Category Archives: Foodie things

Learning to eat … as a family


This week, we started eating all together, at the dining room table, like decent human beings.

It’s something I’ve wanted to start for a while. I’ve read so much about the importance of shared mealtimes away from the TV – what it does for family cohesion and establishing eating patterns and healthy habits in small children – but it’s just never really come together. Lil A has been eating supper at 6, usually haphazard meals thrown together. Scrambled egg sandwiches with raw carrots has been a favourite, and baked frozen fish with leftover sweet potatoes. She’s been eating her main meal at lunchtime and so supper’s always been low-key for her, in her highchair, while her dad or I cook our dinner, or send work emails, or feed the dogs, or exercise. Then once Lil A was in bed, my hub and I would scoff our food down in front of the TV.

But no. This was the week that that was going to change, hopefully forever.

I knew this would change what and when we ate, but I didn’t foresee how difficult the change would be. Firstly, getting a meal from scratch on the table by 7pm means starting at 5, especially because Lil A wants nothing more than to “help me cook” – in other words, putting her step stool in front of the counter and using her tiny whisk to stir sugar into water and then eating bits of everything I’ve chopped up. And then, once we’re all finally sitting and ready to eat, she doesn’t really know what to do with herself. Having been left to feed herself and get on with it, she’s suddenly confronted with both of us willing and able to give her attention while she eats, which, of course, means she just doesn’t eat. And after five minutes of picking, she hops off her chair – because she can.

We’ve not found the answer yet. We’ve just decided to only attempt this family-at-the-table thing three times a week, and have had to accept that, at first, she’s only going to be able to sit with us to eat for a few minutes at a time, and hopefully she’ll be able to tolerate it for longer and longer as she gets older. Whatever she doesn’t finish on her plate, she gets for lunch the next day and, left to her own devices, she’s been polishing it off. I suppose we should give her smaller portions for supper, too, seeing as she’s still getting a cooked meal at lunchtime.

But the main thing I’m struggling with is not commenting on what or how much she eats. I’ve read that this is the best (possibly only) way to keep food from being a source of guilt or reward for your kids. I don’t want her to attach as much guilt to food as I did as a teenager and young adult, and I also don’t want to use it as a reward or punishment for her. I don’t want her to attach emotion to it. I don’t want her to become an emotional eater as an adult. i want her to enjoy food and to respect it. So once she’s said she’s had enough at the dinner table, I have to bite down hard on my tongue and quash my instinct to say “No, you haven’t. Just one more bite”, or “How about you just finish your carrots, then you can watch TV?”. I’m trying to get better at simply making sure that everything on her plate is healthy, so that no matter what or how much she eats, she’ll be getting something good. Toddlers are really good at knowing when they’ve had enough to eat and eating only when they’re hungry, and I really don’t want to mess with that. When we leave her to eat by herself and get on with it, I’m confident that she eats as much as she needs, but with eating at the table, I’m worried that she’s just saying she’s had enough because she’s got bored with sitting still. So I need to keep reminding myself that she’ll eat if she’s hungry, and that she will probably finish her food the next day when she gets her leftovers for lunch. It’s hard, though! So many of us were raised under the “you can’t leave the table until you finish your food” philosophy that it just comes naturally to try to encourage your kid to eat more than they would otherwise.

As far as what we eat goes, so far, we haven’t had to change very much, actually.

If you’re curious or want some inspiration for what to feed your tot (especially if you eat the same food, don’t want to eat too much meat, and don’t want to overload on carbs at night), have a look at the dishes we’ve made so far – they’ve all got Lil A’s approval. And that’s not easily won – she’s two-and-a-half and very particular about what she eats!

Spinach, mushroom and feta crustless quiche

Quinoa taco bowl

Jack Monroe’s spaghetti puttanesca

Greek fish tacos

Italian Chicken Caprese

And here are the resources I like to use to find tot-friendly family food:

Dinner vs Child on the Food52 blog (makes for pretty hysterical reading and has great ways to introduce complex flavours and “exotic” dishes to kids)

Jack Monroe in the Guardian (a bonus is that her recipes are also really budget-friendly)

Feel free to follow my yummysuppers board on Pinterest for some free inspiration – I cook 80% of the dishes I Pin onto it, and lately they’ve all been appropriate for family dinners. I’m not ever going to be dedicated enough to be a food blogger, but I think I’m getting to grips with the (relative) “art” of knowing which blogs to visit and which recipes to recreate.



