Hadil Alkhatib doesn’t understand why parents – and restaurants – regularly feed children some of the least nutritious food.
“It first started when I was working and I had no time to cook,” says the Dubai-based Palestinian now a mom of two. “Yes, sometimes I would prep the night before, but I was too exhausted. Sometimes I would go into a restaurant and say, ‘Can I have a smaller portion for my little girl?’ She was one and a half at the time.”
Invariably the staff would point to the children’s menu, with standard, limited options of macaroni and cheese, pizza and chicken nuggets.
At home, Alkhatib’s daughter ate smaller portions of whatever her parents were having, which was usually healthy. Items like mac ’n cheese and pizza were a rare treat.
“It became frustrating that every time they were tempting her with everything they had on the menu, and I was really overwhelmed with the amount of unhealthy food,” says Alkhatib. “She would want that because that’s what they offered her, but if you offered her chicken and rice she would want that.”
When Alkhatib opened her Al Wasl Road restaurant, The Roost Rotisserie, earlier this year in Dubai, she was adamant that the children’s offerings would not be the standard children’s fare. That’s why the Little Roosters menu is based around locally sourced, free-range, hormone and antiobiotic-free chicken that has been painstakingly marinated for two days. The children’s menu is basically smaller versions of the main dishes, prepared in a slightly more bland manner for smaller palates. It offers items including a quarter-chicken meal, vegetarian quesadilla or wood-fired Angus burger, with a variety of side dishes including wilted greens with lemon butter and almonds.
Although Alkhatib knows she can’t change the world, she would like to influence the way a few parents feed their children – and tackle that tricky terminology which has only sprung up in recent generations: the “picky eater.”
Researchers at the University of Michigan recently tackled the topic of parental influence on picky eaters, with their work published in a recent issue of the journal Appetite. According to the study, rarely do young “picky“ eaters, also called “selective” or “choosy,” develop health issues in relation to nutrient deficiency and poor growth. Nor does parental pleading and cajoling have an impact, says Julie Lumeng, director of the U-M Center for Human Growth and Development and a physician at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
“We asked if pressuring led to a decrease in picky eating, and it didn’t,” she said. “There was no link between pressuring and picky eating and any of these other outcomes.”
There is reason for some parents to worry, of course. Another study on the issue out of Massey University in New Zealand focused on “beige brigade” eaters. These are children who suffer from something called Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder and choose what to eat based on texture and color. As a result they subsist on a diet of nutritionally deficient, highly processed, carbohydrate foods including chicken nuggets, noodles and bread.
In 2015 a study from Duke University School of Medicine found that more than 20 percent of 3,433 children between the ages of two and six were “selective” eaters. Those children with severe forms of the behavior could be at a higher risk of developing depression and anxiety, the study found, which can impact everything from social functioning to the parent-child relationship.
“The children we are talking about are not just misbehaving kids who refuse to eat their broccoli,” cautions the lead author, Nancy Zucker.
“These are children whose eating has become so limited or selective that it’s starting to cause problems.”
Back-to-school time typically launches a raft of articles on how to cater to children’s mercurial food tastes, while everything from sugar addiction to technology to school cafeteria portions to sedentary lifestyles is being blamed for the rising incidence of childhood obesity. However Alkhatib believes the solution is simple.
“It started from us,” says Alkhatib. “We give them different options, they are like ‘I don’t like that’.”
Mixed in with all the noise and all the books offering parenting advice, in Alkhatib’s eyes how and what children eat boils down to one simple truth: “They do what you do.”
She believes that when parents give up and cater to their children’s tastes, and prepare them different meals, they are setting a poor example.
“When we eat at different timings,” says Alkhatib, “psychologically they are really not ready to eat, you are doing other things, they are like what is mommy doing? What is daddy doing? If you sit down together, that stops.”
Alkhatib would love for parents to set an example by dining together, on the same healthy food, offering commentary on why some foods are far preferable to others.
“Eventually they will give in,” she says. “They will understand this is what we’ve got, this is what you need to eat to be stronger, healthier.”
The Roost’s Chef Zayn, aka Gareth Haggerty, is fully on board with the concept when it comes to his own children, two little girls.
“This stems back to my grandparents making us sit at the table,” he says. “The main thing for me is if the parents are lazy, the kid will be lazy as well. If you start off from a young age eating healthy food, they will continue to eat healthy, good food.”
Annabelle Karmel became an expert on the issue decades ago after her own son developed picky eating habits, and went on to publish 43 cookbooks and sell six million copies. Earlier this year she told Gulf News that parents must strive to introduce a range of nutritious foods to their children as part of efforts to lay a foundation for good future eating habits.
“Getting children to take an active interest in what they’re eating is essential for their general health and well-being,” she says. “Why not get them to join you in the kitchen? You’ll stand a good chance of instilling a love of good, healthy food when preparing simple meals together from scratch.”
As Luigi Vespero, the executive chef at the Michelin-starred Mediterranean restaurant Demoiselle by Galvin in City Walk, told The National recently, parents should encourage their children to order really good food when dining out.
“When planning a children’s menu, I firmly believe that the first and most important factor is to consider the nutritional facts and quality of the ingredients used to produce the dishes,” he says.
“Fun foods are not always nutritious, so the ingredients used and how they are prepared have to be of utmost importance and the primary pillar to set in place when designing a children’s menu.”
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.