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'Don't stress about the mess: let kids help in the kitchen'

Worried about getting back on track after a summer of ice creams? Katy McGuinness advises on rebooting the family's approach to food


Róisín Matthews - aka Mess Chef - with her daughter Rowena (5) and son Oscar (3). Photo: David Conachy

Róisín Matthews - aka Mess Chef - with her daughter Rowena (5) and son Oscar (3). Photo: David Conachy

Darina Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School. Photo: Clare Keogh

Darina Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School. Photo: Clare Keogh


Róisín Matthews - aka Mess Chef - with her daughter Rowena (5) and son Oscar (3). Photo: David Conachy

As the summer holidays draw to a close, families will be wondering if it's possible to get their eating back on track after weeks of irregular meals, endless snacks and far too many ice creams, sweets and sugary drinks.

For many of us, September is the real start of the new year and a great month for a reboot of the family's approach to food, with the aim of implementing long-lasting, positive changes.

Maeve Hanan, dietitian at Orla Walsh Nutrition, says that the first step is to create a healthy home environment when it comes to food.

"A big part of this is encouraging a healthy relationship with food," says Hanan, "especially due to the worrying increase in the rate of eating disorders in children and teens. This means not discussing diets or calories at home, and definitely not criticising anyone's weight or body shape in front of children. For parents, this includes talking negatively about their own bodies.


Darina Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School. Photo: Clare Keogh

Darina Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School. Photo: Clare Keogh

Darina Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School. Photo: Clare Keogh

"An important message to share with kids is that there is no such thing as a good or bad food; it's the overall balance of our diet which is important and everything is fine in moderation.

"It's also important not to use food as a reward or to put certain foods on a pedestal by calling them 'treats' - it's much better to keep our language more neutral and just call food by its name.

"Rather than worrying children by talking about health risks and foods to avoid, it's better to focus on positive messages such as 'eating lots of colourful fruit and vegetables is really good for us' [so we should try to 'eat the rainbow'] or 'calcium helps to keep our bones and teeth strong'."

Hanan suggests that parents explain that our bodies need 'everyday foods' (fruit, vegetables, bread, cereal, pasta, fish, eggs, meat, chicken, beans, dairy, nuts, seeds and oils) for fuel, but we need 'sometimes foods' (crisps, sweets and chocolate) less often.

"Nothing should be entirely off limits," says Hanan, "unless of course the child has a specific food allergy. Because children are often strongly influenced by the behaviours they see around them, it's vital for parents to be good role models. "This is why eating together at the table is so important, as it gives an opportunity for children to see other family members eating a wide variety of food, and reinforces the social aspect of eating and taking the time to share a meal, rather than being distracted by the TV or a tablet while eating."

Drogheda-based Róisín Matthews - known as Mess Chef - teaches parent-and-child classes and school sessions, including ones for children with special needs, that aim to get everyone involved in learning about food in a positive way. For young children, this is through cookery and sensory play.

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"The idea is that it is all very natural and relaxed. So rather than presenting children with food on a plate, which can be hard for some, I try to break down the barriers," she says. Matthews adds that for many parents, having children is an impetus to change their diet for the better.

"When children are small, parents want to do something different and they want to avoid having a fussy eater; sometimes because they are fussy eaters themselves.

"In my experience, fussy eating breaks down into two categories: the normal fussy eating phase, that many children go through, and the fussy eating that can often accompany a diagnosis of autism, or sensory processing issues, which can be more challenging."

Before she had her own children, Rowena (5) and Oscar (3), Matthews - who describes herself as "a massive foodie" - worked as a food product developer in industry.

"Looking at the sales figures, you realise that there is massive difference between the perception that we all have that everyone is watching television cooking shows, reading cookbooks and cooking from scratch at home," she says.

"The vast majority of people place a huge reliance on processed food and there is very little cooking from scratch. In the classes that I run, it's a chance for small children to help cook - which they all love to do - without stressing their parents out by the mess involved. The last thing you want is for any interactions with food to be stressful, so by taking it outside the home, we take the stress away.

