Tuesday, 2 September 2014

#NoJunk I hate Lunchboxes

I hate lunchboxes. Thought I should just share that fact before I write this post. For someone who is normally pretty enthusiastic about food I have an irrational hatred of school packed lunches. HATE THEM.

My lad started off with packed lunches before I realised that the packed lunch brigade were all judging each others' goodies. My mango-fiend of a child wouldn't eat mango from a lunchbox, because other kids said it was 'disgusting'. Ugh, depressing.

And the unpacking bit at the end of the day - the crusts, lightly nibbled pieces of fruit and general festering detritus to be chucked at the end of the day. Oh, and I've you've been insane enough to pack a yoghurt you'll have to pick through the compost to find the spoon No, no, no.

And the pressure - the crushing, emotional PRESSURE of the healthy lunchbox. And the fact that what most people think of as healthy, just isn't really. Flapjacks? Sugar fest. Sandwiches? Default to Marmite. Yoghurts? Sugar fest. Lunchboxes just offer so many opportunities to reach for the junk. So many pre-packaged 'easy' solutions, even the most educated of no-junkers might find themselves packin' the Pom Bears from time to time. In a recent survey for their NoJunk campaign Organic found that 61% of parents find that it’s difficult to make their child’s lunchbox varied and interesting and that for 81% samdwiches were the staple lunchbox food. Honestly, I'm surprised both figures there aren't 100%...

Here we are, September again and many parents are reaching for the bloody lunchbox. Anyone wanting to de-junkify their kids' food should check out the No Junk campaign here - it's all about keeping it simple and real. And really, this is the solution, keep it simple. So here's my solutions - I put the first in brackets, because I know it's not for everyone...

(1. SCHOOL DINNERS. Come on, they're even free for infants in the UK now. Put aside worries about whether they'll eat it or not and comfort yourself with the fact that they probably will, because you're not watching, and even if they don't - you'll never know - bliss.)

2. FOOD FLASKS. AKA - your lunchbox saving grace.

Food flasks are literally the answer to the healthy lunchbox conundrum. They are also easier to fill than a sandwiches. Honestly, trust me here - they are easier than sandwiches. You just microwave leftovers - last night's pasta, pop it in the flask and pack it up with a fork, bottle of water and a piece of fruit and BOOM healthy lunchbox done.

No junk, no effort.

Here's some things you can put in them:

1. Pasta. Obviously. Leftovers from last  night's dinner or cook some in the morning seeing a it only takes 11 minutes boiling while you do your morning stuff. Stir in decent pesto if you're pushed for time. Or throw a few frozen peas in the pasta water, stir in cream and cheddar cheese. Even olive oil and a finely chopped raw tomato or two will do the trick. If you're feeling very kind you could even pack a little foil twist of parmesan on the side.

2. Cous cous - just make in in the food flask by adding boiling water and a tiny bit of an organic stock cube. Then add your cous cous additions of choice, including most stew-based leftovers.

3. Soup - thick delicious soup and a roll. Lush.

4. Chopped up sausages, potatoes, veg and gravy - by which I mean, last night's tea microwaved of course.

My daughter had pasta based lunchboxes for pretty-much every one of her pre-school lunch days and somehow it's less guilt inducing than sandwich repetition. She has to have lunchboxes again for the first few weeks of term while they settle in and I'm telling you now it'll be pasta all the way until the blessed relief of the school dinner.

Those facing lunch packing - I wish you the very best of no junky luck! Keep it real folks!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

#No Junk Perfect Picnic Pizzas

Everyone loves a picnic. But what is a picnic? Does any food eaten outdoors count as a picnic, or does it have to include hampers and flasks in order to qualify? Who knows. But what I do know is that picnics are ace and kids love them. We may not manage this level of awesomeness:

'Shove that under your feet,' he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.
'What's inside it?' asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly;
'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!'
'Do you really think so?' enquired the Rat seriously. 'It's only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I'm a mean beast and cut it very fine!'

(This may be my favourite bit of Wind in the Willows)

- but picnic greatness is an achievable aim...

