Fussy behaviour and a child’s steely determination to rather eat nothing than eat veggies can lead parents to give in and let their child have chicken popcorn and vanilla cupcakes for dinner. That’s certainly easier than taming tantrums and managing meltdowns, or just letting them starve. But experts say what’s key is not just getting your kids to eat, it’s getting them to eat a variety of good foods and also help them be more open to trying new foods.

Obesity now dominates the national discussion on the child population’s health, and it’s a discussion that’s quite grim. Authorities estimate up to 40 per cent of children in the UAE are either overweight or obese. And it’s a figure that’s only on the rise.

And when you remember that habits learned early on follow kids throughout their life and shape their relationship with food, it’s easy to set off into an almost panic about how serious of a business feeding children is. A nutritious diet that’s fuel for all their boisterous activities and also helps them stay sharp and focused? No tiny challenge.

But besides choices such as chocolates and soft drinks that straight-out get a bad rep, there’s also misleading foods that masquerade as healthy and harmless but really aren’t – often masking shocking levels of salt and sugar.

Navigating this minefield can be tricky for mums and dads. So we selected five different meal choices, from frozen nuggets to sugar-free yogurts, and took it to food professionals around the UAE for the truth on them. But fear not, we’ve also found out some alternatives for those items. Guaranteed to get them licking their plates clean...

Sugar or fat-free items

Low-fat fruit yogurts, sugar-free drinks, fat-free desserts... while these might be free of some ingredients, they aren’t necessarily free from the bad stuff. Plant-based nutritionist and wellness professional Terri Chrisman (fabuloushealth.net) tells us why

The health impact

When a packaged food is labelled free-from or sugar free, it usually has something else in it to make up for what is missing. Food manufacturers’ whole purpose is to sell products, and some do so without thought for people’s long-term health.

For example, many free-from products are highly processed, low in fibre, high in sugar and fat. Sugar-free products can have artificial sweeteners that mimic the taste of the missing sugar.

When looking at sugar-free options, choose products that are sweetened with natural plants such as stevia. Some companies say their products are refined-sugar free and instead use beets, fruit juice or dates to sweeten. These sweeteners react the same way in the body as sugar.

It is important for parents and children to learn how to read nutrition labels. First look at the ingredients list. If it is very long with things you don’t know or understand, it’s probably best to pass on it. If the first or second item on the list is sugar or fat, it is probably not a great choice.

What to swap it for?

Children over three are perfectly suited to drinking water. There is no need for commercially prepared fruit juice, sugar-free or otherwise.

If parents find it difficult to get their kids to eat vegetables, juicing fresh veg with some fruit is a great way to make them more palatable.

Over free-from foods, the best foods are those naturally grown. Like fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds (in moderation), legumes and whole grains.

Eat mostly whole foods and eat packaged foods only occasionally. Involve children in the food preparation process to teach them valuable skills and they will be better prepared for a life of fabulous health.

Baked goods

Cupcakes, croissants, cookies and biscuits are treats every kiddo yearns for. Plant-based nutritionist Terri Chrisman tells us why kid-favourite gooey frosted goodies should only be occasional indulgences

The health impact

Commercial baked goods are usually very tasty because of the added sugars and fats. Apart from flavour combinations that are very popular with kids, their bright colours and stunning display at coffee shops and supermarkets make them difficult to avoid.

The bad news is, they are usually high in energy and fat, and if that energy is not burnt off via exercise, or is in excess of daily energy requirements, it can contribute to health issues such as obesity.

Some commercial baked products have high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavours, preservatives and artificial colours that have been associated with health and behavioural issues.

Parents are the gatekeepers of their homes. They have a responsibility to protect their family’s health. The easiest way to help their children is to not buy these sugary items during their weekly shop. A little bit of tough love will go a long way in ensuring your kids grow into healthy adults.

A great way to wean kids off these snacks is via modelling. Children will copy their parents’ eating behaviours. If parents reach for the cookie tin, so will the little ones. At home, cakes and cookies and other baked goods should be occasional treats only.

What to swap it for?

Good lunchbox substitutes for baked goods are fruit, vegetable sticks, homemade energy balls, or hummus and dry crackers or pita. Instead of buying baked goods, parents can make similar, healthier versions at home using lower fat, lower sugar recipes. And by getting the kids involved in the process – kids love to cook and this way parents will be teaching them valuable skills about how the food they eat affects their health – they will be able to teach them how to make healthy choices. Also, always prepare and make available fresh, healthy foods for children to snack on – think chopped veg or fruit.

Ready-to-cook frozen foods

Frozen parathas, burgers, nuggets and other bite-sized poultry pieces are wildly popular with little ones. Dietitian Sushma Ghag, Aster Hospital Mankhool, tells us why they shouldn’t be

The health impact

A wide variety of ‘kid’ foods tend to be high in fat and sugar. French fries, nuggets and other nutrient-poor snacks fall in this category.

