Frequently Asked Questions

Our food nutritionist has answered many frequently asked questions on food and nutrition.

How many calories should my family consume per day?

The number of daily calories each person needs varies. In general, bigger, more active people need to eat more than smaller, less active people and in the teenage years, boys generally need more calories than girls.

In addition, calorie needs for the same person can vary from day to day depending upon the amount of activity they do. The ‘National Diet and Nutrition Survey’: Young People aged 4-18 years (2000) found that, with the exception of very young kids (4-6 year olds), between 40-69% of kids in Britain are largely inactive, spending less than one hour a day participating in activities of moderate intensity.

Rather than count calories, it’s probably easier to make sure the whole family eat a healthy diet and keep as active as possible. Provide a variety of foods in sensible proportions and keep an eye on their body weight.

Does the ‘five portions of fruit and veg’ recommendation count for young kids?

Yes. Fruit and vegetables provide a range of nutrients important for health and the key is to choose a wide variety. They are good sources of vitamins and minerals, fibre and phytochemicals, which are substances that may help to boost immunity and protect against disease. One portion is a small salad, 2 serving spoonfuls of vegetables, one dessert bowl of fruit salad, 1 medium sized apple, orange, pear or banana, 2 plums, or 1 tablespoon of dried fruit.

What foods should I give my kids to make sure they eat a healthy diet?

A healthy diet is achieved by eating a variety of foods in the right balance. No single food or type of food can ensure good health and no single food or type of food is necessarily detrimental to health. In fact, it is the overall pattern of food eaten rather than any single food or meal that counts. Base their diet on bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and other cereals and plenty of fruit and vegetables. Ensure they get moderate amounts of milk and dairy products, lean meat, fish, nuts, seeds, beans, pulses and eggs. All foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle.

How can I encourage my kids to eat a more varied diet?

It’s not unusual for kids to reject certain foods and most have definite likes and dislikes. Offer them a range of foods, prepared in different ways. Be creative as it may be that they will eat the same food in one form, but not another. For example, they may not drink a glass of milk, but they may eat something made with milk e.g. custard, rice pudding or cheese sauce on pasta.

Lead by example, whenever you can, sit down and eat with them and make sure you are all eating the same meal. Offer them choice e.g. peas or sweetcorn (or both), bread or toast etc. and encourage them to cook. The key is to take a relaxed approach – try not to let meal times become a battleground and don’t force a kid to eat.

My kids aren’t keen on fruit and vegetables – how can I get them to eat more?

Whether they are dried, frozen, canned, fresh, pureed, in a sauce or juiced, fruit and vegetables in any form count. Fruit and vegetables come in all sorts of different colours, flavours and textures so try preparing, cooking and serving them in different ways and you are likely to find one or two that they like. In addition, make it a family occasion, eat with them, take them shopping and ask them to choose their own food. Preparing fruit and vegetables for meals and snacks is also a good way to make them appreciate these colourful foods. Encourage them to make a rainbow of foods on their plate. Here are a few ideas on how to pack fruit and vegetables into meals and snacks:

  • Include them in soups, stews and casseroles.

  • Offer dried fruit as snacks.

  • Buy or make fruit juices or smoothies.

  • Top breakfast cereal with chopped fresh or dried fruit.

  • Cut up vegetables and use them to eat dips.

  • Grate them and add small portions to dishes e.g. grated apple in yoghurt, grated carrot in spaghetti bolognese.

  • Add salad items to sandwiches e.g. cheese and tomato, egg and cress.

  • Offer fresh fruit as a snack e.g. when they get home from school.

What are some healthy playtime snacks for my kid?

The foods that you give your kid to take to school need to be transportable and able to survive without refrigeration. Always include their favourite choices as often as you can and encourage them to try new things. Healthy choices include:

  • A portion of any fresh fruit e.g. banana, pear, apple, a handful of grapes etc.

  • Dried fruit of any type – e.g. individual cartons of raisins can be handy.

  • Low fat cereal bar.

  • Fruit juice, juice drink, flavoured water.

  • Small sandwich or filled mini pitta pocket.

  • Breadsticks.

  • Popcorn.

  • Crackers.

  • Vegetable sticks and a dip e.g. salsa, cheese etc.

  • Fruit bread/loaf.

  • Fruit scone.

How can I make sure food gets cooked properly on the barbecue?

Careful handling and cooking of barbecue foods is so important to help prevent food poisoning and serious illness. Start by washing your hands before handling food and wash all salad items and vegetables. Ensure meat such as chicken, sausages and burgers are cooked thoroughly throughout, not just on the outside.

Once the meat is cooked, make sure that you keep it separate from uncooked meat so serve it on a clean plate. If you have marinated the meat and fish before cooking them and have marinade left over then throw the marinade away and consider making less of it next time. This may sound a little wasteful, but left over marinade can harbour bugs from the raw meat and these can be transferred if you use it again.

Keep desserts and cream to put on barbecued fruits and so on chilled in the fridge until you need to serve them. If there are any left over, don’t leave them out ‘in case someone wants seconds’ – pop them straight back into the fridge and keep them cool until next time.

Should I use a wooden or plastic chopping board at home?

It’s important to reduce the chance of cross contamination of foods and chopping boards are potentially an area of concern. However, there does not seem to be any conclusive evidence that it is safer to use a plastic chopping board than a wooden one as long as you follow good hygiene procedures in your kitchen. Always use a clean and dry chopping board and ideally use different chopping boards for raw foods e.g. meat and fish, than for those foods that are ready to eat e.g. tomatoes and cucumber. Remember to throw away damaged chopping boards as, even if washed thoroughly, a damaged chopping board can harbour bacteria.

How much protein does my family need each day?

