Running a catering business with a core belief in the importance of healthy eating, I spend a lot of time talking about what “healthy eating” means. This can be about sports nutrition, balanced meals, cutting down on salt and sugar, but the more challenging aspect is getting children to eat healthy foods. The fact is that what is often seen as healthy nutritious food isn’t what children want to eat. Take leafy green vegetables, almost certainly not high on a list of children’s top five foods.
At Brookwood, our approach to encouraging healthy eating is targeted by age group and gender. A child’s concerns about diet change as they get older. Even then boys and girls tend to have different ideas about nutrition. We often see that younger children are interested in how their bodies work and the way that food fuels this. My ‘sporty’ nephew drinks milk rather than fizzy drinks because he knows this will make him score more goals! For these children there is a wonder and excitement to science which tends to fade as they get older and less interested in the miracles of the human body. We can, though, use their early interest to develop good habits and build a healthy body for the future.
Older children and teenagers are usually less interested in this side of nutrition and have more personal concerns. They are at an age when they feel almost invincible. Their diets, if they make a conscious decision, become a tool to achieve another (usually appearance-related) end. The nutritional problems of each gender become more noticeable. Young men tend to choose high-fat processed protein and carbohydrates. So we combat this by highlighting the performance-enhancing aspects of balanced nutrition and by making our vegetable and fruit offers as exciting as possible. For example, broccoli is cooked with garlic and chili, rather than being boiled. Young women, on the other hand, often cut down on carbs and protein, occasionally to a dangerous extent. It is our duty to make sure these girls know there are healthier ways to maintain a good weight. To encourage this, we make our food look more appealing and less carb-focused. Noodles with stir-fried pork, for example, is an effective dish for making a balanced meal more appealing to the stereotypical teenage girl. It’s a dish which looks lighter than a nutritionally similar meal of sausages and mash and fits with current high street trends.
Targeting these trends is the best way to instil our ideas in children, as it appeals to their own interests and desires, but there are more general ways we can to do this too. Aside from giving assemblies and demonstrations about nutrition, providing sophisticated, unpatronising literature is often effective, especially when it is also given to parents. Eating habits we encourage at school need to be duplicated at home. In a day school, the caterer is only responsible for about 15 percent of a child’s annual nutrition. However, if we can educate and introduce new tastes, this will influence eating at home. Ensuring that parents are communicated with, ensures we facilitate this. It is important that children's role models are promoting the same message regarding healthy eating as mixed messages will merely confuse them.
Abstinence is not something we like to demand of children (or ourselves), and the occasional indulgence isn’t harmful. But even then there are effective and tasty ways to minimise the damage. First, serve a smaller portion. A mini muffin will often do the trick just as well as a ‘mega’ muffin. Encourage a less sweet palate by reducing sugar and using fruit instead. Water down fruit juice with sparkling water or flavour water with pieces of fruit and add a straw. Did you know that full fat squirty cream has less sugar than the low fat version? You might be surprised at how these simple measures will achieve the desired result of a healthier nation and healthy, happy children.