Toddler Nutrition: Feeding Your Child for Optimum Health

The hardest thing about nutrition is to actually do what you know you should do. We all know that a diet of whole, unprocessed foods is best, and that in order to avoid sugar, excess salt and nasty chemicals, cooking at home with fresh ingredients is preferable.

But knowing and doing are two really different things, as I am aware from my several evenings last week of watching videos on the evils of sugar consumption while stuffing my face with oatmeal cookies… though at least they were made at home!

Over a year ago, when Maya started being ready for solid foods, I first took a close look at how and what we were eating, and became far more interested in tracking nutritional controversies and monitoring what we bought and ate. It occurred to me then that while our pediatrician had said she was now ready to “eat whatever the family is eating,” our family meals were not healthy enough to be a strong foundation for the well-being of a person who weighed only 20 pounds or so.

I thought we could do better than our haphazard ways. For her diet anyway, and insofar as what we ate while we were home, I decided I wanted to close the considerable gap between what I knew versus what we did about nutrition, and to deal with at least some of the environmental health issues related to chemicals in food.

We let our concerns about Maya lead the way, in other words, which has meant that our whole approach to food has gotten better. Like anything about “greening” our choices or becoming more intentional about consumption, the changes we made were small, gradual and happened over time.

While each one may have caused some difficulty at first when we were figuring out what to do, they eventually became habit. It turned out that only four types of changes were needed to remake our approach, and that now it’s easier than I would have thought to just say no to parts of our diet that were less healthy.

Food expenses are now a much larger percentage of our family budget. But food costs as a percentage of household costs have dropped considerably since the 1960s, and, as a nation, the quality of our food supply has actually been degraded as chemicals and fillers have been subbed in for actual food. If we all were willing to spend a little more on simple, real food, the market would doubtless shift again.

Eating this way also tastes way better. These days, if we do skimp and eat something that is cheaper, processed or junky, both my husband and I can taste and feel the difference, immediately. For my husband in particular, who used to eat nearly every lunch at McDonalds, the dramatic differences our improved diet has worked in our sense of taste has been a shock (and is a bit of a pain while traveling!).

Below, I’ll describe our 4 categories of major changes and how and why we made them.

1) Going organic, and then eventually grass-fed, pasture-raised for dairy and meat:

We started by being much more careful about buying organic versions of whatever Maya would eat, and eventually, after some reading about the nutritional, contamination and sustainability advantages, have switched almost entirely to grass-fed, pasture-raised meat and dairy foods.

Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP s...

First, choosing organic foods is important because the chemicals in pesticides show up in foods, albeit in small amounts. These chemicals have been linked to birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time, according to the EPA, which notes that some pesticides also pose unique health risks to children. Even trace amounts have no place in food for either pregnant women or for small children, who need every nutrient and whose bodies are still developing. In addition, organic foods are free of antibiotics, growth hormones, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), unless contamination occurs by GMO crops.

We’re fairly strict about this one: when fruit or vegetables are not available in an organic form, we skip it and eat ones that are. In particular, fruits that are porous or have no skin to peel, like apples, grapes, berries or tomatoes, or things that grow on or near the ground, like potatoes and peanuts, tend to have higher levels of pesticides in them. We also buy organic for the processed versions of foods, such as raisins, hummus, peanut butter and tomato sauce.

Organic is certainly more expensive. If you are concerned about costs, you could buy organic food for just the pregnant women and children in your family, or you could target the organic foods you buy by looking at the helpful lists from the Environmental Working Group that indicate which foods have more or less pesticide residues — the Dirty Dozen or Clean Fifteen. In addition, farmer’s markets offer some well-priced organic or near-organic (no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers) foods, and Community Supported Agriculture shares (CSAs) can offer savings on seasonal deliveries (though not all CSA farms are organic or near-organic; you can find a local one here).

Grass-fed dairy and proteins are higher in trace minerals, vitamins and nourishing essential fats, because the animals are living how they are designed to live by nature. Chickens that eat grubs and scratch in pasture, out in the sunshine, produce more nutritious eggs. And cows, which are ruminants meant to eat grass, do far better and require far fewer antibiotics or other drugs when on field.

In many modern farms, including for chickens and pigs, animals never venture outside, instead spending their lives in small metal cages or pens. And “free range” labels are misleading — most chickens that are supposedly in this category never see the light of day.

Our industrial food system actually sells us an egg, most of the time, that is worth less, nutritionally, than an egg should be. Trace minerals and vitamins are missing (lower vitamin D from a lack of sunshine, for example, or vitamin E) — as well as healthy, unsaturated fats, and thus we would need to eat more to get less.

Nutritionally impoverished food is so because of inhumane, factory farm conditions that are abusive to animals. Garbage in, garbage out. Given these connections, and what we know about what it does to us through our food, consumers should really be demanding better quality protein far more of the time.

On the nutritional side for children, and especially young children, its critical to know that the brain — and all of the connections in the brain — are actually made of fats, and so having high quality fats in the diet is essential to healthy development. As the LiveStrong Website notes:

Each neuron [in the brain] has an axon and a dendrite, which help send and receive information throughout the body. The speed at which the information can be sent is largely impacted by myelin. Myelin is a thick substance made of fat that insulates the neuron’s axons and dendrites. This insulation of the nerve fibers allows information to be sent and received by the brain at a much faster rate. Myelination, or the formation of myelin, begins at birth and continues rapidly throughout the first two years of life.

For Maya, we use grass-fed butter liberally, and organic coconut or peanut oil for cooking. We also give her whole milk, and will continue to long after the dietary recommendations are to switch to skim (myelin develops throughout childhood). And for other essential fats, we feed her (organic) avocados and coconut milk weekly.

As this would suggest, we generally ensure that at home, we use grass-fed, pasture-raised milk, meats, eggs, and butter, as well as cheese when we can find it. These items are harder to find, but again, the taste is so delicious that it become its own motivation.