Yes, I’ll admit it – I was one of those insufferable people who went on a bit of a health-kick in the month of January. But – and these two qualifiers are crucial – I didn’t refer to or think of my new eating plan as a detox (nature has given me kidneys and a liver for that purpose – phew!); and somehow I managed to carry my new eating plan through into February without even realising it. 

I thought I’d share some of my favourite virtuous, health-kick meals here: they’re meat-free, grain-free, “whole-food” dishes with interesting textures and big, brash flavours.

The pictures below are mine, but the ones on the original sites are obviously much better (not having been snapped on a cellphone by a non-food-professional in the last desperate minutes before eating and then edited using the AUTO setting on a free photo app).

Click on the links to the blog posts and websites in the picture captions for the recipes.

[Scroll down for reasons I chose the meals below and for more ramblings about eating.]

Grapefruit-roasted beetroot, greens and pinto beans with cashew butter

Grapefruit-roasted beetroot, greens & pinto beans with homemade cashew butter and pink pepper: adapted from The First Mess


Indian tomato curry with mushrooms and tofu, from Vegetarian Gastronomy

The Greenest Salad, adapted from 101 Cookbooks

The Greenest Salad, adapted from 101 Cookbooks

Spicy baby aubergine stew, from BBC Good Food

Spicy baby aubergine stew, from BBC Good Food

Slow-cooker chana masala, from Cooking in Westchester

Slow-cooker chana masala, from Cooking in Westchester

Courgette ribbon salad with almonds, snap peas and feta, adapted from Proud Italian Cook

Courgette ribbon salad with almonds, snap peas and feta, adapted from Proud Italian Cook

Crushed lentils with red onion and cumin, adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's lentil recipes in the Guardian

Crushed lentils with red onion and cumin, adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s lentil recipes in the Guardian

Some notes on how I chose these dishes:

  1. Vegetarian: I tend not to eat meat at all during the week anyway, so my January meals had to abide by a no-meat clause. Healthy eating seems fairly easy to do if you include lean meat – fish and veg; chicken and veg; grass-fed steak and veg; et cetera. But the majority of the vegan and vegetarian recipes I see online are for things that are not far above fat-and-carb-laden junk food, really – pasta bakes, quesadillas, soy-sausage hot dogs, pizzas, nachos and wraps. I wanted to put the emphasis on fresh vegetables and nuts/seeds or legumes for protein.
  2. Whole food: Because cheese is delicious, I was okay with including it, but part of the health kick was about eating whole foods – definitely no soy or quorn meat-alternatives (I made an exception once, for tofu, when I was getting really sick of lentils) – and so I tried to use cheese sparingly, and actually ended up eating vegan about half the time without really meaning to.
  3. “Low-carb”: I also wanted to cut the carbs out of dinner. But I didn’t go so far as to count legumes, pulses or orange vegetables as “carbs” because their protein components and high levels of vitamin A, for example, mean their health benefits far outweigh the fact that they are made up of starch, to my mind. Essentially, I cut out grains (including bread, pasta, rice and – *gasp* – wraps), sugar and potatoes from my evening meal. Where a recipe called to be served on rice or couscous, I used sweet potato mash (including the skin, with no butter, milk or cream added), because, yum.
  4. Cheap: It being January, I didn’t want to have to spend a fortune on exotic pastes and spices, so the recipes I needed to find had to be fairly cheap, familiar, and with easily accessible ingredients.
  5. Satisfying: I have a huge appetite, think about food almost constantly, and my stomach will not be fobbed off with grilled vegetables night after night (or even for one night, come to think of it) – so I needed to find interesting, appealing, tasty recipes that relied on spices and texture for flavour (rather than loads of salt, cheese and/or croutons).
  6. Quick: I can only really start cooking after 7pm every night, so I couldn’t afford to tackle anything elaborate or time-consuming.
  7. A note to parents reading this: hardly any of the recipes I found were toddler-friendly – well, not when it comes to my toddler, in any case. They’re either not palatable to her because she’s not super-keen on munching her way through a bowl of raw vegetables, or because she can’t handle spicy curries; nuts are a choking hazard (and if you leave them off some of these meals, they don’t have enough healthy fats to satisfy a toddler’s nutrition requirements); and tofu isn’t something I want to put into her body just yet. The one recipe I found that satisfied all of my requirements as well as Lil A’s tastebuds was the lentil and mushroom bourguignon on TreeHugger. (I didn’t get a photo of my version it because I was too hungry.) I halved the amount of wine it called for to make sure I wasn’t plying my child with booze (this dish doesn’t spend long enough on the stove for enough of the alcohol to be cooked off – not for a toddler to be eating, anyway). I made a big batch of this a couple of times (with trusty sweet potato mash), froze it in portions, and Lil A is still getting it for lunch a couple of times a week.

