Joelle Bradford introduces the benefits of feeding young children natural, whole foods featuring specific items to introduce and when.
Once upon a time, ‘real food’ was all that existed; beautiful colours, flavours, and textures growing out of the earth, off the vine, from a tree, along with animals grazing and foraging in the wild. Food is a huge component of our lives, but with the relatively new advent of processed foods more aisles in grocery stores are dedicated to processed and packaged food than real, whole foods. What we choose to buy and consume ultimately affects our bodies, our community, and on a grander scale the world’s environment and food economy.
Choosing real food is more than reading labels and scanning supermarket aisles. Unfortunately, there is no universal definition of what constitutes ‘real food.’ However, in general real food has no added chemicals such as preservatives, artificial flavours and colours, nor injected with antibiotics and hormones. It is a single ingredient item that comes directly from nature and has not been processed beyond the basic capabilities of a home kitchen. Real foods contain life-giving nutrients we need at every stage of life in order to grow and thrive, particularly for a growing and developing baby.
DEVELOPMENT: In the womb
A developing fetus depends upon the mother’s diet to meet its nutritional needs. With careful planning, fresh whole foods provide both the mother and the developing child with all nutritional needs. Vitamin-packed and nutrient-dense, real foods meet higher nutritional and caloric needs during pregnancy without a significant increase in the quantity of food.
INTRODUCING: Excellent eggs
Of all nutrient-dense foods available, eggs are loaded with vitamins, minerals and micronutrients. This makes sense as they contain the building blocks needed to create an entire living being. Easy to prepare, eggs can be scrambled, poached, hard-boiled, eaten alone or added to nearly any dish. Eggs, uniquely, contain the full set of essential amino acids and have an excellent fat profile. They also include choline, phosphorus, vitamin B12 and even vitamin D! All these nutrients are essential for brain and bone development making eggs a truly exceptional choice.
DEVELOPMENT: 0-6 months
For an infant, breastmilk is made by humans for humans and is the perfect food for the first six months of life. Its sole purpose is to meet the nutritional needs of a newborn. According to the World Health Organization, “Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond [to] achieve optimal growth, development and health.” With enough support, most women can breastfeed. In instances when this is not possible, alternatives like another woman’s breastmilk through friends or milk banks can fill in the gaps. Social media communities like Human Milk 4 Human Babies is one option. With the guidance of a trusted professional, some well-researched homemade recipes for formula can closely resemble breastmilk, such as Sally Fallon’s in Nourishing Traditions. As in pregnancy, the nutrient requirements of a nursing mother increases to match the needs of her baby’s growth, making real, whole food nutrition essential for both.
INTRODUCING: Awesome avocados
Avocados rank among the top foods in nutrient density. Eaten straight out of the shell or blended into a puree, the rich, smooth texture lends itself well to a variety of dishes including guacamole, smoothies and desserts. Avocados are rich in dietary fats which aids mood regulation, brain development and healthy skin. Most vitamins are well represented, such as B vitamins for energy production and nutrient metabolism.
DEVELOPMENT: 6 months to 1 year
There is perhaps no other population that would benefit as greatly from real foods in their diet as infants. They gain both nutritional benefits and also learn, for the very first time, how solid foods work. Infants practice fine motor skills such as the pincer grasp when handling food and hand-eye coordination when bringing the food to their mouths. At the same time muscles in the mouth develop for chewing and babies discover texture and taste of each food for the very first time.
Signs indicating a baby is eager to start solid foods include an obvious interest in the food you consume, the ability to swallow without spitting out and sitting unassisted. Considering how much learning takes place surrounding first solid foods, it is a relief to know the purpose of these foods is more about learning than calories. Breastmilk, or its alternatives, still supplement the majority ofcalories whilst the child learns to integrate solid food.
However, the importance of real food is paramount. During the first years of life children develop the palate and food preferences. A diet rich in flavours and textures of unadulterated real foods accustom the child to natural tastes including sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. If food is sweetened, seasoned, dulled or refined, the child will come to know these flavours and textures as what food should taste like, seeking them out as preferred foods and compromising their health.
Every food should be introduced numerous times and in varying forms. Just because a child refuses a food the first, second or tenth time, does not mean he/she does not like that food. It may be the texture, temperature, colour, or simply the child’s mood at the time. Adults are not always in the mood for our favorite foods. If you or your child has not acquired a preference for natural foods, food preferences and palates can be changed over time with enough repetition. Introduce only one food every few days in order to note any reactions. If there is a reaction, wait another month before introducing it again, as more time will allow the digestive system to mature enough to tolerate that food. If the problem persists there are many professionals skilled at diagnosing and managing food allergies and intolerances. The key to the entire process is variety – giving the child as large a taste repertoire as possible.