We buy meats and eggs from a supplier at our local farmer’s market, or look for ratings of 4 or higher at Whole Foods for meat (which is not always easy to find). We can get grassfed eggs, butter and milk at the local co-op (Natural by Nature is one brand for butter and milk; we also like the less-homogenized milk sold in deposit glass containers from Trickling Springs Creamery, which does have an organic option). For cheese, if you look closely, Whole Foods sells some very affordable grass-fed cheeses in the dairy case.

2) Minimizing processed foods:

I used to like Trader Joe’s more than anybody. But I’ve stopped going, because I realized that much of what I bought was convenience foods, much of which was full of preservatives and chemical additives. I’ve become a label hound, and basically will not give Maya anything with stabilizers, “gums”  and fillers (like guar gum, carrageenan, or the like), or sulfites or other preservatives.

In fact, I just put down the box if there is anything at all in it but simply described real food. As a consequence, the only pre-made food Maya eats with any regularity are the pot-pies from the organic farmer’s market stall, which are made with organic, real ingredients and nothing else.

Sugar

3) Minimizing sugars:

Kids love sugar, and Maya’s no exception. In the presence of sugar, she becomes all misty and rhapsodic, and will even bring up the topic unprompted. But the evidence is strong and growing that we’ve all been lied to, more or less, about sugar. A calorie, it now appears, may not just be a calorie. In fact, a calorie of sugar, rather than merely making us fat if we don’t burn it off, may actually do other kinds of harm in the body. And predictably, high fructose corn syrup is a health disaster.

Sugar belongs on our list of highly processed, refined and nutrient-deprived foods. At a minimum, it takes up room where real food should be. At worst, it does far more harm, including disruptions in brain processing and insulin production that derails health, leading a recent 60 Minutes investigation to ask whether it’s “toxic.” In the face of such suggestive evidence, I would propose, as I usually do, a more precautionary approach.

We do not give Maya sugar on any regular basis. She’s had ice cream or other treats perhaps 5 times in her short life. Her “cookies” have 2 grams of sugar only, and are used sparingly as snacks. I have been known to quietly forget to give her birthday cake at a party when it didn’t seem she would notice or care. I also have looked for alternatives to sugary beginnings for breakfast (20-odd other ideas for toddler breakfasts are here).

We skip sweetened yogurt (we make our own with plain yogurt and unsweetened berry jam); do not do fruit roll-ups or gummy “fruit snacks” or breakfast cereal; and generally endeavor to avoid any kind of pastry, white bread, or refined flour products. (Processed flour, without germ in it, basically converts to sugar when eaten.) We use organic brown rice cakes, oat-based crackers, nuts or fruit instead as snacks.

Unless she’s sick and needs a hit of vitamin C, we also do not generally give her juice, which is very high in sugar and can create a sugar craving. (Needless to say, soda and fruit drinks are completely off the list.)

We do sometimes allow coconut water on very hot days. And Maya does eat some wholegrain bread and occasionally has cous-cous or ravioli (wholewheat when we can find it). But I am skeptical of wheat generally, and look for other whole grains to use in our foods, like brown rice, quinoa or millet. I also will sub in rice flour in place of wheat flour in recipes on an experimental basis.

In general, monitoring sugar around children makes me feel Grinchy. Although I acknowledge that I am really out on a limb here, I really do wish that we would stop framing key events around sugar. Birthday parties, ice cream socials, etc., all put sugar consumption at the center of fun, and kids get the message loud and clear. As it turns out, for children, there is no level of sweet that is too much, and the marketers and candy makers know it. (In fact, when I taste how incredibly super-sweet they’ve made classic candies like M&Ms these days, it makes my teeth hurt.)

The party circuit cake-thing might even be acceptable if it was in fact a rare and special moment to eat sugar. But rather than being saved for a special occasion, today kids eat sugar all the time. As someone who has spent her adult life listening for the siren call of my next sugar fix, I think we will have a lot of work to do to wean the next generation off its highly addicting properties if it actually turns out that the nutritional studies now being done on the serious health risks of sugar are right.

A single week's fruits and vegetables from com...4) Consuming a wide variety of legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds:

Maya eats a small amount of protein at meals, and we try, sometimes repeatedly, to ensure that the real emphasis is on vegetables, fruits and beans.

We’ve had success with: corn, peas, broccoli, avocado, kale, spinach, mangoes, pears, apples, plums, peaches, apricots, berries of all kinds, melons, cherries, grapes, bananas (duh), figs, oranges, kiwi, onion, celery, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, asparagus, sweet pepper, squash, rhubarb (ok, with a little sugar), carrots and beets. I provide this list to show that there are actually a huge number of options in terms of texture, flavor and preparations to try.

While Maya won’t touch some of these things some of the time, she’s been known to eat all of them at one time or another, sometimes smothered in sauce or cheese. (Some thoughts about how to cook these things to appeal to a toddler are here.) When in doubt, making a chicken soup with lots of vegetables is a no-miss proposition.

Dried fruits (organic, unsulphured) are also a hit, including raisins (soften by cooking, as these are a choking hazard), dates, prunes, apricots, etc. Nuts and seeds are also big — we add cashews or almonds to rice, or flax seeds and chia seeds to oatmeal and baked goods (oats, incidentally, are very heart-healthy and have a different and less irritating kind of gluten than wheat).

I am cautious about soy beans, which have weak phytoestrogens in them, and researchers are really uncertain of their effects or safety. We do serve fermented soy, like soy sauce, or tofu (but definitely buy organic, as most soy is GMO). I do like most beans, and buy Eden brand, which uses a safer type of BPA-free lining in its cans. We also like lentils, including toor dal (yellow) and moong dal (green), which are terrific for health and as a medium for cooking vegetables.

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Eating out remains a challenge with these guidelines. Sometimes, I find a salad with avocado, chicken and vegetables, and let Maya pick at that. Ethiopian cuisine, which is common where I live, is also a good option.

