I said— raise awareness, make your child aware, make other adults aware, and don’t make it a taboo topic.

AB: Monisha, what are some healthy sources of carbs (carbohydrates) that we can give children? Because it almost seems like in the adult world, in the grown-up world, carbohydrate seems to be becoming a bad word, which it shouldn’t be.

MM: Yes, unfortunately, there’s this really big misconception around carbohydrates and people have started to completely cut them out of their diet, which is unfortunate because carbohydrates actually are the primary source of fuel to supply energy for growth and muscles, body functions, the brain. So definitely for children and growing teens, it shouldn’t be cut out from the diet at all. Actually, we should really be focusing on complex carbohydrates, which are very nutritious for us. So that can include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans. When I talk about whole grains, it’s like brown rice, red rice, buckwheat, quinoa, which is also very high in protein, and fruits and vegetables as well. So crudités with dips, hummus, Greek yogurt… You can blend vegetables in a processor and turn them into burgers, have them with a whole grain bun. So you can always find substitutes, even with fruit smoothies. If children like them, that’s great. If they don’t, you can turn them into ice lollies, and fruits and vegetables can be put into baked bread muffins. So there are ways to get them into your diet. It’s all about how it’s presented, really, and the lifestyle that parents want to encourage…

AB: That’s true, and that’s the case even for adults. Right. It’s how it’s presented. So the children are no different. If it looks attractive, they eat it.

MM: Absolutely…

AB: I hope they eat it.

MM: And I think the idea is really to have that sort of balance at home. I have two teenage boys and I have this 80-20 rule, which is very common when parents are trying to get their children to eat healthier. It’s that— 80% of the time you follow healthy eating, and 20% of the time then you can go out. And as long as they’re educated about different foods and food groups, I think that when they go out, after that, they start making healthier choices on their own. So it’s really important for them to be aware as well about education.

AB: And Sophie, let’s get into something that we’ve just touched on a little bit, which is milk and the whole world of dairy and how much controversy there is around it. Now, I grew up in India, so when I was growing up, dairy was an essential part. My mother would chase me with that glass of milk, and I hated milk, so I would run away, and every day there would be this drama happening. But tell me, how important is dairy to get calcium? Are there alternative sources? And if it’s okay to have dairy in general, which you said it was, unless you have an allergy or you choose not to give your child dairy, what are the healthy dairy options?

SB: I think there’s so much emphasis put on dairy because it is the primary source of what we think of, when we think of calcium. And like I said at the beginning, calcium is very, very important— it’s an essential nutrient to your child’s diet. But they’re growing a lot, they’re developing a lot. Calcium is going to help provide support for their bones and their teeth. So calcium is a very important nutrient for children. And like I said, dairy is a good source of calcium. So the sources that you want to be looking at are milk. In terms of the milk out there, research suggests that it is the most nutritionally complete. However, full disclosure, I don’t give my son dairy milk.

I don’t drink dairy milk. We have fortified oat milk. So I think it’s important to say that if you are going for different types of milk, which is again very common these days, you do need to make sure it’s fortified, particularly with iodine, which a lot of milks are not. Brands like Alpro— they are fortified, but not all of them are fortified with iodine. So either you’ve then got I don’t like naming brands, but we all know these different plant milks, the oat milk, that does have iodine in it. So just do a little bit of research. But things like cheese and yogurt, again, are very nutritious additions to the diet. As well as calcium, they’re a good source of protein and other nutrients in terms of plant-based options. Again, you can go for fortified products, plant yogurts and plant milks that are fortified. Calcium-set tofu, you can check on the back whether or not they’ve been calcium-set. And a lot are in most supermarkets. Pulses, dried fruits, greens— again, all a good source of calcium. And as long as you’re having some sort of calcium at each meal, then that will be enough for the child. But again, if you’re worried and you’re raising a child on a strict vegan diet, please do seek help. Because if you are raising your child on a restricted diet for whatever reason, whether that be because of allergies or your own personal beliefs, it’s really important again, that you have the knowledge around that to make sure that you and your family are getting as much nutrition from your diet as possible.

