Those early days: don't let the junk foods squeeze out the greens

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Few parents are blessed with children who eat up their greens and disdain chocolate, chips and crisps. And most have concerns, at some stage, about whether their children's diet is healthy enough.

Ideally, pre-school children (age two to five) should be eating a wide variety of foods, broadly the same as the rest of the family, except that up to the age of two, children need full-fat milk as their main drink (skimmed is fine for cooking). Yogurt and fromage frais should also be full fat. From two years they can switch to semi-skimmed.

The easiest way to put a healthy diet for children into practice is to aim to serve a number of portions from the main four food groups below on a daily basis.

1. Starchy foods

Bread and other cereals, rice, pasta, potatoes. Four or more servings daily, at least one at each meal. Limit the amount of fat for cooking/spreading on these foods.

2. Vegetables and fruit

Minimum of four servings (unsweetened). If necessary, disguise vegetables in soups, stews, sauces, pies (potato-topped).

3. Dairy foods

Milk, yogurt, cheese, dairy substitutes. Two to three servings a day.

4. Meat and alternatives

Leanest meat you can afford, fish (at least twice a week, oily where possible), poultry. Limit sausages, fatty meat products, fishfingers, other fish/chicken in crumbs and batter; perhaps two of these, once a week each.

Alternate meat with baked beans, other beans, lentils, split peas, Quorn, soya protein foods, nuts (not whole for under threes) seeds and their products, such as peanut butter and tahini.

Minimum of one serving a day if meat/ fish/poultry, two if vegetarian protein. Give fruit/vegetable/juice with vegetarian protein, as the vitamin C improves iron absorption.

By school age, children can have low-fat dairy foods, so long as they are eating enough calories. In general, their diet should be the same as a healthy adult diet. This means that in addition to the four main food groups above they should have limited amounts of fats (especially saturated) for spreading/cooking, and only occasional crisps, chips, chocolate, fizzy drinks, cakes and biscuits.

The latter can be a major sticking point. It is easier to control in younger children, up to three to five, especially if there are no older siblings asking for sweets and biscuits. As long as over-consumption of fatty and sugary foods is not leaving too little room for more nutrient- dense foods such as bread, milk, cheese, meat, fish, eggs, fruit, green vegetables and potatoes, there is no need to worry.

Concerns can arise because children have high calorie and vitamin and mineral needs in relation to their size. So it is easy for "junk" foods to squeeze out nutritious foods.

The best policy is to start as you mean to go on. From weaning, try to make the following become habits.

Establish three main meals a day from the age of 14 months and discourage frequent snacking, especially on fatty or sugary foods.

Limit crisps or chips, for example, to once or twice a week. Give crisps on a supermarket trip when temptation is at its greatest.

If confectionery is unavoidable, choose chocolate, which at least contains some minerals and is not as harmful to teeth as toffees and other sticky confectionery, particularly if eaten as part of a meal. Give it occasionally at the end of meals, but only if "proper" food has been eaten.

Limit soft drinks to occasional meal times. Straws reduce contact with teeth. Do not allow children to fill themselves up with pop before or during a meal.

Make vegetables a normal part of main meals and do not serve pudding unless a reasonable amount of main course, including vegetables, has been eaten. Some children prefer raw (grated/chopped) vegetables to cooked.

Limit everyday puddings to fruit, yogurt, fromage frais or more nutritious sources of sugary food, such as bread and butter pudding, fruit crumbles with custard, summer pudding, compotes, low-fat fruit fools, yogurt-topped fruit brulees (minimal sugar), fruit salad and ice-cream or vanilla yogurt.

Give bread, toast, fruit or low-fat bakes, such as wholemeal scones, tea bread, hot cross buns, if hungry between meals

Do not add sugar to drinks or breakfast cereal.

Avoid or limit the amount of pastry and fried foods and other high-fat foods.

Children should enjoy their food and arrive at the table looking forward to a meal, not full up with snacks and confectionery so that they are difficult about "proper" food. If they are growing and healthy, all should be well.

The pre-school menu

Milk or diluted fruit juice to drink with meals. Option of water between meals, if needed. Judge if mid-morning or afternoon snacks are required.

Breakfast: porridge or fortified lowish sugar breakfast cereal, such as Weetabix, Ready Brek, Shreddies with milk. If wanted, wholemeal toast with scraping of spread/preserve.

Mid-morning: bun/piece of fruit/mini pack raisins.

Lunch: wholemeal peanut butter or mashed soft cheese/tuna sandwiches. Yogurt/fromage frais.

Mid afternoon: as morning

Main meal: Pasta with tomato and vegetable sauce containing lean meat/fish/pulses. Serve with a little grated cheese. Yogurt/fromage frais.

Bedtime: drink of milk.

The schoolchild's menu

Breakfast: fruit juice. Alternate boiled egg with toast/lean bacon/ham sandwich/lowish sugar breakfast cereal, or combination for hungrier children.

Break time: fruitcake/ cereal bar/dried fruit.

Packed lunch: (use icepack when necessary) cheese scone filled with mashed egg/soft cheese and cress. Cherry tomatoes. Seasonal fruit. Carton of juice/milk/yogurt drink.

After school: (if main meal not served for a while) breakfast cereal with milk/fruit/ muffin/toast.

Main meal: Risotto with vegetables and lean meat/fish/pulses. Serve with salad and bread. Yogurt/fromage frais.

Evening: fruit/yogurt/Digestive biscuit/ milkshake.