There is also a premium on home-cooked food, which is demanding in terms of time. I try to involve Maya when I can, because it’s fun and studies show that kids involved in cooking have better diets.

I also often pack our food from home: at the pool last week, in lieu of ice cream or other poolside fare, Maya and a friend happily munched on cukes and rice cakes, with grapes on the side. Sometimes, we give kids sugar because it’s automatic and easy for us, or even because, really, it’s cuter. (After all, no one ever posts pics on Facebook of their kid eating a cucumber. Awww….)

And I notice that when I slip up and allow her to have sugar, Maya becomes hyperactive and has more difficulty sitting still or falling asleep, so on that one at least, it’s easy to see when things head south.

As I have a sample size of one, I can’t tell you whether Maya’s diet has made a difference in her health or behavior. In general, she’s a happy, calm, focused and healthy little girl. Given the relationship between inputs and outputs, it seems reasonable to think that a generally healthy diet might have something to do with her sunny, easy-going ways. Then again, we might just be lucky and my persnickety gene has skipped a generation.

Overall, though this was far from intentional, the up-shot is that Maya eats a low-glycemic diet, more or less. It just so happens that this has been shown by a study published just last week to be the diet most protective against obesity (among a test of diets that included the Atkins approach, and the traditional low-fat, high-carb diet). I do tentatively feel that if more kids ate this way, we’d likely have far fewer health-related issues with kids, and I’ll post a book review next that bears me out.

I am particular in saying that Maya eats a low-glycemic diet because I am still in thrall to the sugar fairy and am having a hard time kicking that habit when I am away from home or at work. While I don’t eat a lot of sugar by some standards, and long ago stopped drinking sodas, I have to have a little sumpin’, now and then. When you add that to the delicious, nourishing full-fat dairy foods and butter we use at home, it’s not exactly a combo that will make you skinny. A truly low-glycemic diet is the obvious next stop for all of us.

Even today, though, I do eat better, much of the time, thanks in large part to our girl, and how much she made us think about our food.

More resources:

Below are some helpful and interesting links to studies on the impacts of a low-glycemic diet, taken from this Children’s Hospital Website, which notes that they “show different ways that hunger, wellbeing, physical and mental performance are related to low-glycemic diets.”

  1. Effects of dietary composition on energy expenditure during weight-loss maintenance (newly published study)
  2. Breakfast glycemic index and cognitive function in adolescent school children.
  3. Glycemic index and glycemic load of breakfast predict cognitive function and mood in school children: a randomised controlled trial.
  4. The glycemic potency of breakfast and cognitive function in school children. Long-term effects of provided low- and high-glycemic load low energy diets on mood and cognition.
  5. Effects of differences in postprandial glycemia on cognitive functions in healthy middle-aged subjects.
  6. The influence of the glycemic load of breakfast on the behavior of children in school.
  7. A low glycemic index breakfast cereal preferentially prevents children’s cognitive performance from declining throughout the morning.
  8. Better cognitive performance following a low-glycemic-index compared with a high-glycemic-index carbohydrate meal in adults with type 2 diabetes.
  9. Carbohydrate-induced memory impairment in adults with type 2 diabetes.
  10. The delivery rate of dietary carbohydrates affects cognitive performance in both rats and humans.

Lemon-Garlic-Herb Roast Chicken

The really nice people that sell the grass-fed organic meat we pick up for a small fortune most weeks at the farmer’s market evidently don’t have the technology to break down a chicken.

So we end up with a whole chicken a lot more often than I have menus that would, er, require a whole chicken. And while I once helped slaughter chickens on a real farm in South Dakota (which is a story for another day), I don’t myself feeling like hacking away until it ends up in pieces, most days.

So I’ve played around a little bit with James McNair’s roast chicken recipe, which is the best one I’ve found. Below is an adaptation with some variations on a theme. No matter how you cut it, lemon, garlic, butter and herbs slathered all over a hunk of chicken is really a no-miss proposition.

Ingredients:

Whole chicken (we like organic, pasture-raised; here’s why)

Fresh herbs: basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, tarragon or whatever compatible mix you have, chopped finely

3 Tbls (grass-fed organic) butter

3 cloves (organic) garlic, chopped fine

1 lemon (organic is best, since you will stick the whole thing in the chicken); halved, juiced and partially zested

Salt and pepper

3 cups (organic) chicken stock or water

3 good-sized (organic) potatoes, cubed

2-3 (organic) carrots, sliced in rounds

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Mix the garlic, zest, salt, lemon juice, pepper and herbs into the butter and put the chicken in a roasting pan.

Decide whether you will take the high road or low road — here are your choices, in that order:

1) Get all up in it by following Mr. McNair’s directions to carefully use your fingers to slip the buttery mixture between the skin and meat of the chicken. This is wonderful when you have the time and inclination to bother, as it seals in the flavors. But it is time-consuming and brings you into very close and messy contact with the bird.

2) Take the easy road by melting the butter mixture a bit in the microwave and pour over the chicken, spreading it around a bit. I’ll admit this is what I do most days and it turns out pretty tasty.

Stick the lemon and any additional fresh herbs you’d like into the cavity. Add the water or stock to the pan and throw in the carrots and potatoes. Put the chicken in the oven for 15 minutes.

Lower the heat to 350 degrees and cook for an additional hour and a half, or until done. Mr. McNair roasts it uncovered, basting every 15 minutes. As I always want to hang out with Maya instead of basting something, I cover it instead and just leave it more or less undisturbed until done. (If you do leave it uncovered, be sure the potatoes and carrots are submerged in liquid or they will dry out.)

Let it rest for ten minutes or so after removing from the oven. Enjoy with brown rice if you wish.

Salmon Burgers with Basil and Orange

It’s summer, and the real question most evenings is what easy, healthy meal I can throw together right after work that we can pack up for a short evening excursion to the pool.

