Helping our Children to Eat Better

In our fast-paced world it is not always easy for parents to resist the plethora of slick marketing around children’s food.  An over reliance on calorie dense, nutrient poor convenience meals and snacks combined with reduced activity levels has had dramatic effects on our children’s health and weight.

Childhood obesity is now classified as “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century”(WHO)[1].  One in three children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school. This increase is leading to more cases of type 2 diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure in children[2]. The latest government surveys show that 9.9% of reception age children (age 4-5) are obese, with a further 13.1% overweight.  At age 10-11 (year 6), 21.0% are obese and 14.1% overweight[3]

In addition to children’s growing waistlines, the UK National Dietary Surveys[4] consistently reveal shortfalls in the intake of key nutrients. Intakes of fruit and vegetables have fallen by 20% over the last decade (11-18yrs) with only 1 in 10 teens following the 5 a day advice.  Children fail to consume sufficient fibre and omega 3 fats. Weekly intakes oily fish for those aged 4 to 18 years were just 14 grams – equivalent to one-tenth of a portion (140 grams) yet omega 3 fats are crucial for mental health and cognitive function. Teenagers have insufficient intakes of iron, vitamin A, folate, calcium and zinc. Sugar intake is too high for all children.  

There is a clear relationship between what young children eat and the development of disease later in life. Our adult palates, and health, is strongly affected by what and how we eat as children. We need to help children to reduce their intake of processed foods while encouraging them to embrace real foods – fresh, seasonal foods that nourish and promote optimal mental and physical health.

Eating well for children and young people should always emphasise a diverse range of nourishing fresh foods that can make up a healthy diet, rather than focusing on denying them certain foods and drinks. For me when working with families I am always looking at the positives – what key nourishing foods to make up each plate with a good mix of colourful vegetables, protein and healthy fats in particularly.

Dietary diversity is as important to our health as ecological diversity. One of the best ways of achieving sustainability in our lifestyles is establishing healthy eating habits as early as possible. Much of this should focus on setting consistent healthy eating patterns for the whole family. Children copy parents in both good and bad habits. So if we want our children to eat well we need to be effective role models.

There are many factors involved in the rise of children’s obesity (5).  This includes diets that are high in nutrient-poor processed foods, low in nutrient-rich and filling foods such as vegetables and fruit, limited exercise and a reliance on starchy, refined and sugary foods.  The importance of cookery skills and consistent healthy eating advice is equally vital when it comes to equipping children for life. 

One of the easiest ways to start is by encouraging children to eat a nutrient rich, low sugar breakfast. Sugar regularly hits the headlines. Figures from Public Health England (PHE) (6) showing that children in the UK are eating half their daily recommended sugar intake at breakfast before they even get to school. So skip the sugary cereals and fruit juices and include some protein rich foods like eggs, smoked salmon, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt or low sugar baked beans. Slow releasing wholegrains like porridge, low sugar granola and muesli or homemade protein waffles (made with extra eggs and yogurt) are great options which take little effort when time is short.

Keep the lunch and dinner plates balanced with a rainbow of coloured vegetables combined with protein rich foods essential for growth and development (e.g lean meats, poultry, sustainable / wild-caught fish, legumes or eggs).  Wholegrains or starchy vegetables like sweet potato, brown rice, quinoa or wholegrain pasta are far more nutrient rich than white refined options and will provide a more steady release of energy which is essential to keep children focused through the day. Include some healthy fats e.g. oily fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocados. Good fats are essential for brain, nerve and motor development so don’t be afraid to include it in your child’s menu.

Many of the excess calories in children’s diets is through sugary drinks and snacks. Encourage children to drink water through the day. Limit fruit juices that are a high source of sugar and switch for water or very watered down juice. It is much better to prepare a selection of whole fruit to snack rather than drink juice if they want a sweet snack.

Making food healthier by default through reductions in salt, saturated fat and sugar while maintaining flavour with fresh, quality ingredients are small changes that can have big impacts. Using yogurt in marinades and dressings, adding extra flavour with herbs and spices rather than salt are easy ways to improve the overall nutritional content without sacrificing on flavour.  I also like to focus on including foods rich in essential nutrients – for example fibre, omega 3 fats, vitamins and minerals wherever possible. These changes over time can add up to make a significant difference in what and how we eat. Above all we eat with our eyes first. There is no reason why healthy food should not look attractive. Healthy cooking is all about creating colourful, vibrant, dishes which burst with colour, vibrancy and flavour.  Using fresh, whole, seasonal and local foods are the foundations of a good diet and the ultimate power foods for the body and mind. 

[1] WHO


[3] House of Commons Library Report,are%20obese%20and%2014.1%25%20overweight.&text=For%20Year%206%20children%20prevalence,more%20likely%20to%20be%20obese.

[4] UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS)