Family nutrition advice - your questions answered

Family at dinner

Balancing a healthy diet with children’s fussiness over food can be a daily challenge for parents, but thankfully it's easy to find most of the good stuff they need in a variety of everyday food staples – such as milk. However, there is a drawback… Milk’s goodness and nutrients are often damaged by natural and artificial light.

Noluma measures and certifies packaging for its ability to protect against light damage, to ensure that all that good stuff is preserved. To answer your questions about nutrition and essential vitamins, they've asked Newcastle University's Doctor Catherine Birch – an expert in food and nutrition – to lend us a bit of her wisdom. Keep reading for a chance to win a £300 John Lewis voucher, too.

What do you want to know about?

Fruit and vegetables

Girl eating veggies

What's the best protein source for veggie and vegan kids?

Children ideally need protein every day in their diet to maintain good health and growth. The advice for vegetarian children recommended by the British Nutrition Foundation says each meal does not have to contain all of the nutrients required, but they should add up over the course of a day or a week to give overall required protein levels. Protein requirements range from 13g for toddlers to 34g for pre-teens and about 50g for teenagers, per day.

Protein requirements range from 13g for toddlers to 34g for pre-teens and about 50g for teenagers, per day.

If your child does not eat much meat or you choose to give your child a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is important to make sure that the diet is varied so that they get all the nutrients for growth and general health.

Energy – Particularly for children on a vegan diet, foods that are nutrient-dense may be needed to give them enough energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. You could try avocados, tofu, bananas and nut and seed butters (such as tahini, and cashew or peanut butter). For extra energy, you could add vegetable oils or vegan fat spreads to foods.

Protein – Good choices of protein include lentils, beans, soya and soya products, milk, cheese, nuts and eggs and they’ll need two to three portions of these a day.

Iron – Meat is a good provider of easily-absorbable iron so you will need to offer alternative sources to ensure your growing child gets enough. Foods that provide iron include wholegrain cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, bread, fortified breakfast cereals, dried apricots and figs. Remember that vitamin C helps our body to absorb iron from non-meat sources so try to include fruit and vegetables at every mealtime.

Calcium – It is important to ensure that vegan children get enough calcium to support their growing bones and teeth. Milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu as well as some dark green leafy vegetables such as kale all provide calcium. Fortified soya drinks, as well as other dairy alternatives, often have added calcium but remember to check the label.

Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12, which is susceptible to indoor light damage, is typically found in products from animal sources. Milk and eggs are important sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians. For vegans, alternative sources of the vitamin include fortified foods such as some fortified breakfast cereals and yeast extracts.

Boy eating lentils

As a family, we're trying to cut down on red meat, although I know this is a good source of iron. What other iron-rich foods can we eat to ensure we get enough?

If you're cutting down on red meat, it's important to find your iron elsewhere. The following foods are high in iron:

  • Green vegetables, eg spinach, beet and broccoli
  • Lentils and beans
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Grains, eg whole wheat, brown rice and fortified breakfast cereals
  • Dried fruit
  • Eggs
  • Fish

Too many treats?

Girl with muffins

There are treats everywhere – cakes, ice creams, biscuits etc – and I feel like I’m always saying no. What’s the recommended weekly allowance for such sugary things for a toddler?

The UK government recommends that free sugars – sugars added to food or drinks as well as sugars found naturally in honey, syrups, and unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices, smoothies and purées – should not make up more than 5% of the energy (calories) you get from food and drink each day.

This means:

  • Adults should have no more than 30g of free sugars a day, (roughly equivalent to seven teaspoons of sugar).
  • Children aged seven to 10 should have no more than 24g of free sugars a day (six teaspoons of sugar).
  • Children aged four to six should have no more than 19g of free sugars a day (five teaspoons of sugar).
  • There's no guideline limit for children under the age of four, but it's recommended they avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and food with sugar added to it.

Calcium and vitamins

Boy in sunshine

My daughter has a dairy allergy. How can I make sure she gets enough calcium and vitamin D?

Daily exposure to natural sunlight is the best source for maintaining natural vitamin D levels as the body naturally converts sunlight into vitamin D. The body needs vitamin D to help absorb calcium from the diet, so it is important to maintain a good level of both calcium and vitamin D, especially in growing children, for good bone and teeth health.

A further good source of calcium is dark leafy green vegetables. These include kale, broccoli, cabbage and spinach (also a good source of iodine). Nuts such as almonds, peanuts and Brazil nuts also contain calcium.

It is best to look for food products that contain either high levels of calcium or vitamin D or fortified products such as breakfast cereals or bread, which is often fortified. It is worth trying lactose-reduced or lactose-free products, which are easily obtained in supermarkets. The list of lactose-free products is quite extensive. Other plant-based dairy alternatives are worth using in the daily diet instead of milk or other dairy products. Almond, rice and soy-based products in liquid forms are also freely available and are a good source of calcium, these can also be fortified with vitamin D.

A further good source of calcium is dark leafy green vegetables. These include kale, broccoli, cabbage and spinach (also a good source of iodine). Nuts such as almonds, peanuts and Brazil nuts also contain calcium. A further good source of calcium is fish with soft bones – these include canned, salmon, sardines, tuna or trout. Tuna also contains vitamin D. Beans such as edamame and other soy products also contain high levels of calcium and protein.

Boiling veg

What is the best way to keep vitamins in food when cooking and freezing? Is there a way of cooking to keep more vitamins in?

Generally, fast cooking methods can maintain a higher proportion of vitamins. Microwaving or steaming food is a good way to preserve vitamins as cooking times are quite short. If boiling vegetables, short boiling time helps to maintain vitamins especially the vitamins that are heat sensitive such as vitamin C.

Eating fruit or vegetables uncooked and fresh, including salads and fruits in smoothies, is a good way to preserve all the nutrients. However, careful consideration of sugar levels should be noted with fruit served in this way.

Store dairy products, vegetables and fruit away from light and heat. Some B vitamins, such as riboflavin, are very sensitive to direct light. Keep milk and other dairy products in a fridge, away from indoor light and heat. It is also important that where possible these products are stored in light-protected packaging to protect them from indoor light. Store food in air-tight containers and freeze your food items if you are not eating them the following day. Freezing food slows down the loss of nutrients and an air-tight container reduces oxidation.

Important facts to remember

  • Did you know indoor light reduces the amount of nutrients in packaged goods like milk? After just two hours of exposure to indoor lights, nutrients, colour and taste are all affected.
  • Believe it or not, it’s the bottle. Milk bottles can now be certified for light protection to keep in all the yummy goodness you love. Fresh milk protected from light remains fresher and tastier for longer.
  • Whether your milk has sat under LED or fluorescent lighting on the supermarket shelf or even in your fridge, it’s likely to contain fewer nutrients, such as Vitamins A, B and B12, than it started with.
  • Milk is packed with goodness and provides many of the essential nutrients that are important as part of a healthy lifestyle. From Vitamin A for great skin and eyesight, calcium to strengthen your bones, through to Vitamin B and Riboflavin that keep your nervous system, skin and eyes healthy, milk plays a vital part of a healthy and balanced diet.
  • Milk protected from indoor light remains fresher longer, tastes better and retains its nutrients and vitamins. Make sure you let your supermarket or milk company know you want light-protected milk.

Competition

Enter the competition below for a chance to win a £300 John Lewis voucher. To enter, you must be aged 18 or over and be a resident in the UK. T&Cs apply. Competition closes on 21 July 2019.