Sunday, August 06, 2006

Garbage In Garbage Out

Over the weekend, I read in La Nación that a book on infant nutrition has just been published by the Buenos Aires based Centro de Estudio sobre Nutricón Infantil (Cesni). The specialists at this centre lament that Argentine children aged 1-4 consume only 5% of their daily calorie intake in the form of vegetables and fruits.

Their research shows that children of this age group consume more calories than are necessary on a daily basis, and as much as 30% of these are empty calories - food concentrated in calories with little to no nutrients.

Most alarming, however, is that out of the meagre 5% daily vegetable and fruit intake, 70% of which comes from potatoes. The other significant vegetable, tomato, comes usually in the form of sauces high in salt and sugar.

If intake of fruit is viewed independently within this already paltry 5%, it becomes even more insignificant, close to zero in fact. This is a shocking contrast to the recommended daily intake of 5 small portions of fruits and vegetables.

The Director of this centre said that children of this age group are forming life long habits and their present eating pattern may become the origin of eating disorders such as anorexia and other diseases in adulthood. Diseases which are well known to be associated with poor eating habits and unbalanced diets are diabetes, coronary heart disease and obesity.

Interestingly, the research also shows that malnutrition in this age group is not limited to lower income families. Indeed, children from middle and high income family are just as poorly fed!

It is reported that a lower income diet may be unbalanced due to high proportion of pasta, cereals and other refined carbohydrates. In higher income families, children are fed drinks with added sugar such as sweetened milk and frizzy drinks (gaseosas); biscuits (galletitas) and processed food packed with hydrogenated fats, sugar and additives; and sweets (golosinas).

In this country where red meat is accessible to most, I was disgusted to read that their research also shows 45% of the children suffer iron deficiency. These specialists point to the parents as culprits.

Most parents have fear when it comes to feeding their children proper food. Instead of trying a wide variety of food from different food groups, they stick to the tried and tested. Also, the Director sagely commented that it is no use trying to persuade the kids to eat healthily when the parents are eating deep fried potato chips right next to them!

Indeed, I don't have to look far beyond my Argentine family and friends. When the adults drink litres of coke and routinely refuse green vegetables, how can they expect their children do differently?

We attended a family party last night at the abuelos. There were six kids ranging from age 2 -8. From 6:30pm to when we left at 10:30pm, none of the kids had anything other than a handful of greasy and salty potatoes crisps and peanuts, washed down with coke offered by the adults who should know better.

We had a table laid with potato crisps, sandwiches, some tastelessly fatty cheese and olives. Cut up slices of vegetable quiche were then offered; almost no one ate them except Guillermo and me. Those were followed by platter after platter of deep fried empanadas filled with cheese and ham, cheese and tomato, or greasy meat. Everyone except me dug in; and what were they drinking? What else but coke. How could their kids even stand a chance in developing healthy eating habits?

Not so long ago, Guillermo and I went to an asado (barbeque party) at his friend's house. The party started at 10:30pm and there was a group of kids aged 1-4. They were fed salty potato crisps, fatty hamburger patties and coke. The token bowl of salad was small and it was meant for twelve adults to share.

At around 1:30am, the kids started to play up. The parents wondered out loud why the kids were caprichoso (cranky). It was only obvious to me that they were drugged by sugar and caffeine while being utterly exhausted at that hour! To my horror, the parents fed them more coke with the intention of taming them.

Once, I asked my sister-in-law what her children usually eat at school, her reply was hamburger patties or pasta with cheese and tomato sauce, food provided by the school for a fee. I felt vaguely sick at the thought that this is happening even at a private school in the middle class Belgrano.

I then came home and read on the web, with longing, food guidelines for parents at a Montessori school close to where my parents live in Sydney "Please send a piece of fresh or dried fruit or vegetable with your child for snack. There will be water available for your child to pour him/herself at snack time. Lunches for the extended day children should be fresh and nourishing food. Cakes, chocolates, chips etc. are not appropriate."

I have much trepidation when it comes to raising kids in this city; how am I going to introduce the concept of healthy eating to our kids if I have to battle the ingrained habits of their bis-abuelos (great-grandparents), abuelos (grandparents), tios (aunts and uncles), primos (cousins), not to mention the mothers and their kids at school? Maybe when my time comes, instead of bringing alfajores; I could somehow muster enough courage to bring some of Delia's mini muffins...

For the muffins:
275 g plain flour

1 tablespoon baking powder
2 large eggs
225ml milk
a little butter for greasing
1 tsp sea salt

For the goats' cheese, red onion and rosemary flavouring:

50g goats' cheese, diced
50g red onion, finely chopped
2 tsps fresh rosemary, finely chopped, plus 12 small sprigs for garnishing
10g butter

For the Gruyere, sage and onion flavouring:

50g Gruyère, grated
2 tsps fresh sage, finely chopped, plus 12 small leaves for garnishing
50g spring onions, finely sliced
2 tsps Parmigiano, grated

You will also need two 12-hole mini-muffin tins, lightly greased; and 24 mini-muffin cases that have been lightly greased.

First, you need to prepare the two muffin flavourings. To make the goats' cheese, red onion and rosemary muffins, begin by melting the butter in a small saucepan and softening the onion in it for about 5 minutes. Then allow it to cool. Next, prepare and set aside the ingredients for the Gruyère, sage and onion muffins. Now pre-heat the oven to 200C while you make the basic muffin mixture.

First of all, sift the flour, baking powder and salt on to a large plate, then take a large mixing bowl and sift the mixture again, this time into the bowl, holding the sieve up high to give the flour a good airing.

Now, in a jug, beat one egg, and then whisk it together with the milk. Next, fold all this into the flour, using the minimum number of folding movements. (Ignore the unpromising look of the mixture at this stage and don't overmix.) Divide the mixture equally between two bowls in order to add the two different flavourings.

Now return to the first flavouring and gently mix the onion into the muffin mixture in one bowl, along with the goats' cheese and chopped rosemary, folding in, as before, with as few strokes as possible. Next, add the prepared ingredients for the second flavouring to the muffin mixture in the other bowl and fold them in the same gentle way.

After that, if you are using muffin cases, arrange them in the tins and spoon the mixture into them; alternatively, spoon the mixture straight into the greased tins. You can pile the mixture quite high. Beat the second egg and brush the surfaces with it, then top the goats' cheese muffins with a sprig of rosemary, and the Gruyère muffins with the Parmesan and a sage leaf. Then bake them for about 20 minutes, or until well risen and golden. Remove the muffins from the tins to a rack and eat as warm as possible.

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