In the process of revamping my eating plan, I discovered some really good taste-centric, health-focused food blogs in the process. But if you have any recipes to share that will fit this eating style (or even if they don’t, but are still delicious and healthy, and especially if they’re also toddler-friendly), please share them with me – after six weeks of eating like this, I’m definitely open to new ideas.

Sweets for my sweet (except, not)

Cubes of sugar. White sugar. Oh, my life.

Cubes of sugar. White sugar. Oh, my life.

In case you didn’t know, we’re all supposed to be sugarphobes these days. I’ve written about my feelings on grains, another food item that it has become de rigueur to demonise (to sum up: grains – I love ’em). But my attitude to sugar is a little more complicated.

The thing with sugar is that I don’t love it. in fact, I don’t really eat it. I don’t eat sweets or biscuits or cake or chocolate (except the very dark, bitter kind that’s basically only cacao and of which it is impossible to eat more than a piece the size of your thumb). This is kind-of a rule for me. Rules don’t apply on weekends, as everyone knows, so dessert at a restaurant once every few months doesn’t really count – though lately I’ve been opting for the cheese platter instead of the malva pudding in any case.

But it’s not like I’m a person who “doesn’t have a sweet tooth”. A while ago, if I heard someone say that, or that they didn’t really like desserts, I thought they were lying, and that they just didn’t want to eat dessert because they didn’t want the calories or the sugar. Because, surely, everyone likes desserts, deep down.

I thought this especially while I was pregnant. I had an unhealthy obsession with sugar while my Lil A-shaped bun was in the oven. I ate a lot of ice cream. I ate a lot of frozen yoghurt. I ate a lot of mint Aeros and mint-flavoured Tumbles and Peppermint Crisps. If it was dairy-driven, sickly sweet and especially if it had something kinda minty going on, I inhaled it. The dentist remarked on how much sugar I’d eaten when I went for a check-up two months after having had Lil A, which she got entirely from the state of my previously-perfect and now somewhat hole-y teeth.

It could be because of this nine-month sugar binge – or maybe those articles in women’s mags are true on this count: the less sugar you eat, the less you want it – that now I’m the person who says, “I don’t really feel like dessert” and “Do you think I can have another starter instead of pudding?”.

So my aversion to sugar is partly because of a change in tastes and appetite. It’s also partly, I suppose, because I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid (or whatever a sugar-free alternative would be. Vitamin Water. I’ve drunk the Vitamin Water. No, wait – that’s not right.) Anyway, you know what I mean: I’ve really bought into this idea about how bad processed sugar is.

Lil A has never eaten processed sugar in all her 16 months, except for a mouthful of her dad’s peach-flavoured frozen yoghurt at lunch a few weeks ago. Her snacks are brown rice cakes and bananas, and, knowing how many years of birthday-cake-and-licorice-allsorts-and-jelly-babies-and-suckers-and-Chomp-and-marshmallow-eating she’s got ahead of her, I’m quite happy with that.

I don’t have the same attitude to sugar as I do to junk food or absinthe, which is that a little bit every now and then won’t do any harm. I’ve started thinking that even the tiniest bit of processed sugar will a) make me feel weird, and b) undo all the other efforts I make to try to be healthy.

But this is obviously, obviously ridiculous, right? Because even though I don’t add sugar to my tea, and I buy the Black Cat peanut butter with the yellow lid, I do eat wholewheat bread – which has sugar in it. Ditto for bottled pasta sauces, ready-made soups, tomato sauce and pizza. With this in mind, next time I feel like a biscuit, I’ll go ahead and have one. Really, I will. I’ll just have to go out and buy a packet, though, because we don’t keep that kind of stuff in our house.

Speaking of sweet things in the pantry, in an altogether uncharacteristic spurt of spontaneity, I went off-list at the weekly grocery shop the other day and bought a squeezy bottle of agave nectar. It was looking all “buy me, I might cost R80, but I’m so very, very healthy and ORGANIC and definitely better for you than dreaded granulated sugar or honey or maple syrup”, so I did, and summarily regretted it as soon as I got home and did some research on what agave actually is. I should have known better, considering I did a course in nutrition and food labelling earlier this year. But I got suckered, dammit.