Perhaps gone are the days of the ultra grand picnic - you know the picnics you read about in children's books that always sound epic... those Brambly Hedge mice, for example, know how to picnic, Apple Blossom wine? Don't mind if I do. These days, however, cooking a fine raised crust pie may be a step to far for a kiddie picnic, a pre-packed junk-fest isn't your only option.
No Junk logo
Earlier this year Organix launched their ongoing mission to help families cut out the junk in their food - all those sinister-sounding pronounceables that seem to be tucked away in so much food these days. There are loads of tips, recipes and general positivity over at the Organix website, plus an option to sign up and get involved with the campaign.

There is a middle ground to be had though. Somewhere between the magnificence of a smoked salmon/champagne picnic, fresh from the wicker with proper napkins and the sweaty carrier bag of salty pork products, salty crisps and after-though sandwiches, grabbed at the local petrol station.

So, here's a suggestion. Get involved with the no junk campaign and try it out on a picnic. If you fancy something other than a sandwich, you could get the kiddlies to make these Perfect Picnic Pizzas. Perfect because they tick all the food boxes in one item, these and a few apples thrown in and you're pretty much done. Obviously, I'm ignoring the fact that outdoor eating does make you want cake... perhaps I'll post my recipe for junk-free tea loaf...

Recipe wise, these bad boys are easy. It's just a simple scone-style base, topped with whatever deliciousness takes your fancy. Here's how:

1. Weight 8oz of wholemeal self-raising flour into a bowl. Then pour in 2oz olive oil. Give it a good stir - this is instead of rubbing in a solid fat like butter. Now add milk or water slowly until you can squish it into a soft dough.
2. Roll pieces of the dough into balls and then flatten them onto a non-stick baking tray of some sort to make little pizza bases - no need to roll.
3. Smear on tomato puree, or spoonfuls of chopped toms from a tin. Add your topping of choice - keep it real folks. And remember, pineapple is okay.
4. Bake at 200 for about 10-12 minutes
5. Cool, wrap/box 'em up, grab the rug and go (even if it's only as far as the garden)

How to make a Bacon Bap from Scratch

Homemade bacon sandwich

Apologies for neglecting my blog lately, but on the plus side this does mean I've got lots of lovely recipes and ideas stored up for you. Not least this little project involving bacon. Everything you see in that picture is made from scratch, which I think is pretty awesome. Doesn't mean I'll ever bother making bacon again, but it was fun.

For the recipes and how tos, please see my full article in The Guardian:


Wednesday, 30 April 2014

4 Easy dishes the kids can make for dinner #NoJunk

One of the key messages of the #NoJunk campaign is getting your kids cooking, so this post is all about meals younger kids can make without using the hob. It's homecooking with the first hints of you not having to do it all and there's no junk in sight.

Sometimes asking your kids to help round the house is not all that successful.  Washing-up leads to tidal 
waves of suds, the hoover probably makes them cry and folding laundry turns into ‘soft play’.  However, there are some very good reasons why getting your kids to do some of the cooking has got to be a good thing.  From the labour-saving - there might come a point where you don’t have to do all the cooking. To the practical - your kids will become competent grown-ups who can feed themselves properly.  To the educational – all that measuring, weighing and general kitchen alchemy is all good learning.  To the emotional – the endearing and disproportionate pride they’ll feel in feeding you for a change.   

So, here are four simple suggestions for very first dishes your child can cook; you’ve got three all-in-one mains and one pud. There’s no hob involved, so all the construction can be done cold. Levels of independence and supervision are your call. Useful kit includes these brilliant serrated, but blunt knives, which even very small children can use safely (once they are past the eye-poking, chewing-things stage of course).

Salad actually has a lot going for it as a first meal for children to prepare; it is cold and instantly ready. There’s also something about the throw-it-in, chaotic nature of salad-making that appeals to kids.  Give them all the usual salad suspects to cut or rip up, then offer them a random collection of goodies from the fridge and let them create.

Or go for a more coherent approach and make prawn cocktail, provide cooked beef strips for this Sesame beef salad  or pieces of cooked chicken with a jam jar dressing: a splash of olive oil, wine vinegar, a squeeze of honey and a blob of whole grain mustard all shaken up in a jam jar.  

