When you home educate, you don’t have to worry about your children eating junk food at the school canteen, or buying crisps from the tuck shop. And, at least while they’re young, your food choices and menus will determine what your children eat.
Yet some home educating families find that it’s all too easy to produce junk food snacks, or grab ready-meals in a hurry in between activities. Occasionally, this probably doesn’t matter. But lifetime habits are set during childhood, and if occasional junk becomes daily, it can do great harm to our children as they grow up. Bad choices in eating are related to many more health problems than obesity or the obvious diseases (such as scurvy) produced by serious vitamin deficiencies.
It doesn’t help that guidelines and recommendations change frequently. If someone had truly discovered a way of eating that worked for everyone, there would be no need for more books on the topic. So we can safely assume that there is no simple answer to the question, ‘What should we eat?’
On the other hand, there are some straightforward guidelines for nutritious eating which we do well to follow
Cut down the junk
Junk food is anything that offers calories without much in the way of nutrition. Most sweets (candies) fall into this category, particularly those filled with sugar, artificial flavourings, gelatine, and not much else. Fizzy drinks are equally bad. When children have these, they gain calories but no important nutrients. Their bodies know that they need protein, vitamins and minerals, so they crave more to eat – and if they continue filling up on rubbish, they will never be satisfied, and so the seeds of obesity are sown.
Artificial sweeteners are no better. Many would say they are worse than sugar. They don’t damage the teeth, nor do they have the calories of sugar, but they have nothing of nutritional value, they sometimes trigger hyperactivity or migraine, and may lead to long-term damage.
Crisps and other packets of ‘snacks’ are also junk food. They may have started life as potatoes, but they’ve been deep-fried, artificial flavourings are usually added, and then they are generously sprinkled with salt. We all need tiny amounts of salt but not the quantities on these foods. Children need even less.
What about processed meats? Some people assume they’re healthy for small children because they contain protein. Unfortunately, they also usually contain nitrites as preservatives, high amounts of salt, flavour-enhancers, and sometimes colourings as well.
An occasional party or picnic with crisps, fizzy drinks, sweets and salami probably isn’t going to do any harm, but none of these foods should form a regular part of anyone’s diet – children or adults.
Cut down on ‘white’ foods
White flour, white rice, white pasta… all products of the past hundred years, since manufacturers have been able to remove most of the fibre (roughage). We need fibre in our diet, so it’s best to eat brown rice, wholegrain pasta and wholemeal bread wherever possible. Despite needing less processing, these products tend to be more expensive than the white versions, but they are worth the extra money in terms of nutritional value.
Avoid sweetened ‘white’ breakfast cereals, too. Home-made granola, muesli, or one of the many cereals using whole grains and dried fruit and nuts are much better choices. Add extra dried raisins or nuts if your children like them.
Baking your own bread is an excellent way of helping children understand how yeast works, and also ensures you know exactly what is in a loaf If your children have been eating white bread, you can introduce wholemeal flour a little at a time if you make bread at home. A bread-maker is a useful machine but occasionally it’s quite fun to make bread by hand, with all the family helping to knead, punch and then shape the dough. You can add herbs, spices, seeds and nuts (and more) to home-made bread for added flavour and nutrition.
Provide daily fresh fruit and vegetables
Most children will happily eat pieces of fresh fruit from a young age – with no added sugar, or ice cream, or chocolate! If you have a nearby farmer’s market, or a greengrocer who uses locally grown produce, these are the best places to buy fruit as they will taste good, and also be best for the environment.
Even better, of course, is to grow your own if you have a garden or allotment. Planting fruit bushes and vegetables help children understand about the life cycle of plants, seasons, the water cycle and more without any classroom learning – and the results are usually excellent. Harvesting, cooking and freezing fruit and vegetables are also valuable experiences that some school children never have.
A centrifrugal juice extractor is an excellent addition to anybody’s kitchen as well as a basic electric citrus juicer. Each morning I make sufficient fresh juice – usually orange or apple, or apple-and-soft fruit, depending what is in season – for the whole family, and a bit more to put on my muesli. Children (and adults!) will often drink freshly squeezed juice even if they’re not particularly keen on all the fruit involved. If a child doesn’t like the ‘bits’ in fresh orange juice, try straining his portion through a small sieve.
