What's on your kid's menu?

How parents can ensure their children eat healthy by experimenting


Till two years ago, Munazzah Kazi from Mumbai would fret and sweat in the kitchen, trying to figure out a way to make her daughters—Zinirah, 11, and Zahara, 9—eat healthy and without making a fuss. Kazi, a nutritionist, realised it was easy to dole out nutrition advice to her clients but difficult to put it into action. “I remember how my daughters would compare their tiffin boxes with that of their friends' in school and then demand that I, too, give them exactly that, which was just junk food,” she says.

Parents must take real interest to understand the science of food, only then will they be able to do justice to their child's diet. - Ryan Fernando, celebrity nutritionist, Bengaluru
The main reason why Ruhaani enjoys food so much and eats everything is that I involve her in the process. I take her along to the market, make her sit on the kitchen counter top as I prepare food.... - Yaman Banerji, Mumbai resident, with daughter Ruhaani

Likewise, Shreya Manhout (name changed) from Delhi would face problems with her five-year-old son, who was obsessed with eating tomato ketchup, be it with rice, chapatis or chips. “So there was no consumption of dal, vegetables and fruits. He would rarely have milk. That way he was almost on the point of malnutrition,” says clinical nutritionist Ankita Ghag, who handled the case six months ago. In order to get the boy off ketchup and help build a positive attitude towards food, Ghag advised the parents to “play around with his plate a little”. So, instead of buying ketchup, Manhout started making tomato puree at home with a few veggies added to it and storing it in the ketchup bottle. “Over a period of time, the child came to accept that it was indeed ketchup and began consuming it generously,” says Ghag. “Slowly, in small increments, we changed his wheat-based chapatis to multigrain ones and began adding grated veggies such as carrots, beetroot, crumpled paneer to the dough so that he would have them. That way, he eats everything now.”

Kazi, too, experimented with pizza—her daughters' favourite. She would make the pizza at home, instead of buying it, using “multigrain khakhra as the base, topped with a variety of vegetables and low fat cheese”. Parents must focus on the basic food groups, and then learn how to to camouflage it, says Shonali Sabherwal, a celebrity macrobiotic nutritionist and chef. “For instance, if you give them white rice at home, they want that taste. But it is very easy to add a spoon of cooked brown rice to the white, making it healthier and taking them one step closer to eating a more nutritious grain,” she says. Also, parents must focus on a child's daily nutrition intake from 'whole food', mainly plant-based whole grain, vegetables, fruits, healthy fats like nuts and seeds, she adds, and beware of “the sugars coming from processed and preserved foods”.

Parents should have the knowledge about the basics of good nutrition to understand what the children should eat and avoid, explains Ryan Fernando, an award-winning celebrity nutritionist and coach from Bengaluru. “Children require good nutritious food for two reasons: for growth and for boosting immunity to prevent diseases,” says Fernando, who is a hands-on father to Ivank, 5. “Parents must take real interest to understand the science of food, only then will they be able to do justice to their child's diet. The nutritional requirement of a child far outweighs that of an adult. For instance, a child's daily requirement of protein is 1.5 times that of an adult's and as per age groups—from ages 1-4 (breastfeeding infants to toddlers), 5-9 (adolescence) and 10-18 (early and late teens)—the nutritional requirement or the recommended dietary allowance keeps shifting.”

Fruit truths: Nutritionist Munazzah Kazi with her daughters, Zinirah (right) and Zahara | Amey Mansabdar Fruit truths: Nutritionist Munazzah Kazi with her daughters, Zinirah (right) and Zahara | Amey Mansabdar

Fernando advises young, educated, new-age parents who have access to technology to “count the calories they provide to their child and also be aware of the child's important indicators such as the body mass index, basal metabolic rate, carbs and calcium levels and weight”. The National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, recently came out with its Nutrition Atlas, which mentions the nutritive value of Indian food, dietary sources of energy along with corresponding values of the number of kilocalories provided.

Fernando also talks about our culture of feeding by love, especially by grandparents. Parents must take into account the amount of energy a child spends in a day, and the amount of calories she will get to balance it from the food given to her, in terms of proteins, carbs and fats. Every day must follow a given pattern. “One day more proteins and the next day no proteins at all will not work,” says Fernando. “Also, what many parents don't follow is that genes, too, have a role to play in shaping a child's body structure and so there is no point in overfeeding her.” When a child is overfed between the ages of one and six, he says, her body is pre-programmed to understand what it needs to store as adult fat. “Which is why I say don't overfeed the child because if she is obese later, it is most likely that parents have overfed her between the ages of one and six.”

Yaman Banerji | Amey Mansabdar Yaman Banerji | Amey Mansabdar

Ryan believes in detailing Ivank's diet based upon his height (119cm) and weight (20kg) requirements for his age category. Ivank had a gene test done, which revealed that he was lactose intolerant and that his body absorbs less vitamin C and D. “So, he has at least one egg and one fruit a day. We feed him 1,400 calories per day, split up into six meals. And since he doesn't have breakfast and has only milk before going to school, we pack in a heavy breakfast like a French toast with dried fruits or pancakes with honey or egg dosa, which he has later in the school.”

