Pioneering baby nutrition expert and bestselling author on updating her classic recipe book, Weaning, for the contemporary family
Interview by Katy Gillett
The first edition of Weaning was published back in 2010. What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in the field of child nutrition since then?
I think the main change is that parents have become noticeably savvier about the types of foods they are giving to their children. Lots of families are using a much wider variety of foods. That said, many parents still lack the confidence in preparing recipes, so my job is to help guide them with an array of tasty, simple ideas which baby will love.
Another key difference is that, historically, many babies were weaned at four or five months on fruit and vegetable purees, and this was absolutely fine as a baby gets all of the nutrients they need from either breast or formula milk in the first six months. However, if you start to introduce solids at around six months which is now the official Department of Health and NHS guidance, fruit and vegetables alone will not give your baby the critical nutrients they need for their growth and development. These critical nutrients such as iron, and essential fatty acids (EFAs) and the importance of introducing these from six months makes up a significant proportion of my new book as there is a lot of confusion around which foods to introduce and when etc.
The trend for baby-led weaning is another key development and has really taken off in the last few years. And with this, there has been a lot of debate surrounding the ‘baby-led weaning vs. purees’ approach, and which method to adopt when first starting out. When I attend the big consumer baby and parenting shows, lots of mums and mums-to-be often bring their own mums to the shows with them. It is fantastic to hear their mums and grandparents comment on how baby-led weaning is now ‘back in fashion’. Many speak of how they would always give their baby a small portion of what they were eating themselves. I love hearing about different generations’ weaning experiences. It seems we have gone full circle which is a lovely thing.
How much of the book and content have you had to update? Why should people who follow the 2010 version invest in the new one?
Aside from lots of new and updated recipes, there is more advice and guidance on weaning for premature babies, information on reflux as well as the importance of critical nutrients and a step by step guide on when to introduce foods and how to ensure your baby is getting the key nutrients in their diet, needed for their development.
With the increased popularity of parents adopting the baby-led weaning approach, I have included lots more advice on this topic and have ensured that many of the recipes have a BLW option too which means they are now adaptable for whichever weaning approach parents choose.
I have also updated the section on allergies and intolerances. Both the prevalence of and awareness around specialist diets has changed considerably since the 2010 edition of Weaning. The new edition offers up-to-date advice, including simple ingredient swaps that allow parents to easily cater for common allergies and intolerances.
Allergies and intolerances are such a big issue and talking point at the moment. What are your thoughts on the way food products and dishes in restaurants’ menus are labelled? What changes need to be made?
Childhood food allergies seem to be on the increase but I would also say that it is easier than ever to accommodate free-from and specialist diets. As such, I believe that restaurants and other food establishments have a real responsibility to ensure, not only that free-from and specialist diets are catered for but also that ingredient listings are transparent and menus clearly labelled so that there is absolutely no danger of miscommunication.
Travelling or eating out with a child can be a challenge in itself but if you have a child with an allergy or intolerance it gives parents something else to think about and a little bit of extra careful planning is naturally required. However, it would be great for restaurants to make eating out the easy and enjoyable experience it should be rather than it being yet another thing to worry about.
In general, I’d also love to see healthier and more interesting options on restaurant menus to get children excited about different foods from all over the world and it’s also really important that menus cater to all children, offering balanced and healthy meals with gluten-free, dairy-free and soya-free etc options too.
What’s the best advice you can offer our readers when it comes to dealing with fussy, stubborn eaters?
Persevere! Any parent out there with a fussy eater will appreciate the vulnerability and frustration you can feel. Getting a child to eat well can be a real challenge (and utterly draining), but I kept at it and it’s because of my son Nicholas’ fussiness that I am where I am today as he spurred me to write the book.
The first thing to note is that most children go through a phase of fussy eating (90% to be precise), so whether it’s picking at their food or flatly refusing to eat anything other than their ‘favourite’ it can be an exhausting and upsetting experience for everyone.
Tackling the fussy eating phase is very much about how you deal with the situation that impacts on their eating habits. For example, only giving them the foods they enjoy will simply escalate their fussiness, and deprive them of the essential nutrients they need to grow and develop.