These simple, Omega-3 rich salmon burgers certainly fit the bill. They take only 5 minutes to mix and another 10 at most to cook, and can be packed up on top of some fresh spinach and diced tomatoes and eaten with a fork, or thrown unceremoniously into a sliced wholegrain bun with a smear of mayo or tartar sauce.

I do pan-fry them, because they would be a little delicate to grill unless you used a (stainless steel) grill pan. Once they cook a little, they tend to hold together decently well.

As a bonus, Maya loves these, and it’s not easy to get a toddler to eat fish!

Ingredients:

1 can (wild-caught) salmon (the BPA-free brands are: Oregon’s Choice, Wild Planet, Vital Choice and Eco-fish)

2 (organic, pastured) eggs

1 Tbl (organic) dijon mustard

6 Tbls (organic) Panko bread crumbs (these do exist; I found them in the organic specialty section at Whole Foods)

1 (organic) orange, sliced in half and one-half juiced

2 Tbls chopped fresh (organic) basil

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Balsamic vinegar for finishing

Directions:

Empty the can of salmon into a bowl and pick out the small bones. Add mustard, basil, orange juice, bread crumbs, and salt and pepper. Let the mixture sit while you warm the pan with a generous amount of olive oil.

Form into patties and fry in the oil, turning infrequently. Makes about 8 patties.

Serve over bed of greens, such as fresh spinach, topped with a squeeze of the other side of the orange, and a dribble of balsamic vinegar, with a side of (organic) tartar sauce, or on a bun.

20 Healthy, Easy Toddler & Adult Breakfasts (That Are Not Cheerios)

This is a picture of Yogurt Burst Cheerios tha...

Unlike most of America (if we are to believe the staggering number of options in the grocery store), I’m not a big cereal person. It never has the get-up-and-go I actually need in the morning to jump-start my confrontation with living.

I’ll do a post later on my views on toddler nutrition, but in the meantime, suffice it to say, I’m somewhat skeptical about wheat, and in particular, about highly refined wheat products. (See, for example, this exploration by a critic of The China Study of the raw data from counties in China on wheat consumption and its relationship to obesity, heart disease and a host of other ills.) As a fascinating side-note: people who eat a lot of flour are considered, in my husband’s native India, to be just a little bit dumber than other people, which I find interesting, if not at all scientific.

The “Nourishing Traditions” folks are also critical of seeds and grains as hard to digest due to the phytic acid (and of expeller-pressed grains as particularly bad), and point out that people who are healthier around the world generally soak their grains before cooking them. So while I’m not quite ready to join the anti-gluten crowd, I do look for ways to keep things wholegrain, and try to avoid the pancake/waffle/breakfast strudel temptation. I do love the chia seed pudding below, but it soaks all night in milk…

(Distracting side-note: While I appreciate their back-to-basics approach to whole and farm-fresh foods, I also feel compelled to say in my persnickety way that I do not agree with everything about the dietary recommendations of the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF). For example, I do not think raw milk should be given to children, because it is risks their health and even their lives — in addition to e coli, bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis are also a threat, as you can read from a milk producer’s comments here to a WAPF blogger’s post full of dangerously poor advice on this particular question. For those interested in this debate, a more serious and balanced discussion of the health and political issues with raw milk is here.)

But back to breakfast. On its own, the refined sugar in most cereals is worth avoiding, especially in cereals marketed to children. And just to ensure we’re all a bit underwhelmed by the latest ad campaign for Fruity-Loop Cinnamon Crunchios, Marion Nestle’s food tome, What to Eat, has a long chapter on the suspect politics behind the cereal aisle and the fakey marketing claims of heart-healthiness stamped on virtually every box. So I think it’s important to think beyond the box for breakfast, and hopefully in the direction of nourishing, low-sugar, healthy and nutrient-rich meals.

I try to make a warm breakfast most mornings, if time allows. Cooking is a pleasant way to get over the fact that Maya has rousted me from bed far earlier than seems humanly possible, and she often takes great pleasure in climbing up on a chair and playing at sous chef.

Eggs, in particular, are a favorite, as they are healthy, full of vitamins and minerals, and a complete food. I do think it’s important to cook them thoroughly, as rates for salmonella poisoning are too high and many farm conditions for eggs are atrocious. We like organic, pastured eggs from small farms for this reason, and because they are also higher in vitamins and minerals from the chicken’s more natural diet of grubs and seeds. (Just a “free range” label is misleading; it often means that the chicken never went outside.) As you’ll see from the suggestions below, there’s a reason why Maya’s favorite things to make in her own small wooden kitchen are eggs!

Below are more than 20 half-decent ideas for a fairly easy and delicious breakfast, with a bonus: most, if not all, would appeal to adults, and also are good candidates for a busy toddler’s begrudging consideration:

