Nutrition: From City Worker to Health Coach

A childhood of Mediterranean-style mealtimes meant Francine Roberts had always been keen on nutrition, so during pregnancy she quit her job in the City to re-train as a health coach. We discuss meal ideas, childhood obesity and messy weaning…

Francine Roberts, 33, lives with her husband Mark and their daughter Sofia, two, in Islington, north London

What time are you up in the morning?
Weekdays about 6.30, the weekends a little bit later. We’ve just bought my daughter a Gro clock that teaches kids to stay in bed until they see the sun appear on the clock face – so far that’s buying us an extra half an hour on the weekends… heaven!

What wakes you up?
Sofia shouting for milk or breakfast – she’s got a one-track mind for food first thing; just like me.

How do you feel when you wake up?
Hungry. I’ve always had a big appetite in the morning and breakfast is the first thing I think about when I wake up (apart from how nice it would be to wake up naturally instead of being ordered about by a two-year-old).

Do you exercise in the morning?
On weekdays, yes. My husband and I will do a 30-minute HIIT workout together or a yoga session. Sofia likes to join in with us and brings all her teddies to watch and I feel good that it’s instilling some healthy habits. But 30 minutes is usually the limit; by then she’s had enough of being ignored.

Good nutrition starts with breakfast…

What’s for breakfast?
A hot water and lemon first thing, before exercising and then afterwards breakfast is something different each day; I’m big on variety. Porridge with seeds and fruit is my daughter’s favourite, avocado or almond butter on sourdough, eggs or homemade granola, yoghurt and fruit. Sometimes I make a green juice and on the weekends when there’s more time for cleaning-up Sofia likes to help me make smoothies.

green smoothie - nutrition -

How might the rest of your day pan out?
I work two full days. The other days I tend to be out with Sofia as much as possible, she’s a typical two-year-old with lots of energy to burn. She has swimming lessons once a week, we go to soft-play or the park and lately we’ve been going to the canal a lot, as she is fascinated by the ducks. I’ve got a couple of friends with children the same age close by who also don’t work full time, so I’m fortunate that I often get to hang out with other adults too.

When you’re working, who’s looking after Sofia?
For the two days I work full time, she is at nursery and the other days I work when she’s napping at lunchtime and in the evenings and sometimes on weekends.

You recently trained in health coaching, focusing on parents and children – what led you down this path?
I’ve always been interested in health and nutrition but it became particularly important to me during pregnancy, as I was thinking about how I’d feed my baby to give her the best start in life. So after she was born, I quit my finance job in the City and decided to do something more aligned with my passions.

I studied for my health coaching qualifications and also did a diploma in child nutrition, which – along with my personal experience, as a new mother – led me to working with mums who want to regain control of their health, and also with parents looking to raise healthy eaters.

The more I talked to my friends and women I was meeting, the more I realised just how many of them were struggling with all sorts of frustrations around feeding their kids and also letting their own health suffer as a result of always putting someone else first.

How did you find it, introducing your daughter to solids?
Messy and slow but mostly fun. She didn’t take instantly to actually eating foods but she certainly loved playing with it so I went with it, embraced the mess and slowly but surely she starting enjoying the eating part too. As I went down the baby-led weaning route I wasn’t spending hours preparing different things for her, which took away a lot of frustration – she mainly ate our leftovers!

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I also liked the fact that, although I generally eat healthily, it forced me to really think about the variety that my husband and I were eating – it’s so easy to eat the same things over and over especially when you’re in the early days of parenting and time and energy is lacking.

And what are mealtimes like for the three of you now?
We try to eat together as much as possible and for the most part it’s a fairly relaxed affair. We try to impress on our daughter that mealtimes are about spending quality time together as well as eating so we try to make it fun and we often talk about the food we’re having even if most of it goes over her head.

Like so many toddlers, she’s actually going through a fussy stage at the moment so it’s really important that she sees my husband and I eating with her as much as possible, as she’s much more likely to try new things that way. Of course it’s not always possible due to timings so I’ll at least make sure I’m sat down with her and nibbling on the same things she has. She also loves being in the kitchen with me and ‘helping’ me cook. It makes everything a bit longwinded and certainly much more messy but again, it’s much more likely she’ll try something new if she’s been involved in the preparation.

