A Unique Child

Understanding Dietary Fats and Oils in the Early Years

  • Understanding Dietary Fats and Oils in the Early Years

In the fourth part of her series on food and nutrition, Patricia Pillay suggests cooking and other hands-on activities for indoors and out…

Fats and oils have important roles in helping to keep our bodies healthy and working well. Fats provide us with the essential fatty acids that our bodies are not able to make otherwise.

These fatty acids are essential for lots of the processes in our bodies that help to keep us healthy, such as thyroid activity, hormone production, blood clotting, skin and hair health and functioning of the brain and nervous systems.

Some of the vitamins which are essential to good health, vitamins A, D and E, are ‘fat-soluble’, which means that our bodies cannot absorb these vitamins unless we also consume some fats.

Fats and oils are also sources of energy, which young children need in abundance. Children burn up lots of energy through their natural inclination to be very active, but their bodies also need to use lots of energy for growing and developing.

Eating relatively small amounts of fats and oils provides children with a very concentrated energy supply.

While fats and oils are needed, however, it’s important not to provide children with excessive amounts. This is because the human body does not remove any excess fat consumed. Instead our bodies just store the fat, and seem to be able to do so in almost unlimited amounts.

When energy consumed (intake) exceeds energy used (output) children become overweight, or even obese, with consequences for their ability to move around actively, reducing their energy output and further increasing weight and related health problems.

Fats and oils contain either saturated or unsaturated fats. Saturated fats have been shown to have a negative impact on, for example, heart health and cholesterol level, when consumed excessively.

Saturated fats mostly come from animal sources but some plant-based products, such as coconut and palm oils, also contain saturated fats. Other plant oils, and fish oils, contain unsaturated fats which are generally thought to be healthier.

We can see, therefore, that it is important for young children to consume fats and oils but it is also important to avoid over-consumption. Below you will find cooking and experimenting activities to help you explore fats and oils in your setting.

Indoor cooking – Cream sauce with pasta

This recipe contains lots of saturated fats and so should be treated as a special-occasion food, rather than an everyday food. Serve in small quantities with lots of fresh salad leaves and tomatoes.

You will need:

  • Pasta – this can be dried or fresh; twists, spirals, tagliatelle and spaghetti are all good
  • Equal quantities of butter and cream
  • Cheese – use a hard cheese with a strong flavour; this way you will get lots of flavour from a small amount of cheese

Quantities: for 500g of pasta use 60g each of butter and cream with no more than 60g of cheese.

What you do:
Let the children weigh all the ingredients, grate the cheese, and put the butter and cream into a small pan. Cook the pasta following the instructions on your packet. While the pasta is cooking, heat the butter and cream slowly – it should not boil.

Drain the pasta and put into a large mixing bowl. Let the children add the butter, cream and grated cheese and mix everything together. It’s ready to eat straight away for lunch or tea with fresh salad leaves and tomatoes.

Outdoor cooking – fish burgers

These fish burgers, made from oily fish, make for a really good outdoor cooking experience for young children. As tinned pilchards or sardines are ready to eat from the tin there is no danger of undercooking the burgers. Fish burgers, however, will not hold together in the same way as a traditional burger and so you will need to cook them in a frying pan, rather than on a rack.

You will need:

  • Tinned oily fish, such as pilchards or sardines. Choose fish tinned in water or oil rather than in a sauce
  • Cooked mashed potato
  • Tarragon – this is a traditional herb for fish and adds flavour, but is not essential
  • Small bread rolls or burger buns
  • Flour to coat the burgers and prevent them sticking to the frying pan
  • A little oil to cook the fish burgers

What you do:
Drain the tinned fish then let the children open each fish to remove the bones. Don’t worry if they miss some as the bones are actually edible.

Put the cold mashed potato, fish and tarragon (if using this) into a large mixing bowl and let the children mix everything together. Show them how to shape the mixture into small burgers and dip these into the flour (this stops them sticking to the pan during cooking).

Cook the fish burgers for 3-4 minutes on each side in a frying pan using a little oil. Children can turn their burgers and lift them from the frying pan using a long-handled spatula.

Put each burger into a small bread roll and spend a few minutes singing, sharing news or telling a story while the burgers cool slightly.

If you are not confident cooking on a fire with children you could cook the burgers for the children on a barbeque. This will still give them an experience of cooking and eating outdoors. Remember – all your usual fire safety rules will apply.

Exploring oil by making salad dressing

Here is a fun way to explore oil and end up with a tasty dressing to add to a fresh green salad.

Put two tablespoons of vegetable or olive oil into a clear, screw-topped jar and add one tablespoon of vinegar. Vinegar is mostly made up of water and acts like water in this experiment. Notice that the oil sits on top of the vinegar.

Shake the jar gently and watch as the oil forms into large droplets. Leave the contents of the jar to settle for a while and they will return to two separate layers.

Now shake the jar vigorously and watch as the oil forms much smaller droplets. At this stage if you leave the jar a long time the separate layers will form again.

If instead, however, you add half a teaspoon of dry mustard powder, and shake again, the mustard will stabilise the mixture. Add some chopped or dried herbs at this stage, shake again and your salad dressing is ready to use.

Exploring fat by making a quick cottage cheese

Take the fat out of milk to make a quick cottage cheese in time for tea! You need full fat milk, lemon juice and a pinch of salt. Use the juice of one lemon for each 500ml of milk.

Heat 500ml of full fat milk to boiling point. Once it’s reached this temperature take it off the heat and slowly stir in the juice of a lemon. Keep stirring slowly for two minutes and then leave the mixture to cool for 30 minutes.

Place a colander over a bowl and line the colander with cheesecloth or a clean, thin tea towel. Pour the mixture from the pan into the cloth lined colander and leave it to drain through for five to 10 minutes. The liquid whey will drain into the bowl while the fat from the milk (the curds) will remain in the cloth.

After 30 minutes gather the edges of the cloth and squeeze any remaining liquid from the curds. Place the curds in a bowl, add a pinch of salt and mix using a fork to complete your cottage cheese. Fill small bread rolls with this cottage cheese for a delicious tea-time treat.

The whey that is left over from your cheese making is full of protein. This can be used in recipes using skimmed or semi-skimmed milk – for example, you can use it to make milk puddings or sauces.

  • Read the third part in Patricia’s series, on fruit and vegetables, here.

Patricia Pillay is an early years consultant and qualified forest school leader.

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