Are ‘healthy options’ really good for your child?

Seemingly healthy choices such as dried fruit and cereal bars may not be as nutritious as you think

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Try porridge instead of high fibre cereal

We all know nutritious foods are vital for giving your toddler a healthy start in life – after all, she needs the right fuel for running around and discovering new things! But while you probably know she shouldn’t have too many sweets, fizzy drinks and crisps, there’s a range of foods that may seem nutritious, but you need to be careful when you give them to your tot. We asked children’s dietician Judy More, author of Teach Yourself Feeding Your Toddler , to identify some common pitfalls.

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 Pasta sauces

A tomato-based pasta sauce isn’t in itself unhealthy, but try to opt for homemade versions when you can. As Judy explains, “Processed sauces are too salty for your child to eat every day.”

The main problem, however, tends to be how you serve your pasta dishes. “It’s quite common for mums to give their toddler pasta with a sauce and some cheese,” says Judy. “That can be quite calorific, and it isn’t a balanced meal – you’ve missed a great opportunity to give your child a portion of vegetables. So give less pasta and sauce, and include a vegetable or salad on the side.”

Another easy way to include vegetables is to stir them into the sauce – crunchy veggies like broccoli and peppers work well. “You should also make sure you give your child fruit at breakfast, and include a vegetable and some fruit at their other meals,” advises Judy.

Cereal bars

A cereal bar could seem the obvious healthy alternative to chocolate – with fruit, nuts and wholegrains, surely it has to be a more health-conscious snack option? Not necessarily. A Which? report found that some cereal bars have more sugar and fat in them than popular chocolate bars.

They may also contain high levels of saturated fats, which are linked with obesity, and trans fats, which you want to avoid in the diet. “Although most trans fats have been removed from foods by manufacturers, some cereal bars may still contain them,” says Judy, “so you should always check the ingredients on the label.”

When you’re checking food labels, the higher an ingredient is listed on the label, the more of it is found in the food – so if sugar’s high on the list, for example, it’s probably best to steer clear.

Cheese

“Cheese is nutritious and high in calcium, which is important for children,” says Judy – they need it for healthy bone and tooth development. “Children should have three servings of dairy products a day, and cheese is a great way to provide one of these,” she adds. But it can also be high in saturated fat and salt. Between age 1 and 3, your child shouldn’t have more than 2g of salt a day – and it adds up quickly, especially with processed foods. “It’s best to only give cheese once a day,” says Judy. This can be on its own as a snack, or grated over a dish such as pasta.

High-fibre cereals

You’d think that high-fibre cereals such as Bran Flakes would be a good breakfast for a toddler as they’re high in fibre and fortified with vitamins. “However, they’re not suitable for toddlers,” says Judy. “Very high-fibre foods contain phytates, which bind with other nutrients and remove them from the body.” This means your child won’t gain all the nutritional benefits of other vitamins and minerals in her food. Such cereals are best avoided until she’s older – opt instead for sugar-free muesli or porridge topped with fruit.


Dried fruit

Dried apricots, figs, dates or raisins may seem like a simple way to give your toddler a serving of fruit, but you need to be aware of the levels of natural sugar they contain. “Dentists say that if you give dried fruit as a snack, it sticks to the teeth, which encourages cavities,” says Judy. And some dried fruit, like cranberries, have added sugar, too. Don’t cut it out altogether, though. “It’s great at the right time,” says Judy. “It’s nutritious and a good source of iron. But keep it to mealtimes, stirred into porridge, cereal or yogurt. You can protect your children’s teeth from cavities if you restrict sugary foods.”

5 healthy snacks for kids

  • Oat cakes and cream cheese – the slow release energy will keep them going between meals.
  • Plain ‘baby’ rice cakes – with no added salt, ‘baby’ rice cakes are the healthiest. Great for on the move, they’re not messy and most toddlers love them.
  • Houmous and veggie sticks – try carrot or green beans, great for making vegetables fun.
  • A pot of fruit salad – made with orange, grapes and kiwi, fruit salad makes a nice change to a whole banana and it’s packed with antioxidants to boost the immune system.
  • Small banana sandwich – sweet but much healthier than biscuits, it will also provide plenty of potassium.

Mums’ stories

“I used to give Isabelle lots of dried fruit as I thought it was a healthy way of giving her a snack. Then I read that it can contain a lot of natural sugar, however, which isn’t good for her teeth. I still give her dried fruit now, but I’ve cut down the amount.” 

Jennifer Herring, 26, from Somerset, mum to Isabelle, 18 months

“I used to give Olivia lots of fibre – pasta, brown bread, All Bran – but then realised it was too much for her. She stopped going to the toilet, sometimes for as long as five days. Her tummy was swollen and sore. Now I limit the fibre in her diet and give her natural live yogurt each day.”

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Fiona Allan, 38, from Middlesex, mum to Olivia, 3

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