  1. Simple french toast, with dense wholegrain, good quality bread. To pasture-raised organic eggs, I add whole, grass-fed organic milk, vanilla and cinnamon, soak the bread and cook it in organic, grass-fed butter, which provides plenty of flavor even without maple syrup or other sugars; if you need something sweet on top, pan roasting fresh orange slices for half a minute can do the trick, and fresh berries are also delicious in this role;
  2. An even easier variation on the above is an Egg-in-the-Hole: pinch a hole in the bread, fry the bread in some butter, and drop an egg into the open space;
  3. Hard-boiled eggs on buttered wholegrain toast (with specifics as above in 1); 7-8 minutes of boiling will cook eggs thoroughly; add pepper and a touch of salt;
  4. Egg scrambles, which are a great way to bring veggies to the breakfast menu. Just add butter to the pan, and cook the vegetables until the moisture is mostly gone. Favorite combinations include: 1) feta, tomato, spinach; 2) peppers, cheddar and green onion; 3) caramelized onion and swiss; 4) cauliflower with a touch of mild curry and cilantro.
  5. Frittatas, like this one with cauliflower, spinach and asparagus (boiled or steamed potatoes, peas, or julienned zucchini, are also good options; sausage can be added as well);
  6. Fritters: I don’t used canned veggies, so I take 1/2 cup of frozen vegetables (like corn and peas, and cook in water in the microwave for 2 minutes in a small glass bowl, then drain). Mix the vegetables with an egg, pinch of salt and about a tablespoon of flour and cook in melted butter or oil (I use medium-heat organic coconut oil) to make fritters. Variations to try: add grated carrot, grated coconut, fresh mild herbs like basil, mint, or cilantro. Serve with plain yogurt for dipping.
  7. Egg salad: Everyone has their own recipe, I’m sure. I use hard-boiled eggs, a small dice of (organic) apples, onions and celery, with a dollop of (organic) mayonnaise, a dash of salt, pepper and cumin, and chopped slivered almonds, and serve on buttered toast;
  8. Channeling the wonderful Julia Child, a one or two-egg omelet — when I’m feeling bold, I add a streak of pesto, a smear of (organic) ricotta cheese, and diced tomatoes just before attempting to fold it neatly in half like our hero;
  9. Easy herb popovers, which I serve with smoked (wild-caught) salmon or scrambled eggs with spinach (these do use flour, but are mostly eggs, and are so worth it anyway);
  10. Fried slabs of polenta with melted cheese and fried eggs (to avoid the plastic packaging of ready-made, here’s a dead-easy way to make your own rosemary polenta);
  11. Oatmeal (here are directions for soaking it overnight to make it super-nourishing); I add flaked, unsulphured organic coconut; organic flax and chia seeds, whole milk for cooking and on top, unsulphured, organic raisins or other dried fruit, cinnamon and a small amount of blackstrap molasses, which is high in iron, and then add fresh berries when cooked (this sounds like a lot of ingredients to have on hand, but Maya likes this so much that I just buy the stuff and keep it together in the cupboard); I’ll note that oatmeal is also considered a very supportive food for pregnant and nursing moms, and assists with lactation, as do coconut and flax;
  12. Coconut Raisin-Nut Cous-Cous, as I describe here (in addition to what’s in the recipe at the link, I’ll note that walnuts, which can be chopped small, are high in Omega 3s);
  13. Brown rice pudding: in a similar turn, just take last night’s cooked brown (organic) rice, cook with milk at a level that almost submerges the rice, add cinnamon, raisins, grated coconut, a touch of vanilla and cashews, and boil gently until soft;
  14. Brown rice, coconut and green lentils, cooked with coconut milk: (Soak the rice for as long as you can — an hour is best if you have the time, but even 20 minutes is better than nothing.) Add 2 cups rice and 1 cup split green lentils (also called moong dal) to the (stainless steel) rice cooker, with 6 1/2 cups water and 1 can of (BPA-free Native Forest brand organic) coconut milk. Cook as normal. Variations: add grated coconut, grated carrots, fresh or frozen peas, cinnamon or grated nutmeg.
  15. Thick wholegrain toast spread with ricotta and sliced dried or fresh figs (if using dried, moisten first and microwave for 15 seconds before slicing), warmed slightly in the toaster or regular oven, or toast with sliced bananas and cashew or peanut butter;
  16. Grilled cheese sandwich (it had to be in here somewhere!): I add black bean hummus spread and thin slices of tomatoes to the sandwich, and have been known to slip in fancy gruyere or other nice cheeses that Maya will only eat melted;
  17. Sweet potatoes, cooked in the microwave, contents scooped out and mashed with cashew or peanut butter and a little milk until smooth and creamy;
  18. Wholewheat quesadillas: with roasted red peppers and cheddar; or mushrooms and swiss cheese, with plain yogurt for dipping;
  19. Simple huevos rancheros: chop tomatoes and garlic and saute, add can of (BPA-free Eden brand organic) black beans, serve with scrambled or fried eggs,  avocado slices and warmed tortillas, salsa or diced tomatoes optional;
  20. A make-ahead option: Wholewheat or rice flour carrot, banana, pumpkin or zucchini bread or muffins with cream cheese or ricotta cheese (I’ll add raisins, flax seeds and nuts to anything);
  21. A bonus no-cook, make-ahead option: Chia seed pudding: combine 2/3 cups (organic) chia seeds, 2 cups whole organic milk, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, a touch of sugar and a Tbl of shredded coconut (optional) and leave overnight in the refrigerator for a delicious, omega-3 rich pudding. Serve with fresh blackberries if you have ’em. (Note: chia seeds, due to uncertainty about their properties, are not recommended for pregnant and nursing women, or people with high triglycerides);
  22. A bonus no-cook option for really hot days: fruit salad with mint and grated coconut — just use whatever fruit is in the house, and serve it up with plain yogurt for dipping or drop it all into a (glass) blender for a smoothie. To avoid having to use ice and diluting it, try frozen (organic) fruit instead. When they’re not looking, you can even sneak in some avocado and get away with it, most days.

Update:

Here’s three more we like recently that are super-fast for on-the-go mornings:

  1. Raisins and seeds: Maya loves raisins (I use unsulphured organic ones given the high levels of pesticides on grapes), mixed with organic chopped nuts, pumpkin seeds and other squirrely seeds from the bulk foods aisle. I’ll also throw in some grated coconut.
  2. Low-sugar flavored yogurt with granola, ’nuff said.
  3. Rice or spelt cakes with peanut/almond/cashew butter, raisins optional. (I’m using more rice alternatives given the issues with arsenic in rice, opt for brown organic rice cakes, which have less arsenic, with minimal or no additives.)

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If you like this post, you may want to check out an old, still-functioning grist mill my parents discovered for freshly milled flour, grits, polenta and oats, which are amazing (though not organic). They can be mail-ordered by the pound unless you happen to live near Oak Ridge, NC, in which case you should really just go pick up some of these tasty grits.

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I hope this adds a few ideas to your early-morning arsenal!