Agave is heavily processed, for one thing, despite my bottle’s tricksy green labelling that implied “natural and wholesome, freshly squeezed from things growing in the earth”. It’s higher in calories than sugar is, but because it’s apparently 1.5x sweeter than sugar, you use less of it. I’m not convinced of that, though – I’m sure that most people would do what I did when I used it on my oats that one time, which was squeeze until the amount of syrup looked about right. Agave supposedly contains calcium, magnesium and potassium, but you’d need to eat about eight bottles of it a day to take in enough to be nutritionally significant. And you wouldn’t want to do that because a lot of commercially available agave has a similar make-up to high fructose corn syrup. Plus – and this is perhaps what put me off most – it tastes an awful lot like honey, which just doesn’t do it for me.

So for now, my oats remain unsweetened (and every morning I think I might be getting used to it until I reach about the fourth mouthful, and gag), my pantry remains biscuit-free, and my toddler keeps crunching through her rice cakes – but I’m sure one day soon I’ll get my sucrose mojo back, and then I’ll try to be less uptight about the whole thing. My husband, for one, would like to go back to the days of having at least one tub of The Creamery‘s goodness in the freezer at any given time. (But then again, he’d also like to eat doorstop slices of banana-and-blueberry-bread-French-toast with bacon for breakfast every morning, so perhaps we don’t need to indulge all his culinary whims.)

Grown-up-friendly toddler food (and vice versa)

2013-06-28 18.01.42

It might look like she’s enjoying her basil pesto on toast, but she’s really not.

Since Lil A started eating real, whole food about three months ago instead of mashed meat-and-veg meals (which I used to buy her from Nutrikids, and which she LOVED), I’ve had to adjust the way hub and I eat. After only eating meat (by which I mean chicken, fish, ostrich or venison – I don’t really eat beef or pork at all, so we never cook it) maybe once a week, we’ve now started having fish at least once a week, and ostrich or free-range chicken once a week too.

We’ve cut right down on our vegan Asian meals and spicy vegetable curries because we can’t adjust them for Lil A. For one thing, they’re much too chilli-ful – and not being an actual Asian or Indian baby, she wasn’t exactly weaned on curry – and for another, ethically-sourced poultry and fish, and dishes containing dairy, are a much easier way for her to get all the vitamins (B12, specifically) and macronutrients (easily accessible protein) she needs. Of course it’s possible to raise a perfectly healthy vegan baby – I’m just not up for the challenge myself.

Here are Lil A’s favourite home-cooked meals so far (all cooked in bulk and frozen in portions for upcoming lunches and dinners – a surprisingly satisfying, Stepford-wife-esque endeavour):

  • Tuna, broccoli and courgette “crustless quiche” – basically a frittata made with cheddar cheese and wholewheat breadcrumbs. This was one of the first meals hub ever cooked for me at varsity (of course, instead of tuna, broccoli and courgette, it contained vienna sausages and that’s about it), and it’s still one of my favourite comforting, home-cooked 80s throwbacks.
  • Tagliatelle with small chunks of well-cooked butternut, spinach and ricotta (we use the vegetables and cheese as stuffing for cannelloni for ourselves, and mix it with chopped up long pasta for Lil A).
  • Ostrich cottage pie with mashed orange sweet potato topping – cooked with lots of fresh thyme and basil, and heavy on the tinned tomato.
  • Mushroom barley risotto made with fish stock, with flaked hake added for Lil A.
  • Macaroni and cheese (duh), with roast chicken (leftovers pulled off the bone from a roast lunch), grated courgettes and peas. For a Lil A-friendly version of mac-‘n-cheese, I don’t make a roux-based white sauce – I just melt grated cheddar in a saucepan of milk – she doesn’t need the added fat from the butter, or the flour (nor do we, probably). And I’m ashamed to say that I serve it to her with a dollop of tomato sauce.
  • Mild chicken or sweet potato curry made with coconut milk, chutney, peas and grated carrots, served with brown basmati rice.

[The boring/healthy disclaimer-y bit: We don’t add salt to any of these meals while we cook them, and the stock we use is low in sodium, so almost all the flavour in these dishes comes from the aromatics (onion, garlic, leeks) and herbs. We try to only use white cheddar, which doesn’t contain colourants, and we only ever buy free-range meat and eggs.]

The sad thing about all of this, of course, is that a boiled egg and toast, with a naartjie for pud, is probably Lil A’s favourite meal of all time, and she wouldn’t mind if we never cooked for her again. But, to be fair, as long as we don’t try to give her avocado, raw tomato, guava, or cheese by itself, she’ll eat pretty much anything.

