We normally have cereal or toast for breakfast, and a home-cooked meal in the evening. At lunch time, my husband and I normally have sandwiches as we do not want two cooked meals a day. Our 18 month old daughter is not a big fan of getting something different from everyone else - she wants what we're having! (Which I think is great in general!) However my husband is worried that she ought to have a cooked meal at lunch time as well as in the evening.

Is there any research about the nutritional benefits of a cooked meal rather than a cold lunch, or about what age it's OK to rely more on cold food? I do try to make sure her cold lunch is balanced, eg she might have a cheese sandwich and some grapes and banana, or a ham sandwich with cucumber and tomato, but it probably is less "hearty" than a cooked meal.

  • 3
    No research assertions keep this as a comment instead of an answer: If she's eating a balanced diet and getting enough calories, it really doesn't matter if the food is hot or cold. I'd spend more effort on making sure that her diet stays varied to try and keep her from becoming a picky eater.
    – afrazier
    Jun 7 '13 at 13:25
  • @afrazier, thanks, that's what I thought but it would be nice to get some citations. She definitely has a varied diet and is not at all picky - at the moment, anyway!
    – Vicky
    Jun 7 '13 at 15:12
  • The temperature of the food isn't really the key thing to worry about.
    – DA01
    Jun 10 '13 at 5:57
  • @DA01 - Clearly the temperature of any given item of food is irrelevant, but "hot food" as a class tends to be... heartier? than "cold food" as a class. I'm talking about comparing, say, a chicken pie with mashed potato and steamed vegetables against a sandwich and salad.
    – Vicky
    Jun 10 '13 at 8:52
  • I'd say 'hearty' is a highly subjective term and isn't based on nutritional needs as much as it is on the weather.
    – DA01
    Jun 10 '13 at 15:20

The issue with diet is less about cooked versus uncooked than it is about developing lifelong good eating habits. The research I am reading suggests that your adult diet of one cooked meal and two cold meals is the better model for your child. We can argue about the nutritional value and the digestibility of a cooked carrot versus a raw carrot, but that difference is not going to affect your child's health as much as her learning to eat both cooked and raw carrots (neither of which you probably serve for breakfast). Further, because modeling is such an important determinant of the development of good eating habits, your practice of feeding your child something different than what you are eating is probably counter-productive.

Relevant research:

From the Mayo Clinic

Nutrition for kids is based on the same principles as nutrition for adults. Everyone needs the same types of nutrients — such as vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein and fat. What's different about nutrition for kids, however, is the amount of specific nutrients needed at different ages.

From Medline Plus (National Institute of Health)

To give your child a nutritious diet

  • Make half of what is on your child's plate fruits and vegetables
  • Choose healthy sources of protein, such as lean meat, nuts, and eggs
  • Serve whole-grain breads and cereals because they are high in fiber. Reduce refined grains.
  • Broil, grill, or steam foods instead of frying them
  • Limit fast food and junk food
  • Offer water or milk instead of sugary fruit drinks and sodas

Additional information from the American Academy of Pediatrics

  • Toddlers and preschoolers grow in spurts and their appetites come and go in spurts, so they may eat a whole lot one day and then hardly anything the next
  • One area parents should probably keep under watch is calcium.
  • Fiber is another important focus. Toddlers start to say “no” more and preschoolers can be especially opinionated about what they eat. The kids may want to stick to the bland, beige, starchy diet (think chicken nuggets, fries, macaroni), but this is really the time to encourage fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, which all provide fiber.

From Increasing Pre-School Children's Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables (paraphrased)

The goal is to create children with a wide range of tastes that will track into adulthood. Modeling and rewards are found to have lasting effects on preschool children's preferences for fruits and vegetables. (This was a study done with fruits and vegetables either raw or cooked al dente; rewards were a sticker chart and badges).

From Effects of Peer Models' Food Choices and Eating Behaviors on Preschoolers' Food Preferences (paraphrased)

Preschoolers’ food choices, preferences, and consumption patterns are strongly influenced by those of other children. They chose previously nonpreferred foods even when no longer in the presence of peers who preferred those foods.

Other influences over food preferences:

  • parental modeling (have only seen studies with mothers)
  • familiarity (kids choose known foods over new foods)
  • the context in which the food is presented (both physical and emotional)
  • taste
  • television viewing (studied in older children)

Article citations:

Birch, L. (1980). Effects of Peer Models' Food Choices and Eating Behaviors on Preschoolers' Food Preferences. Child Development, 51(2), 489-496.

Pauline J. Horne, Janette Greenhalgh, Mihela Erjavec, C. Fergus Lowe, Simon Viktor, Chris J. Whitaker. (April 2011). Increasing pre-school children's consumption of fruit and vegetables. A modelling and rewards intervention, Appetite, 56(2) April 2011, 375-385.

  • Thanks, for the research links in particular. I should just clarify one aspect of my original post where I see now I wasn't clear - in terms of modelling, she very much does eat what we eat and eat with us, it's only very occasionally (if we're having something very salty or spicy, which isn't often!) that we give her something different, because she very much likes to have the same thing that we are. The concern was more "should WE be having a cooked meal in the middle of the day in order that she does as well, or is it OK for us all to have cold lunch?"
    – Vicky
    Jun 10 '13 at 8:49
  • Whole grains have lots of plant toxins as well as fiber that is so tough it comes out undigested after having scratched up your intestines. Beans likewise have lots of plant toxins and very hard to digest protein, which becomes available to your gut flora. The latter then goes to town on it, giving you gas and producing more toxins.
    – w00t
    Jun 11 '13 at 2:45

I haven't been able to dig up any research stating explicitly that "cooked" lunches are better for your child than cold lunches. It gets extremely hot here in the summer and I would prefer to eat something like a sandwich or salad rather than a hot meal for lunch. Who wants to turn on their oven/stove in the middle of a 90+ degree day? Bleh.

From a safety perspective, some foods need to be cooked to destroy toxins or parasites that are found in them. Meat, obviously, needs to be cooked to destroy bacteria. From a practical standpoint, many veggies benefit from some type of cooking (steaming, baking, boiling, roasting, etc.) as it begins to break down the cellulose which comprises the plant's cell walls. Cellulose is indigestible in humans so it will pass through the digestive system, but it might be rough on the system as it passes through. But eating most veggies raw isn't going to harm anyone as long as they are washed thoroughly first.

Most of the more threatening plants that need to be cooked first are somewhat exotic in nature and it's unlikely that you will encounter them in your day-to-day life. The most ubiquitous item I've seen is red kidney beans which can cause severe gastric distress if you eat them raw. Cooked, canned red kidney beans are not a threat, but if you buy raw bagged red kidney beans you should wait until they are thoroughly soaked and cooked before you eat them.

  • You can cook vegetables and then serve them cold. Pickled vegetables are yummy too! +1
    – w00t
    Jun 11 '13 at 2:48

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