Whether you get them in a restaurant or out of the freezer section of a supermarket, chicken nuggets and the like usually contain more salt, fat and preservatives than dietary requirements and also contain heavy breading, which is high in carbohydrates. This may cause restlessness, anxiety and hyperactivity in children.

Children as well as infants often tend to exceed their usual food intake, in turn exceeding their estimated energy requirements. This explains the prevalence of obesity issues at young ages.

Although burgers or cutlet patties don’t usually contain sugar, the main ingredient in them, processed meat, is usually high in preservatives and salt. Once in a while, a small, plain hamburger probably wouldn’t be much of a health problem, but the oversized patties, buns and toppings add increase the calories of a simple patty.

Moreover, certain foods seem to worsen Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder symptoms or cause behaviour that mimics the signs of ADHD in children. Some studies in the US suggests that kids with ADHD may have low levels of essential fatty acids.

So while a frozen paratha and chicken popcorn batch are easy to prepare, don’t fall into that trap.

What to swap it for?

Opt for small, grilled-chicken sandwiches with lots of veggies. Fries could be baked at home with very less or without oil – or substitute them with baked sweet potatoes.

Whatever you serve, innovate and include the general dietary recommendations of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, bean, and healthy fats found in certain types of fish, flaxseed and other foods.

Easy eats for kids

Supplied

With processed foods becoming an integral part of our kids’ lunches, there is a constant fear of the effects of excess sugar/salt on their health. In a two-page advertorial, Friday speaks to Hunter Foods’ Managing Director Ananya Narayan and Marketing Director Yan Narayan for guidelines on how pressed-for-time parents can make better dietary choices for their children and family 

Be it at home to answer the ‘I’m hungry’ cry, or to pack away in little lunchboxes for school, you need to feel confident about the meals you are

feeding your children.

Incorporating fruits and vegetables along with starchy foods, protein, dairy and beverages – all the while making food fun enough that fussy kids won’t turn their noses up at it – is no small challenge. And life can get pretty busy for

career-savvy parents, which means mealtimes can be quite stressful.

But healthy, energy-boosting meals and snacks that are quick and simple to put

together need not be a distant dream.

From breakfasts to kickstart the day to snacks that will rev up energy levels, here are fuss-free ways to feed your child.

BREAKFAST: Processed cereals might be a go-to breakfast, but they are piled high with sugar. Opt instead for porridge made with rolled oats or quinoa topped with a few berries for that added taste and nutrition.

Smoothies can work as a great breakfast too, and is also a great way to sneak in fruits into your little picky eater’s diet. Add berries, bananas and seeds from the Hunter Foods’ range – pick from chia, flax and amaranth for a good mix.

MID-MORNING SNACK: ‘But carrots are for rabbits’ – is this something you hear often when your kids refuse to eat raw veggies you so diligently pack in their lunchboxes? Delicious dips are a solution.

Create a batch with your kids and see how fast they polish off those slices of raw veg. If you’re pressed for time, then Hunter Foods’ carefully selected healthy snacks – from wholegrain corn or beetroot chips to brown rice crackers – can ensure you are not plagued with guilt for not fulfilling their nutritional needs.

LUNCH: Playing, learning and focusing takes up so much strength. Tuna or salmon (fresh or canned in spring water) work great to keep energy levels high. Mix some flaked fish with wholewheat pasta and sweetcorn (check to see there’s no added sugar) with a little mayonnaise for a delish lunch.

Bread and turkey sandwiches can get boring pretty quickly, which is where Hunter Foods’ range of Multi-Cereal Cakes, Brown Rice Crackers and Nairn’s Oatcakes comes in. Add some cream cheese or peanut butter and you have great bread substitutes for filling hungry bellies and keeping them alert and active through the day.

SNACKS: High-sugar foods cause a peak in glucose followed by a dip – cue tired, moody kids. Swap the flour biscuits and chocolate milk with oats and a smoothie to keep blood sugar levels steady. For some dairy, fruit yogurt or cubes of cheese, or a small chilled bottle of milk, work well. Or go for Hunter’s Gourmet Mixed Vegetable, Beetroot and Mixed Fruit Chips or Baked Pretzos – easy eats for little fingers, and so full of flavour.

DESSERT: Instead of chocolate cupcakes and raspberry jelly doughnuts from your neighbourhood bakery, opt for nutritious Roasted Coconut Chips to satisfy both nutritional profile and sweet tooth. Your child won’t feel deprived with various flavours such as Vanilla Caramel, Dark Chocolate and even Wasabi for those who like the pungent taste.

HYDRATE HYDRATE HYDRATE: Don’t forget to pack a bottle of water with their lunchbox. Bottle up some coconut water (with no sugar) too for them – great for rehydration.

Hunter Foods is a Dubai-based snacks and foods company, offering you the widest range of high-quality products, believing in Better For You ingredients and processes in all aspects