Coconut Couscous with Raisins and Nuts (Breakfast or Dinner)

Making very simple food more nourishing is a wonderful trick, when you can figure it out. This is an incredibly easy way to upgrade couscous into something entirely better.

I give it to Maya for breakfast with milk on top, as in the picture, or sometimes serve it under a savory dish from the tagine, like this one. The recipe makes enough you can even do both, over a couple of days. We had this couscous under a fairly basic beef stew from the tagine tonight, and it added the creamy richness the stew needed as a backnote.

For an easy peasy and warmly comforting breakfast, this can’t be beat. Though not pictured, fresh berries are also nice on top.

Ingredients:

2 cups Wholewheat (organic) couscous

1/2 cup Shredded (organic, un-sulphured) coconut

1 (organic) can of coconut milk (Note: Native Forest brand is supposed to be BPA-free; though I’ve asked, I have still not gotten confirmation from them about what they use to line the cans instead and will update if/when I do)

1/2 cup (organic, un-sulphured) raisins; you could also use currents, cranberries or other dried fruits, like diced apricots

1/2 cup (organic) unsalted nuts — cashews are nice, as are slivered almonds

Generous sprinkle of cinnamon

1/2 tsp vanilla extract, or even, better, fresh scrapings from a vanilla bean

Optional: a small amount of sweetener (you can also wait to add it at the end to your breakfast dish if you’d like to use the couscous as a base for a more savory meal later) — I used maple syrup, but honey, molasses or sugar would work fine

Directions:

Heat the coconut milk in a pot, plus enough water to make the can come up to an even 2 cups of liquid (conversion reminder: 8 ounces to a cup).

Add cinnamon and vanilla, then dried fruit and nuts. When almost boiling, take off the heat, stir in 2 cups couscous and cover.

Fluff with a fork and serve with milk for a delicious, easy breakfast!

A Perfect Pasta Salad: Basil-Feta-Orzo-Spinach Summer Salad

This is a family recipe, so much so that its origins are lost in the mists of time. I think I can claim having discovered it first, but I wouldn’t want to wager (much) on that. Regardless, it’s now for me what summer tastes like.

This salad is a terrific setting for basil from the back garden, because it’s almost like a deconstructed pesto. It’s wonderful with chicken, and is also a great-tasting, unfussy dish for a party or barbeque.

Here’s what you need to know:

  1. This is as easy as it gets
  2. It’s really, truly, even oddly delicious
  3. It’s even better cold

Ingredients:

2 cups (organic) spinach, ripped into pieces and tough stems removed

1 generous handful (organic) fresh basil, torn to smallish pieces by hand

1 good-sized block of decent (organic) feta cheese, cubed

3 Tbls pignoli (pine) nuts (my sister toasts them; I prefer not to)

1/2 box (organic) orzo pasta

Generous amount decent (organic) olive oil

Fresh-ground black pepper

Optional variations: halved (organic) cherry tomatoes, squeeze of fresh (organic) lemon juice

Directions:

Put the pasta water on with a good dash of olive oil and salt and set to a boil.

Prep the first four ingredients in a bowl large enough to fit both them and the cooked pasta. Cook the pasta as directed and drain. While still hot, add to the bowl.

After several minutes of letting the ingredients warm up and the spinach and basil begin to wilt, toss the pasta with the ingredients and add olive oil and fresh pepper to taste. Enjoy warm or cold.

Toddler-Friendly Vegetable Chicken “Magic” Soup

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Like the wonderful children’s book, Stone Soup, this recipe — or rather, technique (such as it is) — makes do with whatever you may have on hand. I’ve probably made it at least once a month since Maya was six months old, because, like magic, veggies disappear!

It also works for babies, pureed in a blender, for a very healthy and fresh baby food.

The basic technique is incredibly simple — boil a whole chicken until done to make a simple broth, sauté vegetables and spices, chop up the chicken and combine. Cook a while, then add fresh lemon and herbs just before serving.

Sometimes when I’ve made it, it turns out better than others, based on the particular vegetables and flavor combinations. Maya doesn’t really seem to notice, either way. She likes the nourishing, mild broth and mix of vegetables softened in the soup.

But if you’re planning to serve it as a meal for everyone, certainly pay attention to the mixture of flavors, and add more salt, pepper and lemon at the table. My husband adds harissa as well, for heat.

It will make a good week of lunches. And it freezes well, so having a good-sized batch is useful. I use stainless steel ice cube trays, the old-fashioned kind.

In addition, you can save the bones and trimmings, as well as any vegetable parings, in a freezer bag for making stock. An excellent set of tips for that is here. The cost savings, in comparison to buying organic vegetable and chicken stock, are considerable.

My latest batch included a lot of fennel, as well as fennel tops at the end. I do not recommend this, as it ended up too fennel-rific. But a smaller amount (i.e., less than a whole large bulb), should be fine.

It’s delicious over brown rice or pasta. By day three, I also usually add cheese on top, to keep Maya’s interest. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

One whole young (organic, pasture-raised) chicken

(organic) Butter or oil

1 large (organic) Onion (white or yellow)

Garlic — 3-4 cloves

2 (organic) Lemons

Dried herbs: I like Rosemary, Basil, Thyme, Oregano, and Savory, 1 Tbl or so of each

Salt and Pepper (minimal if serving to children)

Fresh Herbs: Cilantro, Parsley, Carrot Greens

Vegetables can include: (organic) Peas, Carrots, Broccoli, Spinach, Chard or Kale (de-spined and chopped), Fennel, Celery, Green Beans, Summer Squash, Zucchini, Tomatoes, Parsnips, even Jerusalem Artichoke

Starch and/or Legumes can include: (Eden Organic or another BPA-free brand, if using canned, drained and rinsed) White or Red beans or Chickpeas, (organic) Potatoes, Corn (including frozen)

Directions:

Using a large pot, cover the chicken in (filtered) water and bring to a boil on the stove over medium heat. Simmer for 45 minutes to one hour.

