Supermarkets are brilliant at ensuring that cherries from Tasmania make their way to the UAE, but less than great at teaching kids that the food we put on our plates isn’t just another commodity. That’s unless you turn the aisles into a classroom. My daughters spent three wonderful weeks in Austria with friends last summer, for example, and they were easy-going guests. Except in the local supermarket, the mum told me with a laugh, where they examined food labels for evidence of palm oil. Shopping became quite a long drawn-out process and Nutella was immediately off the breakfast table. I was amazed that my children had taken conversations about deforestation to heart, but it gave me hope that other discussions around food and the consequences of the choices we make would also stick. Next up: how to build on the message that what we eat counts.
Good cooks are better eaters
Bringing food out of plastic wrapping and turning it into the ingredients that make up a tasty meal is an important part of creating a healthy curiosity for home-cooked food. Start gently by choosing an easy-to-make dish that contains ingredients you know your kids like. Let them lead the process from cupboard to chopping board to table, and with any luck they'll at least taste what they've prepared – they might even like it. The Best-Ever Step-by-Step Kid's First Cookbook by Nancy McDougall is a great place for 5- to 12-year-olds to start.
Find a guru
Children are good at absorbing information – and even better at rejecting good advice from their parents on subjects such as why broccoli is better for you than Turkish delight. Instead of enjoying a family movie, sit down and watch a really good TV show that explores (and sells) the role that good food plays in a healthy growing body. Make a plan on how you can put what you have learnt into practice as a family.
Remember the tips from toddler training
Whether or not you followed bestselling author Annabel Karmel's advice on how to wean your baby, a legion of mums swear by her genius at smuggling carrots into spaghetti Bolognese. Try Karmel's recipe for spiced apple, squash and carrot muffins from her newest cookery book, Real Food Kids Will Love, and see if your kids rumble the squash beneath the sweetness of the apple.
They’re watching. All the time
Asking your children to eat healthily demands that parents and carers lead by example. Don’t expect your kids to relish their extra-large portion of greens, if you are having a handful of peanuts and half a packet of grated cheese for supper as you police the dinner table. Eating together, discussing what’s not to love about Brussels sprouts, helps children to develop a vocabulary for tastes and textures. It also encourages them to engage with food and build a less passive, more considered relationship with what’s on their plate.
What’s for lunch?
School dinners are a boon for busy parents, removing the stress of grubbing around in the fridge to conjure up an appealing packed lunch at 6.30am every weekday morning. And there’s no doubt that schools in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere are trying much harder to provide balanced meals, often made with organic ingredients. If your child comes home grey-faced and spoiling for a fight, demanding something chock-full of carbs to snack on, however, it’s likely that they haven’t eaten what’s on the canteen menu. Packed lunches are a better bet for slightly fussy eaters, and cannot be beaten if you want to know exactly what and how much your kids are eating at school. It’s a giant pain to prepare, but a packed lunch, tailor-made to your child’s taste buds, is the best way to guarantee that a healthy balanced meal with a mix of proteins, carbohydrates, fruits and veggies, cheese, milk or yoghurt meets its intended target. Forget juices and go with water to wash it down.
Ban fast food
This is a really tough one because life seems to make a point of conspiring to bust well-made plans and good parenting intentions. But don’t succumb to cheap, easy meals on the go. Far better to pack so many healthy snacks that the bag on your shoulder is full to bursting point, and hand out slices of apple, rice cakes and dates like confetti, instead. There’s nothing like the occasional bucket of fried chicken to confuse and undermine a healthy-eating message.