Could cooking with children put the squeeze on processed food for infants?

Parents cooking fresh produce with children copy

Children enjoy the time they spend cooking and eating with their parents

Goo Goo Gourmet dish
Goo Goo Gourmet's dishes aim to help kids begin their adventure with food

Healthy meals for babies and toddlers have taken off in recent years, presenting ample opportunities to introduce and accustom children to the flavours and benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables. Produce Business UK speaks with those in-the-know; firstly, about the importance of incorporating home-cooked dishes into youngsters’ lifestyles, and, secondly, to learn how the fresh produce industry can help make this process easier for parents

Kickstarting children’s food adventure

Mother-of-two Reena Patel has developed a range of healthy, home-cooked and organic meals for babies and toddlers for her London-based food delivery service, Goo Goo Gourmet, and if you scan the menu you’ll notice fresh produce is a key component of all of her meals.

Such dishes include, for example, beetroot, carrot and ginger purée for babies aged from six months; cauliflower and broccoli cheese for babies aged from seven months; and – for youngsters over ten months of age – pea and mushroom risotto or oriental noodles with carrots and mushrooms.

Patel, who is mother to Aarush, 6, and Nishi, 3, explains that she created her range of homemade meals to help take the strain off young parents and carers – as well as to help with education on the benefits of homemade food.

Weaning can be daunting and it’s not always a straightforward process because everyone is offering you advice about what you should be giving your child. And that advice is always changing. It’s hard going for parents.”

Having grown up with her mother’s and grandmother’s home cooking, Patel explains that she made a conscious decision not to feed her children food from a “squeezy tube”, although she admits she was once one of those terrified parents.

“When I was weaning my first child, I started cooking and experimenting with new recipes,” she says. “Each to their own, but I feel that if the first food a child is fed is something from a squeezy tube we are not actually teaching them about the ingredients that are used in their meals.” 

Goo Goo Gourmet_Reena Patel
Reena Patel of Goo Goo Gourmet

Guiding kids towards a healthy lifestyle

Patel, who is currently studying naturopathic medicine, asserts that babies and young children should have the opportunity to enjoy what their parents eat and understand what real food tastes like as they begin their “food adventure” in life. “If they try these foods at a younger age they are less likely to turn their noses up later on,” she suggests.

After setting up her business more than four years ago, Patel is now expanding the Goo Goo Gourmet range by developing a food box service that, when launched, will enable parents to order a box full of ingredients for meals they can cook with their youngsters.

Some of the easy-to-prepare recipes include: oven-roasted tomato soup, giant pasta shells stuffed with spinach and ricotta (served with tomato sauce), and homemade vegetable pizza.

“I know it’s not always possible but I think parents should eat as a family, and not necessarily make a separate meal for their kids,” Patel says. “It can be difficult to get kids to try new foods but if they have made it themselves they will try new things because they have a vested interest in them.”

The benefits of cooking with children

Nutritionist Kirsten Brooks, who is also a mum of two (Cameron, 5, and Luca, 2) and owner of London-based consultancy Eat Yourself to Health – Nutritional Medicine, agrees that children undoubtedly benefit from cooking with their parents.

She says: "Over the past 50 years it's admittedly become much harder to maintain healthy eating habits when processed and sugary foods are ubiquitous and our modern lives are often so busy and stressful. However, given the rise in obesity levels and other chronic and degenerative diseases, it's vital that we try and fit in the time to prepare and cook well-balanced, healthy meals whenever possible.

“It's important that we do this not just for ourselves but, for those of us who are parents or carers, for our children too. Children enjoy the time they spend cooking and eating with us and, by introducing them to new fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods, we are helping to lead our next generation towards a healthier lifestyle.”

Cooking with kids

While Brooks acknowledges that getting children to try new foods can sometimes be tough and frustrating, she claims they are more likely to consume dishes they've helped to prepare.

“My eldest son, for example, who has always been a very fussy eater, recently helped me to prepare and cook a simple colourful, nutritious family meal of grilled chicken with roasted vegetables containing squash, asparagus, courgettes, peppers, aubergine, tomatoes and onions,” she notes. “He really enjoyed helping us and being involved, and I'm proud to say that he sat down and ate the meal with us as a family. It really encouraged him to be a bit more adventurous in eating food he'd normally reject."

Working harder to link health with fresh produce

The fresh produce industry would obviously benefit from encouraging families to take time out of their busy schedules to cook with their children as a way towards furthering healthy eating.

Patel says: “There’s this big ‘clean eating’ movement for adults at the moment, which is great but what does it really mean? We need to stop over thinking what we are eating. For example, rather than concentrating on [eating] five fruit and vegetables a day we should do that anyway; knowing that fresh produce is something that’s naturally going to be in our food.”

Patel, who often sources her ingredients from farmers’ markets local to her South East London home, suggests the fresh produce industry could help to entice children to eat more fruits and veggies by supplying a greater range of quirky varieties.

“Independent growers are a lot better at supplying unusual varieties of fruits and vegetables, such as yellow tomatoes, which kids love because they are taught that tomatoes are red,” she points out.

Meanwhile, Dr Helen Crawley, director of First Steps Nutrition Trust, which offers parents and carers information and support on good nutrition from preconception to five years, agrees that fruits and vegetables should be a fundamental part of families’ diets. “If we want people to improve the nutrition of their children, we want them to buy produce,” she states.

Although making a health claim is an expensive and complex process, Dr Crawley notes that the industry still needs to work harder at promoting the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables.

“Whilst traditional baby food products (such as those that come in a jar or a squeezy tube) are often sold with health claims attached to them, a humble piece of broccoli, for instance, is sold alone without such health claims. So, we do need to do more work around linking health with fresh produce.”

For instance, there’s a “huge opportunity” for the industry to make better use of colourful recipe cards to help give families ideas of the dishes they can prepare, according to Dr Crawley.

“We need to find a better way of raising the profile of real food,” she urges, adding that the UK could take heed of Brazil’s dietary guidelines, which advise their citizens to follow a few simple golden rules, such as eating food that they recognise, and eating together.

Such guidelines may seem somewhat basic but, as Patel suggests, problems arise when we over complicate what simply should be a pleasurable experience.

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