AB: Okay. And Monisha, what healthy fats should parents include in their children’s diet? I eat avocado every morning, and I give it to my kids every day. But I mean, give us some options.

MM: So, again, a lot of misconception around fats and whether they’re actually fattening for you. Growing children, they like to avoid fats, perhaps peer pressure, whatever it is, but I think it’s really important to have enough fat in your diet. Your brain is made up of 60% fat, so it is very important for growing children. And I think it’s important to focus on omega-3 fatty acids. So for children, you can actually cook with clarified butter (ghee), olive oil, sesame oil, fish oil, oily fish such as mackle, herring, tuna, sardine, eggs as well. You have avocados, like you said, which you love. You also have full fat Greek yogurt, which is high in protein too. You have sea plants such as seaweed, nori, spirulina. Some of these come in powdered forms, and I think a lot of children love sushi, so it’s really good to experiment at home with recipes as well.

AB: Sophie, so I want to ask you, I’ve come across a lot of children who’ve been very picky eaters, so how can their parents encourage them to get a balanced diet? Sometimes you find a child would only eat one particular thing or two particular things for every single meal.

SB: Yeah, it’s so common. First of all, really common, particularly with toddlers, a lot of parents complain of fussy eating, and they go to the trouble of creating these meals, and then the child doesn’t eat which then becomes a bit of a cycle because the parent thinks, well, if they’re not going to eat it, I’m not going to cook it. And then you end up having, like, five foods that your child just wants to eat. And I can say this from experience as well, that you have to be persistent and you have to keep offering variety. And like Monisha was saying before, expose them to food, include them in the food shop, get them in the kitchen, make them aware that food is this exciting thing, and it comes in all different flavours and textures and forms. And for every ten times I offer my son broccoli, he’ll probably eat it once, but at least he’s eaten it that one time, and he’s more likely to eat it going into adulthood because we’re all naturally born with a sweet palate. So we want to make sure that we’re getting those savoury flavours in as well. And going into adulthood, we’ve got that palatable preference for savoury foods as well. I actually have an ebook called Healthy Mama, Healthy Baby, and that has a whole section on fussy eaters. But for some tips right now, it’s really important not to put pressure on the child, which, again, it seems to be the first thing we say is, well, come on, try it. Try it. The more you do that, the more they’re going to feel like you’re pressuring them and they don’t have a say [in what they’re eating], so they will not eat it. Just say you could try things— if you try it and you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it. I quite often say to my son, you don’t have to eat it if you don’t want it. And then he feels that the pressure is gone.

Eat with your children. This is just game changing. If you consistently eat with them at meal times and they see you eating the same thing, they’ll learn to use a knife and fork, they’ll learn to eat their vegetables, they’ll learn to try new food. This is probably one of the biggest things that I see success with and make food an enjoyable experience for them. Don’t necessarily talk about what they’re eating and why they have to eat it. Talk about your day and the good things that happened. And that brings a lot of joy to the whole eating experience. So just keep it really positive. And like I said, don’t put too much pressure on them and just be persistent because they will start to gradually increase their preference for more food…

AB: And Monisha. You know how there’s all these articles written, exactly what Sophie said, that there is a lot happening at the moment where people are trying to almost trick their children into eating food. What is your view on that? Because there’s all this written about hiding it here and hiding it there. Is that the best route to take? Is there another route?

MM: So I’m not really sure about the word tricking because I think that children need to be educated and encouraged because as they get older and wiser, tricking methods just don’t work. You can’t trick children that know what’s going into their food, or teenagers. You can certainly make foods look more enticing when they’re younger with the presentation and cooking skills and you have all these tools. But I think because you’re trying to instil lifelong sort of healthy eating habits, it’s important to instil lifelong positive learning skills. So again, it goes back to education and educating them that food is nourishing for mental and physical health benefits. And as I mentioned before, getting them involved in that decision making process of cooking, if they’re interested, taking them to the supermarket, encouraging them to pick out fruits and vegetables that they would like to try. Most children just eat what their parents prepare. Sometimes they don’t even know that certain foods exist or fruits exist. So I think it’s really getting them exposed to that. The supermarket and research show that teenagers are more likely to consume sugary drinks if their parents do. So being a role model is really important. And like Sophie says, eating with your children can make a really big difference. Ask them what they would like to eat, ask them to do a little bit of research and see if they can come up with some new recipes and get them involved in the whole cooking process.

