Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

How to Make Kids Eat Real Food

Feeding children is a battlefield and just to make a parent's life more difficult it's heavily mined and booby-trapped as well. Unfortunately as a parent you're like the home guard ranged against the armies of food manufacturers, the peddlers of soft drinks, sweets and snacks, the giant fast food industry and vending machines dispensing rubbish. You'll also be fighting the institutional caterers relying on the cheapest lowest quality and least nutritious ingredients often pre-cooked, transported for hundreds of miles, then reheated.

Then of course you have to fight with the kids themselves who at the earliest age discover the manipulative power of food. It doesn't take them long to learn that making a fuss in the supermarket gets them a sweet tasting bribe, or that throwing everything on the floor in a restaurant magically produces a plate of chips.

From these early beginnings children's taste buds develop an enormous preference for sweet, salty and fatty foods. Combined with endless cans of fizzy drink and frequent snacking on sweet or savoury treats, it's not surprising that healthy foods like fruit and vegetables get squeezed out of their daily menus. The long term effects on youngster's health are quite terrifying and these are what every parent should think about before they buy the next bag of crisps, can of cola, burger and chips or bottle of supposedly healthy drink which is no more than a collection of chemicals, sugar, sweeteners, a bit of vitamin C and a tiny percentage of juice.


By allowing children to develop lifetime habits of junk food eating we're producing an entire generation that will have to live with the disastrous consequences of their parents' apathy.
- One in five children is now clinically obese;
- Non Insulin Dependent diabetes which normally occurs in middle age is now regularly seen in 6 and 7 year old children;
- The seeds of heart disease are sown in childhood and every 3 minutes someone dies of premature and preventable heart disease.

A diet high in sugar, salt and fat means other health problems too:

- high blood pressure, strokes and circulatory disease;
- gallstones, digestive problems and bowel cancer;
- arthritis, back pain and osteoporosis;
- hormone-linked problems like acne, painful periods, low sperm counts and reduced fertility.

The junk food generation gets poor nutrition and also misses out on nutrients by not eating enough fruit and vegetables.

- One in five 4-18 year olds don't eat any fruit at all.
- Up to 50% of children don't get enough vitamin A, B12, folic acid, D and E.
- Many children go short of calcium, iron, zinc and selenium

The combined effect puts them at much higher risk of anaemia, skin problems, lowered resistance, weaker bones, appetite loss, heart disease and some forms of cancer. They also go without other natural substances in fruits and vegetables vital to protect the body's cells and prevent premature ageing.


It's not difficult to make sure your baby grows into a food loving toddler, a healthy teenager and a well-nourished adult, but you must start early. It's often chefs with small children who have the best ideas for developing the widest possible variety of favourite foods for their youngsters. Michael McEnearney is the Head Chef at Scotts, one of the most famous fish restaurants in London, and he has extremely strong views on children's food.

"Mother couldn't cook and I hated burnt lamb chops and lumpy mashed potatoes" Michael told me last week. "Living in Australia, cooking wasn't what boys did but at the age of nine I was sure I could do better than mum, and I was right. She thought it was great, bought me cook books and it wasn't long before I was coming home and cooking for the family including my baby sister."

"At 18 I got my first job at a famous Sydney restaurant called Chez Oz and even then was happy to cook special dishes for youngsters. Now I live in London with my English wife Joscelyn, and George who's just nine months. Right from the start we've given him real food and organic wherever possible. At four months he was eating pureed veg and I'd swap them around every three or four days so he didn't get stuck on one flavour - potatoes and carrot, Swedes and parsnips, potatoes and swede, and so on. We gradually introduced different veg, fruits, then fish and meat, and now George eats anything. At the moment his favourite is 'Hairy Mashed Potato' - flaked cooked haddock stirred with mashed potato so the fish comes off in little strands like hair."

"Colours are important so I always mix them up - homemade tomato sauce with garlic and basil on potatoes, vegetables, rice or fish. Never give children 'white meals' like a white plate with white chicken and white rice. I'm really concerned at how much school food is precooked, frozen and simply reheated, and how few cooking skills there are in some kitchens. It's so important for their health that you get children off to a good start but as a chef I also realise they're my next generation of customers. If all they want when they grow up is instant food, I'll be out of a job."

'Eat Up', written by Mark Hix, Executive Chef of the famous London celebrity haunts The Ivy, Le Caprice and Sheekys is the best ever guide to feeding children - better than any written by the nutritionists or child experts. He's another organic fan, particularly when it comes to feeding kids, and likes to use farmer's markets and organic home delivery box schemes.

You can feed your children better with home cooked food than any baby food manufacturer and a hundred times more healthily than using manufactured food aimed at children. You only have to look at the labels - a Food Standards Agency survey found that 59% of people say they read food labels though hardly any understand what they mean - to find that most are full of chemicals, salt, sugar and fat.

Baby foods are a great convenience but buy the best like Baby Organix and save them for travelling, holidays and desperation days. At four months old start introducing pureed solids, beginning with baby rice and then any vegetables or fruits. Use ones you're eating but don't add salt during cooking. Start with vegetables so baby gets used to the stronger savoury flavours before you introduce the sweet fruits. Whatever you do with baby food stick to the KISS principle - 'keep it simple, stupid'. Start with single flavours, cook the vegetable like carrot, peas, pumpkin, potatoes, sweet potatoes, until just soft then puree till smooth, adding boiled water if too thick. When you start mixing flavours, use a maximum of three ingredients.

