Do the professionals practise what they preach behind closed doors? We asked research dietitian and mother of three Dr Jane Bowen for her insider tips. Plus HFG nutrition experts share their healthy quick kids’ suppers.
With three children aged six, four and two, plus a full-time job, Dr Jane Bowen knows how tempting it can be to give in to bad food habits for the sake of an easy life. But, she says, being busy doesn’t have to mean your children miss out on nutrition. Here are her tips
for feeding them well, while avoiding confrontation at mealtimes, and setting them on the right track towards nutritious eating for life…
Be a good role model
The general approach I take is to behave as I’d expect my children to when it comes to food. I think it’s unreasonable to expect the kids to eat something if I’m not eating it, too. Most of the food I keep in the house is stuff that I’m happy for all of us to eat. They’re faced with non-ideal food options, such as biscuits and crisps, everywhere else they go, so having them in the house and available all the time just normalises them and makes them part of everyday eating, instead of treats.
Eat dinner early
The typical time for our evening meal is 5–5.30pm. We have dinner early because I think the more tired the kids get, the less they can control their emotions. As food can easily overwhelm children, especially when they’re little, it’s best for them to eat when they’re less tired.
I work out the meals for the week ahead before I go shopping, and buy food accordingly. During the working week we generally have the same kinds of things for breakfast and lunch, and variations on the same themes for dinner. At the weekend I can spend a little more time being creative and involve the kids in meal prep – which is slow and messy but worthwhile for them. When it comes to cooking, it’s all about organisation, too – prepare ingredients so they’re ready to go, and think about what you can be doing while one element of the meal is cooking. Sometimes I batch-cook at weekends for the week ahead.
Have strategies up your sleeve
After a full day of work, school and childcare, my favourite options for dinner are pasta or stir-fry because they’re quick and I can easily throw in a few veg. If the children can’t handle a full plate of food, I put it on a smaller plate and call it ‘mini dinni’ – somehow it helps them wrap their head around the idea of eating it. Or, if we’re really entering meltdown territory, as a last resort I’ll give them a bowl of steamed vegetables with some watered down soy sauce and let them eat it while they watch television.
Think about food behaviours
My daughter doesn’t have a sweet tooth at all. But the behaviours we often show about sweet foods being highly prized (‘You’re not getting dessert until you finish that’/‘You have to wait until the end of the party for the lolly bag’, etc) are subtle hints teaching her that maybe she should be wanting those things. So I avoid using such motivators whenever possible. I also try to have a solid meal routine to keep my children’s appetites regular and less prone to snacking.
Don’t hold out for an empty plate
Insisting your children clear their plates teaches them to override their appetite and eat until all the food is gone, rather than until they feel full. Having said that, I have a fair idea of what it takes to fill up my own kids. So if they say ‘I’m finished’ and they’ve eaten way below their normal quota, I do encourage them to eat more. Otherwise, half an hour later they’ll be complaining they’re hungry.
Avoid making dessert a permanent fixture
We have dessert sometimes, and it’s usually fruit or yogurt or both. We rarely have a tub of ice cream in the freezer, as I think once it’s there we’ll just eat it every night until it’s gone! Then their taste buds get attuned to that level of sweetness.
Make eating about good health
I think about foods in terms of what they have to offer nutritionally. Brown foods are often good foods – nuts and wholegrain breads, pasta and crackers, for example. By contrast, while foods such as white rice, cakes or plain biscuits aren’t intrinsically ‘bad’, they’re not giving your children any nutrients, protein, healthy fats or fibre. They’re just empty, nothing kind of foods (often salty, too).
For breakfast, I offer muesli, wheat biscuits, wholemeal toast and fruit. In lunchboxes, I pack vegetable sticks, cheese, wholemeal sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs. And I always add something that I know they don’t really like, just to remind them to try things…
Let your children make some decisions
I don’t think it’s wise to completely deprive children of making decisions about food. For example, on the odd occasion we visit the school’s tuck shop, I guide my daughter as to what to choose. We discuss it, I show her several items as options that I’ve okayed, then I leave her to decide what she wants.
Talk about food and health
Some research suggests it’s demotivating to tell kids to ‘eat this food because it’s healthy’. But I disagree. My children respond really well to me telling them the reasons they should eat something in particular. I don’t focus on weight – just health and what our bodies can do. I might encourage them to eat certain foods by saying, ‘The meat is good for you and it will help you to be able to do cartwheels because you’ll have stronger muscles.’ When they ask for less healthy options, I’ll say, ‘No, because it’s not good for your teeth,’ or, ‘It’s not going to make you feel good,’ or, ‘It’s going to fill you up so there’ll be no room left for the foods that make your body strong.’ Children are much more intelligent and capable of taking in information than we often give them credit for. It also helps them realise the reason for my saying no isn’t so much about me and my wishes, but about them, and how their body will respond to those treat foods.
Proper tomato sauce – Nutritionist Amanda Ursell
This sauce is always a winner for my two, aged eight and six. You need to prepare it ahead (the tomatoes take a while to roast, but there’s hardly any work involved) and you can freeze it in portions. All you do is spray 1.5kg tomatoes with olive oil in a roasting tin, then cook them in a low oven (120°C/fan 100°C/gas ½) for 3 hr. Blitz the roasted tomatoes in a blender with crushed garlic and fresh basil leaves, to taste, then serve with pasta, chicken or fish.
Courgetti bolognese – Dietitian Helen Bond
One of my go-to speedy suppers for my three (aged 15, 14 and 12) is the classic family favourite, spaghetti bolognese – but with a healthy twist. In a large pan, I cook off lean beef mince (or soya mince) in a little rapeseed oil. Once browned, I set it to one side while I soften diced onion in a little more oil. In a food processor, I blitz a couple of carrots, mushrooms, maybe a pepper (or whatever veg are lurking in the bottom of my fridge). I add everything back to the pan along with a couple of cans of chopped tomatoes, some grated garlic, a sprinkling of dried oregano and black pepper, then heat through for about 20–25 min. My kids enjoy spiralising courgettes into courgetti to serve with the spag bol – it only needs to be boiled for 30 seconds, then drained, so it’s even quicker than pasta. Even my veg-shy daughter gobbles it down without fuss.
Salmon, peas and rice – Dietitian Jennifer Low
I cook a salmon steak (in a dish covered with clingfilm in the microwave for 90 sec if I don’t have time to oven bake it), then cut it up and serve it mixed with ready to heat basmati rice (2 min in the microwave), thawed frozen peas and no added sugar or salt canned sweetcorn. My children, who are aged three and one, love it because it tastes good and seems to be a texture they like – they’re not keen on ‘mushy’ foods, so potatoes are a no-go currently. I love it as I know I’m feeding them a meal they’ll eat without fuss, which provides all the food groups, plus a good dose of omega-3 for their brain development.
Tuna pasta with veg – Dietitian Juliette Kellow
This is one of the quickest dinners I make for my six-year-old: I cook a handful of wholemeal pasta – shells, twists, spaghetti… whatever I have. A few minutes before it’s ready, I add a handful of broccoli florets and a handful of frozen sweetcorn to the pan. I drain everything and add some drained canned tuna (I buy the one in water), a dash of flavoured olive oil – either basil or garlic – plus
a grind of black pepper and a sprinkle of grated cheese. It takes about 15 minutes, uses just one pan, provides foods from the four main food groups and gives my son two of his five-a-day. He loves it and, more often than not, I’ll make enough for myself, too!
* Dr Jane Bowen is a member of CSIROseven, a group of Australian scientists working on research breakthroughs. She is a research scientist and dietitian for CSIRO Food and Nutrition, based at South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute.