For working mums short on time, preparing the healthiest possible meal in the shortest span of time is crucial. Scientific evidence now shows that children’s mood, behaviour and learning ability – as well as their physical health – really can be affected by what they eat. So when it comes to raising healthy, happy children, there’s no better place to start than with what you feed them.
Yet, the latest research also shows us that many children in the UK eat diets that are sub-standard, especially when it comes to the nutrients they need for healthy brain development and function. Key amongst those nutrients are the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, found in fish and seafood. DHA is the main omega-3 in the brain, where it’s needed for the normal structure and function of brain and nerve cells, and for making the connections between them that support all learning and memory. DHA is also essential for vision (it should make up over a third of the retina). By contrast, EPA appears to help mood and emotional regulation. And both EPA and DHA help to reduce inflammation, and to maintain a healthy heart and circulation – important for the health and wellbeing of both brains and bodies.
Current dietary guidelines recommend that children eat two portions of fish and seafood a week to get enough of these brain-boosting omega-3. However, a recent study from Oxford University found that 9 out of 10 UK children weren’t achieving this recommended intake. What’s more, the children with lower blood levels of omega-3 DHA had poorer reading, working memory and behaviour than those with higher levels. And in earlier treatment trials, an increased DHA intake improved both reading and behaviour in children who were underperforming at school.
So how can you make sure your children are getting enough of these crucial omega-3 fats? Oily fish (like salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, pilchards or herring) are the richest sources, but useful quantities of EPA and DHA are also provided by white fish (including cod, haddock, coley or plaice), or by seafood like prawns and shrimps. Canned or frozen versions will give your children the omega-3 they need, and are a convenient alternative to fresh fish and seafood that’s usually cheaper too. Stock up on these, and you will always have the ingredients for a healthy meal or snack to hand.
I’m well aware that many working mums just don’t have time to cook elaborate meals, or have simply never been shown how to create quick and tasty fish dishes. (Some also think their children just ‘won’t eat fish’ – but in fact most will happily do so if it’s presented the right way). So I’ve put together here some quick and simple recipes to give your child the omega-3 boost they need – for breakfast, lunch or dinner!
DR RICHARDSON’S TOP 4 RECIPES: UNDER 15 MINUTES:
Healthy Snack option: Empty one can of mackerel (or pack of smoked mackerel) into a bowl. Add heaping spoons of cream cheese or mayonnaise and mix with a fork or blender to create a tasty spread. Add a little mustard or spring onion if your children approve. Serve on whole grain crackers or toast with sliced cucumber and/or green salad leaves.
Healthy Breakfast option: For breakfast, make your own scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. Even children who claim not to like the taste of fish will enjoy this luxury dish (in fact, smoked salmon is an excellent substitute for bacon in many recipes that children – and adults – love). Combine eggs, a little milk, salt, a sprinkling of black pepper and cook with a little melted butter in a saucepan. Add smoked salmon pieces (or tinned salmon flakes) just before serving on buttered wholegrain toast or muffins, with a few tomatoes on the side. Total preparation time 10-15 minutes.
Healthy Lunch option: Tuna mayonnaise is popular with most children, and so simple to prepare. Mix one can of tuna with mayo, salt and pepper, and serve with wholegrain pitta bread and a little salad (try sliced cucumber, apple and celery, with a dash of olive oil and sweet vinegar, and/or tomato and some green leaves). Adding a mini-can of sweetcorn to the tuna mix makes this dish even tastier (and gets some more vegetables into your children!) – and a little garlic powder and/or herbs can be sprinkled on top for added flavour. Look for multipacks on special offer for best value, and choose tuna in spring water or brine over vegetable oil to keep competing unhealthy fats down. Total preparation time 10-15 minutes.
*This mix is also a perfect filling for baked potatoes, which are always popular. You can either bake the potatoes in advance, or microwave them if time is short.
Healthy Dinner option: Fillets of cod, haddock, coley or other white fish are widely available as frozen fillets (as are salmon steaks). Bake, steam or grill the fish with salt and a sprinkling of pepper (all healthier options than frying!) Then, serve it with the children’s favourite tomato, cheese, curry or other sauce, along with some steamed vegetables and rice, pasta or potato mash (or oven chips if you must!) Most white fish cook on 180C for 15 minutes in the oven, and the rest can be prepared while that’s baking, so total preparation time is around 15 mins.
Dr Richardson is an expert on the links between nutrition and brain health. She is best known for her research into how diet can affect children’s behaviour, learning and mood. Alex is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford and Founder of the charity Food and Behaviour (FAB) Research. Her book, ‘They Are What You Feed Them‘ (Harper Thorson 2006), gives practical advice for parents and professionals concerned with how what we feed our children impacts on their learning, concentration, co-ordination and behaviour.