For any parent, managing their child’s diet can be a real minefield. There’s so much information to sift through, including conflicting advice about what kids should eat and when. Factor in dealing with super-fussy eaters, overeating, snacking or even food allergies, and it can be tricky to know if you are doing the right thing.
Luckily, with a career spanning 25 years, there’s nothing that Annabel Karmel – one of the UK’s leading authorities on cooking for kids – hasn’t seen. From food intolerances to portion sizes, she knows pretty much everything about what children should be eating – and the best ways to get them to try it. ‘Cooking for a family needs to be fairly quick and easy,’ she says. ‘Plus, a dish has to be a crowd-pleaser – I think too many of us are running “kitchen cafés” at home, preparing multiple meals for different children. I don’t believe in this – you have to find recipes that everyone will eat, and that means tapping into what children find appealing.’
She says that one big mistake many parents make is thinking they can only give stereotypical children’s food to their kids. ‘Actually, kids love variety,’ she says. ‘They will enjoy dishes with lots of flavour, such as butter chicken curry and teriyaki salmon.’ With this in mind, we introduced Annabel to three children, each with a different dietary challenge, for her take on how their parents can introduce more healthy variety into their everyday meals. Read on for Annabel’s expert advice, plus delicious family recipes...
'Tiana has always been a fussy eater – she won't try anything new'
Tiana only eats a handful of different foods and mum Donia feels she has run out of options.
Donia says: ‘Tiana has always been incredibly fussy; as a baby, she was very difficult to wean. She gets fixated on the same foods – plain pasta or rice, chicken breasts, broccoli and mackerel – and will just eat those over and over again. If I encourage her to try something new, she looks at the plate and says, “That looks disgusting”.
‘I’ve tried every trick in the book and she still won’t budge. It’s got to the point where I’ll just ask what she wants because whatever I choose to cook, she won’t eat. She hates chips, bread, potatoes, fish, cereal, anything with sauce on and any vegetable that isn’t broccoli. I just don’t know what to do for her any more – I’m at my wits’ end.’
Annabel says: ‘Tiana drinks a lot of milk, which could be filling her up, so cutting that out might be a good start.
‘If she doesn’t like chips, try sweet potatoes in meals. You can spiralise them and serve instead of pasta, try them as wedges or make them into “potato waffles”. Giving a dish child appeal – finger food is always popular! – is another way to help a child to enjoy eating. A reward chart could encourage Tiana to try some new foods. Get her involved in cooking them, too, as she may be more willing to taste something she’s helped to make.’
2 weeks on...
Donia says: ‘We’ve really made progress with Tiana over the past fortnight. Cutting down on milk has increased her appetite and she gave the meatball and spiralised sweet potato recipe (below) a try, which was a really big step for her. Thinking about how I present the food so that it looks appealing to Tiana, or is easy for her to eat with her hands, has also really helped. Getting her into cooking has been a good idea, too – she even ate a slice of bread that we had baked together.’
'We’ve got into bad eating habits, and snacking is our downfall’
Mum Heather feels responsible for her son Airon’s bad eating habits.
She says: ‘Airon has picked up his overeating from me. I’ve struggled with my weight from the age of four, and I can see those habits have been passed on to him. He’s overweight and feels self-conscious about it.
'I do feel responsible – after all, I do most of the food shopping and cooking – but it can be difficult. Many ready meals have four servings, but the three of us will end up eating it all.
‘Snacking is one of our big downfalls and, like me, Airon has a sweet tooth. My parents never cooked, so it isn’t a skill they passed down to me, but I’m trying to learn now so I can make us healthier family meals from scratch.’
Annabel says: ‘To overhaul your child’s diet, you need to do it as a family. Start with a healthier approach to cooking – steaming and grilling foods instead of frying them, or why not make your own chicken nuggets at home? ‘If snacking is an issue, make sure you have something to hand when they come in from school.
'A selection of cut-up fruit works well (children will often walk straight past a fruit bowl) and handy packets of ready-sliced fruit are brilliant for lunchboxes, too.’
2 weeks on...
Heather says: ‘Chatting to Annabel was so helpful. It made me realise that I had just been serving the same meals and so wasn’t making it interesting for Airon or encouraging him to eat new things. I was surprised that he loved the salmon giant couscous recipe (below) – we’ll definitely make it again!
‘Now that I’ve started cutting up the fruit for his lunchbox, he’s actually started eating it. Plus, after cooking this salad, I feel a bit more confident that I can follow a simple recipe and know that it’s going to be good for Airon.’
Simply mixing flaked salmon with crunchy sweetcorn and giant couscous, this addictive salad as as healthy as it is delicious.
food shopping for us means spending ages checking labels for allergy warnings'
Mum Stephanie has found that it’s becoming more difficult to buy food that son William is able to eat.
Stephanie says: ‘We had no idea William was allergic to anything until he went into anaphylactic shock, aged three, after drinking a smoothie with flax seed in it. Tests then showed he’s also allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, mustard and sesame. Following all the recent allergy awareness stories in the news, shopping for food is actually getting harder, as the “may contain” lists on everyday products seem to get longer.
‘William is an amazing little boy and he doesn’t let his allergies get to him, but they have definitely changed our lives as a family. We rarely eat out at restaurants – we’ve actually been refused service before – and eating at home means making a lot of meals from scratch. I definitely need some new ideas!’
Annabel says: ‘Allergies like William’s can mean it’s especially difficult to enjoy Indian or Chinese dishes. That’s why I wanted to give a recipe for a dish that he probably wouldn’t be able to order if he was having dinner in a restaurant. It’s also a great family meal, too.
‘For sweet treats, Stephanie could make her own granola bars at home and simply swap out any nuts and sesame seeds for oats or pumpkin seeds. William can have fun and learn a few cooking skills helping her to make them, too.’
2 weeks on...
Stephanie says: ‘Annabel’s butter chicken recipe (below) is our new favourite family dish – and just being able to all eat the same meal together has made such a difference.
'But the biggest change has been the improvement I’ve seen in William’s confidence – he’s so much more optimistic about dealing with his allergies now. After speaking to Annabel, he has a sense that he will be able to eat many more dishes as long as we make the right food swaps when we prepare them.’
This ultra-tasty (not to mention simple) curry will become a firm favourite with the whole family.
For dessert, you can't really go wrong with these refreshing beetroot and berry ice lollies – they're perfect for your next summer party or barbecue.
Annabel's top tips for no-fuss eating
- ‘Don’t react. If your little one is refusing to eat, don’t give their fussiness any attention – just let them go and play. A hungry child is a much less fussy child!’
- ‘Mix it up. Feeding a child the same foods all the time may just encourage them to be fussy – and it’s boring, too. We all need variety.’
- ‘Time it properly. Children are often hungry after school, so this is a good time to try out new foods.’
- ‘Put foods together. If your child is obsessed with one type of food, try combining it with something they don’t like or haven’t tried, such as adding green veg to a cheesy pasta dish.’