- Don't try more than one new flavour a day
- Try new things between meals as a taster so baby doesn't associate things he doesn't like with mealtimes.
- If pureed peas get spat out, don't give up - it may take six or more attempts before that taste is accepted

From around six months start introducing a little chicken meat, tropical fruits, berries, dairy products, wheat and oats, but I strongly advise against commercial bread and most commercial breakfast cereals as both have enormously high levels of salt - far more than is healthy for your baby. It's worth making your own bread which tastes a hundred times better anyway and sticking to pasta which most little ones love to play with as well as eat and organic oat based cereals.

Around nine months start using eggs, beans and fish.

Prawns and other shellfish are fine from the age of two but I would wait a couple of years before letting them eat mussels, scallops or oysters.

Children shouldn't be given nuts or seeds until they're five because of the risk of allergic reactions, and this includes peanuts and peanut butter if there is a family history of allergies. Peanuts are in fact legumes - members of the bean family, not real nuts - and they can be used from one year onwards unless there is a family history.

The three best ways I know of introducing children to fruits and vegetables are with soups, juices and smoothies, and home made ice creams, sorbets and ice lollies. In the early stages soups and smoothies should be really smooth and lump-free.

The pre-school years are your last chance before children get exposed to the world of mass catering, so now's the time to establish proper eating patterns. Try sitting down to meals as a family as often as possible, get children involved in the kitchen - I know it's messy and time consuming but if they help cook it they'll eat it. Be more adventurous with soups like minestrone, Welsh rarebit with thin wedges of lightly sauted apples. Give them slightly spicy grilled chicken breasts with roast vegetables, which children often prefer to plain steamed or boiled. Prepare pitta breads stuffed with salad, real cheese and your favourite dressing. Start using more garlic, onions, herbs and spices in cooking and always make sure there's plenty of fresh fruit to nibble on.

Once they get to school they're going to need more calories, lots of B vitamins and plenty of iron to keep them fuelled with energy for body, brain and growth. That means lots of dried fruits, wholemeal bread, sardines, meat and poultry, rice, potatoes and beans, dark green leafy vegetables, cheese, yoghurt, unsalted nuts and seeds. Home made fishcakes and burgers will be a favourite and there's nothing wrong with chips a couple of times a week.

The turbulent teens can be a real problem with increasing numbers of girls, and boys too, developing eating disorders and becoming obsessed with their weight. If you've fed them sensibly till now and they're reasonably active, the risks of this happening are minimal, but it's important that mothers' obsession with every diet fad and low fat, low calorie foods is not allowed to affect the youngsters and should never be a daily topic of conversation.

Teenagers like to graze:
- Keep a cold roast chicken in the fridge for instant nibbles.
- Porridge or muesli for breakfast gives them a whole morning's slow release energy
- dried fruit, nuts and sunflower seeds provide instant healthy energy at any time of the day.
- Don't put junk foods in of your fridge and store cupboard - if they're not there they won't be snacking on crisps, jammy dodgers or chocolate covered cereals.

At this age most will enjoy Italian, Indian and Chinese food or a good healthy vegetarian pizza. But left to eat on their own they'll end up with unhealthy finger food in front of the computer or TV - another reason for family meals wherever possible.


About 5% of UK households include a vegetarian and if you're not a vegetarian family, a 14 year old who suddenly decides to give up meat and fish can be very worrying. But if you help them do it right it can also be very healthy. You have to make sure they get enough iron, vitamin B12 and protein, which means dark green leafy vegetables, a mixture of good cereals and pulses like rice and beans, or chapattis and dhal. It's not good to rely exclusively on dairy products as this results in too much fat, though cutting them out too and being a vegan brings a host of other risks. Veggie burgers, tofu, soya beans and Quorn are all good additions, and to guarantee enough of the essential fatty acids try to persuade them to take a fish oil capsule.

Eating out

Eat out from the earliest possible age but keep away from burger bars and similar fast food joints. Restaurants are not always child friendly but you won't have problems if you eat Italian, Indian or Chinese - nor will you find a children's menu of third rate sausages, greasy burgers, chicken nuggets and low fish fingers, all served with chips. What child can resist soup, simple pasta and breadsticks to play with. Encourage them to master chopsticks and eat delicious dishes like duck with pancakes, spring rolls, samosas, or prawns with noodles and Chinese vegetables. Let them taste a mild curry or share the selection of little pots that come with a vegetarian thali, to say nothing of poppadums, chapattis, naan and mango chutney.

It takes time, effort and a bit of extra trouble to feed children properly but if you do teach them the joys of eating, the pleasures of cooking and shopping, and the excitement of sitting round a table with friends and family, eating and talking through an evening, you'll have given them a life skill for which they'll always be grateful. They'll have health benefits which will be with them into old age and they'll have skills to pass on to their children.

You'll save lives, suffering and money, as cooking from scratch with simple fresh ingredients is not only the healthiest but the cheapest way to do it.

Eat Up by Mark Hix, published by Fourth Estate at GBP 12.99.

Superfoods for Children, by Michael van Straten and Barbara Griggs, published by Dorling Kindersley at GBP 9.99


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