AB: Sophie, let’s just discuss before we end, let’s discuss the vegan diet a little bit. Is it healthy for children?

SB: It can definitely be a healthy diet, yes. But like I said, knowledge is power and it does require knowledge, but then so does your standard meat-eating diet as well. So, like I said, I’m personally raising my son plant based. I’m plant based myself. We’re not strict vegans, but it’s the emphasis on plant foods. And there’s so much research around nutrition and those diets comparing with children who do consume meat, the ones on a plant-based diet were found to have more nutrition in their diet. So things to be mindful of are iron, iodine, B12 and omega-3. They’re kind of the top ones… Vitamin D… But again, that’s for any diet and should be supplemented anyway. But you can get these nutrients from plant-based sources, you just have to be clued up. So including things like flax seeds, chia seeds, ground nuts, depending on how old your child is and whether or not they consume whole nuts yet, and fortified sources you need to be seeking out. But there is a whole abundance of research that’s still coming out in regards to how healthy a plant-based diet can be. So, yeah, absolutely. I would be a huge advocate for raising plant-based children, but in the best, most knowledgeable way possible.

AB: Lovely. Thank you. Monisha, I have one more question for you, actually. What happens if the child is not a healthy body weight? How do we handle it without body shaming the child and without upsetting body image sensibilities? I mean, this is such a controversial topic at the moment, and the last thing any parent wants for their child is for them to start thinking negatively about their bodies.

MM: This is a really interesting question because I think there’s so much emphasis on how children and teens look right now with the use of [words like] body dysmorphia and perhaps due to social media or advertising. And I think it comes down to, again, avoiding those sugary processed foods, encouraging them to have whole foods, really encouraging the child getting on the heavier side to have complex carbohydrates, because that actually helps with the fibre and to feed good bacteria to the gut. So that’s really important to balance their digestive system, their bacteria. It makes them feel full for longer, and balances blood sugar. And I think it’s important to stay away from refined carbohydrates like pastries, cakes, crisps, and chocolate, because that can actually play havoc with their digestive system and immunity and increase the blood glucose spike, and then they get hungry, they feel tired, so then they crave those sweet foods again. So I think, again, it goes back to educating the children and teens about having a balanced diet, but not really sort of putting emphasis on how they look. It’s more about how they feel for their mental health, for their physical health, and promoting positive body image in that way. Perhaps getting them to follow influencers and nutritionists on social media that promote positive body image. So that it’s not done in a way that you’re telling children what to do, because it can be a very upsetting issue, especially if children try their hardest. And it could also be genetic. It could be just the way that a family eats culturally, so they feel that why is the pressure put upon me.

AB: Before we end, we always do a rapid fire round to summarize what we talked about. So, Sophie, one tip for parents to manage picky eaters

SB: Eat with them, don’t put pressure on them and increase exposure to new food.

AB: One important but common nutritional health concern, and how can it be tackled?

SB: Too much sugar. Added sugar in a child’s diet. So limit the number of processed foods you’re buying at the supermarket.

AB: Thank you. And thank you so much, Sophie and Monisha, for taking the time to share your insights with our listeners.

SB & MM: Thank you for having me. Thank you. Thanks for having us.

AB: To my listeners, thank you for listening to the show. I hope you learned something new and I hope we brought you a little closer to leading a healthier and happier life. If you enjoyed the episode, please press like and please tell your friends to subscribe to the channel. And most importantly, I would love to hear from you. So if you have any questions, if you have any topic suggestions, do send me an email at anshu@wellnesscurated.life.  Thank you so much. See you next week.