It is generally agreed that most people in the UK probably eat more protein than they actually need in their daily diet. Protein is found in many different foods including meat, fish, dairy, nuts, seeds, beans, pulses, soy and quorn products.

In addition, bread, rice, pasta, cereals and potatoes also contain protein and can contribute to the overall dietary protein intake. There are some situations where protein needs are slightly increased including pregnancy, lactation, reduced calorie dieting and heavy physical activity. Because kids are growing rapidly they need more protein relative to their body weight than adults.

Getting enough protein is unlikely to be a problem for you and your family if you are all eating a healthy balanced diet and including a variety of foods.

Should I try to cut out sugar completely from my family’s diet?

Sugar has had a bad press over the years but there is no reason why you should completely cut sugar out of your family’s diet. In actual fact this would be almost impossible and there is no scientific reason for you to try to do this. Sugar is simply a carbohydrate, it provides 4 kcals a gram and can add taste and palatability to foods.

Fat, like sugar, also helps make food taste nice but gram for gram sugar has half the calories of fat. A study published in the ‘International Journal of Obesity’ (2000) stated that a high carbohydrate diet (at least 55% of total energy), “is associated with thinness in kids”. At the end of the day it’s all about balance, variety and moderation.

Base your family’s diet on plenty of starchy carbohydrate foods such as bread, rice, pasta and potatoes, ensure they eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and moderate amounts of milk and dairy foods, meat, fish or meat/milk alternatives and limited amounts of foods containing fat or sugar. It is wise to stop your kids ‘grazing’ on sweet foods and drinks so that their teeth have time to recover between eating occasions. A recent study (2001) demonstrated that teeth brushed with fluoride toothpaste suffer no ill effects when challenged with sugar up to five times a day.

It is suggested that for infants, sweet foods and drinks should be confined to feed times, for older kids, teeth are likely to be able to cope with about three meals and two snacks per day and still remain healthy.

My kid has become a vegetarian. How can I make sure they eat healthily?

First of all let me reassure you that it is quite possible for your kid to have a healthy balanced diet whilst following a vegetarian diet. There are different grades of vegetarianism and different foods are cut out in each. Some vegetarians avoid eating meat and fish and others also cut out eggs. However when people don't eat any foods of animal origin at all then they are termed a ‘vegan’ and a vegan diet can be low in iron, calcium and vitamin B12. If your kid is avoiding dairy foods then they will be missing out on important sources of calcium. In this case they should eat calcium fortified foods such as calcium fortified soya to help out.

A vegetarian style of eating can be very healthy if the right food choices are made but all too often teenagers announce they are ‘going vegetarian’ and just cut out meat and fish without considering how to ensure they are eating a healthy balanced diet. If they fail to substitute suitable foods for the foods they are cutting out, they may be at risk of nutritional deficiency. To help your kid get it right, you must make sure that they base their meals on starchy foods such as bread, rice, pasta, cereals and potatoes (focusing on the wholegrain and wholewheat types) and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. For nutritional completeness they should eat a variety of foods including dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans and pulses in moderation.

It is important to consider the iron content of the diet and make sure they eat plenty of iron containing foods including fortified breakfast cereals, green vegetables, dried fruit such as figs, dates and apricots, bean, pulses and bread. The iron from vegetable sources (the non-haem iron) is not so well absorbed as the iron in foods from an animal origin (the haem iron). Whenever you can, make sure that your kid eats food high in vitamin C with meals and snacks that contain iron as this will help the iron to be absorbed. Examples of combinations of foods that would do the trick are a glass of orange juice with fortified breakfast cereal or spinach and orange salad.

Do pulses and baked beans count towards my daily fruit and veg portions?

Beans and pulses provide a range of nutrients to the diet including protein, carbohydrate, fibre and iron. There are many different varieties such as kidney, haricot, black bean, soya and butter beans, lentils and chickpeas but they will only count as a portion of fruit and vegetables once a day. A portion is 3 heaped tablespoons of cooked beans. Tinned baked beans are canned in tomato sauce and some varieties can be bought that are reduced in sugar and salt. Tomatoes are one of a few food sources of the antioxidant lycopene which is related to beta carotene. Food processing increases the availability of lycopene, so more is present in canned and pureed tomatoes than in fresh. It has been suggested that lycopene can provide protection against oxidative damage, reducing risk of cancer and coronary heart disease.

Why is it important to drink lots of water and how much should an adult drink each day?

Water is the most abundant substance in the human body and you can’t live without it. Water is vital to help regulate body temperature, transport nutrients, remove waste products and lubricate joints. Exactly how much a person should drink is open to debate and more recently the ‘8 glasses of water a day’ statement has been challenged. Some people just can’t or won’t drink this amount of water throughout the day and thankfully this is not really necessary.

People will drink more when they like the taste and so the addition of a small amount of juice, squash or a squeeze of lemon or lime etc. to plain water can all encourage people to drink. In essence we get water from the food we eat and the drinks we drink (tea, coffee, juice, squash, milk etc.) and it all adds up over the day. Some foods contain more water than others e.g. soup contains more than bread, but both contribute to the daily intake of water.

Contrary to popular opinion, drinks containing caffeine such as coffee and tea also count to your overall water intake and can be drunk as part of a healthy lifestyle. Caffeine can act as a diuretic but only drinking a few cups of coffee throughout the day is not of concern. Many people have been told to avoid drinking coffee because they will become dehydrated but this is simply not correct. This would suggest that a person loses more fluid by drinking the cup of coffee than the fluid contained in the drink itself. If you want to ensure that you and your kids are drinking enough, the simplest way is to take a look at the colour of the urine. If it is pale in colour and plentiful then you are likely to be drinking enough, if it is dark in colour and you rarely visit the toilet, then you almost certainly need to drink more.