Parents should welcome the news last week that, under regulations drawn up by the Dubai Health Authority and Dubai Municipality, soft drinks, chocolate and crisps will be banned from school canteens across the emirate from September. It follows a move made by the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority last year, when it issued a list of items that schools were prohibited from selling, which included burgers, nuts, crisps and sugary drinks.
The importance of this drive towards not only improving the nutritional value of the food served in schools, but encouraging children to eat more healthily cannot be overstated. As levels of diabetes and obesity continue to rise in the UAE, decisive action is needed - and not just in schools, but also in the home. Initiatives like this one will only thrive if they are endorsed by parents across the board; how futile it will be if children are encouraged to eat healthily during the school day, but are given access to junk food galore at home.
Providing a healthy, balanced diet is no easy task however, and the proliferation of food courts, gigantic sweet shops and supersize deals in this part of the world doesn't help.
Of course, it's easy enough to decide to initiate your own junk food ban. The difficulty comes in finding alternatives that are both appealing and, crucially, convenient enough to be a realistic option on a regular basis. Read on for suggestions and recipes for quick and easy breakfasts, dinners and after-school snacks to help make healthy eating a hassle-free part of family life.
It goes without saying that one place to start is by not having the kinds of foods you don't want your children to eat in the house. If the items aren't available, then it makes it far easier to say no when you're asked for them. I'm not suggesting that this will prevent them from seeking out unhealthy items elsewhere, but it's certainly a start.
Similarly, although this can be harder than it sounds, if you want your children to adopt healthy eating habits, then never has it been more important to lead by example. If you continually snack on biscuits, so will they. If you know that your children are going to a friend's house or somewhere where you suspect junk food will be readily available, give them a healthy meal or snack beforehand to fill them up.
Try to get into the habit of sitting at the table and eating meals together as a family as often as possible. Establish a routine: serve dinner at the same time every day, limit distractions (turn the television off, put mobile phones and toys out of sight) and promote the idea that this is a social occasion.
As ever, it is important to start the day on the right track. Try to provide a nutritious, filling breakfast so that youngsters won't go seeking out unhealthy snacks at the first available opportunity. Cereal is a popular breakfast option, but it is not always the most nutritionally balanced, and it's a good idea to check labels scrupulously, as many versions, particularly those aimed at children, contain high levels of salt and sugar and have few benefits. Porridge or homemade muesli is often a far better choice. White bread slathered with margarine and jam isn't a balanced, nutritionally sound way to begin the morning, but a slice of wholegrain toast (which provides fibre and a more constant supply of energy), topped with peanut butter (no added salt or sugar) or mashed banana is infinitely better.
For a bigger breakfast, serve the toast with a boiled egg or two. Eggs (free-range are best) contain iron, omega-3 and vitamin D (which is needed by the body in order to absorb bone-strengthening calcium). When it comes to carbohydrates such as bread, rice and pasta, it makes sense to choose wholemeal varieties over processed white ones, which have often been stripped of much of their fibre and nutrients.
With breakfast taken care of and schools pledging to provide nutritious lunches, the next hurdle to contend with is the much-loved afternoon snack. More often than not, children return home from school ravenously hungry and keen to make short work of a packet of biscuits or a supersized bag of crisps.
To preempt this, have a healthy and interesting alternative waiting, or, if necessary, meet them at the gate or bus stop with a portable hunger pacifier. Portion size is worth paying attention to here: you want to satisfy hunger pangs and provide sustenance, but not at the risk of leaving them too full to eat dinner.
The cheese and sweetcorn muffins in the recipe below are ideal for this type of thing. Their taste and appearance appeal to children, the cheese provides both protein and calcium and they are quick and easy to prepare. The recipe can be varied (try adding chopped turkey, sliced spring onions or tomatoes) and, once made, they can be frozen and defrosted when needed.
Dips are another child-friendly snack. They are fun to eat and, when served with brightly coloured crudités, encourage tasters to sample a selection of raw vegetables (carrots, cucumber, red and yellow peppers, steamed asparagus for example).
Shop-bought hummus is a good option, as are Greek yoghurt and grated cucumber or cream cheese mixed with a teaspoon of pesto or sweet chilli sauce for the more adventurous.
The pea and mint dip below also seems to go down well. For a bigger snack, offer toasted pita bread pockets filled with cheese and tomato, slices of chicken or turkey or tuna and cucumber.