Fish Parcels

Parcel based cooking is great for children, because they get to create a complete dinner for each family member. This can be made with fresh or frozen fish, in fact there’s no need to defrost it first. You might need to sneak in and check the parcels are secure before cooking, or switch to foil which is easier to scrunch together.

For 4
·         4 handfuls of washed spinach
·         1 courgette, chopped
·         1 red pepper, chopped
·         A few cooked new potatoes for each person
·         1 tin of tomatoes
·         1 tsp pesto
·         Four pieces of white fish
·         A few basil leaves
·         Black pepper
·         A few black olives/ frozen prawns if you like

1.       Take four large pieces of baking parchment and add a pile of spinach to the middle of each. Then pile on the chopped vegetables and potatoes.
2.       Tip the tomatoes into a bowl and stir in the pesto. Pop a fish piece on top of the veg and spoon over the tomatoes. Add basil leaves, black pepper and olives.
3.       Seal up the parcel as best you can – I find the Cornish pasty approach the best.
4.       They can sit in the fridge for a few hours at this stage if that’s helpful. Cook for 20-25 minutes at 200, or less if they’ve sat in the fridge defrosting.

Chicken Parcels
Another parcel-based recipe, but because this one takes longer to cook you can put the potatoes in raw. Obviously have a conversation about raw chicken and get children to wash their hands carefully afterwards and consider using tongs to pick up the chicken. There’s no real need for a specific recipe, lots of things work in a parcel with chicken and potatoes, see what the kids think:
  • ·         Thyme, crème fraiche or full fat soft cheese, mushrooms
  • ·         Carrots, squeeze of orange juice, black pepper
  • ·         Same as the fish parcels above

These will need to be wrapped in foil and baked for about 35 minutes at 200 degrees, always check your breasts though, in every sense.

Pear Charlotte

This is a satisfyingly simple little pudding to put together, it’s just bread, butter, pear and brown sugar, yet it creates a pretty impressive looking pud. Even if it doesn’t end up looking impressive, it’s still going to taste good. Make sure you’re using very ripe pears though. You could peel them or not bother, depending on whether peeling is achievable for your kids.

·         8 or 9 slices of white bread, crusts removed
·         4 tablepoons of very soft butter
·         4 or 5 very ripe pears (you could even use a tin of pears…)
·         A few teaspoons of brown sugar

1.       Preheat the oven to 200. Brush the insides of a pudding basin with plenty of butter. Then spread the rest on the bread.
2.       Cut the bread into strips or pieces and line the bottom and sides of the basin with bread, try to overlap it a bit. Save a bit of the lid
3.       Chop up the pears and add them to the basin, layering them with sprinklings of sugar.

4.       Make a lid out of bread and bake until it’s golden and crispy. Serve with ice cream.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Totally Ace Chorizo and Lentil Soup/Stew

So, we are fully on with this NO JUNK CHALLENGE. And it's all going well - a bit like a food reboot for the family. It's a good reminder to get back to basics.

First things first, this recipe would still be lush sans chorizo, just stick in a teaspoon of smoked paprika if you happen to have any.

This is packed full of lovely, healthy lentils and vegetables. It is delicious. Just use veg the kids like and get them to cut it up – kiddy buy-in. As it turns out I managed to give this to Alex while he was at peak hunger, so he demolished it.

No-junk wise I used one organic chicken stock cube in a huge pan, so minimal salt, but you could go even lower with a low salt or no salt organic cube too of course.

In terms of a recipe, you don’t strictly need one. This one I made didn't have onion in it because I only had one onion left and it had gone manky. Key bits are:
  • Green lentils
  • A cooking chorizo if you're using one - check out Riverford's one
  • Tons of finely diced veg – I used peppers, a de-seeded red chili, celery, tomatoes, can’t remember what else.Get the kiddies to help chopping and let them choose what’s going in.
  • Plenty of garlic. Don’t be shy, you’re with family.
  • Parmesan to grate on top. Obviously not strictly required, but lush nonetheless.
  1. Pre-cook the lentils.
  2. Chop and sweat the chorizo and veg in olive oil.
  3.  Add the lentils, stock and water - a bit for a stew, more for a soup.
  4.  Boil, simmer, eat. (With Parmesan)
Here's Alex's review of the soup:

Monday, 28 April 2014

#NoJunk Pasta Sauce

Anyone doing the No JUNK challenge?