"With me, they're allowed to make a mess, no one has to taste if they don't want to, and we bake very little, because far too much kitchen activity with children is geared towards making sugary biscuits and cakes rather than real food."

So instead of fairy buns, Matthews' students and their parents learn to make dishes such as falafel, omelettes, tuna sushi rolls, different types of hummus and healthy 'ice cream' (frozen yoghurt with fruit purée) - recipes that they can recreate at home and share as a family. The children are fully involved, even getting to chop using special, safe KiddiKutter knives.

Mother and grandmother, Darina Allen, of Ballymaloe Cookery School, is a fount of wisdom when it comes to feeding children.

"I don't believe in making different food for adults and children - it's too much work, for one thing," says Darina. "It's much better if everyone eats the same thing. Chicken casserole is a one-pot dinner that everyone in the family can eat, from the parents all the way down to the babies who have just been weaned and can have a small portion mashed up.

"Another great family meal is macaroni cheese - use lots of cheese and mustard to make it tasty and then add fish, mushrooms or bacon and serve it with a salad or vegetables on the side.

"The more children are involved in growing and shopping for ingredients and the preparation of meals, the more likely they are to eat them. Everyone in the house should help with meal preparation from an early age - even very young children can be given simple tasks.

"Bring your children to the farmers' market if you can; it's the best way to start to give them an understanding of seasonality, and buy as much of your food as possible without labels. That's how you know it's real."

Meanwhile, dad Rob Cullen and his wife, Yvonne, lost 13 stone between them by making the switch to more mindful eating habits (see robandyvonne.ie).

"We had no resistance from our boys," says Rob. "Liam (11) and Tommy (6) bought into it 100pc."

Rob advises that if the unhealthy food isn't in the house, you can't eat it.

"Planning meals for the week ahead means that you won't be tempted by takeaways," he adds. "And more vegetables are key - chop them small and put them into everything.

"Our children might have a doughnut once in a while, but it's a very occasional thing.

"We keep two huge bowls of fruit on the table all the time, and all their favourite berries in the fridge - those are their 'treats' most of the time.

"Small children are more likely to eat fruit if you chop it for them."

Chef Janice Casey Bracken runs An Grianán Cookery School in Termonfeckin, Co Louth, and has two children.

"Our lads have a fairly healthy diet but the addition of a vegetable patch to the garden has really got them interested in where their food comes from, and there are fewer arguments over vegetables; when they grow it, they are excited to eat it.

"Plus, it makes them get out in the mornings as they have to water their fruit and veg plants. It's a real positive start to the day - looking at what's grown and collecting it to cook."

She adds: "I'm also a huge fan of batch cooking, especially if I'm going to be working away for a few days. I know exactly what they are eating and it's simple for himself to prepare after work."


The dietitian's tips

Maeve Hanan of Orla Walsh Nutrition says:

⬤ "Parent provide, child decide" - using this technique, the parent offers three meals and two to three snacks each day, and the child decides if they want to eat, and if so, how much they want to eat. Hanan says that this helps to avoid arguments or negotiating about what is eaten at meals, and encourages children to listen to their natural feelings of hunger and fullness, rather than eating when they are told to or feeling they have to finish everything on the plate.

⬤ Setting a regular routine for meals and snacks is also helpful, so that kids are offered a regular supply of nutrients but they don't have free rein to snack continuously. This also means that parents know they will be offering nutritious options every few hours, which reduces worry if food is refused.

⬤ Serve meals buffet-style, so that kids can serve themselves based on what they fancy. This helps them to eat more intuitively, plus they are more likely to try different types of food when they have some level of control over what they eat.

⬤ Balanced meals comprise vegetables or fruit, carbohydrates, high-protein foods and a small amount of healthy fat. For example, a balanced lunch would be: tuna and sweetcorn sandwich (made with wholegrain bread), carrot sticks, an apple and a yoghurt. Snacks are opportunities to offer more nutritious foods such as carrots, oatcakes and hummus, or a slice of wholegrain toast with nut butter and sliced banana.

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