'It's not that hard': Kids don't have to fast for Ramadan, but many do anyway

Around the world, millions of Muslims mark Ramadan, observing a strict fast from dawn to sunset for 30 days. While fasting isn't mandatory for kids, many want to take part as a way to connect to their faith and community.

Kids don't have to fast during the Muslim holy month, but many want to take part to connect to faith, family

Nine-year-old Malek Saud, left, and 10-year-old Iyad Zaki, right, are both fasting for Ramadan this year. (Ramage Zaki)

Iyad Zaki says a prayer under his breath before beginning his meal. The 10-year-old is excited to eat — it is 8:54 p.m. after all.

"I'm going to stuff my mouth 'cause I'm really hungry," he said.

Iyad is fasting for Ramadan. At home with his family in Thornhill, Ont., friends are over to take part in Iftar, the meal eaten after sunset during the Islamic holy month.

Around the world, millions of Muslims mark Ramadan, observing a strict fast from dawn to sunset for 30 days, giving up food and water in a show of devotion to their faith.

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, but is not mandatory for Muslim children until they reach puberty, usually between the ages of 10 and 14 for girls, and 12 and 16 for boys.

Muslims in Dubai take part in Iftar during Ramadan at Lootha Mosque in this 2014 file photo. People often come together to break the fast during the holy month. (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Iyad is starting a bit early; he sees it as a way to connect to his religion and family.

"When you fast, you have a closer connection to God," Iyad said.

The table is set, the smell of traditional Egyptian cuisine fills the air: molokheya, goulash and stuffed zucchini. Dinner is about to be served.

First, dates are passed around. The dried fruit, packed with nutrients, is the first thing eaten when breaking the fast; sometimes they are dipped in milk.

The kids fill their plates and walk out to the deck, where the night air is still warm. They talk about movies and sing as they fill their bellies.

A 17-hour fast

Ramadan shifts with the movement of the moon. This year, it falls just before summer with its earlier sunrises and later sunsets. As the month winds down, the fasting day gets longer — making it tough to get through.

Despite his small size, Iyad says he's found it manageable.

"It's not that hard, as long as you keep yourself hydrated before you have to fast. I think it's going to be all right for most of the day."

Dina Shaheen initially had serious concerns about her 10-year-old son taking part in the fast.

"We fast almost 17 hours, so it is a very long time," she said.

"The first week … I kept putting the lunch bag in his [school] bag, putting a banana, some juice. And every day, I say: 'OK, I know he will be tired, he will break his fast. Maybe he can take only a banana? Maybe a bite?"

During Ramadan, the meal taken after sunset is called Iftar, while the meal taken before dawn is Suhoor. (Ramage Zaki)

The Grade 5 student has managed to fast almost every day, missing only one for a school track-and-field event.

"It would be hard for me to fast because I had to drink a lot of water," he said.

Shaheen made the decision for him, pointing out it was only one day out of the month. She knew his body wouldn't otherwise be able to handle the strenuous activity.

It was the right decision, says Nazima Qureshi, a Toronto-based nutrition expert whose clients are predominantly Muslim women.

"More than food, it's the water hydration piece," she said.

If kids who are fasting end up having an active day, Qureshi suggests they break the fast and recognize its OK to take a day off, especially if they're "getting hot and they need that hydration."

"From a religious perspective, you don't want to do anything that harms your health," she said. "That's not the point."

Nazima Qureshi is a registered dietitian and personal trainer in Toronto whose clients are predominantly Muslim women. (Submitted by Nazima Qureshi)

It's common for kids to show an interest in fasting for Ramadan; family and friends all around them are taking part and they want to be involved.

"It's the community, it's the gathering, it's the eating together, it's praying together," said Shaheen. "It's a very nice feeling, a very spiritual month."

Easing kids in

There's nothing wrong with fasting or trying to fast as early as age seven, said Qureshi. But she suggests parents adopt one of two basic approaches to help young fasters build up to the full practice.

The first is a "half fast," where younger kids fast for only a few hours each day. Or they can avoid fasting every single day of Ramadan, perhaps only taking part on weekends.

By age 10, Qureshi said most kids can do the full day, if they want to. "At that point, the child is able to make that decision."

It's a struggle. Sometimes the hunger comes — and the hunger leaves.- Malek Saud, age 9

But parents should watch their kids' behaviour closely during a fast, she said.

"If they are looking kind of weak and lethargic, maybe they are not eating as well, if you are having a hard time convincing them to wake up at 3 a.m. and eating, they probably shouldn't be fasting."

Beyond children, there are other exceptions to fasting. Muslims who are ill, elderly, pregnant or breastfeeding are not expected to take part. Nor are those who have health conditions, such as diabetes, an eating disorder or a condition that requires them to regularly take medication with food.

Family friends gather together to break the fast at a home in Thornhill, Ont., during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. From left: Nissa Shoaira, Malek Saud, Lina Saud, Reham Salama, Iyad Zaki and Dina Shaheen. (Nazima Walji/CBC)

Lina and Malek Saud are fasting, too.

Lina, 11, started when she was seven with a partial fast. Now that she's graduated to a full fast, the Grade 6 student said many people are amazed to learn she can sustain a full day without food and water.

Her approach? Treat it like any other day.

"Everyone was asking: 'Do I want to sit out from gym? If I wanted to eat alone? Sort of be alone during lunch?' ... I wanted to feel like nothing was happening. I wanted to feel like it was a normal day."

Lina's nine-year-old brother, Malek, is following in her footsteps and is doing a partial fast. 

"It's a struggle. Sometimes the hunger comes — and the hunger leaves," he said.

"I usually eat at school and fast at home. But when we have the day off, Saturday and Sunday, or a PA day, I fast as much as I can."

'Bit by bit'

The children's mother, Reham Salama, refers to the partial fast as "training" the body, as it will eventually prepare him for a full day of fasting.

"We teach them bit by bit to stop eating or drinking … for a couple of hours maybe. Bit by bit, until they are used to it, and they love it, and [can] be part of it."

No one should skip meals during Ramadan, said Qureshi, even if they have to be squeezed in during nighttime hours. The Suhoor — the meal served before dawn — is especially important.

"It will actually help you with your energy levels later on in the day," she said.

Qureshi recommends Muslims eat a source of protein, whole grain carbohydrates and healthy fats for that first meal — like "Greek yogurt, oatmeal, nuts and nut butter" — as well as drinking an adequate amount of water.

She also suggests fasters try to squeeze in more food after Iftar and before Suhoor.

"Having an additional snack there would really help kind of up the calories and the nutrition," Qureshi said. "So you're actually eating quite a lot of food in those non-fasting hours."

The end of Ramadan — expected to run from June 14-16 this year — is marked with Eid al -Fitr, a three-day celebration to break the fast that involves special foods, new clothes and often gifts for children.