A little teeny, tiny post for you here, just to say that if the long ingredient lists on ready-made pasta sauces are depressing you, then try this instead. It's proof that simple, home cooking can be pretty much as easy as opening a jar.

Why this is nice:

  1. It's simple and soothing - ready to serve when tempers are frayed and adventurousness is not on the cards.
  2. It's cheap.
  3. You can add and embellish not at all or lots - up to you.

What you do:
  1. While your pasta is cooking, heat a splash of olive oil in a frying pan.
  2. Add a smushed garlic clove (or don't)
  3. Add a tin of decent chopped tomatoes, and a grind or two of pepper if you like.
  4. Bubble it until the pasta is cooked. If lumps are a thing, mush it with a potato masher
  5. Stir and serve - with Parmesan or Cheddar maybe. Up the awesome stakes with a pot of growing basil on the table and let the kids pick and sprinkle the leaves
As Greg Wallace might say, 'Cooking does not get easier than this'.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

NO JUNK - Yogurt Topped Raspberry Flapjack #nojunk

Next week Organix is launching the No Junk Campaign.

This is a good campaign. 

It's an important campaign.

You should get involved.

It's all about good food for children - and who doesn't agree with that? Last year Organix worked with The Soil Association on the Out to Lunch campaign which took restaurant chains to task about junk on their kids menu. And this No Junk campaign is another rung on the ladder towards better food for kids.

What you do is this: you pledge to feed your family real food for a week. Real food that contains ingredients like 'tomatoes' instead of polymonoglockenspieldioxide*. The idea is, you read the label before you buy something and if it's got waccy sounding stuff in it, you ditch it. 

It's blindingly obvious why this is a good idea for your family, but what is perhaps less obvious is that signing this pledge is a powerful thing to do. Why? Because the plan is to start a food revolution. Organix is calling for the government and the food industry to do their part too and it will be helpful to point out how many parents feel strongly about this. We want tough controls on salt, fat, sugar and artificial additives. We are all starting to realise the stuff that has somehow become the norm in kids food and I think I'm right in thinking, that parents have had enough.

So, I’m right behind the campaign and will posting more about it next week, including some easy, easy no junk recipes. I've already taken the Organix #nojunk pledge and thought I'd kick things off with this spirit lifting recipe - Yogurt Topped Raspberry Flapjack. A nice little reminder that things don't need to be full of crap to be good.

And also a reminder that healthy food can be EASY. As I like to say, it's about convenient food not convenience foods...

So, this tasty little number is not junky because:

  • It’s not got much sugar in it. Just a teaspoon in the topping and then honey in the flapjack. About a ton less than most shop-bought flapjacks...
  • It’s got fruit in it. Fruit = good.
  • It’s got nice, slow-release energy oats too.

But, you might actually bother to make these because:
  •  It’s very quick to make – just mixing, baking and a little smearing. We made during the 'grumpy hour' after school - that's how untaxing it is.
  •  It uses  frozen raspberries, meaning it’s okay to be eating raspberries in April and that you don’t have to have fresh ones in. 
  • The kids can make it.
Here's Alex and Emma (sort of) telling you how to make it, proper recipe below if this isn't crystal clear...

Yogurt Topped Raspberry Flapjacks 

1. Mix together 300g oats with 150g very soft butter and 100g honey.
2. Press half the mixture into a square cake tin (which you’ve lined roughly with greaseproof).
3. Crumble over a handful of frozen raspberries and then cover with the over half of the oat mix.
4. Bake for 20-25 mins at 180 degrees.
5. When it’s cool-ish top with about 150g of thick Greek yoghurt (I used 0% fat) with a tsp. of icing sugar stirred through it.

This is a commissioned blog post, full of things I fully support and think.

* I may have made up polymonoglockenspieldioxide...