Food: should we be imposing ‘clean eating’ on our children?

    Cooking and eating should be a positive family affair

    As a generation embracing a ‘cleaner’ lifestyle, should we really be imposing it on our children, asks Georgina Blaskey

    While we all recognise the importance of a balanced diet, for many people, food has become a lifestyle choice, a symbol of personal values and parenting prowess. Instagrammed from homes across the world, meticulously prepared plates of wonder ingredients are being served at family mealtimes. Deliciously Ella, Hemsley + Hemsley, Natasha Corrett, Amelia Freer – household names who are evangelical about clean living have turned our mealtimes into a national obsession. Kale, chia seeds, spirulina, Himalayan pink salt, seaweed, freekah and our beloved avocados – so-called superfoods that appear to hold the very elixir of long life in their cells. But while we may choose to abstain from the ‘dirty’ and wholeheartedly embrace ‘clean’ food, are these potent ingredients right for our children?

    “You need to be careful with some of these fashionable foods,” explains Claire Baseley, infant nutritionist at Ella’s Kitchen. “Kale is high in nitrates so while it’s fine for children from one year and up, it can lead to anaemia in toddlers; likewise, beetroot should only be given in small amounts.”

    Dr Lucy Hooper of private GP practice Coyne Medical ( warns, “Chia seeds are very high in fibre and can cause digestive problems such as constipation and gas, resulting in a child suffering from tummy aches.” Beware of only ever giving wholegrain pasta, bread and rice, too: “They fill children up very quickly,” says Claire, “so they then don’t have room for the healthy fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals they need.”

    So what should we aim for? “Balance and moderation,” champions Arabella Arkwright, nutritionist and co-founder of Piccolo Plates (, which creates balanced meals for children. “You need a combination of protein, carbohydrate and fat on their plate. Cooking and eating should be a family affair – shop together and prepare the meal with your child; they’ll be more likely to eat it!”

    The relationship your child has with food is learnt from you, so if you’re calorie counting, on and off a juice cleanse or restricting carbs, kids may reflect this behaviour later on.

    “I hate the words ‘bad’ and ‘dirty’ to describe food,” says Arabella. “The phrase ‘eat clean’ implies certain foods aren’t, which means children could feel guilty and ashamed if they eat them. Unless there’s a known intolerance or diagnosed allergy then I think it’s dangerous to take anything out of their diet.” Dr Hooper agrees: “Teaching children to be prescriptive about food is an unhealthy mindset. Eating is about being healthy – we eat for energy. It’s not about what is good and bad per se, so avoid banning foods.”

    Balance is key: undoubtably restricting intake of certain food groups can be detrimental to a growing child’s development. “Becoming dairy-free, gluten-free or even carb-free is not suitable for kids,” adds Dr Hooper. “Warning signs they are not getting what they need can include unhappiness, disturbed sleep, lethargy and difficulty concentrating. Lack of growth can be a late sign, as children have reserves so you may not notice for a while, but if red meat intake is reduced then they can develop Koilonychia (spoon nails) and cracked lips.” Dr Hooper also advises her patients to consider a multi-vitamin for their little ones, as even those with a balanced diet may be missing out on vitamin D due to Britain’s cloudy skies.

    Getting a variety of veg in tiny tummies can be a tall order but Arabella has some good tricks. “The mash in our cottage pie and fish pie includes celeriac and cauliflower as well as potato,” she says. Avoid starting the day with sugary cereals – “Children get a sugar spike and the dip makes them feels dreadful, just as they’re sitting down to lessons. Try porridge with nuts and fruit or a protein and carb combination, such eggs with toast.”

    So, it really is everything in moderation. Don’t demonise an ice cream or shun your daughter’s birthday cake because you’ve cut out carbs and sugar forever more. Show them that there’s a time and place for indulgence, but be honest. “Too much cake isn’t healthy for our bodies and that’s why we don’t have it every day,” is the message Dr Hooper gives her young daughters. Our children’s relationship with food is only as complicated as we want to make it, so keep it simple, good, fresh, honest and balanced.


    • Kale and beetroot. High in nitrates, which could lead to anaemia in those under one.
    • Non-dairy milks. Unless they have an allergy, coconut, almond and hazelnut milks are low in protein, calcium and iodine,
    which are essential for growth.
    • Coconut oil. This is 90% saturated fat and should only be used in moderation.
    • Green tea. Used as a fat burner, but while it is full of antioxidants, it is also high in caffeine.
    • Dark chocolate. It’s low in sugar and high in iron, but portions should be small.
    • Coconut water. Watch out, many brands have added sugar.
    • Chia seeds and wholegrains.These can cause digestive problems in little ones.


    • Oatcakes with houmous.
    • Oats binded together with puréed fruit.
    • Celery ‘boats’ filled with peanut butter or almond butter and raisins, or cream cheese.
    • Blueberries and strawberries with a pot of yogurt.
    • Wholegrain pitta bread filled with cream cheese.
    • Apples slices dipped in nut butter.
    • Cheese and oatcakes.

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