A Unique Child

Understanding Non-Dairy Proteins in the Early Years

  • Understanding Non-Dairy Proteins in the Early Years

Continuing her series on food and nutrition, Patricia Pillay explores the fuel that powers children’s growth and development, and suggests growing and cooking activities to try at your setting…

● Read the first part in Patricia’s series, on carbohydrates, here.

Proteins are used by the body for growth and repair. While milk, either breast milk or prepared formulas, provide babies with the protein they need this will not continue to meet their needs. As children move from being babies to becoming young children it is valuable to encourage familiarity with a wider range of proteins, as different protein sources offer different micro-nutrients to the body. Although milk and other dairy products continue to be important sources of nutrition at this age, children should also be eating proteins from other sources.

What are proteins?

Our bodies are made up of millions of cells and it is the nutrients in the proteins we eat that build and repair these cells continuously. This supports the growth and development of healthy organs, resulting in healthy bodies. Young children need proteins not only for keeping their bodies healthy but also to support the rapid growth that they experience during these years. Consequently they need proportionally more protein than adults for their size.

A deficiency of protein, where the body does not get enough protein to meet its needs, can result in restricted growth and in a range of health issues which may prevent children from achieving their full potential. Some possible signs of protein deficiency in young children may be excessive tiredness, a tired, dull appearance to hair and skin, muscle weakness or frequent illnesses.

If we eat more protein than our body needs for growth and repair our bodies simply turn the excess protein into the energy, which is usually supplied by carbohydrates. However, protein foods are proportionally more expensive than carbohydrate foods and so relying on proteins to meet energy needs, while possible, is a very expensive way to eat.

Non-dairy protein sources include meat, fish, eggs, seeds, nuts and pulses.

Below you will find cooking, growing and exploring activities to help you learn about non-dairy proteins in your setting.

Indoor cooking – Sardines on toast

This simple snack or teatime treat can be easily made by very young children and gives them a lovely, gentle introduction to fish.

You will need:

● Tinned sardines

● Toast

What you need to do:
Use sardines tinned either in tomato or oil. If using sardines in oil, you will need to drain most of the oil off them before use. Put the sardines in a dish and let children open up each sardine, using a knife and fork, and remove the backbone. It doesn’t matter if this is not expertly done, as the bones are edible. Children can then use forks to mash the sardines into a spreadable paste. Have some toast ready for children to spread their sardine paste onto – they can do this with a knife or the back of a spoon, depending on their individual skill levels. The sardines on toast can be eaten just like this, cut into small squares, triangles or fingers, or they can be heated under a grill briefly to make a warm snack.

For a change, try using tinned pilchards instead of sardines or even mixing pilchards and sardines together. For an increased sensory experience, children can use scissors to cut herbs such as tarragon or parsley to add to the fish paste.

Outdoor cooking – Sausages

Where possible it’s great to give opportunities for children to cook outdoors. If you are confident with fire use, sausages, either on their own or in a roll to make a hot dog, are popular. If you are not confident cooking on a fire, cooking sausages for children on a barbeque will still give them an experience of cooking and eating outdoors.

You will need:

● Sausages

Any sausages can be used; the type you choose will depend on the dietary requirements of your children. Remember to check the ingredients list to ensure that the sausages are suitable for allergies and intolerances.

● Long-handled skewers if children are cooking their own sausages.

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:
Cooking sausages thoroughly on an open fire or barbeque can be difficult as the temperature cannot be regulated. The sausages may appear nicely cooked on the outside but be undercooked on the inside. Undercooked meat can be dangerous to eat. If you pre-cook the sausages by simmering in hot water for 15 minutes before children cook them on the fire they will have all the fun of smelling their sausages cooking, and watching them change colour, without risking undercooked meat.

Make sure children leave sufficient time for their sausages to cool before eating them. And remember – all your usual fire safety rules will apply.

Growing edible seeds – Pumpkins and sunflowers

These are longer-term growing projects. Ensure that you buy seeds meant for growing, such as from a garden centre. Seed allergies are rare but you should ensure that you take your usual precautions.

Pumpkins and sunflowers both need to do a lot of growing, therefore they ideally need to be planted in good quality compost. A really good place to grow pumpkins is on a well-rotted compost heap.

Plant pumpkin seeds outdoors from late May; they don’t like frost. Alternatively you can plant the seeds in individual pots indoors so that children can closely watch the early stages of growth. When they are strong little plants get the children to dig holes for them outdoors in your well-composted vegetable bed. Remind children not to pick the flowers as they appear because these need to grow before the pumpkins will appear.

Plant sunflower seeds outdoors from late May; they don’t like frost. These are best planted directly where you want them to grow. This can be in a well-composted flower bed or in large pots. Sunflowers like lots of sun. When they start to grow tall and their flowers start to get heavy you may need to tie them to a stake to prevent them breaking.

Harvesting and roasting your seeds

By mid to late autumn your pumpkins will be ready. Children can see when the pumpkins are ready because the vine they are growing on will change colour and begin to shrivel. Cut the pumpkin in half. Children can have lots of fun scooping out the seeds from the middle and rinsing them really well in a colander. Dry the seeds on kitchen paper and then mix with a very little cooking oil and roast in the oven at 180 degrees, gas mark 4 for 10–20 minutes. You will need to stir them a couple of times during roasting. Once roasted they are ready to eat or you can store them for a few days in an airtight container.

Enjoy your flowers right through the summer. In the early autumn the outside of the flower head will begin to turn a yellow-brown colour and the inside will be full of seeds. Cut the flower head and hang in a dry place for several weeks, to let the seeds get really dry. Make sure that children can see and feel them during this time. After several weeks the seeds will be very dry and the children will be able to harvest them by rubbing the flower head with their hands or with a clean, stiff brush. Toast the sunflower seeds in an oven at 180 degrees, gas mark 4, for about 10 minutes. Once roasted they are ready to eat or you can store them for a few days in an airtight container.

Exploring eggs

Eggs are a common allergen in young children, so make sure you take your usual precautions.
If you are able to source a range of eggs they are great for learning about size as well as being fun to cook. As well as hens’ eggs try also duck eggs, which are slightly bigger with a stronger taste; tiny quails’ eggs; or, for the very adventurous, an enormous ostrich egg.

Quails’ eggs can be hard boiled in two minutes, hens’ eggs in 10 minutes and duck eggs in 12 minutes, or make omelettes of different sizes over an open fire using a long-handled frying pan.

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