on baked sweet potato fries, baked Saba fish in batter, sushi rolls, dried seaweed, and dried fruits or nuts in between their play escapades. The same grannies would then tell me their grandchildren would not touch any such foods, only candies.
That is how children in Singapore have become bigger, taller – and sicker.
Some also have a tortured relationship with food due to forced feeding in their formative years. My spouse was one such child. Sickly as a child and overweight for much of his adulthood, he became very conscious of what he ate. Even today, he falls sick after one poor or unwholesome choice. It took us a few years as a family to work out our meals and get educated about nutrition.
Good nutrition means eating a well-balanced and varied diet of foods in as close to their natural state as possible, says one of the La Leche League philosophy concepts. That means food free from hormones, additives, pesticides and chemicals; preferring whole, fresh, seasonal and local foods; and avoiding processed and/or packaged food.
Overwhelmed? Planning and preparing healthy meals can be daunting at first – there is a lot of information to sieve through.
Enjoying healthy meals during pregnancy is a good start. That way, good habits are already in place when the baby arrives. Before the baby’s birth is also a good time to work out the logistics of feeding a family. Neighbours and families who cook are usually quite happy to give tips to expectant parents.
An exclusively breastfeeding mother can buy even more time to cultivate healthy eating habits without worrying about allergies and food sensitivities, labels and politics. According to La Leche League, for the healthy, full-term baby, breast milk is the only food necessary until baby shows signs of needing solids, about the middle of the first year after birth.
Pureed food is often recommended as baby’s first food. With my eldest, Judy, we bought a puree machine that blended and cooked healthy vegetables, soups or legumes in 20 minutes. However, I was repulsed by the smooth, unvaried texture by the fifth use.
Our second child, Gene, was exclusively breastfed and showed very little real interest in “solids” until well after his first birthday. He was about 15 months old when he showed understanding of what eating really meant. Before that, foods were merely curiosities or sensory play. I was happy to learn (during a discussion on child-led weaning at a LLL meeting) that bananas, avocados and baked sweet potatoes were good first foods on top of breast milk. I was fully confident that the varied tastes and flavours and wholesome, homemade meals I ate transferred to Gene through my milk. For sure, over a week, he would have ingested the half a cup of carrots or broccoli or whatsoever amount a puree-fed baby would get – and more, because breast milk contains all needed and easily digested vitamins, minerals, live enzymes and antibodies.
With poor breastfeeding support especially in the early weeks, Singaporean grandmothers and mothers typically rely on formula or mixed formula and breastmilk, and then introduce solids to babies by way of porridge and purees well before six months. These so-called “meals” consist of 95% water, and are lower in calories than breast milk. I figured it made more sense for my children to drink water from cups when they wanted.
According to the World Health Organization, breast milk provides all the energy and nutrients an infant needs for the first six months of life. If the mother carries on breastfeeding, her milk continues to provide up to 50% or more of the baby’s caloric and nutritional needs during the second half of the first year, and up to 30% through the second year of life.
Perhaps the best part about continuing to breastfeed into Gene’s second year was that I could enjoy and explore the full range of local and exotic foods along with him. Binging on hotel lunch buffets with my two small children made for great value and fun tasting outings with minimal clean-up. Nursing Gene the toddler also gave me the confidence and freedom to soothe a young child on the go. If he fancied none of the foods at home or outside, there was always fresh and complete nutrition in my breast milk.
Many toddlers are much too active and easily distracted to feed properly anyway, preferring to graze.
With baby-led weaning, parents are only responsible for putting out a wide range of healthy foods over a week, and the child decides when and how much he eats. Knowing that helped our family take meals with much less stress, tantrums and power struggles. Daddy had picked up cooking family meals and we ate healthier and better since Judy came along. So the children ate what we adults ate, saving us the time and hassle of providing separate children’s meals.
I still feel very grateful for the home-cooked meals my mother made while I was growing up. My mother was raised in rural Malaysia where she learned to cook and source produce well. Born and raised in urban Singapore, I realised as a young mother that I was handicapped by not knowing how foods were grown, harvested and processed.
In the city state of Singapore, we import food from all over the world. While there is variety, fresh produce is relatively expensive and invariably processed for a longer shelf life, which compromises quality. Considering the time and effort it takes to plan, source, prepare and cook family meals, it can be a real challenge to eat well here, even at home.
My husband and I have to be very intentional and disciplined about providing quality meals in Singapore. It is too easy to fall into the snares of convenience, relying on packaged, frozen foods at home, or takeouts from the many affordable eateries which serve unhealthy food.
Parenting is an inconvenient journey. There will come a time when our children will grow up and explore or indulge in their own convenience-driven life. For now, I feel responsible for feeding them properly, starting with pregnancy and breastfeeding. We feel better when we eat well. By cooking and packing our own meals and snacks when we go out, I choose when, where and how much I indulge.
This is a valuable lesson for my children. When we do indulge in foods, we do it out of love, not hunger, addiction or desperation.
In The Lost Art of Feeding a Child, Canadian author Jeannie Marshall lived in Italy and noted what Italian children ate in school. She found that they didn’t have a choice of Western or Asian, or less salt or more; they eat the same appetizer, main course and dessert that everybody else eats, in the same sequence. They were not fussy and they finished their meals. Now that’s real convenience.
More resources about nutrition, starting solids and baby-led weaning:
Starting Solid Food, La Leche League GB
Feed Yourself, Feed Your Family: Good Nutrition and Healthy Cooking for New Moms and
Growing Families, La Leche League International
Mothering Your Nursing Toddler, Norma J. Bumgarner
Close to the Heart Vol. 20, No. 3 (Late-Year 2019)
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