What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice, of course. And little boys? Well, contrary to the age-old nursery rhyme, I suspect my son James is mainly composed of pasta, bread and cheese. We are what we eat, after all, and it’s difficult to keep the diet of a three-year-old in any way sensibly balanced. Providing our kids with healthy, tasty meals can prove a challenge to any parent. When you’re pushed for time, lacking inspiration, and on a budget, it can seem like you’ve got a mountain to climb.
I remember feeling quite lost when I began weaning James – what on earth was I supposed to feed him? I frantically steamed every vegetable I could When you’re pushed for time, lacking inspiration, and on a budget, cooking can seem like you’ve got a mountain to climb.find, and pureed exotic fruits with a vengeance. When James was a year old, I invested in a book about cooking for toddlers, but quickly became confused and alarmed. Was I really supposed to cook one meal for the adults in the house, and a separate beautifully hand-crafted mini-chicken pie for James? It wasn’t going to happen! With renewed determination, my partner and I resolved to cook for ourselves as we always had done, and give the exact same thing to James.
If you used to rustle up tempting meals for two before your little darlings came along, it’s honestly really easy to carry on. You just need some minor adjustments to suit the younger palates. Here are a few tricks and treats I’ve learned along the way, which have kept James happy, and kept me (fairly) sane:
According to the NHS, babies and children only need a very small amount of salt in their diet. I take out the salt from every recipe, and leave it available on the table for any adult who wants it. I don’t cook rice or pasta in salted water – once you’ve topped things off with a tasty sauce, I challenge you to spot the difference. There are many ingredients that will provide a big hit of flavour in place of salt – try upping the onion, garlic and ginger in your meals. Some foodstuffs are naturally salty and will provide your salt fix in a nutritious format: we enjoy chopped anchovies, black olives and capers in a tomato sauce, served over pasta.
We also adapt a Nigel Slater recipe for sardine butter, which is packed with taste, and super-good for you. Drain the oil from a tin of sardines and tip the sardines into a small bowl. Mash them up with some softened butter, squeeze in plenty of lemon juice and season with freshly ground black pepper. This is great stirred into a dish of pasta, or try it in a sandwich, on toast, or with baked potatoes.
It’s worth noting that the NHS suggests a small amount of fat is an essential part of a balanced diet. The trick is to eat ‘healthy’ fats (try avocado, nuts, olive oil) and minimise the ‘naughty’ ones (put down that deep-fried pizza).
James has been eating curry since he was six months old, albeit a very mild, mushed-up version. There are widely differing tastes in my household; my partner likes blow-your-head-off curries, James and I prefer not to break a sweat. But not all spices are hot - think cardamom, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon. Spicing up your meals will satisfy the more adventurous adult tastebuds without alienating your ‘just-give-me-a-cheese-sandwich’ offspring. Follow your favourite curry recipes, for chicken, fish or veg, and just omit the chilli.
This is my weak spot, and I don’t always practice what I preach, letting James munch an apple while I turn my back and quickly cram biscuits into my gob over the kitchen sink. Sugar can also be a tricky subject with friends and family who want to ‘treat’ your child, blissfully unaware of the M&M-mania that ensues after their departure.
Sugar can also be a tricky subject with friends and family who want to ‘treat’ your child.
I compromise by giving James ‘sweet’ things that are actually very low in sugar. I make him pancakes, which he loves with blueberries. Also scones…so quick, cheap, versatile (add raisins, or chopped nuts, or cheese), and you can freeze a batch ready for snacking whenever you need them.
Creamy greek yoghurt is popular in our house, just watch out for fruit yoghurts as they appear healthy but are often crammed with sugar. And try the ‘old-fashioned oatmeal, cinnamon and raisin cookies’ in Dr Hazel Wallace’s book The Food Medic (or look for it online). Both my mum and I make these amazing sugar-free biscuits for James so there is always a stash in the freezer.
If you’re looking for a yummy drink for your children, but don’t want the expense of shop-bought smoothies, you can make your own. My other half uses a stick-blender to whizz up chopped, frozen banana along with plenty of milk, and James adores these refreshing milkshakes. There's also a fantatsic strawberry milkshake that Gill rustled up for the Small City Recipe section that would be a tasty treat made with creamy ice cream see it here >
Occasionally, James ends up eating something sweet and sugary, and I don’t think it’s the end of the world. I don’t want him to miss out on the childhood pleasures of jelly, crumble, and ice-cream. I made rice-pudding recently and it went down a storm. Anytime we have a treat, I make sure the portion I give James is not overloaded though! Sugar sometimes hides in savoury food also – James likes baked beans (his heaven, my hell) - but I don’t beat myself up when there’s good nutritional value alongside some sugar content.
There are loads of easy and inexpensive meals that will suit the whole family. I don’t give a hoot about presentation, kids (and adults) generally just want good grub on their plates. Our weekly dinners can include homemade pizza, cheesy pasta, risotto, sausages and mash, pies, tagines or curry. Put some green stuff alongside and you can sleep easy.
Try not to fret if you have an off-day and your meal plan goes out the window. I write this at the end of a week which saw my partner and me guzzling Chinese take-away on Thursday night, and a chippy on Friday. James got fish fingers and his beloved baked beans, and was quite content.
Check out the Small City Recipe Section for a range of fantastic recipes that are perfect for children, withsome just requiring a small tweak to suit younger palates (just omit the wine, chilli, sugar and salt!)
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