Let’s face it, children rarely favour greens over the ‘less nutritious’ option, so my advice is to try and introduce tasty, healthy alternatives early on. For example, most children love chips so why not try baking sweet potato wedges instead? They are naturally sweet and baking them in the oven caramelises the natural flavour. Other delicious (and incredibly simple) alternatives to fussy eater’s favourites; chicken nuggets and fish fingers, is to coat chicken pieces or goujons of fish in rice Krispies or crushed Cornflakes and bake them rather than frying.
Another top tip is to get your very own little chefs in the kitchen as they will love to assemble their own food. Lay out new foods and veggies in bowls and let your child fill and fold their own wraps or choose their own toppings for their home made pizzas.
Sticker rewards just for trying new things and tasting them are so incredibly simple but can be really effective. If they even attempt to try something rather than ignore it, they should be rewarded.
And finally, don’t be too hard on yourself. Believe me, I went through it with my extremely fussy son and came out the other side!
These days there are so many nasties-free ready-meal and snack-to-go options available for kids. How do you feel about busy parents incorporating these into their weekly meal plans for the family, instead of relying on home-cooking all of the time?
With everyday routines busier than ever, more and more parents are looking for quick, easy and nutritious options to supplement their own home-cooked meals. That is exactly what on-the-go pouches or nutritionally balanced ready-meals are there for, and no parent should feel guilty about this, you’re only human! There are so many convenient healthy alternatives nowadays which will provide your baby or child with a wholesome, nutritionally balanced meal.
I have my own range of chilled and frozen toddler meals and a new range of organic puree range which each contain all the goodness of a home cooked meal and include only the best natural ingredients with no added salt, sugar or preservatives. I take the nutritional value of my meals incredibly seriously, and I work in partnership with a leading Child Nutritionist and Dietician to ensure that each and every meal is nutritionally balanced and that they adhere to the Weaning Food Directive and Nutritional Standards.
What’s the most important thing new parents need to know about weaning?
No ‘one-size-fits-all’ when it comes to weaning. Every baby is different and will develop at their own pace. Some feel a need to go with one method or the other (spoon-led or baby-led) but I’ve always believed that you don’t have to choose. At around six months, you have the freedom to combine an element of baby-led weaning alongside spoon feeding if you feel that’s right for you and your baby.
Your recipes incorporate meat and dairy, but you do deal with bringing up a vegetarian baby in your new book. How about vegans? What advice do you have for mothers looking to bring their child up on a vegan diet?
If you are setting out to wean your baby on a vegetarian or vegan diet then of course this is absolutely do-able, however, parents do have to be extra careful to ensure their baby’s diet is well balanced and they are still getting the critical nutrients required for their long-term development.
The good news is that for the first six months of your baby’s life, they will naturally get most of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients they need from their regular milk. Babies weaned before six months start off vegetarian anyway, as fruit and vegetable purées form the basis of their diets for the first month or so.
Once first tastes have been accepted from around six months, babies are growing at a rapid rate and certain nutrients are essential for their growth and development. At this stage you would typically start to introduce meat, poultry, and fish, so this is when you will need to look for alternative sources of iron, protein, zinc, and vitamin B12 for your vegetarian baby.
Foods such as tofu or beans and pulses (such as lentils) and nutrient dense foods such like cheese and eggs (if vegetarian) as well as green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli and spinach) and fortified breakfast cereals are all fantastic foods to include on the menu for your little one.
It is also worth pointing out that whilst a low fat, high fibre diet is good for adults, too many high fibre foods can deplete your baby of vital nutrients and hinder iron absorption, so go easy on high fibre cereals.
Your children have grown up now – how much of your knowledge have you managed to passed on? Are they all healthy eaters, and how did you ensure they had a healthy outlook on food growing up?
My children are all fantastic cooks (and fantastic eaters!) but this definitely wasn’t always the case. They all started out extremely fussy but I persevered. You’ll stand a good chance of instilling a love of good, healthy food by preparing simple meals together from scratch. When my children were 4, 6 and 7, I encouraged them to cook supper for the family every Friday. I would help them with things like chopping up vegetables and using the oven but soon they learned how to take charge themselves and took great pride in doing so.