Sunday, 8 March 2015

Balanced parenting - #2 Eating well

I'm beginning this post, the second in my balanced parenting series, by letting you all know I'm a foodie, have cooked professionally, and I believe that anyone can learn to cook well and enjoy the process, even when you are time and energy poor and/or on a budget. It does take a bit longer to cook from scratch than it does to pick up takeaway or other ready prepared food, but your health and budget will thank you, and you'll have a much better shot at bypassing the 'fussy eater' syndrome that appears to be getting to positively epidemic proportions with kids, from what I can see.
Remember these? It's surprisingly difficult to find a basic food pyramid any more. So many of them are tailored to various different lifestyle eating choices - so there are vegetarian, vegan and paleo pyramids, to name a few... MY personal philosophy and eating plan is based on two things; 1. biologically, we're designed to eat a broad range of different foodstuffs - look at our teeth, that will back me up... 2. If it's in a packet, leave it in the supermarket. Processed food is doing us harm, as a society. It's high in sugar, salt and the wrong kinds of fat. Canned veg, tuna, dried pasta, rice, etc are minimally processed and fine. Dehydrated soups, 'just add water or milk' packets of mac and cheese and others of that ilk aren't. They're also expensive. And, 3. Cutting out major food groups, to the point that you need to take dietary supplements, is counterproductive. The only reason to drop a food out of your diet is if you have an actual allergy - ie, going gluten free if you are a Coeliac is mandatory, otherwise, it's a fad. The one caveat I'll add here is that there are various religious and philosophical reasons why people may follow a particular diet and that's an intensely personal decision that has absolutely nothing to do with anyone else. I'm Jewish, so I don't eat pork, and a few other things...

There are a gazillion diets out there, and anyone on social media is probably finding their feed peppered with info about them. They usually come with claims that they'll cure you of all sorts of things - from cancer to autoimmune diseases. This is NOT medically valid. Eating healthy will help keep your body in the best shape it can be but juicing instead of eating a balanced meal, or omitting dairy, or not eating carbs won't cure you of anything, and could aggravate your system in all sorts of ways that aren't properly understood. Also, and this is central to my food philosophy when we have kids, following a faddy diet or demonising particular foods doesn't model good, long term eating habits.

Running a household with little kids is exhausting. Even more so if you're trying to juggle work and family. At my peak busy period I was sole parenting, the boys were in primary school, I was at art school studying half time, I was singing on contract with the state opera company, I was working part time with my mother in a garden centre, and we were living on a very limited income. Money was in short supply, and so was time and energy. We didn't eat a lot of meat - it was expensive. We ate red meat maybe two or three times a week, if that. Chicken was cheap. We bought most of our fruit and veg at the Adelaide Central Market - brilliant produce market! We had two chooks on agistment on a friend's farm (yes you can agist chickens!) so we had free eggs - I did work on the farm at weekends to pay for them being there...and we also got surplus veg at times, in exchange for me doing the processing. The boys still won't eat broad beans because of that! Our diet was simple, fresh and healthy. 

The boys were involved as much as possible in the shopping, cooking and cleaning up, so they had a healthy appreciation of what it took to put meals on the table and allowed them the right to contribute ideas - rather than just complaining when they didn't like something (mind you, they got the full force of a Dragon Mother attack after a steady period of grumbling which got them both on board!). I never made separate 'kid' dishes - we all ate the same. My basic rule was that they had to try everything on their plate - every time I served it...because palates develop over time. I hated brussel sprouts as a kid, but as an adult, I love the little ones, still a bit crispy with lashings of butter...

Strategies I used to stay on top of food planning and production so there was always something to eat easily and relatively quickly.

