Wednesday 21 March 2018

Nutrition: Putting children's ready-meals to the test

Kids' dinners, from supermarkets and fast food chains, can be useful for busy parents but get savvy with salt and fat content, as well as any other dubious ingredients

Ailin Quinlan

PARENTS are being bombarded with warnings about childhood obesity and poor nutrition, but are they really getting the message about the dangers of eating too much fat, salt and sugar?

Dietician Aveen Bannon, of the Dublin Nutrition Centre, doesn't think so. She says there is a great deal of complacency in society about our kids' nutrition.

"People seem to know that there is a problem with obesity, but they don't seem to understand how to tackle it. I don't think parents are getting the message about salt, fat and sugar," she says, adding that there is an overdependence on feeding children calorie/snack foods.

"We know that our children's diets are calorie-rich but nutrient-poor. We are being bombarded with warnings about nutrition and obesity. We know 60pc of children eat too much salt and that 40pc eat too much fat, and we know that many children are not getting enough calcium, iron, vitamin D, folate and fibre.

"Children are eating a lot of sugary cereals and not enough fruit and vegetables or healthy snacks," Bannon comments, adding that some parents don't seem to realise vegetables or salad should be served at every main meal.

"If you ask children and parents about this, you discover that in many cases they only have vegetables once or twice a week. When they don't serve vegetables the children end up eating too much of something else."

If you want to improve your child's diet and lifestyle, says Bannon, lead by example and do things as a family.

"If you don't eat fruit, how do you expect the kids to eat it?

"I don't think parents understand the implications of being an overweight child and how as a result later in life their child can have joint problems, diabetes, heart disease.

"Parents should understand that poor nutrition affects the body internally as well as externally."

Eat family meals together, exercise together and experiment together.

"Get your kids to cook and prepare foods with you -- let them get involved in both the preparation and the tidying up."

If you regularly give your children ready meals they will get used to this kind of taste, and they will find healthier, freshly cooked meals taste odd by comparison and be less inclined to eat them.

In addition, some ready meals will have been heat-treated to prolong shelf life, which will diminish their nutritional value.

Here, Aveen puts a selection of kids' dinners from supermarkets and fast food chains to the test to find out how good -- or not -- they are.

Ella's Kitchen Cottage Pie

Ingredients: Organic vegetable stock (water and organic vegetables: potatoes, carrots, onions and oregano), organic potatoes, organic onions, organic beef, organic sweet potatoes, organic carrots, organic peas, organic tomatoes, organic cinnamon.

Nutrition: Calories: 152; fat: 3.8g; salt: 0.1g

Verdict: 7/10

Aveen says: With lots of added vegetables and no added salt, this is a good option, especially for younger kids.

Each serving contains 152 calories, which is ideal for kids up to the ages of two or three, but for older kids it might be a good idea to add some extra cheese or beans for extra calories and protein.

Again, this is another meal that is marketed for younger kids -- but that doesn't mean it is not suitable for older kids with a few adjustments.

Little Dish Cottage Pie

Ingredients: Potato, vegetable stock (contains carrot, leek, onion), Aberdeen Angus minced beef, sweet potato, parsnip, carrot, crushed tomato, milk, mild cheddar cheese, mushroom, tomato puree, onion, cornflour, unsalted butter, roasted red pepper puree, wheatflour, rosemary, thyme and garlic.

Nutrition: Calories: 171; fat 9.4g; salt: 0.24g

Verdict: 9/10

Aveen says: The main things to look out for in a ready meal are the fat, salt and calorie content.

This option has no added salt and only contains 171 calories per portion.

It has five different types of vegetables added, which together offer a good variety of different tastes while combined they can be counted as one of your daily portions of vegetables.

It's always a good idea to serve an additional portion of vegetables, and for older kids some grated cheese will help bring up the calorie content.

Hipp Organic Lasagne

12 months-plus

Ingredients: Vegetables (tomatoes, carrots, celeriac, onion), cooked lasagna pasta (durum wheat, egg white), cooked rice, skimmed milk, beef, hard cheese, skimmed milk powder, salt, sunflower oil, herbs and spices (basil, rosemary, oregano, pepper), antioxidants (ascorbic acid, tocopherol-rich extract).