When it comes to the evening meal, perseverance and guile often pay. If at first a certain ingredient is refused, then offer it again in a different guise. The old "eat your greens and you can have dessert" approach merely singles vegetables out as something to be endured or treated with suspicion. Instead, try to establish the principle that a meal is incomplete without veg.
Of course, you shouldn't consider it an admission of defeat if you have to resort to a little trickery every now and then. While children may refuse to eat certain vegetables when they can see them on the plate, present them in "hidden form" and you may well find them happily devoured.
The tomato sauce recipe below incorporates a number of different vegetables and is incredibly versatile. I recommend making up a large batch and then freezing it in portions, ready to be defrosted when needed. The sauce can provide the basis for any number of different meals, for example:
- for a quick and healthy soup, warm the sauce through in a pan and add stock until you reach the desired consistency;
- use it as the base for a mild curry, casserole or Bolognese sauce;
- serve with flour tortillas and strips of cooked chicken for a quick fajita dish;
- spread over flatbread, top with cheese and finish under the grill for a ready-in-seconds pizza;
- toss the sauce through freshly cooked gnocchi and top with a handful of your child's favourite cheese.
Or try the salmon pasta bake recipe, above. Salmon is regarded as something of a superfood (it is a good source of protein, contains iron, phosphorus, selenium and vitamins) and is thought to be particularly good for children - it provides omega-3 fatty acids, which their diets often lack.
175g frozen peas
10 mint leaves
juice of lemon
1 tbsp cream cheese or labneh
2 tbsp water
Bring a pan of water to the boil. Add the peas and mint leaves and blanch briefly for two minutes. Drain well.
Tip the peas and mint into a blender, add the cream cheese, a little lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of water. Blend the mixture until relatively smooth, scraping down the sides of the machine and re-blending as necessary. Taste and add more lemon juice or cream cheese if needed.
Serve with carrot and cucumber sticks, slices of pepper (red, orange or yellow) and pieces of toasted pita or flat bread.
Cheese and sweetcorn muffins (makes 12)
275g self-raising flour
50g butter, plus a little extra for greasing
150g tinned sweetcorn (unsweetened, no added salt)
75g Cheddar cheese, chopped into small pieces
Preheat the oven to 190¿C/fan 170¿C/gas 5. Lightly grease a muffin tin with a little butter.
Sieve the flour into a large bowl. Rub the butter into the flour with your hands, until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the sweetcorn and cheese and stir well.
Whisk the milk and egg together in a small bowl and season with black pepper. Pour this mixture over the dry ingredients and stir until well combined. Spoon the mixture into the prepared muffin tin and cook for 15-20 minutes until the top is light golden brown. Leave to cool.
Versatile tomato sauce (with hidden vegetables)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 red peppers, deseeded and finely chopped
700g fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped
3 tins chopped tomatoes
a few sprigs of basil
Heat the oil in a large, wide pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and sauté gently for 8-10 minutes, until softened but not coloured.
Add the garlic and after a minute stir in the carrots, red pepper and fresh tomatoes. Cook for 15 minutes, until soft. Tip the tinned tomatoes into the pan and stir well.
Simmer for 35-40 minutes, stirring every few minutes to prevent the sauce from sticking to the base of the pan. Add the basil leaves right at the end of the cooking time, remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly before transferring to a blender and blending until smooth.
Child-friendly salmon and tomato bake serves 4 (2 adults, 2 children)
250ml homemade tomato sauce (see above)
300g salmon fillet
50g brown bread crumbs
50g hard cheese, grated
400g wholegrain pasta
Preheat the oven to 200¿C/fan 180¿C/gas 6. Take a large square of foil and place the salmon fillet in the centre with a small knob of butter on the top. Fold the edges of the foil together to make a sealed parcel. Cook for 12-15 minutes, until the fish is just cooked through. Leave to cool slightly, before flaking into pieces.
Mix the breadcrumbs and grated cheese together.
While the salmon is cooking, bring a large pan of water to the boil, add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions. Drain and tip into a large bowl. Pour the tomato sauce over the pasta and mix well. Add the salmon pieces and stir gently, be careful not to break the fish up too much.
Pour the mixture into a large oven-proof dish, scatter the cheese and breadcrumb mixture over the top and cook for 10-12 minutes, until the topping is golden brown and bubbling up around the edges.
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