National Nutrition Week is celebrated every year from 1st to 7th September. The initiative was conceptualised by the central government in 1982 to talk about the causes, effects, and the solutions to malnutrition. The theme of the program varies every year. This year the theme is ‘Better Child Health’ and focuses on addressing issues related to undernutrition in the first 1000 days of a child’s life. Children’s nutrition is a crucial factor which determines the quality and well being of the adults that they will grow into.
In the first 6 months or 180 days, of a child’s life, the sole nutrition should come from milk. The government and other regulatory & informative bodies have been working hard to propagate the virtue of breastmilk for babies should attain prime importance. In practice, while most are fairly successful in achieving this milestone, they are stumped when it comes to nutrition in the days proceeding the 6 months where other foods are introduced for baby. Even well-meaning & determined caregivers find themselves at a loss when it comes to children’s nutrition .
Issues with children’s nutrition
Sometimes it is not just access to healthy and nutritious foods. That is the primary monster of course. But it is other speed breakers such as teething, loss of appetite, routine illness or lack of awareness about nutrition that hampers efforts.
Kids also tend to be moody and picky eaters on the most part. Their eating habits are still developing. Also there is this whole new world to play in, learn from and explore. Food is not their main priority.
Children’s nutrition is a grey area which many people fear addressing.
5 ways to enhance nutrition in children’s foods
There are, however, a few simple ways in which families and caregivers can ensure that nutrition intake of children is at an optimal level. Here are just 5 ways in which you can impact children’s nutrition.
Add fresh veggies wherever you can
The person who cooks for a child is capable of hiding veggies in the unlikeliest of places. Play this to your advantage. Grate veggies like carrots, or finely chopped broccoli, pumpkin, leafy greens like spinach or dried methi into obvious meals like soups, khichdi.
Don’t stop short of experimenting and adding a multitude of veggies to meals like poha, upma and even dosas and idlis. I have shocked my family many times when I first grate or chop a ton of veggies and then finally add them to the dosa batter. This especially comes from the older folk for whom an heirloom recipe is sacrosanct and must be followed to the word.
I pride myself on my “veggifying” skills. If it’s going to be eaten by a child I will enhance it. Since eating vegetables is a big concern for most parents, adding them to daily meal items is a big win. It not only adds vital nutrients – vitamins, minerals etc. but also ups the fibre content of foods.
Reduce the whites
Whites here refers to the refined and processed ingredients and food items such as salt, sugar, white (maida) flour, white bread/rice/pasta.
The ground rule is if it’s white don’t eat it.
This objective is easier said than done because whites like salt and sugar are part of our daily diet and eaten multiple times at that. For adults it may be easy to switch to a low sodium salt or aspartame based sugars, this practice is not recommended for children. Instead, a conscious effort must be made to reduce the amount of salt and sugar you feed your child.
Experts on children’s nutrition will also ask you to keep in mind hidden salt and sugars. Foods and condiments such as chips, fried Indian snacks such as farsan, tomato sauces, processed cheese, biscuits, chocolates and the like contain high amounts of salt and sugar. It may come as a surprise but even foods which are not sweet or salty on the tongue can contain high levels of sodium or sugars. A classic example is tomato ketchup. The tangy taste may fool us but a look at the nutritional information in it will startle you.
What are the alternatives then?
Just be conservative when it comes to seasoning food. Or go natural. Use natural ingredients to flavour food – lemon to season or jaggery and date syrup to sweeten. These also add valuable vitamin C and vitamins and minerals to the food. Make your own sauce & dips at home using tomatoes or pumpkins or hung curd.
Similarly, white flours such as maida should be avoided. Use wheat flours or even gram & millet flours in its place. White store-bought bread can be substituted with whole wheat or multi-grain bread. Do remember to check the ingredient list though as some brands simply get away with making brown coloured bread but without any added goodness.
This also goes for rice, pasta and noodles. Wheat pasta is available. I recently saw millet noodles too.
The key theme that emerges from much of these guidelines is that it is best to eat healthy home cooked meals.
Add superfoods to meals
What is a superfood? It is a food that is rich in nutrients and so considered healthy. The debate on what foods are superfoods is still at large. Purists would say it is nothing but a way to put a food trend into the limelight. But nonetheless, there are certain food types that can be said to be incredibly healthy.
Foods popular as superfoods today are blueberries, beans and legumes, grains like millets and quinoa; nuts and seeds like flax, sunflower, chia; sweet potatoes, leafy veggies like kale, mustard greens (sarson); broccoli, fruits like kiwi, dragon fruit. While eating most of these may seem fun and cool in the short term, is it really possible to Indianise and make them a part of the regular diet for our kids?
The answer is yes it’s doable.
Dried blueberries are available online or in speciality stores if you can’t find fresh ones. These can be eaten as you do dry fruits and raisins. Adding them to kheer, porridges, cakes or even milkshakes gives a lovely colour to the dish. children’s nutrition never tasted so good, eh?
Millets and quinoa are fast picking up the pace as the must-eat foods today. The options to cook and eat them are limitless. Salads, porridges, breakfast items like upma, pongal or dosas, or millet rice or even kheer. Nut butter is very easy to make and all it takes is to roast the nuts and grind them in the mixer until u get a thick, pasty consistency. It doesn’t even need the addition of salt, sugar or oils. They make a great sandwich filler or accompaniment to fruits as a dip.
And did you know broccoli puree makes a great sauce for pasta? My son who cannot consume dairy loves his green pasta. Super healthy and yummy too.
Make friends with healthy bacteria
Gut health is an important factor that ensures overall health and wellbeing. A healthy digestive system is important for proper nutrient absorption. This impacts overall health and development of body systems including brain development and better immunity. It is therefore very important that children be given foods that will boost their gut health.
Fermented foods, high fibre foods and prebiotics are great for boosting gut health. Fermented foods like yoghurt or curd are of course great. But also foods which require fermentation such as idli, dosa or even kimchi provide the right nutrition.
Fibre can come from beans, lentils, fruits & vegetables, nuts and seeds. Adding a little flax seed powder to porridges or on top of puddings or even in roti aata is a good way to enhance children’s nutrition. Similarly, foods such as garlic, onion provide the prebiotics which helps the gut.
Turn towards ancient wisdom
Revisit the times of our forefathers and add foods they have believed in for years.
Indian food and diet are rich in fruits and vegetables. A multitude of beans, pulses and legumes are consumed almost on a daily basis – every family makes a dal dish for their meal times. Millets which are becoming fashionable today have always been relied on in hardy times of colds or winters. The power of millets to provide valuable nutrition was well known. As already mentioned in many places above, adding millets to your diet will only ensure that your child receives a lot of nutrients in the form of iron, vitamins, minerals and fibre without the heaviness of carbs or gluten.
Also, traditional Indian spices and condiments like garlic, ginger, turmeric which are abundant and common in Indian foods are today researched to be vital for good digestive health. These ingredients can also be added very easily to children’s meals even if they don’t consume spicy Indian curries.
Did you know: Turmeric is not easily absorbed and should be paired with substances that enhance its absorption, such as black pepper.
Healthy eating does not have to be complicated. It does not mean cooking separate meals for your child. As your child grows he will do as you do and not do as he is told to. What this means is that the change needs to happen in you too. Parents and other elders around the child should set the right examples and the child will follow. Do you have any other tips to make sure children’s nutrition is right?