Can you share a favourite family lunch, and a favourite dinner idea too?
Lunch would be a big sharing platter of all of our favourite foods – sweet-potato fries with cinnamon and paprika, home-made hummus, tomatoes, avocado, roasted peppers, olives etc. And dinner would be a home-made pizza with a cauliflower base, tomato sauce and lots of help-yourself meat and veg toppings.

Nutrition - cherry tomatoes - kids food -

I’m currently obsessed with the latest Hemsley and Hemsley cookbook (Good and Simple) so lots of my meal ideas have been from there lately.

What are your childhood memories of food and eating?
I’ve always had a good appetite and according to my mum one of my first words was “breakfast”. I think my parents did a pretty good job of instilling healthy habits in us. I was brought up on a mainly Mediterranean diet: lots of veg, fruit, fish, eggs and some meat too and that’s still predominantly how I eat now. We didn’t often have puddings, and sugary cereals and sweets were limited to the weekends. We ate breakfast and dinner together quite a lot as a family and so I always look back with fond memories of mealtimes and I think my sister and I were quite adventurous eaters as a result.

One thing my mum and dad were quite strict on, though, was not wasting anything and we had to eat everything on our plate, that’s something I’ll try to stay away from insisting with my children. For me, it’s meant I’ve had to relearn to listen to my body when I’m full and not to keep eating for the sake of it. I think mindful eating is really important.

In general, do we have a good attitude towards and kids and diet in the UK?
I think there is more awareness now with the likes of Jamie Oliver and his school lunch campaign but in general I think there’s still huge room for improvement. We have big problems with childhood type 2 diabetes, obesity, etc. I still see so many kids on their way to school in the mornings eating a packet of crisps, chocolate and a fizzy drink.

The choice on kids’ menus in restaurants really annoys me – it’s always fish fingers, chicken nuggets and chips with everything. What happened to the veg? Why not offer smaller portions of the adult menu? In other countries I’ve been to in Europe, the notion of a children’s menu doesn’t really exist – you just ask for smaller portions.

Star biscuits - nutrition -

I also think that as a society we are too ready to rely on prescriptions and cures for our children and not focus enough on preventions which often come down to their diet and lifestyle.

What changes would you like to see in this area?
I think we have a collective responsibility to make changes – parents, government agencies, health professionals. Ideally, it’s the job of a parent to educate their child about healthy eating and to model healthy eating habits but not every parent is aware of how to ensure their kids get a healthy, balanced diet and those that are often don’t find the time to prioritise it or don’t know how to implement changes.

I think it’s important to promote awareness in schools and educating children from a young age about why good nutrition is beneficial. In my opinion, it’s as important as any of the subjects they are taught. Initiatives like vegetable plots in nurseries are a fantastic idea. Doctors should also be asking the parents what a child’s diet is like before prescribing medications over and over.

I think the key is raising awareness and assisting parents to make positive changes rather than telling parents exactly what to do, as that’s often met with resistance – that’s where coaching comes in.

Who is your typical client?
Busy mums who want more energy and to feel healthier, or those dealing with the frustrations of feeding a fussy toddler.

Helping families with nutrition

How do you work with families to implement healthier nutritional plans?
Because it’s coaching rather than instructing, it’s led by the client in terms of really listening to them. So I find out their health goals for the family and the obstacles that they are facing – whether it’s lack of time, fussiness, lack of inspiration, other family members not on board.

Each family is unique so it’s not a one-size-fits all approach. Of course I offer general advice on how to get the best from your meals and snacks nutritionally but I don’t prescribe specific diets or regimes. With coaching it’s about making small changes, little by little, at a pace that’s comfortable for the client so that it fits in with the family’s lifestyle and leads to sustainable long-term changes.

What’s the dream, career-wise?
I’m going to be studying at the College of Naturopathic Nutrition to build up my scope of practice and after that, we’ll see. It would be great to be promoting healthy eating for children to a wider audience, maybe talking in schools…

And in your personal life?
A bigger family – and a bigger house to fit us in.

If you could wake up anywhere tomorrow, where would it be?
Ooh, definitely at the beach. Anywhere with a lovely view of the sea and hot sun really but preferably Puerto Escondido in Mexico – I lived in Mexico for a year while I was studying Spanish and I’m totally in love with it.

What are mealtimes like for your family? Would you like some advice on healthy eating and nutrition? 

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