Nutrition: Calories: 200; fat: 3.64g; salt: 0.58g

Verdict: 8/10

Aveen says: Don't be put off by the '12 months plus' sign -- it just means that it can be suitable for all ages over one year. The advantage of meals that are suitable from a younger age is that they generally will have no added salt.

On the label you will see there is an average of 0.58g of salt per serving, which is most likely provided by the added cheese.

Each serving provides 200 calories and lots of different types of vegetables, which again will provide one of your recommended daily servings.

Serving with some beans or grated cheese for older kids can be a good idea to provide some extra protein.

Marks & Spencer Simply Kids Cottage pie

Ingredients: Potatoes, Aberdeen Angus minced beef, water, onions, crushed tomatoes, carrots, peas, swede, cream, semi-skimmed milk, cornflour, beef stock, rapeseed oil, beef gelatine, sea salt, ground black pepper and ground white pepper.

Nutrition: Calories: 195; fat: 4.9g; salt: 0.68g

Verdict: 8/10

Aveen says: Another good option. Again, with five different types of vegetables added it can be a good way to offer different tastes.

As this is marginally higher in salt, for kids under four it can be a good idea to divide the meal between two, and serve with some extra vegetables.

For older kids, serve the whole portion with extra vegetables to create a good balanced meal.

Marks & Spencer Simply Kids

Mighty Meaty Pasta

Ingredients: Cooked pasta, Aberdeen Angus beef minced, tomatoes, water, carrots, tomato puree, onions, courgettes, wheatflour, rapeseed oil, garlic puree, salt, oregano and ground black pepper.

Nutrition: Calories: 270; fat 8.3g; salt; 0.69g

Verdict: 7/10

Aveen says: This pasta dish is one of the higher protein options with 17.3g per serving. Protein is necessary for muscle and tissue repair.

It is a little higher in calories at 270 per pack, but this would still be considered within the healthy range for a kid's meal.

It contains just over half a gram of salt per serving, which is okay for older kids, but it might be a good idea to divide the meal into two for children under four and serve with extra vegetables.

Tesco Disney Pasta Bolognese

Ingredients: Cooked pasta, beef, tomato, tomato juice, tomato puree, onion, carrot, cornflour, garlic puree, salt, oregano, black pepper.

Nutrition: Calories: 324; fat: 8.4g; salt: 0.8g

Verdict: 6/10

Aveen says: This option is a little higher in calories and salt than the other ready meals here, but has the highest protein content. Each pack provides 324 calories and 0.8g of salt, which is 20pc of a recommended maximum salt intake for children aged five to 10.

For kids under this age, I would suggest halving the portion and maybe adding in some grated carrot or sweetcorn for extra vegetables.

McDonald's Happy meal with chicken nuggets

Ingredients: Nuggets: chicken (45pc); coating: hydrogenated vegetable oil, wheatflour, maize flour, raising agents (disodium diphosphate -- E450, sodium bicarbonate -- E500, monocalcium phosphate -- E341), dried egg albumen, pepper, salt, wheat starch, whey powder, ground celery, flavour enhancer (potassium chloride -- E508), vegetable oil, water, natural flavouring, potato starch, vegetable oil. Processing aids: E900 -- dimethyl polysiloxane, anti-foaming agent in hydrogenated vegetable oil. E504 -- magnesium carbonate anti-caking agent used in potassium chloride. E330 (citric acid) -- processing aid used in the refining of oil. E300 (ascorbic acid) -- processing aid used in the manufacture of the flavouring. E535 (sodium ferrocyanide) -- processing aid used in salt manufacture. Fries: potatoes, vegetable oil (sunflower, rapeseed), dextrose (only added at beginning of season). Prepared in the restaurants using a non-hydrogenated vegetable oil. Salt is added after cooking.

Nutrition: Calories: 400; fat: 20g; salt: 0.8g

Verdict: 3/10

Aveen says: The chicken nugget meal, although lower in calories than the hamburger option, is a little higher in fat. Also, the chicken coating does contain hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is best avoided as it can raise our bad cholesterol.

There is the option of replacing the fries with fruit, which would make it healthier and would help lower the overall fat content, but this still should only be enjoyed as an occasional treat.

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