Saucy secrets

If you think that a small dollop of ketchup, mayo or brown sauce makes no difference to your child’s healthy diet, think again.


Just 20 grams, or four level teaspoons of a favourite brand of ketchup gives a third of the recommended daily maximum of salt for a three-year-old.

Just a spoonful of ketchup helps the fish fingers go down? A squidge of brown sauce make bangers go with a bang? Kids’ condiments are big business, not least because they are often the difference between a child polishing the plate and dinner going to the dog!

But how often do we stop and think about what actually goes into those jewel-coloured, squeezy sauces so beloved of kids. One good reason is that they are used sparingly (or at least they are meant to be used sparingly!) But that doesn’t alter the fact that they may be packed to the hilt with additives and ‘e’ numbers we’d rather they didn’t consume!

As a parent, you might be quite careful about choosing low-salt or low-sugar products for your family. You probably go to some effort to ensure balanced healthy meals. So it could come as quite a surprise that the little swirl of sauce your kids put on top of their meal might make a big difference.

It’s tempting to think that because sauces and toppings are just a ‘bit on the side’ they don’t contribute much to the overall salt, sugar or fat levels. But typical servings can easily double the daily intakes, taking the overall picture well beyond recommended levels.

Just 20 grams, or four level teaspoons of a favourite brand of ketchup gives a third of the recommended daily maximum of salt for a three-year-old. But choose your brand wisely and you can halve that amount.

With so many brands of different sauces to choose from, making comparisons because quite a headache. It is perhaps more helpful to observe some general guidelines on sauces and make a few easy changes.

There are low salt, low sugar and low fat versions of many products and it is worth switching to these options. But in truth, the impact of these sauces on a healthy diet depends on how much is used. If it is a teaspoon, or two, twice a week, it’s not worth worrying about.

But if your children are adding these sauces in large quantities at almost every meal then it is wise to seek some alternatives. So if your child is regularly using 20g of a sauce (four level teaspoons) then cutting back to 15g or even 10g will improve matters.

Tomato sauce

High in salt and sugar, tomato sauce can be used in quite astounding amounts by some children. It can really tip the balance when it comes to daily recommended amounts.

Experiment to see if your children will enjoy salsa which is a rough-cut tomato condiment with little or no fat, and much less sugar. It’s easy to make yourself by chopping up tomatoes with a little sweet pepper and some green coriander or parsley. The higher the quality of tomatoes you use, the tastier it will be and you will not need to add salt.

Mayonnaise and salad cream

These are the dressings with the highest amounts of fat. A 15g serving, or one level tablespoon, is two-thirds fat, giving 10-15 of the entire daily amount of fat for an adult, never mind a child. Buy low-fat versions and mix half-and-half with plain yoghurt.

Brown and barbecue sauces

The main ingredients in barbecue sauces are tomato, vinegar or mustard, and brown sauce originally included dates and tamarind. They are sometimes used as marinades. These sauces are just as high in sugar and salt as tomato ketchup.

Sweet dipping or chili sauce

These give an oriental flavour to a dish. They are, as the name implies, high in sugar (a tablespoon of sugar in every serving), and also high in salt (around one-fifth of an adult’s recommended daily amount per serving).

Gravy granules and stock cubes

These can be very high in salt. Reduced salt versions are an improvement but still have quite a lot . To avoid mechanically recovered meat (the nasty bits and scraps which are shot-blasted off the bone) use vegetable stock.

Ideally, make your gravy with just the meat juices and vegetable stock, adding a drop of white wine (you can cook off all the alcohol). Add fresh herbs such as rosemary, tarragon, or mixed Mediterranean herbs, to give flavour and avoid salt. A squeeze of lemon, or a little balsamic vinegar, will lift any gravy to new heights of deliciousness. Don’t add soya or Worcester sauce for flavour as these are high in salt.

For a quick chocolate hit, try grating some high quality (at least 40 per cent) cocoa-solid chocolate onto the top of a pudding.

Ready-made tomato pasta sauce

This gives a portion of vegetables from the tomato content, but most recipes are high in salt. You can make your own tomato pasta sauce easily in about 10 minutes with fresh onions, herbs, tomato purée and canned tomatoes: both purée and canned tomatoes are generally salt-free.

Ready made cheese sauce

Again we are talking about high salt levels, and usually high fat as well. Cheese is high in fat and salt anyway so it’s hard to get round. But if you use a low-fat, low-salt cheese to make your own sauce then you can significantly reduce the level. Or combine a ready made cheese sauce half-and-half with low-fat yoghurt.


Whatever version you use, dried, canned or in a carton they are likely to be high in sugar and fat. You can use reduced fat and sugar versions, or make up the powder with skimmed milk to improve things.

Chocolate sauce

This is very high in sugar. For a quick chocolate hit, try grating some high quality (at least 40 per cent) cocoa-solid chocolate onto the top of a pudding.

Ice cream sauce

This is pure sugar and many brands use artificial colourings too. Much nicer to blend some dried apricots with a little water for an instant golden-coloured ice cream sauce, or peeled kiwis for a jewel-green sauce.


You can reduce the need for strong flavoured sauces by adding a squirt of fresh lemon, a little balsamic vinegar, garlic or herbs to transform a dish. Low-fat plain yoghurt is one of the best kept secrets for making creamy sauces for savoury dishes, especially when combined with herbs.


(makes 6-8 portions)

  • 375g tomato purée/paste
  • 400 ml water
  • 6 tbsp sugar
  • 7 tbsp vinegar
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 2 tsps brown sugar
  • A pinch each of: cloves, cinnamon, basil, tarragon, and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp molasses

Mix the first 6 ingredients in blender. Place in large saucepan on stove. Add the remaining ingredients to saucepan. Simmer over low to medium heat until reduced by half, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Let the sauce cool. Refrigerate in sealed sterilised bottles (sterilise in boiling water).


(makes 6-8 portions)

  • 500 ml low-fat milk
  • 10 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Heat the milk in a small saucepan on medium-low until simmering. Whisk the sugar and cornstarch together. Add the egg to the sugar/cornstarch mix, and whisk until no lumps remain. Add the vanilla extract. Gradually stir the hot milk into the egg mixture. Return the whole mixture to the pan. Heat on medium, stirring constantly, until it has thickened.


(makes 2-4 portions)

  • 2 spring onions, minced
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • 180g plain non-fat Greek-style yogurt
  • 1 tbsp fresh mint leaves, chopped
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 twist of the pepper mill

If preferred, lightly fry the garlic and onions, though this is not necessary and they are delicious when not cooked. Combine all the ingredients and refrigerate for 30 minutes to allow the flavours to meld. Serve over cooked meat, such as pork and apple burgers, lamb chops or grilled chicken, or as a topping for pancakes. Use mixed Mediterranean herbs instead of the mint and serve with fish or rice. Add grated low-fat cheese to the Mediterranean herb version for pasta sauce.


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