A Unique Child

Understanding Minerals in Food in the Early Years

  • Understanding Minerals in Food in the Early Years

In the sixth part of her series on nutrition, Patricia Pillay suggests cooking and growing activities to explore the importance of micronutrients…

Minerals are usually called micronutrients. Our bodies need only small amounts of each mineral but they all have important jobs to do in keeping our bodies healthy. There are lots of different minerals. The seven major minerals are calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, sulfur, phosphorus and chloride.

Calcium is a major component of bones and teeth. It is very important for keeping young children’s growing bones strong and healthy. Calcium is found in dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, as well as in some cereals and in green vegetables.

Magnesium is important in helping the body to process proteins. It is also a component of bones and of soft tissue throughout the body. Magnesium is found in green vegetables, dairy products and potatoes.

Potassium is essential for the correct working of nerve impulses throughout the body. Potassium is found in fruit, vegetables, milk and meat.

Sodium is also essential for the correct working of nerve impulses throughout the body. In addition it is important for processes such as the absorption of food. Sodium is found in all salty foods such as nuts, crisps, processed foods and ready meals, cheese and processed meats, as well as in salt used during cooking or added to food before eating. For those who eat a lot of these processed foods too much sodium may be more of a problem than too little.

Sulphur is especially important in helping the body to repair itself after injuries – large or small. Sulfur is found in all protein-rich foods (meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, some cereals) as well as in apricots, peaches, garlic, onions and green vegetables.

Phosphorus is important for maintaining the structure of bones and teeth, and plays an important role in metabolic processes in the body. Phosphorus is found in food from animal sources (meat, dairy products, eggs and fish), as well as some plant sources, such as cereals and nuts.

Chloride is important for maintaining water balance throughout the body. Chloride is found in salt and so many of its sources are the same as for sodium. Chloride is also found in foods such as lettuce, celery, tomatoes and olives.

Now let’s look at some cooking and growing activities to help you explore minerals in your setting.

Indoor cooking – low sodium pizza

Because sodium is so widely available naturally, as well as being added in overlarge quantities to processed foods, for many children too much sodium may be more of a problem in their diet than too little.

Pizza is a firm favourite with many children so have fun together creating these low sodium pizzas without losing any of the flavour.

You will need:

  • 65g unsalted butter
  • 250 g self-raising flour
  • ¼ pint of milk
  • Fresh tomatoes
  • Fresh or dried herbs (basil, marjoram or parsley are good)
  • Mozzarella cheese (mozzarella is lower in sodium than other cheeses; it’s also fun to handle)

What you need to do:
Heat the oven to 220℃ (200℃ for a fan oven) or gas mark 5, and grease a large baking tray with a little oil or butter.

Cut the butter into small pieces and let the children rub the butter and flour together using their fingertips until it looks like bread crumbs. Let the children mix in the milk a little at a time until they can make the mixture stick together in a soft ball. They might not need all of the milk. If it is too sticky add a little more flour.

Divide the mixture into 3 or 4 smaller balls, Put a little flour onto a work surface and roll each ball of scone mixture into a circle, keeping it about 1cm thick. These are your pizza bases. Place them on the baking tray.

Brush the pizza bases with a little oil. Add sliced tomatoes, a scattering of fresh or dried herbs and slices of mozzarella. Cook in the oven for 15–20 minutes.

Indoor cooking – salad boats

While the pizza cooks, then cools a little, try making chloride-rich salad boats to eat with it. For many children, salty foods provide their chloride but some vegetables, such as lettuce, celery, tomatoes and olives, are naturally rich in chloride. Eating these vegetables regularly means that children will get sufficient chloride for their bodies’ needs even on a low salt diet. Chloride-rich vegetables are perfect for making salad boats to get children excited about eating salad.

You will need:

  • Little gem lettuce
  • Celery
  • Cherry tomatoes

What you need to do:
Show children how to wash the vegetables. Small, clean scrubbing brushes, such as new nail brushes, can make washing celery sticks great fun.

Take a nice curvy lettuce leaf to be the boat, then make some oars – let children use safety knives to cut thin strips from the celery and place these in their lettuce boats as oars. Add cherry tomato ‘sailors’ to the boats.

Outdoor cooking – toasted apricots dipped in honey and coconut

Apricots are one of the foods rich in sulphur. Fresh, tinned or dried apricots are all good to eat. Here’s a simple way to turn dried apricots into a fun snack or dessert for children.

(If you are not confident using a fire to cook with children, you could cook the apricots over a barbecue and let the children dip them in the honey and coconut.)

You will need:

  • Dried apricots – those sold as ‘ready to eat’ are the most satisfying to cook in this way.
  • Small bowls of honey and desiccated coconut
  • Long-handled skewers (if children are cooking their own apricots). Use regular metal skewers firmly attached to strong wooden sticks or strong, straight branches from a hazel tree, with the outer bark peeled off and one end sharpened slightly to act like a skewer. Hazel is antiseptic and so safe to use in this way.

What you need to do:
Put an apricot onto the end of the skewer or hazel stick. Toast this over the glowing embers of the fire, rotating the skewer or stick to prevent burning. This only takes a couple of minutes.

Now dip the hot apricot into the honey followed by the desiccated coconut. Make sure children leave sufficient time for their apricots to cool before eating them – and remember, all your usual fire safety rules will apply.

Growing – watercress

Watercress can be a valuable source of minerals for young children (as well as adults) because it contains calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus. It is also fun to grow because it grows easily and relatively quickly.

Watercress can be grown in containers both indoors and outdoors, or if you have space it can be grown in the ground. Seeds can be sown indoors all year round or outdoors from March/April until early summer. Use good quality compost, such as one intended for growing in containers.

What you need to do:
Scatter the seeds on the surface of the compost.

Keep them well watered. Children can have lots of fun with this, as the growing plants will tolerate lots of water and young children tend to be enthusiastic waterers!

If your watercress is growing indoors you should take the containers outdoors once a week and water them very thoroughly. This helps to keep the plants fresh and good to eat, as any old stagnant water is washed out of the containers.

Make sure that outdoor-grown watercress has a thorough weekly washout in this way as well.

Harvest the watercress when the plants are about 5 cm tall. Wash the harvested leaves well and use in salads or cook with cabbage or other green vegetables.


  • If your watercress smells bad it has not had thorough enough washouts and is not good to eat.
  • Seed allergies are rare but you should ensure that you take your usual precautions when handling the seeds.
  • Ensure that you buy seeds meant for growing, such as from a garden centre.

Read the fifth part in Patricia’s series, on water, here.

Children’s Craft Boxes

For more engaging activities, look no further than Children’s Craft Boxes by Davies the Elf.

Delivered by post for £5.50 each, including postage, in letterbox-friendly packs, the boxes feature a story, recipe, game and craft activity, plus full instructions.

Order online from Etsy or Folksy, or email daviestheelf@outlook.com.

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