All experts agree that most ready-to-eat food are designed to have high sugars to make it appealing to children. Once children are hooked on to the sugars when they are in their teens and early adult stages, it is almost impossible for them to give it up later. Dr Paras Kothari, a paediatric surgeon at Sion hospital, Mumbai, says, “It is best to prepare food at home, so that you know what you are using and how much. For instance, at home you can replace refined sugar with palm sugar or jaggery, which is higher in iron content. It is just that parents have become lazier and busier now.” Eating out, he says, is one of the primary reasons for the declining state of health. The oil, rice and masalas used in restaurants are of the lowest quality. He is also critical of new-age parents who mollycoddle their children, and mothers who obsess about their kid being underweight. “Both my sons (aged 20 and 18) are black belts in karate, they rarely have junk food, drink two big glasses of milk a day and weigh 60kg at 6.2ft. They are tall and thin, but very strong,” says Kothari. “The point is that we have never indulged them in packaged food and neither took them to fancy restaurants every week.”

The best way to get an obstinate child down to the dinner table is to let her remain hungry for as long as she can, suggests Kothari. “They should know what hunger is,” he says. The strategy works wonders, says Kazi. When her daughters refused to eat green vegetables, she told them they had no option—either eat the vegetables or no food. “Eventually, they would come back and finish their quota of palak and methi,” she says. “So, the point is to not give an option to kids.”

Yaman Banerji, however, prefers to lead her daughter by example. Ruhaani, 5, has always been a lean child, but Banerji never gave much importance to her weight. As long as she is active and happy, kilos do not matter much. But Banerji does ensure that Ruhaani, whom she lovingly refers to as Little Miss Ru, finishes everything on her plate, including bitter gourd. And, she does it with relish. “The main reason why Ruhaani enjoys food so much and eats everything is that I involve her in the process,” she says. “I take her along to the market, make her sit on the kitchen countertop as I prepare food, talk to her about different items and give her bright coloured fruits and veggies on toothpicks for her to munch on.” If parents involve children in the preparation of food, children will be more accepting of home-cooked food.

Setting a routine, following a disciplined schedule and inculcating good lifestyle habits also go a long way in moulding a child's outlook towards food, says Rasika Iyer from Bengaluru. Cofounder of Soulfull, a millet-based health brand in India, she has two daughters—Anaika, 6, and Antara, 2. “Kids never get bored of monotony. They love to be put into a routine and don't mind eating the same thing every day. So, during breastfeeding, I was keeping the routine in mind—breakfast, lunch and dinner—so that the child could move into the zone as she was being weaned off,” says Iyer. The Iyer family has ragi porridge every morning and the girls never question it. Lunch is at 12.30pm followed by a snack at 4.30pm and then family dinner at 6.45pm. “The concept is to have a healthy timetable in place. A little before you know a child is going to be hungry, like 15 minutes before designated meal times, you feed them an appropriate quantity. A well-fed child is always a happy child,” says Iyer. “Also, ragi helps because it breaks down slowly, so there is a constant flow of energy and the person remains full for longer and as a result eats no junk.” The family uses a lot of millets at home. “We usually avoid gluten and instead make rotis from amaranth, bajra, jowar and nachni grains. Evening snacks for the kids are usually a variety of dosas along with a banana, which acts as a laxative and helps the kids remain constipation free. Dinners for the girls are lighter, like tomato rice and dosas and appams,” she says. The challenge Iyer faced with Anaika was that she needed to be fed until she was three while Antara started eating solid food all by herself since the age of one. “I learnt it the hard way that as parents whatever we do, it reflects in the child's habits. So, I would mash food and feed Anaika so she got used to that, while I let Antara help herself, and she got used to that.”

According to a study in Science Daily, the visual presentation of the food plate affects how much children eat. The research was to find out whether children prefer their food served in a particular way and whether their gender and age make a difference with regard to their preferences. The study concluded that children, depending on gender and age, have different preferences for how food should be arranged on the plate to make them want to eat it.

Discouraging other habits such as watching television and playing on the mobile when eating also go a long way in shaping the eating patterns of a child, says Minal Paresh Sawant, a nutritionist with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Additionally, convenience food that do not require cooking at home but are high in fats, sugars and calories are known to cause not just physical problems like obesity and hormonal imbalance, but also mental health problems. “Also, if a child's breakfast is skipped, her brain does not get any calories to work with, thereby leading to eventual sleep disorders,” says Sawant. “Sending the child to school with just a glass of milk is absolutely wrong. Milk is high in proteins and must be used for muscle development, but if no food is taken with it, then the milk will be used for making calories. Also, 99 per cent of children consume one to two servings of maida per day, which is also a major concern.” So, it is important to pack a tiffin for your child so that she does not opt for a samosa or chips in school. Also, parents must refine their own dietary habits to make sure children refine theirs, says Sawant. She cites the example of her seven-year-old son who never eats noodles or burgers because she has never taken him to the mall and he never developed that taste.

Greig Cloney, father of a 15 year-old boy, has the last word: teach your children to be responsible and independent when it comes to food so that they do not need someone watching over them and know for themselves when to refrain from having certain kinds of food.