How do working parents feed kids quick, healthy food on school nights and squeeze homework, bedtime stories, cleaning up and maybe some downtime into the remains of the day?
It's easy to fall for convenience, kidding ourselves that peeling packages and microwaving their contents counts as cooking. But somewhere between frozen chicken nuggets and the time-consuming roasts our grandmothers made, there's another way. Its acquiring a repertoire of easy, healthy dishes that are quick to cook (or cook themselves while you do something else) and flexible, meaning they can be simmered, easily reheated or eaten cold an important consideration given that many families eat in shifts.
Having a plan
The biggest obstacle to preparing healthy meals in a hurry is the absence of healthy ingredients in the pantry or fridge. Its surprising how many parents aren't conscious of this, says Jacqui Deighan from the Parents Jury, an online network of parents working to improve children's food.
"It's this lack of awareness and often a belief that healthy food is difficult to cook that keeps people reaching for packets of frozen chips. We're all busy but we all have to shop for food and it's just as easy to buy fresh food as it is to buy processed food," points out Deighan, a former chef who works with schools in Victoria, developing healthy canteen menus and educating students and parents about food.
Her advice: plan and shop for the weeks meals in advance and always have healthy staples on hand. Different grains like rice and couscous, a variety of pastas, some canned legumes as well as fresh fruit and vegetables.
We're all busy but we all have to shop for food and it's just as easy to buy fresh food as it is to buy processed food
Knowing how to speed up midweek dinners
Advance preparation at the weekends takes the pressure off the week. Cooking extra basmati or brown rice to make the base for a one-pot meal of fried rice, making extra curry or pasta sauce to freeze for later and making home-made pesto, for instance, gets three week-night dinners under control.
Involving the kids in making food
Helping to choose vegetables and wash them, for example, making simple salads or lunch box sandwiches teaches them useful skills and encourages them to eat fresh food they're more likely to eat it if they've helped make it. Making healthy muffins and slices together at weekends is a way to spend time with the kids and produce snacks and lunch box foods for the week ahead.
More vegetables, anyone?
The recipes on these pages include plenty of vegetables and if you think getting kids to eat them is an insurmountable barrier, maybe its one we've created for ourselves, suggests Deighan.
"I think as parents we often perpetuate the idea that children won't eat vegetables. I also believe we've given kids too much power over food. The biggest fear parents have is that their kids will starve but the parent who goes and makes something else because their child won't eat vegetables, is just giving credence to this," she says. "Sure, there are valid dislikes but if a child won't eat green beans they might like something else, like snow peas."
Kids not keen on green? Try:
* Catching them when they're ravenous. Give them a plate of raw vegetables and dip before dinner when they're starving. Some children prefer vegetables raw (including raw, grated) because they're sweeter that way.
*Serving different vegetables in different ways. Praise your kids if they eat them, ignore it if they don't. Be persistent - just because children refuse a vegetable the first time, doesn't mean they'll refuse it forever. It can take around 10 exposures to a particular food before a child decides whether they like something or not.
Reminding older children that eating more fresh and less processed food is kinder to the planet. Processed foods use up more energy to make, store and transport.
Give children choices between one vegetable and another. Would they prefer peas or corn, tomatoes or carrots? Cook dishes that can easily include chopped vegetables you can adapt to suit the vegetables your kids like. Many recipes on these pages are designed for this.
A few words about breakfast
A starving brain can't concentrate well - breakfast is brain food and a way to deliver important nutrients like calcium, iron, fibre, as well as some fruit. There's nothing wrong with a good breakfast cereal if you can find one (Weetbix Kids gets the thumbs up from Choice magazine because it's low in sodium, fat and sugar and high in fibre) But there's an alternative - making your own.
Home-made muesli is a no-brainer it's easy to custom-make your own mix of rolled oats, sunflower seeds, pepitas, ground hazelnuts or almonds and dried fruit, choosing ingredients the family likes and storing in a container. Or make a batch of granola (see our recipe). If there's time for a cooked breakfast, porridge with traditional rolled oats is quick and sustaining. Or make French toast with cut-up fruit on the side. No time for breakfast, or your child baulks at breakfast? Have something portable ready home-made fruit or vegetable muffins, yoghurt with fruit or a banana, or a slice of wholegrain bread or a roll.
The day that Fairfax spoke to Jacqui Deighan, her 12-year-old daughter had left for school with a cheese and salad roll, a container of chopped rockmelon and an apple. Sometimes there are home-made muffins or chopped vegetables with a yoghurt based dip. What belongs in a lunch box is fruit, a protein food cheese, yoghurt, eggs, fish, beans, lean meat or hummus, something starchy like wholegrain bread or pasta. Try wraps, pita breads or rolls if kids get bored with sandwiches. Processed meats like ham and salami are popular but in terms of health they're on the nose besides being high in salt, frequent consumption is linked to bowel cancer. Avoid or limit them, warns the Cancer Council NSW.
Will a chicken or egg sandwich packed at 8am be a bug-fest by lunchtime? Not if the food has been handled and stored correctly in the first place and you use an insulated lunch box with a freezer brick, says Juliana Madden of the Food Safety Council freezer bricks stay colder for a much longer time than frozen drinks. Be sure the bricks are the kind you can't open and be sure to wash them thoroughly before refreezing.
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