“Please don’t be that mum who doesn’t give their kid birthday cake at a party,” Shilarna Vaze (also fondly known as Chef Chinu) recently called out on Instagram. “That’s just mean!”
There’s much truth to what she says in her recent video, asking why we demonise sugar, especially when it comes to giving our kids a sweet treat. As with anything we put into our bodies, it’s provenance that is key. It’s not just about where your sugar (or indeed any other pantry essential) is grown, but also how it’s grown and whether it has been processed. With her inimitable candour, Chef Chinu also busts the myths surrounding supposedly good-for-you sugars (brown sugar is just white sugar with molasses) whilst highlighting nuances driven by seasonality (jaggery is a superfood but is also heat-inducing and therefore not so appropriate during the summer).
Whilst I am quick to order raw unprocessed sugar (from Praakritik, an organic farmer-led initiative) to judiciously add to Jr’s next batch of snacking muffins, the broader questions around toddler nutrition loom, compounded by the inevitable picky-eater syndrome that haunts all mums. Has Jr had enough milk today? Oh no, he hasn’t finished his lunch again. Wait, why is his favourite food hitting the floor?
Yet, if I’m being honest with myself, more often than not, the conundrums are of my own making. I reflect my ideas and aspirations onto Jr’s eating habits.
As Hong Kong-based child nutritionist Sanchita Daswani reminds me, as parents, it is not our job to decide how much our child is going to eat. Decades of propaganda by dieticians and fitness experts might have us foggy about recognising our hunger cues, but—bless their souls—kids are perfectly capable of making the right decision about how much they want to eat and when.
Our job, Daswani says, is to simply decide what we are going to provide the child to eat and where. I’ll tackle the what first: well-balanced meal is essentially a combination of carbohydrates (for a calorie boost), a good fat (essential for brain development) and protein (for physical growth and functioning). Everything else from fruits and veggies to superfoods are add-ons with ancillary benefits. Sounds complicated? It needn’t be. A well-balanced meal could be as simple as hash browns—potatoes (carbs) cooked in ghee (a good fat) and sprinkled with fresh cheese or nut powder (protein).
Variety is key for children and goes beyond simply switching up a toddler’s meal plan on a daily basis. As a starting point, why not cook with different oils as a way of feeding different nutrients. Packed with heart-healthy fat, cold-pressed avocado oil is a prime choice for roasting and any form of cooking which requires a high smoking point. Coconut oil, with its cooling effect, is great for medium-heat roasting, baking and/or sautéing. I often use A2 ghee instead of oil, including for Western-style dishes and bakes that call for melted butter. Whilst the superfood status of ghee has long been established, the emphasis on A2 ghee calls out again to the importance of provenance and where our food comes from. In this case, the purest form of ghee from indigenous desi cows is not only superior in taste relative to commercially-produced alternatives, but also vital for ensuring that we reap the full benefits of ghee, be it in the form of healthy bacteria for enhanced digestion or its anti-inflammatory properties.
Experimenting with a spectrum of spices is another delicious way to introduce variety to your tot’s food. From sumac and paprika to cinnamon and nutmeg, spices can recalibrate an ordinary dish with a host of different flavours, fragrances and immunity-boosting benefits, whilst cutting down the need to add more sugar or salt. The right pinch of spices also ensures that toddler-friendly dishes are inviting enough to be shared with the entire family, an important quality in itself as a cue for where you should feed your child – ideally, at a common table, over a family meal.
We tend to be so fixated on what and when to feed our kids, that most of the time, we just forget to eat with our little ones. If eating is a learning process, shared family meals are the primary building block that enable babies and toddlers to develop a healthy relationship with food. There are other benefits too, not least the role it plays in facilitating modelling behaviour to help them emulate how to use utensils and learn table manners early on. Why do we forget that children are both curious and observant? By watching us eat, they will naturally be more interested in the food that is served.
Conversely, sharing meals with kids can be a reality check and wake-up call for an “adulting” generation, displacing zeitgeist-y labels (from gluten-free this to keto that) and finally putting provenance and fresh homemade foods back on our tables.