Most children love the summer season. Bright, long days often mean spending more time outside - and that generally means rolling around in grass, mud or sand, exploring every single nook and cranny they come across... and often munching on bugs. Yes, bugs!
Now as a mum to a six-year-old boy, I'm not yet aware of any bug-munching habits. But some fairly startling research recently confirmed that nearly half of children have eaten creepy crawlies from the garden, yet many more refuse to eat a plate of greens!
I'm fairly lucky in that my son is generally a good eater (I had a proud mummy moment earlier in the year when in the supermarket he declared in a loud voice that he wanted me to buy some Brussels sprouts because he LOVED them!). But that's not to say there haven't been mealtimes involving frustration - like the month he suddenly refused to eat carrots anymore after happily eating them for four years. The most recent is a refusal to eat my lasagne because his friend's mummy 'makes the best lasagne in the world with meat in it and my veggie one is just yuck'.
It's all a natural part of children growing up, asserting their authority and wanting to make their own decisions. But as a dietitian, I know just how important it is for growing children and teenagers to eat a balanced, nutritious diet. And as a mum, I know first-hand how difficult it can be! So just how can we ensure our children eat a healthy diet, without mealtimes turning into a battlefield? Here are my tips:
1. Make sure children eat regularly
Long periods of time without eating will mean blood sugar levels drop, resulting in a grumpy and uncooperative child. Like adults, 'starving' children will want a 'quick fix' to boost their flagging blood sugar levels, which means sugary foods like biscuits, cake and ice cream will be far more appealing than that veggie lasagne and salad! The best approach: three meals a day, with healthy snacks between.
2. Always ensure they start the day with breakfast
After around 12 hours without food, it's vital that children (and adults) 'refuel' to provide them with the energy they need to see them through the morning. But it's not just about replenishing empty energy stores. Breakfast is also a key provider of nutrients. With the usual morning rush, a bowl of whole grain cereal with milk is about as easy, tasty and nutritious as it gets.
3. Encourage them to eat more whole grains
In fact, this applies for all the family - one in five of us aren't eating ANY whole grains at all!
Whole grains, as the name suggests, include all of the grain. This means they are packed with nutrients, including fibre and B vitamins. Good sources include whole grain cereals, wholemeal bread, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice and oats.
4. Provide plenty of foods rich in calcium...
Calcium is a vital nutrient for everyone, but especially children and teenagers, as it's needed for the normal growth and development of bone, and the maintenance of normal bones and teeth. Dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese are the main source in British diets, so encourage three portions a day, around 200ml milk, a 30g (small matchbox sized) piece of cheese or a small pot of yoghurt.
5. ...And vitamin D
Like calcium, vitamin D is vital for the normal development of bones and teeth. We get most of our vitamin D from the sunlight. But increasingly we hear that many people, including children and teenagers, have low levels of this vitamin in their body, which can affect future bone health. That means it's important to eat more foods rich in this nutrient. Oil-rich fish and eggs are the main sources, but increasingly some foods are being fortified with this nutrient.
6. Make fish a regular part of their diet
That doesn't mean fish fingers every day! But health experts do recommend we eat two portions of fish each week, one of which should be oil-rich such as salmon, trout, mackerel or sardines - and the sooner we get children into this habit, the better. If you're worried about the bones in fish, try tinned tuna or a shellfish alternative is prawns, but remember that tinned tuna doesn't count as oily fish.
7. Encourage five-a-day
Yes, I know it can be hard but it's worth persevering! Fruit and veg provide fibre and plenty of vitamins and minerals. I'm not personally a fan of 'hiding' fruit and veg in dishes (to me this just confirms the idea that it's undesirable and needs to be endured rather than enjoyed) but if it works for you, keep going! Some easy and kid-friendly ways to boost their five-a-day: add a sliced banana to a bowl of whole grain cereal or turn it into a sandwich with wholemeal bread for breakfast; provide blueberries, grapes and strawberries for snacks; serve carrots sticks and slices of pepper or cucumber with reduced-fat hummus.
8. Keep a careful eye on sugar
It's rarely out of the headlines at the moment as new advice from the government recommends we slash our intake of 'free' sugars - basically the sugar that's added to food, together with the sugar in honey and fruit juices. It's great to see that many food companies are taking steps to reduce sugar, like the new Low Sugar Oat Cheerios. But the reality is, in children, teenagers and adults, it's the obvious sweet foods and drinks - cakes, biscuits, jams and sugar itself - that provide most of the sugar in our diets! Even yoghurts and breakfast cereals - which are often pinpointed for being full of the white stuff - provide only 6% and 8%, respectively, of the sugar in the diets of four to 10 year olds. This compares with 14% for confectionery, 24% for biscuits, cakes, puddings and ice cream, and 29% for sugary drinks and fruit juice. My advice: focus on limiting foods and drinks that are packed with sugar (and often fat) and are low in nutrients.
10. Try not to worry too much about the bugs!
Bugs do contain vitamins, minerals and fibre, but as I've hopefully shown, there are much easier (and more appetising) ways to help children eat a balanced, varied and nutritious diet!