'Urgh! I'm not eating that!'

Gone are the days of 'you'll eat what you're given' - a recent survey revealed that children's eating habits are getting worse, and their diets are simply disastrous. How can you encourage your under-15s to eat more healthily and develop an interest in good food?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Day in, day out, every week for almost 15 years. Was ever a prospect more likely to depress even the most dedicated cook and parent than having regularly to provide nutritious food for their children? And there's the Government telling us our children are eating rubbish and will pay for it in years to come with an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.

Day in, day out, every week for almost 15 years. Was ever a prospect more likely to depress even the most dedicated cook and parent than having regularly to provide nutritious food for their children? And there's the Government telling us our children are eating rubbish and will pay for it in years to come with an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey of Young People aged four to 18 years, published last month by the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency, found children are eating far too few vegetables and fruit and far too much salt. Most are consuming more saturated fat than is recommended, and too much sugar, most of which comes from fizzy drinks, chocolate and sweets. White bread, snacks such as crisps, chips, biscuits, potatoes mashed, boiled or baked, and chocolate confectionery made up the bulk of their weekly intake.

However, marshalling their forces against the processed foods and snacks (and the more weak-willed parents among us) held responsible for these damaging diets is a growing number of educational - and aspirational - influences. Friends of the Earth has started a Real Food Campaign. It is for everyone's benefit but especially for children now that the Government recommends that fruit and vegetables be peeled before they eat them.

FoE is campaigning for purer food - free of toxic residues and genetically modified ingredients - from farms that care about both the environment and animal welfare. Children can enter a competition to design a poster illustrating the call for Real Food.

The Food Commission, an independent food watchdog, has berated manufacturers for the contents of products aimed at children. Its research found that nine out of very 10 such foods were "nutritionally disastrous" because of high levels of fats, sugar, salt and additives. It too is campaigning for more nutritious food for youngsters - without unnecessary additives and with better labels. It also wants an end to the promotion of junk food to kids. It has produced a poster, fingering the culprits and suggesting ways of feeding children well.

Earlier this month, the Co-op weighed in with a report expressing parental concern about the effectiveness of television advertising of the very foods and drinks - those high in fat, sugar or salt - that are having such a worrying effect on children's diets. The retailer is calling for an end to TV adverts aimed at kids who then "blackmail" adults into buying such products.

At the we-can-all-dream extreme, Mark Hix, the chef of the luvvies' favourite restaurants Le Caprice and The Ivy, is providing inspiration, with Eat Up, his gorgeous cookbook of recipes for children, published last week. Make your own fish fingers; they're so much more delicious - and nutritious - he suggests, and the photographs certainly bear this out. But how many of us will really make this sort of effort for a child who may suddenly announce that he or she's "gone off fish".

Campaigners and chefs make it sound so easy to convert our kids to food that's better for them. "If only," sigh battle-weary mothers sick of throwing away uneaten meals. But nutritionists, psychologists and food professionals insist that parental persistence, and the examples we set, will win them over in the end.

As proof of what is possible, the menu for the 30 three- to six-year-olds at Rosemary Works Nursery and School in Hackney, east London, looks almost too good to be true. The meals are all vegetarian with a little fish: vegetable risotto, garlic potato skins, pasta salad, fresh strawberries in yogurt, vegetable curry, lentil casserole and rice, fresh fruit and custard, cheese and courgette fritters, peas and mash with tomato sauce, are all typical.

"We introduce children from a very early age to food with little or no added salt or sugar," says manager Lea Wadge. How do they get them to eat it? 'Make the plates look nice, nothing soggy or mixed up, keep components separate and serve small amounts - better that they can ask for seconds or thirds than get used to seeing uneaten food thrown away."

At home it's less easy to be a paragon. Annabel Karmel, the former harpist, working mother and one-woman cooking-for-kids industry, has a monopoly in a market desperate for guidance. Her eight titles, including the Baby and Toddler Cookbook, have sold a combined total of more than half a million copies in this country alone. She may have an eternally hopeful audience prepared to slave over labour-intensive meals for their children's sake, but some of us have been more dispirited than encouraged by recipes for vegetable salad with raspberry vinegar or sesame chicken nuggets with honey-lemon sauce.

More reassuring is when other food professionals admit their children's tastes are intractable and that they find accommodating them a daily grind. "I feel guilty just thinking about it," admitted Margot Henderson, a mother of three under sixes, the chef at the French House restaurant in London and recipe-writer for The Independent on Sunday. Yet hers are, by many standards, adventurous eaters. "They'll eat langoustines, and they're good about some other weird things like mussels, but trying to get a green vegetable down them is a nightmare. I've tried filo parcels and that didn't work." She's settled on sweet potatoes, mashed or fried in olive oil, peas, broccoli, and potatoes (which they'll eat in any shape or form, even with, say, sweetcorn smuggled into a rosti). Japanese food often works, "because it's quite sweet," and since they were babies they've loved sheets of dried seaweed "because it's like chewing paper". Meat - lamb chops, roast chicken, and even pig's tails - is popular. Significantly, their father Fergus Henderson, the chef at London restaurant St John, is know for his meaty and especially offally menus. Still, Margot admits: "I feel I'm so boring about what I give them." Then she rallies: "We should all relax. If you eat well around them, eventually they'll enjoy it too."

Dr Andrew Hill, a psychologist at the University of Leeds specialising in children's diets, endorses this view. Children will take on their parents' attitudes to food, he assures, and repeated exposure to new foods will, in time, reap rewards. If they reject the healthy foods which the rest of the family eats, they will return to them later. "Access to these foods is a key determinant of whether children choose and like them," says Dr Hill; those who eat least fruit and vegetables come from families where the adults don't eat them either. Don't, though, use treats as a reward for eating the worthier parts of a meal - it decreases the appeal of, say, broccoli, and enhances their taste for the reward. "One of the worst things is to stop children enjoying eating."

On low incomes it is harder to eat healthily. "I've had to battle but hopefully I've won," says Fran Davey from Falmouth, Cornwall, who has brought up her sons (now aged 14 and 12) alone for 11 years. As part of a local project set up to improve public health, she helps run a toddler group on the impoverished Penwerris housing estate. From her own experience, she suggests starting children young: introduce babies to vegetables mashed down, so that they don't know any different. A cook before she had children, Fran makes hotpots, shepherd's pie, sausage casseroles, lasagne, and rice dishes for the family. She supplements fresh vegetables with frozen ones for convenience and variety, and "there's always fruit in the bowl". Her children have always drunk loads of milk: "not Coke, but they'd live on Sunny D if they could. I try to get them to drink water with their tea - it's always in the tap. My friend persuaded her kids to drink it by calling it Council pop."

And, for parents with the time and money, as a treat for the children there's now Mark Hix's recipe for unsweetened pear and ginger juice. One day they may deign to drink it.

More information

Friends of the Earth for Real Food Campaign pack and BiteBack action pack for children (freepone 0808 800 1111).

The Food Commission, 94 White Lion Street, London N1 (020-7837 2250)

'Eat Up: food for children of all ages' by Mark Hix with Suzi Godson. (Fourth Estate, £15)

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