While that is cooking, rough-chop the vegetables as needed.  Saute onions and garlic in the butter or oil in a large pot (this can be done in a series if you only have one pot large enough). Add the dried herbs, salt and pepper, and vegetables and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have started to lose moisture. Then add the beans, potatoes or corn and stir over heat for 10-15 minutes. If using potatoes, cook until done. Let rest until the chicken is ready. (If adding spinach, wait to add that with the fresh herbs, close to the end, as directed below.)

When the chicken is thoroughly cooked and almost falling off the bone, lift it out of the liquid carefully onto a plate and let it cool for a few minutes. Take the meat off the bones, using your hands as needed, and rough chop (in smaller pieces if you plan to freeze it). It may be a bit stringy, so keep an eye on making it small enough for a toddler to grapple with. Scoop any chicken residues out of the broth.

Add the vegetable mixture, chicken and broth together and heat through. Add in generous amounts of fresh lemon juice, to taste, and fresh herbs (and any spinach). Stir until wilted, and serve, with lemon wedges if desired.

Adopted with modifications from “Baby Love: Healthy, Easy, Delicious Meals for Your Baby and Toddler,” by Norah O’Donnell and Chef Geoff Tracy.

This image shows a whole and a cut lemon.

Easy Herb Popovers

This is one of my few go-to recipes. I make these deliciously unctuous popovers probably once a week (enough so that my husband’s really over them!). But I like it because Maya helps to mix the batter, and then we have 25 minutes to hang out, or for me to get dressed, before breakfast is ready.

If we only have 3 eggs in the house, it’s still a good breakfast for 3 adults plus a child, and they are terrific with smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, or goat cheese. I add whatever fresh herbs we have handy — chives, parsley, cilantro and tarragon all work well — a mix of these or others is also tasty.

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3/4 cup (organic) all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon celery salt

3 large (organic, pastured) eggs (2 will do in a pinch)

1 cup whole (organic, grassfed) milk (skim or 2 percent milk will not work)

1 Tbl (organic, grassfed) butter

2-3 Tbls mixed chopped fresh herbs

Butter a 12-cup muffin tin (avoid non-stick if you can). Sift flour and celery salt into bowl, add the eggs, milk, butter and beat until mixed well. Stir in herbs and pour into the muffin tin (I usually need a spoon to divide the batter evenly when done). Place in COLD oven, and set the temperature for 425F and bake for 26 minutes without opening the oven door.

Turn on the oven light and watch them puff up! They should be done after 26 minutes — and will continue to cook in the tin after you take them out. Do not overcook, as they will get chewy and tough.

Modified from “The Book of Breakfasts and Brunches,” by Kerenza Harries. 

Yummy Veggies for Toddlers 10 Easy Ways

Yup, I said yummy and vegetables. For toddlers.

And I meant it. There’s a myth that children don’t like vegetables and beans. My husband, who’s Indian, finds this amusing: in India, both children and adults eat vegetables and lentils daily.

Maya, luckily for us, most days scarfs up vegetables, and we try to serve a rainbow of them to her over the course of a week. Color in plants is code for the minerals and vitamins inside, so variety is important. I thought this chart from the Greene Hill Coop was fascinating:

Persistence is key. When she refuses something, we basically ignore her little prima donna moment and serve whatever offended to her the next time as though that moment o’ pickiness never happened.

I’m also not a big fan of recent trendiness around disguising vegetables in other foods, as I really want to build Maya’s sense that food is connected to color, texture, etc., and that a variety of these is what we should eat. (But ask me in 3 years whether I’ve managed to stick to my guns on that one! If I had a really difficult kid, I’d do whatever it took to create a healthy relationship with food, including being sneaky. I know I’m not really in charge here.)

Maya has enough difficulty with chewing still that vegetables need to be cooked, but I’m a working mom, and so the preparations have to be fast and easy. Here’s some ideas for super SIMPLE (organic) veggie prep that we’ve had success with:

1) Boiled-soft: Just boiling in water on the stove — works for beets, corn, carrots, potato and broccoli. Maya loves golden beets in particular, which are sweet and dreamy when cooked. I’ll fish the stuff out, add a pat of butter and a few shakes of pepper, cool, slice and serve.

One tip for peas: to keep them bright green and fresh-tasting, even if frozen, “shock” them in ice water when they are done cooking. Conveniently, this cools them down quickly as well for serving. They are delicious served with a little melted butter and thin strips of fresh mint.

2) Microwaved: I had a very good moment sometime a few months back when I realized that I could take frozen vegetables, put them in a glass container in water, and pop that in the microwave for 2 minutes and they would come out the right texture. We do this with peas, green beans, corn, broccoli and other frozen vegetables. (Two health notes: We try to avoid packages of frozen vegetables that have added salt, which is not easy to do, and we look for organic that is not labeled “made in China,” due to concerns over the validity of certification, which I’ll post on in the future.)

Microwaving also works well for sweet potatoes, which Maya loves with butter, or even dreamier, mixed up with peanut or cashew butter, which tastes like orange heaven. Plain potatoes are good as well, which we’ll mix with green onion, sour cream and other classic toppings.

3) Cooked in milk: Cauliflower boiled in whole (organic, grassfed) milk is a treat even for adults. Carrots work nicely too, as do turnips and fennel. Add a pat of butter and some pepper as you like.

These can be cooked together or alone — for extra deliciousness, put it in a blender when cooked, including the milk. It whips into a truly delicious puree, which we like with steak and tastes like it’s from a fancy-pants restaurant.

4) Roasted:  Red peppers are a big hit this way — we put on toast with goat cheese underneath, inside quesadillas with cheddar cheese, or on pasta.

To quick-roast peppers, slice them in half and de-seed, smooth on some oil and place cut side down on a baking sheet. Roast under the broiler until black, put in a bowl and cover with a plate to steam off the skin. Remove the skin. They will be soft, sweet and delicious.