If you’ve got a toddler or a little child, please share your foolproof family recipes in the comments. As you can see, our repertoire is a little limited, so I’d love whatever inspiration you’ve got to spare.



Grains of joy

It's love.

It’s love.

Aren’t grains just the best? They’re so versatile and so healthy (I’m thinking specifically of the low-GI energy you get from the wholewheat ones) that it’s no wonder they’re supposed to make up just over a quarter of our diets (according to the FDA).

But people are terrified of grains these days. Grains are considered morally reprehensible. They’re like zombies – scary and repulsive at the same time. Or tartrazine – something we all consumed in the past without knowing how bad it was for us.

So although I wanted this post to be all about grains and the delicious, I feel I can’t go ahead without prefacing it with my thoughts on diets that demonise grains.

<rant> Proponents of low-carb diets like the sports scientist Tim Noakes tell us that the worst thing we can do for our bodies is put evil carbs in them – and that includes pretty much all vegetables except leaves, all fruit except tomato and avocado, and even whole grains.

I know people who have completely cut out carbohydrates from their diets, and, yes, they’ve lost weight. But that’s mostly because of losing water (especially initially) and the fact that they’re cutting down on calories. It’s basic maths – eat less, you’ll lose weight.

And don’t just take my word for it – check out this study in the New England Journal of Medicine and this one in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition – both found that people on any calorie-restricted diet lost weight – no matter whether they were cutting out carbohydrates, protein or fat.

The thing about carb-free diets, that encourage snacking on things like gammon instead of an apple, and having coconut butter whisked with grains of coffee for breakfast, is that your calorie intake is further restricted because of how ill they make you feel. After a few days or weeks, the food you’re eating is so unappetising that you don’t feel like eating at all.

So you’re basically starving yourself – and it’s common sense that starving your body is just not sustainable. If you want to live a normal life, you will be putting things like peas, sweet potatoes and oats in your mouth at some point in the future, never mind bread and pasta. And if you don’t eat any carbohydrates ever again – well, I wish you luck. There’s hardly any evidence of what this kind of diet does to one’s body in the long term.

Never mind the fact that cutting down on vegetables and fruits is the last thing that most of us need in terms of vitamins and nutrients.

But, as I said, I know people who have been on these diets, and (albeit fewer) people who have been on them for a while. They swear by them. As Ben Goldacre says, though, anecdotes do not equal evidence, so I shall remain sceptical until enough randomised controlled trials have been done over the long term to prove that low-carb/no-carb diets are so good for you that people who have been on them for years and years are healthier than people who have not. </rant>

Now we’ve got that out the way, I can talk some grain-loving. There’s absolutely no doubt that wholegrains trump white/processed grains (“on the basis of health only” my long-suffering, white-bread-loving, undoubtedly-healthier-thanks-to-me husband would say), and I’ve more or less eradicated the latter out of our home completely (barring the odd weekend-morning croissant from the neighbourhood French bakery) by making changes like:

  • Using barley instead of arborio rice for risottos (this recipe from Bon Appetit magazine was the first one I tried)
  • Using stoneground wholewheat instead of cake/white flour to make bechamel sauce – it tastes identical, honestly
  • Eating rolled oats instead of instant oats for breakfast
  • Choosing brown rice cakes (Vital does a nice range of seasoned ones if you want added flavour) instead of pretzels (my vice)
  • Serving brown rice with lentil dhal or bean chilli instead of poppadums/naan or nachos respectively (plus, a legume+a grain = a complete protein, so this change is doubly healthy – and as a family that hardly eats any meat, we eat a lot of legumes)

None of these changes made even a ripple on the surface of my grocery bill or the yum factor of our food. There are loads of other no-brainer substitutions, like replacing normal bread with rye bread and normal pasta with wholewheat, which I do when I’m making a hearty pasta sauce. Wholewheat pasta is much too robust to have with a thin, tomato-based sauce, I find, so I’d rather buy imported durum wheat pasta for those suppers.

But back to the drool-worthy dish that got me thinking about grains today: a recipe for rice pudding. Nigel Slater‘s, to be exact. He uses arborio rice, mascarpone and blueberries to make his dessert risotto, and even though I’ve never had rice pudding in my life, nor a desire to make it, I can’t wait to try this one. I love the idea of using arborio rice, which I’ve started thinking of as a treat, in a lovely summery pud like this. Join me in fantasising over the picture and the recipe.