"Eat all the food on your plate" is outdated advice! Today's children can often have a rocky relationship to food - Aileen Cox Blundell tells why it is important to help our children establish healthy eating habits.

You say your aim is to change the way parents feed their children - how did that passion come about?
It started one evening, I was watching a programme on TV about obesity. When I saw the statistics for childhood obesity and the problems facing children in the future, I just felt like I had to do something.

So I took my family on an amazing food adventure.

I started clearing out my cupboards and reading more and more labels, and before long I was cooking everything from scratch.

I’m a busy working Mum so I always tried to do it in the easiest way possible so save time and ensure my babies always had good food on hand.

When my baby Oscar reached the six-month mark, it was time to introduce solid food to him. I knew I was going to go down the Baby Led Feeding route with him which simply means you put food in front of your baby and they eat it themselves.

I had done this way of feeding with my daughter Jade fifteen years ago and she was a huge foodie so I always associated one with the other.

This time with Oscar, however, it was going to be a little different - it was going to be Baby Led Feeding take two! He was going to feed himself, but, with as many nourishing ingredients I could possibly get him to eat.

Let's look at what parents are currently feeding their children - why does it need to change so drastically in your eyes?
The statistics are real and they are hard hitting. Two thirds of people in Ireland are now either obese or overweight. One in four of these are children.

Children are eating too much sugar, not enough vegetables and fruit each day and it is a huge worry for parents.

Every Mum and Dad will know the turmoil of a parent at a checkout when the sweet counter is just at the perfect eye level for children, or the advertising on TV tells your child that drinking juices will get them moving faster.

But the problem is sometimes we don’t know what alternatives are out there to give our little ones. There are solutions: limiting treats to be occasional rather than the norm, and cutting back on the amount of sugar we give our children - even the unrefined kind can make all the difference.

I like to make treats rather than buy them, so I know what my little ones are eating.

What is the alternative that you are promoting? And why is it better?
Baby Led Feeding is not an alternative, or better than other methods of feeding. It is now regarded as a mainstream approach.

It is such a great way to feed your baby, because your little one will get the opportunity of trying such a wide variety of foods and also, more importantly, will self-regulate when they are full. So gone to the days of ‘You must finish your plate’.

Baby Led Feeding is definitely not a rulebook, but is a book that encourages your children to eat healthy foods themselves and have tonnes of fun doing it - and the best part is that the entire family get involved too, so one meal, one family.

You have worked with some highly respected dieticians while writing the book - tell us more about that.
When my book was finished, I looked at everything and thought what it really needed was a stamp of approval from a medical professional. I am a Mum of three, a home cook and only know the basics of nutrition but, I really wanted to be able to stand over every single recipe.

I don’t give out dietary advice because it is not my area of expertise so I approached the very lovely Roisin Gowan who is a Senior Paediatric Dietitian in one of Irelands biggest children’s hospitals.

I met her in the city for one hour and we ended up chatting for almost three hours. She could see how passionate I was about helping children to eat better and she loved the approach I was taking, and so she agreed to work with me.

Over the weeks that followed, Roisin took my manuscript and really just broke all the recipes down, then gave me recommendations of portion sizes and sugar-free breakdowns and with a little adjustment helped me to make my book into something that is truly special.

Speaking of which, congratulations on your new book! Have you always been a writer?
Thank you so much! It is just the most incredible thing that has ever happened to me (after the birth of my babies and getting married of course). 

When I was a child, my teachers would refuse to read my essays because they were too long and too elaborate. They would just mark them with varying marks of A’s and B’s and move on to the next one.

I never thought I would ever be so lucky to have an actual book published, I am still pinching myself every day because this all just seems like the stuff of dreams.

How did your book come about?
As a mother totally in love with everything her little baby was doing I began to take photos and each one I wrote down the recipe to go with it. Initially, it was just a little something I was going to give him when he was twenty-one or had children of his own.

I really pushed myself to experiment and try new things with him and look at how I could make grown up food, smaller and easier for a little baby to eat.

By the time Oscar was twelve months old I had 100 recipes, and then my own Mum said ‘You really should make this into a book’.

So I put a proposal together and sent it into Gill. I really wanted them because my favourite food writers are on their books, but to be honest I knew how hard it was to get a book deal so I wasn’t expecting anything.

However, within a few months my editor Sarah Liddy called to say she had received the proposal and they loved it, and soon after they offered me a contract.

They really were so incredible to work with and were so encouraging when I said I wanted to take my own photos and do my own food styling.

What has the reaction to your work been so far on your social media?
I started sharing recipes on Facebook eighteen months ago and within four days I had 4,000 followers on my page. Baby Led Feeding then became something much more for me.

I realised that other parents sometimes struggled with feeding their babies and toddlers too and I felt like I had something special to offer.

At the beginning I thought, if I can just help one other Mum or Dad then wouldn’t that just be amazing! Today I have almost 35,000 followers on my page, which is just so incredible. Helping parents has become such a passion for me.

There are days when I have cooked 5 or 6 meals, styled and photographed them, and all while having a toddler trying to climb on my head and poke my eyes,and I get a message from a Mum or Dad saying their baby is eating foods they never thought possible and thanking me.

That really just gives me more passion and keeps me going every single day.

Baby Led Feeding has never been about money, it has been about helping other parents who just like me want their children to eat better food. It is the most rewarding job I have ever done in my entire life.

Your website has some insanely good recipes like red velvet pancakes and chocolate mousse - do you have a favourite so far?
Thank you so much! You have to try the Sweet Potato Truffles! I woke my husband up from a deep sleep at 4am one morning saying ‘I’m going to make sweet potato taste like oranges!’ (he has forgiven me since).

I love using myself to use fresh vegetables and fruit in replacement of any sugars as they can really taste super sweet when roasted and cooked slowly.

I also really love the hummus recipes or pesto recipes. We make them every single week, and my own children love them for school lunches and my husband for lunches in work.

My ten-year-old son Dylan loves making overnight oats from my book at night before he goes to bed. He says they are 'so easy' that even a ten-year-old can do them!

So if parents at home want to start weaning their children off refined sugar and processed foods - how do they start?
Sugar is a part of life and you will be hard pressed to find a child who doesn’t like it. When we think of sugar, we think of treats – chocolate, sweets, sugary drinks - but the problem is that most sugars are hidden in processed foods that aren’t classified as treats or desserts.

This includes bread, sauces, ready made soups, ready-made meals, breakfast cereals - even crackers. Sugar is added to make them taste great. It is really interesting if you think of tomato ketchup for example. One teaspoon of ketchup is the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar.

My top 4 tips for reducing your families sugar intake:

1) Encourage eating fresh fruit and vegetables
We all have a sweet tooth, even little babies, who get it from breast milk. It’s a natural thing, but there are ways of satisfying a sweet urge without reaching for highly sugary treats.

The healthier snack is always fresh fruit or vegetables. The less added sugars we give our children the better.

2) Make treats occasional
One of the hardest things I find to instill into my children’s mindset is that treats are for the weekends.

3) Cook from scratch
Scrap the store-bought jars and opt for making homemade sauces. They are really quick and can also be made in large batches and frozen in ice-cube trays or tubs, ready to be used when you need them.

4) Lead by example
Babies and toddlers love to copy what their older siblings and parents do, so encourage healthy eating in everyone in your house. It may be a struggle at first, but I found baby steps worked for me.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional treat, but cutting down on sugar will really help make a huge difference in our children’s lives.