Butternut squash is also great roasted. Just peel a squash and slice into chunks, toss with cinnamon, nutmeg, onions, raisins, apples and a touch of brown sugar, and roast for 45 minutes at 375 degrees.

And sweet potato fries are easy, with a touch of salt, rosemary and oil, cut into matchsticks and baked until soft. Green beans and asparagus are also both terrific tossed in a little salt, garlic and roasted. I’ll squeeze a lemon over them and call it a day.

5) Chopped into eggs: We find spinach, in particular, goes down well when chopped into scrambled eggs or an omelette. Peppers also work well, of course, and Maya will eat smoked salmon this way too (which is great for the Omega-3s — we use wild-caught, not farmed). We serve the eggs over rounds of fried polenta for extra interest, and add some cheese if she’s short on protein.

6) Cooked in “soup:” Saute onion and garlic with thyme, basil, oregano, salt and pepper, add whatever vegetables are in the fridge, rough chopped, and some (organic, low sodium) chicken or vegetable stock and simmer. Voila, it’s kid-friendly veg soup. For creaminess, you can throw in some milk or cream as well.

7) Stir-fried: Carrots, onions, mushrooms, broccoli, snap peas and others are all classic stir-fry options. We use a little soy sauce, add grated ginger and garlic, tofu, and serve over brown rice or noodles. Yum.

Kale and chard also fry up well, into chip-like flakes if you use enough oil. Just wash, carve out the spines, sprinkle with a tiny bit of salt and a good amount of brown mustard seeds, and fry in generous amounts of grassfed, pastured butter (kids need good fats).

8) Covered in cheese or sauce: On the rare times when Maya does get all up on her high horse about some food, I’ll cover whatever it is in some pasta sauce and cheese and microwave for a few seconds, and then she’ll usually like it again. Cheese on broccoli is a big hit as well. Eggplant is best with tomato sauce, parmesan optional.

9) Steamed: Pretty self-explanatory. Works well with spinach, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, beets and most other veggies, and helps to preserve all the nutrients, unlike boiling.

10) Raw (duh): Raw veggies she can eat, even at this stage, include jicama (cut in matchsticks), cucumbers, and “fruit” like tomato and avocado (which she loves generally, except for, I dunno, tonight and last night). We are not big salad people, but Maya will go for chunky ones like greek salad with gobs of onions, tomatoes and feta.

None of this is rocket science. But since I have been spotted more than once standing in front of the fridge dumbfounded, having a simple repertoire that covers breakfast, lunch and dinner means that Maya might get more of the vegetable kingdom. At least some of the time, she eats them up cluelessly, almost like she’s from a different country altogether.

Whenever I’m really desperate, I consult Mark Bittman’s jaw-droppingly helpful “101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less,” printed out and stuck on my fridge.

Do you have other preparations you’ve used for veggies that are delicious and easy?

More Resources:

Onions on a neutral, mostly white background

Two BPA-free Weekend Breakfasts

Yup, still ticked off about the FDA’s truly egregious decision to allow food companies to continue experimenting on all of us with BPA in our food. A post is a-brewing on that particular bit of ludicrousness.

In the meantime, living well is the best revenge. And so Maya and I hit the kitchen to make a couple breakfasts this weekend worth posting about.

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A Massive FDA Fail Frittata

This recipe delivers a rich mix of vegetables in the morning, and Maya ate it up.

Generous pat of (grass-fed, organic) butter

12 stalks or so of (organic) asparagus, broken into 1 inch sections

2 large handfuls of (organic) cauliflower florets

2 handfuls (organic) baby spinach

Basil, Thyme, Oregano, Rosemary, Salt & Pepper

5 (pasture-raised, organic) eggs

2 Tablespoons (grassfed, organic) whole milk

2 Tablespoons fresh herbs as you may have available (we used chives that survived the neglect in my backyard)

Melt the butter in a frying pan capable of going under the broiler (a non-stick pan is not necessary; nor is it a good idea). Toss the asparagus and cauliflower in the butter on medium high heat and let it sit until roasted on one side. Stir and add the spinach. Cook until wilted and most of the moisture is gone, stirring minimally to get a nice roast.

Add the dried herbs with two generous and firm shakes of each, as well as salt and pepper. Beat the eggs and milk and add to the pan. Lower the heat and let the eggs set on the bottom of the pan, until the sides are cooked but not the top. Add the cheese and fresh herbs, and place under the broiler on low for three minutes until bubbly and browned on top. Serve in wedges with a sense of injustice.

The FDA’s-So-Cheesy Bread

We ate it with some farmer’s market sausage, sliced and boiled beets, and fresh-made chevre. It makes a lot, so this is good for a crowd. I love the easy impressiveness of a quick bread.

3 cups (organic) unbleached all-purpose flour

4 tsps baking powder (ours was aluminum-free and double-acting; I haven’t looked into the aluminum issue, if you have, please tell me if aluminum-free is best and why)

1 tsp sugar

1 Tablespoon (organic, grassfed) butter

2 (organic, pastured) eggs

1/4 tsp sea salt

2 tsps prepared (dry) mustard

1 cup grated cheese (we used old gouda and a “green onion” grassfed cheddar — just keep an eye on the salt, as some cheeses will add a lot)

Preheat over to 425F. Dust a baking sheet (not non-stick if you have one) with flour, and sift flour, sugar, salt, mustard and baking powder. Combine with milk and 2 eggs, as well as 1/2 the cheese, stir until just combined. It may be helpful to use your hands to knead just a bit, which is great fun for a toddler (just clean well after the eggs!).

Shape dough into a circle on the baking pan and use your hands to cup the edges. Run a knife over the surface to create sections if desired. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes, then bake 20 minutes more until risen and golden. Cool slightly.

Modified substantially from a recipe in “The Book of Breakfasts and Brunches,” by Kerenza Harries.