Home educators eating nutritiously

When you home educate, you don’t have to worry about your children eating junk food at the school canteen. While they’re young, your food choices and menus will determine what your children eat. If they get in the habit of eating nutritiously from the toddler years, it is likely to remain a good habit as they grow up.

It’s important that we don’t give ‘value’ to different kinds of foods.  If we tell them to eat their sprouts if they want chocolate, they learn that chocolate is ‘nicer’ than sprouts. Moreover we imply that sprouts somehow have more intrinsic value. To some children, it might seem as if their parents are pleased with them if they eat sprouts. Some rebel, some eat them anyway hoping for approval. Eating disorders can begin when parents talk about foods in these ways. Instead, the ideal is to provide a good, healthy diet, with plenty of things the children enjoy eating. Then offer them free choice without making any comments.

Afterwards, you could sometimes initiate discussion about how different foods make you feel. Too much sugar can leave an over-sweet taste in the mouth. Some people feel bloated after too much bread or pasta. If a child does not eat any fruit or vegetables at a meal, he may feel as if something was missing. If he eats all carbohydrates and no protein, he is likely to feel hungry within an hour or two. Don’t pass judgement as your children realise these things. If they are interested, this can lead to study in food types, and general nutrition. But they must learn to make their own choices, to listen to their bodies as they make food choices.

However, there have to be some positive options on the table.  When home educating, it can be all too easy to produce junk food snacks. If you are busy, creating crafts or writing stories, it is tempting to grab ready-meals in a hurry in between activities. Occasionally, this  doesn’t matter. But lifetime habits are set during childhood. If children eat junk food daily, it can do great harm to them as they grow up. Poor choices in eating lead to lack of important nutrients. This can relate to many health problems. They include far more than obesity or those (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. Worst are 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. 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. Moreover, they sometimes trigger hyperactivity or migraine.

Crisps and other packets of ‘snacks’ are also junk food. They may have started life as potatoes, but they have been deep-fried, and artificial flavourings are usually added. After that, 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, and high amounts of salt. The cheaper kinds also contain flavour-enhancers, and sometimes colourings.

An occasional party or picnic with crisps, fizzy drinks, sweets and salami probably won’t 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). However, we need fibre in our diet. So it’s best to eat brown rice, wholegrain pasta and wholemeal bread whenever 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 a cereal using whole grains and dried fruit and nuts are 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. It also ensures you know exactly what is in a loaf.  If your children have been eating white bread, you can introduce wholemeal flour gradually if you make bread at home. A bread-maker is a useful machine but occasionally it’s quite fun to make bread by hand. All the family can help 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.

Fresh fruit and vegetables

Most children will happily eat pieces of fresh fruit from a young age. Ideally grow and pick your own, if you have a garden or allotment.  Planting fruit bushes and vegetables help children understand about the life cycle of plants. Gardening also helps them to learn about seasons, the water cycle and more without any classroom learning. The bonus is that the home-grown produce is usually excellent. Harvesting, cooking and freezing fruit and vegetables are also valuable experiences. When you home educate, you have more time a a family to do these things together.

Almost as good is to buy from a nearby farmer’s market, or a greengrocer who uses locally grown produce. Fruit from these places will taste good, and also be best for the environment. If you buy fruit from half-way across the world, it will probably have been picked when under-ripe. It may then have been stored for days or even weeks in transit. This is still preferable to no fruit and vegetables at all, but if you can pick or buy local fruit, the taste and nutritive value are usually far better.

A centrifugal 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 for the whole family, and a bit more to put on my granola. Children (and adults!) will often drink freshly squeezed juice even if they’re not particularly keen on 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. You can add some pure fruit juice (squeezed yourself, or from a carton) and ice.

Introducing vegetables

Vegetables can be stronger tasting than fruits. Some small children dislike the taste of (for instance) broad beans or cabbage. Never force the issue – just offer tastes, and then leave it awhile. If you offer sweet potatoes, carrots and courgettes to a baby of six or seven months old, they will usually accept and enjoy them. Tastebuds mature as children grow older. A fussy toddler who refuses most vegetables may eat most of them happily by the time he is nine or ten. This is more likely if has never been coerced into eating something he dislikes.

Experiment, too, with different ways of presenting vegetables. Cut them into strips and dip in humous or a yogurt dip, for instance. Or try chopping finely and tossing in a green salad. We like vegetables oven-roasted, or lightly stir-fried. If you are concerned about fat content, steaming works well. 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. It is 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. Unprocessed fish, chicken and meat provide good quality animal protein. When our sons were at home, we tended to eat red meat once or twice a week. We would have some form of chicken two or three times per week, perhaps in a casserole or curry.  We would aim for meals without meat on other days. Processed meats such as sausages, chicken nuggets and similar use lower quality parts of animals, and have other additives. If you use these, do so sparingly and read ingredients on packages first.

If you are vegetarian, provide eggs, cheese, legumes (beans and lentils) or nuts at least once a day. Vegans are limited to legumes and nuts, although there are small amounts of protein in other vegetable sources. Chick-peas can be used in place of meat in many dishes. For those who can tolerate soya, products such as tofu can make excellent meals. Supermarkets nowadays have a wide variety of good quality vegan options too.

Enjoy mealtimes

While protein is important, make sure you serve it with potatoes, or rice (preferably brown basmati) or wholegrain bread or pasta. These carbohydrates, in excess, can lead to health problems and obesity. But we need some carbs for energy, and wholegrain products provide useful roughage too.  Of course, each main meal should also have a salad and/or two or three different cooked vegetables.

With home education, you can involve the whole family in shopping, cooking and serving food. If you all sit down together around the table, 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. 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 the effort several times a week.

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.

Allergies and intolerances

Food intolerances and allergies seem to be on the rise in the 21st century. 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 can also trigger allergies in susceptible children. Lactose intolerance is fairly common, for instance. People with this problem cannot 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. It is even more difficult to deal with this, as wheat is in so many products. Individuals may be allergic to citrus fruits, strawberries, nuts, eggs….  the only solution is to avoid these foods. However, home education makes this easier, since your children are not eating school lunches. As they grow up they can take responsibility themselves for eating nutritiously.

Stay calm about eat

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:

Cooking for home educators.

General information about why it’s important to eat well, and how to do so:

NHS inform: healthy diet
Kids’ health and healthy eating

Further reading:

clutter or cleanliness?
home educators’ blogs
what is education?