Foods can be prepared raw, cooked, pureed, liquefied, mixed with breastmilk or on their own. Best practice is choosing seasonal, local organic fruits. Popular foods include apples and bananas or vegetables such as beets and carrots. Many families choose to puree whatever the family is eating at mealtime depending on the age of the child, lessening the burden to prepare special foods.
INTRODUCING: Savoury sweet potatoes
A great first solid food to introduce is the sweet potato. This incredibly versatile, real food is loaded with nutrients. For babies, cook, puree and mix with breastmilk. For older children, sweet potatoes can be mashed, cubed or baked into fries. Sweet potatoes contain an impressive amount of beta-carotene (the darker the flesh the better) along with other vitamins, minerals, fiber and complex carbohydrates. Health benefits are extensive, ranging from increased immunity and vision along with energy and blood sugar regulation.
DEVELOPMENT: 1-2 years
By age one, most kids need solid foods for calories, macronutrients, micronutrients and development. At home it is nice to continue introducing new foods and experimenting with different flavours and textures. The key to this age group is having foods that you know they love readily available. Having healthy, whole food snacks when out at a play-date, running errands or on an airplane keeps energy levels steady. Preparation and planning are essential, but the benefits are endless. Having readily available whole food snacks encourages children to choose healthy items no matter the situation. Fresh fruits such as organic strawberries are a true treat for children.
INTRODUCING: Beneficial broccoli
Past one year of age, children will be able to eat most textures of foods presented making food preparation easier. A fun texture to introduce is the broccoli floret. Broccoli looks like a mini tree which appeals to a child’s imagination. The versatile broccoli can be eaten raw, steamed, pureed, made into soup or baked with a splash of lemon juice. The high vitamin C content in broccoli is great for boosting immunity, wound repair and collagen production for the skin and joints. Vitamin K benefits the bones and the blood. Indole-3-carbinole is a lesser-known but powerful antioxidant and estrogen metabolizer found in broccoli, especially important in cities with questionable air and soil quality.
DEVELOPMENT: 2 years and onwards
The nutritional density of the toddler diet is still crucial. While physical growth is not as exponential as an infant, toddlers are still growing and developing in many other areas such as proprioception, motor skills, language, and other cognitive and emotional areas. A great way to incorporate real food into a toddler’s life is to prepare the food together. Tear up pieces of kale or lettuce to make a salad, and a child cannot wait to gobble up the creation come mealtime. Trying a new recipe together is a way to bring the wonder and magic of food preparation alive. Sticking with family favourites allows your child to anticipate a well-known, delicious meal. Use this time to discuss the taste of the food and how the textures and temperatures feel in their mouths. Eating as a family is a great time to bond in a distraction-free time fostering mindful food habits and practising conversational skills. Being mindful with food allows children to be aware body signals such as hunger, taste and satiety. Fostering trust in internal body cues, children will naturally regulate the amount and type of food they need to grow.
In addition to exposure to real food at home, there is a growing number of farms showing children how food is planted, grown and harvested. Going to the wet market showcases the sheer variety of foods from meat, seafood, vegetables and spices along with ample lessons in culture and the economics of exchanging money for food. The market also offers an opportunity to see the transformation of these foods from live chickens to the preparation of seafood.
INTRODUCING: Portable pumpkin seeds
In terms of portability, nuts and seeds are packed with nutrients and convenient. Soaking, sprouting or baking are ways to prepare raw pumpkin seeds to be used sprinkled over favorite dishes or ground up in spreads, dips and sauces. Pumpkin seeds contain huge amounts of magnesium aiding bone growth, promoting smoother digestion, deeper sleep and decreased muscle tension. Pumpkin seeds also contain high amounts of trace minerals. Zinc aids in many enzymatic processes of the body, notably those for immune function. Iron facilitates blood and oxygen metabolism in the body. Manganese, ever-present in almost all the body’s biological processes, is well represented in the nutrient profile of pumpkin seeds. Moreover, pumpkin seeds contain ample protein and fatty acids making it a nutritionally well-rounded food.
FOOD AND THE FAMILY
As children age and mature, the family meal is a great time to explore topics such as the philosophy behind organic and non-organic, local and imported, packaging and recycling, and how foods choices can impact our health and community. When a child is properly informed about complex topics they can form educated opinions on the culture of real food. Food is so much more than nutrition, and when a child knows how decisions around food impacts the body, life expectancy and the environment, they are more likely to make positive decisions. Introducing real food at any stage in life is a daily opportunity to make a difference in the world we live in, one bite at a time!
Joelle can be reached at Integrative Medical Practice at Tel: +852 2523 8044