Smoothies are another wonderful way of ensuring your family have extra fruit, and are particularly welcome in the summer. All you need is a blender (liquidiser) and well-washed fruit with stones and pips removed, plus a bit of pure fruit juice (squeezed yourself, or from a carton) and ice.
Vegetables can be more strong-tasting than fruits, and some small children dislike strongly the taste of (for instance) broad beans or cabbage. Never force the issue – just offer tastes, and then leave it awhile. Tastebuds do mature as children grow older and a fussy toddler who refuses most vegetables may well eat most of them happily by the time he is nine or ten, so long as he has never been coerced into eating something he dislikes. Experiment, too, with different ways of presenting vegetables: cut into strips and dipped in humous or a yogurt dip, chopped finely and tossed in a green salad, lightly stir-fried, steamed… there are many options, and a child who loathes cooked cabbage might well love coleslaw, or vice versa!
Ensure plenty of protein
Nutritionists disagree on the amount of protein necessary for life, and it’s likely that most adults in the West eat more than is necessary. Still, children do require high quality protein to ensure their bodies develop well. Sausages, chicken nuggets and similar do not provide high-quality protein, although pure beef burgers are not so bad.
If you’re vegetarian, eggs, cheese, legumes (beans and lentils) and nuts should be provided at least once a day. If your family eats meat, then fish, chicken, beef or lamb (or other locally eaten meat) – which can be in the form of mince – should be eaten at least three or four times per week, with vegetarian alternatives on any days when you don’t eat meat or fish. Obviously these things can be made into casseroles or curries, or given sauces (using good quality ingredients), and should be served with potatoes (preferably baked in jackets) or rice (preferably brown basmati) or wholegrain bread or pasta, as well as a salad or cooked vegetables of some sort.
With home education, you can take life at your own pace
If the whole family is involved in shopping, cooking and serving, and if you all sit down together around the table for each meal, you can relax and enjoy mealtimes together. It’s better for your digestion to eat slowly around a table, rather than rapidly or from a tray, and many good conversations in our household began around a meal. As our sons grew up they sometimes had evening activities that made it difficult to eat all together, but we still made an effort several times a week, and generally eat lunch together still, if we’re all at home.
What about cakes, biscuits, ice-cream….?
Cakes, and ice cream and so on, if made at home, do provide some nutrition – they generally contain eggs, perhaps some wholemeal flour, possibly raisins or grated apple or carrot. Ice cream can be made from whipped evaporated milk with just a little sugar and vanilla extract or cocoa powder.
Most children thoroughly enjoy home baking, and it’s yet another useful life experience that can be part of their general home education. Avoid anything made with a mix (just read the ingredients on the side… do you really want those in your children?!) and look for simple recipes using the best ingredients. A bit of sugar isn’t likely to do any long-term damage, particularly if it’s only once a day.
Watch out for allergies and intolerances
Food intolerances and allergies seem to be on the rise in the 21st century and many children suffer coughs and asthma that can be prevented by good nutrition suitable for their individual metabolism. General good nutrition, as described above, gives a good starting point, but many valuable foods trigger allergies in susceptible children. Lactose intolerance is fairly common – people with this problem are unable to eat any cow’s milk products (such as milk, most cheese, or milk chocolate).
If your child suffers from frequent colds, asthma or ‘glue ear’, it’s worth cutting out dairy products for a while to see if it makes a difference. Wheat intolerance is another relatively common problem, and is even more difficult to deal with, as wheat is in so many products. Individuals may be allergic to citrus fruits, strawberries, nuts, eggs…. and the only solution is to avoid these foods. Home education makes this fairly simple, since your children are not eating school lunches. As they grow up they can take responsibility for their own nutritious eating.
Don’t get obsessed
While it’s good to eat healthfully, don’t worry if your children are given less nutritious food by relatives or friends, once in a while. So long as they’re not allergic, they’re unlikely to come to any harm eating junk food once a month or so…and it’s much better to be relaxed about eating than to insist on a rigid adherence to good principles. Besides, if your children are used to drinking fresh fruit juice and smoothies, artificially flavoured drinks will become much less appealing to them.
If you’re not well, or have a new baby, or a busy schedule, it may not always be possible to provide high quality meals at home. These days there are some good quality chilled or frozen meals at supermarkets that you can buy, and serve with fresh wholegrain rolls and salad. So long as you don’t revert to buying non-nutritious items, your family will be fine.
More ideas about home education and eating:
General information about why it’s important to eat well, and how to do so: