Children’s dietary needs are somewhat different from those of adults. At birth their digestive system is immature, specially geared to digest breast milk and not ready to try out anything else. Generally, a child will let you know when he or she is ready to try out solid foods. When this time comes it is best to keep the foods simple and to introduce foods one at a time and slowly.
At first, simple well-cooked baby rice or oats are usually best, followed by the gradual introduction of cooked and pureed vegetables such as carrot. Carrot is especially useful as it is easy to digest and it also strengthens the Spleen. It is better to choose foods which are not too Cold energetically, as the healthy development of the digestive system depends on its ability to generate warmth. Fruits, which are generally cool, are best cooked initially and Cold fruits such as bananas or oranges are best avoided at this early stage. Starchy root vegetables are generally well received by most babies, but vegetables of the onion or cabbage family often prove indigestible and tomatoes may cause adverse reactions. When a child’s digestion is upset by a food, it is best to withdraw that food for a few weeks and try again later.
If babies are kept to this simple diet for long enough, their digestion will gradually strengthen, enabling them to move on to more complex foods and they will avoid food Stagnation which is the cause of much early illness. It is often said that almost all childhood diseases of the first six or seven years begin either as emotional distress or as a form of food Stagnation leading to the accumulation of Phlegm. This accumulation of Phlegm leads to many of the familiar childhood illnesses such as respiratory infection, nasal congestion, ear infection, diarrhoea and allergic reactions.
Amongst well-meaning parents it sometimes happens that damage is done by feeding the baby whole foods too early. The harsh bran of whole grains and the roughage of root vegetable or fruit skins can be too scouring for the intestines. It is also worth noting that too much fruit and the use of raw foods will tend to cool and weaken the digestion.
A few more guidelines may be helpful:
- For the first two years at least, food should be well cooked and initially pureed or well mashed. It should also be quite simple.
- Strong flavours are best kept until the digestive system is more mature.
- Refined sweeteners obviously are best avoided and fruit or vegetable juices are best diluted.
- All food is best served warm or at room temperature.
- Flours cause mucus to accumulate and may cause allergic reactions, so are best avoided for the first two years.
- The onion family may be too strong and should be used attentively, watching for any discomfort.
- Honey may be toxic to children under eighteen months.
- Salt is best introduced after the child is a year old.
- Egg white is best avoided for the first year, though egg yolk may be introduced sooner.
Otherwise, common sense is probably the best guide, avoiding the use of sugar and sweeteners, processed foods and chemicals as far as possible. Worrying does not help the child so – speaking as a parent myself – I believe that the home we provide and the love and support we give make up for most gaps in the child’s diet. Creating a happy relationship with food is a good preparation for adult life, more important than getting stuck on the small details. And despite the well-informed preparations of any parent, a child has a will of its own and will make its own choices about food.
It takes seven years to fully develop the digestive system and for children to reach an awareness of their emotions as separate from themselves. During the first two years in particular, when the digestive system is very immature, it is common for the digestion to be overstrained leading to ‘accumulation disorder’, a backlog of undigested foods that overwhelms the Spleen and leads to obstruction of the system by Heat and Dampness. To support the Spleen, it is best not to have too many foods combined in one meal. It is also best not to overstimulate a child during and immediately after meal times so that sufficient energy remains available to the Stomach for digestion.
At two years old a child goes through significant transitions, developing a stronger sense of its individuality and testing out its will. Passing feverish illnesses are common as this is a ‘hot’ phase of development. Children are naturally more ‘yang’ than most adults and overheating is therefore more common. A decline in appetite is also common around this time. Avoiding sugar and other sweeteners is important as is keeping the relationship with food fun, creative and low on stress.
During the first seven years children are also more susceptible to the emotions of the adults around them and will easily pick up on a parent’s feelings, whether these feelings are out in the open or not. By the age of seven most of the patterns of adult life have been prepared. If an enjoyable and relaxed relationship with food has been established during this time then the child is well set up for the future.
Even when good habits have been established in early childhood, adolescence can still be a difficult time nutritionally. Most teenagers, through both peer culture and their high demand for energy, will gravitate towards sugar and erratic eating patterns. Maintaining a high intake of complex carbohydrates in the shape of grains and legumes will help to balance this, as will a higher intake of protein. The demand for vitamins and minerals is also higher so keeping plenty of fruit available and offering teenagers high nutrient foods such as ‘smoothies’ (see recipe section) enriched with fruit, wheatgerm, nuts and brewers yeast is helpful. Young girls have a higher need for iron and will benefit from iron-rich foods such as molasses.
If teenagers cannot be persuaded to look after themselves nutritionally, then it may be worthwhile considering supplements. A food-derived general vitamin and mineral formula would be appropriate. So would chlorella which is the best tolerated of all the various ‘green’ foods. Otherwise the best parents can do is lead by example, be gentle and creative with advice and, the biggest test of all, relax.