  • Keep a list of your basic staples on hand, and no matter what your list for a particular week is like, buy your staples if they're on special - you can NEVER have too many cans of tomatoes or packets of dried pasta.
  • Find local markets. Back when my kids were small, the farmers market movement was in its infancy. The Willunga Farmers' Market was the first one. It's where to get the best range of local, seasonal fruit and veg for a good price.
  • For those in cities, check out your produce markets - I had the Adelaide Central Market. In Sydney there are the Sydney Markets, the Victoria Markets in Melbourne, and so on... 
  • Buy bulk fresh foods in season and preserve. It's a bit of time when you're doing it, but you'll be glad when you can pull a block of concentrated stewed tomatoes or soup base out of the freezer in the depths of winter.
  • Make stock and freeze - vegetable, chicken and beef. It can be defrosted fast and turned into soup very easily. Beyond getting it going, and straining at the end, it takes care of itself you just have to be home for a few hours while it simmers quietly.
  • If you're a meat eater, try and source meat direct from farmers - sometimes you can get meat from country butchers much cheaper than city prices. I used to buy sides of lamb and freeze - the per kilo cost is MUCH less than it is for the individual cuts at the butcher.
  • Take time on the weekends - or a weekday if you have one clear - to have a big cookup of things like batches of soup, stews, pasta sauces, risotto, etc, then freeze in meal sized portions. Absolutely invaluable on those crazy rush days. My basic tactic was that for any slow cooked meal I made, I cooked a double quantity and froze the other half for another time.
  • Keep a range of easy to pick at things in the fridge and pantry that can be combined to make a meal, or grabbed as snacks - hard boiled eggs, dips like hummus and babaganoush, tiny cans of tuna, single serve cans of baked beans, cold cooked sausages, punnets of cherry tomatoes, grilled vegetables, jars of pickles and olives, single serve tubs of yoghurt, etc. Obviously the range you use will be based on your tastes and dietary requirements.
  • Embrace the meal in a bowl concept: a salad that becomes a whole meal - pasta or grain based, with a range of vegetables, chicken, fish, beans or a cheese, and appropriate dressing. Fast, fun to play with combinations, satisfying - particularly in summer when no one wants to fuss making and/or eating. 
  • Think laterally - every meal doesn't have to be meat and three veg to be balanced and satisfying. Typical meals for the boys and I included: a big bowl of soup with cheese scones or toasted cheese sandwiches, a risotto made with salmon and peas or a range of roasted vegetables, baked potatoes in their jackets to be filled with a combination of many different things (grated cheese, baked beans, bolognese sauce, coleslaw, grilled corn kernels, etc...up to you how fancy you get with various additions), build your own burger nights which included making extra burger patties that landed in the next day's school lunch boxes, and so on...
Involving the kids
  • Talk about what everyone would like to have for dinner and in lunch boxes - just don't wait for the moment when there's a meltdown at the table or in the morning when you're making lunch.
  • Don't leave your grocery shopping only for times when you don't have the kids with you. In SO many ways, it's much easier without them, I know (the tantrums at the checkout with all the lollies at kid eye height...GRRRRR) but they will never have any appreciation of the effort it takes to get the car parked, get yourself through the shops with an increasingly heavy trolley, get it all in the car and then out again at home if they never experience it. It can be helpful to do it with one child at a time if you have the option of leaving others with someone. 
  • Let them help in the kitchen. If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me something like "It's SO much quicker if I just cook by myself," or "but they make so much mess and then I have to clean up," I wouldn't he crossing my fingers so hard that this blog gets madly successful and starts earning me some income! It will get quicker with the kids as they get better and they'll only get better if they get the practice, and if they make a mess, teach them how to clean it up - it's part of cooking after all! There are so many ways they can be involved in making food with you, and the more involvement they have, generally speaking, the more they're prepared to eat what's on offer.
  • Make sure you sit down to the table together for meals as much as possible. In our increasingly busy lives, this can be precious time to reconnect, talk about what's going on for all of us, you can discuss different stuff about the household food issues, AND studies are showing increasingly that children who eat at the table regularly have a better chance of avoiding obesity than those sitting in front of a tv. It also means that YOU are eating well too - not hovering around nibbling left overs or snacks while they eat, and not getting around to a proper meal yourself.
This post is way long enough, so I'll stop here. However, as I was writing, I was thinking that something I can, and will, start doing is posting some of my recipes from back in the day (many of which I still make even though the family structure is very different now) on the Dragon Mother Facebook page, so if you've not already found that and started following it, follow the link and have a look.


  1. Hear Hear! (again!) :-)
    Unless there is a health issue, I never abide fussiness at the dinner table from my chidlren. Like you, I expect them to at least try what is in front of them. If they genuinely don't like it, that's okay as long as they give it a go. If they are still hungry afterwards, they can have extra helpings or make themselves a healthy snack like a sandwich or baked beans. I also vowed never to make separate meals for people. Ever since they were babies, they ate what we ate in some form. Sometimes it meant taking out someone's serve of meat from the pan/wok before the spices went in for the rest of us, but it is still the same meal. One can cater for different needs without having to make more than one meal.
    Some of your examples are precisely what we do in our household. The success is that my children do not like so-called 'fast foods' because they know the taste of real food. I tell my children that fruit straight off the tree like apples are God's fast food! Just pick and go! I

    1. That is SO good to hear Jodie! Sometimes I feel a bit like a dinosaur - I trot out my feelings on this particular topic, and someone tells me how 'hard' I am... And yet, I see the proof of what I did - both my boys will eat anything that's put in front of them, and if they're guests at someone's house, that includes things they don't particularly like, because they have learned to be appreciative of the effort people make to offer others a meal. No.2 will, these days, succumb to the odd bit of junk food, but on the whole his go-to quick food is still more likely to be a big salad or a stir fry. Makes life SO much easier - for the kids as well as the grown ups!

    2. I might also add, because I didn't actually go there in the post, they are both very good cooks - having been in the kitchen since they were tiny. No.1 had his first entire meal on the table by himself at around 12, and while I don't remember when No.2 pulled that off, I DO remember him insisting that he could make a batch of fruit muffins ALL BY MYSELF at 6 - and he did too!

  2. Great post I must admit I have been hunting lately to find good quality, humanely produced protein, married to confirmed carnivore I really need to find sources of meat. Struggling to find things like good quality free range pork. Local butchers seem to all be closing down in face of the onslaught of coles and woollies. We do have one good organic green grocer who sells some meat products but I wish I had more choice and better access. I will look for direct from farm options. So glad you have managed to raise good cooks! Being able to fend for yourself and others was something I also put an emphasis on, she now cooks so much better than I do.