Parents looking for healthy options for their children can now turn to top chef Neven Maguire’s homegrown food bible for recipe ideas, writes Marjorie Brennan.
ONE of the best gifts I received when my first child was born was a copy of Annabel Karmel’s Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner. It was the first time I had come across the English baby-food guru and in the bleary-eyed fog of caring for a newborn, I didn’t realise how much I would come to rely on her book when I began weaning my daughter onto solids.
Now, puréeing parents can turn to our own homegrown baby food bible thanks to chef Neven Maguire. As well as running an acclaimed restaurant and cookery school in Blacklion, Co Cavan, plus writing cookbooks and making his television show Home Chef, Maguire has also found the time to put together the Complete Baby & Toddler Cookbook, €18.99, which features 200 quick and easy recipes.
Maguire says the project was one of the most challenging he has faced but the timing was just right.
“People have been asking me to do this for the last four or five years but my twins [Connor and Lucia] are three-and-a-half now, so I’m a little bit wiser. I’ve also learned a lot from my work with The First 1,000 Days [nutrition initiative for mums and babies]. This is possibly the hardest book I’ve ever written because everything had to be vetted by the INDI (Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute), their backing was really important to me. As people know, I’m fond of my sugar and butter but this book has very little of either — except in the last chapter for celebrations.”
While the focus is on healthy and tasty food for babies and toddlers, Maguire says the recipes can be enjoyed by the whole family. “My family are my guinea pigs, they’ve tried and tested a lot of these recipes. I’m a relatively new parent, I’m learning all the time. The most important thing for me is that the twins have always eaten the food we eat — we’ve never cooked something separate. That helps develop their taste for flavour because we are born with a sweet tooth .
“One of the twins’ favourite meals is calamari — I didn’t even know what calamari was when I was a child. It’s all about using good fresh food, knowing and controlling what goes into it.”
I was one of those parents who swore I would not be like my mother, cooking two or three separate dinners to suit everybody but sometimes I still find myself making a cheese sandwich if the plate hasn’t been touched or something bland for the kids if I fancy a curry. What is Maguire’s advice for the parents of fussy eaters?
“Be patient, keep trying, if they don’t eat it the first time, try to give it to them again. Dealing with fussy eaters is always a challenge for a parent. I think you have to give it to them eight to 10 times for them to develop a taste. Try to put vegetables into a fish cake or mashed potatoes so you are disguising them.”
Maguire says getting children cooking gets them interested in food and makes them more adventurous in what they eat. His wife Amelda does a lot of cooking with their twins.
“Everybody thinks that because I’m a chef, I’ll be teaching them but she is wonderful. She gets them baking brown bread every couple of days and she makes powerballs — peanut butter, coconut oil, goji berries and seeds — and they help her roll them.”
Maguire is also keen to emphasise the social aspect of sitting down to eat together at the kitchen table. “Eating as a family is the message we need to get across, to celebrate and enjoy food with no screens or mobiles — to just spend 45 minutes to an hour at the table together. Breakfast is so important. Every day our twins eat porridge with sultanas, full-fat milk and water, or else Weetabix, no sugary cereals. I cook scrambled eggs a lot for them and I grate cheese into it, so they’re getting calcium and protein.”
With all types of sugar, not just refined, being seen as the latest dietary evil, how does Maguire recommend parents indulge their children’s sweet tooth without visits to the dentist?
“Me and Amelda have a juice every morning, three veg and one fruit, and for the twins we do carrot and orange juice and freeze them in little ice pops, or perhaps pineapple juice with a little bit of pear. That’s good sugar. I wouldn’t be too concerned about that, it’s their little treat once a day.
“Once a week, we give them a little picnic where they’ll have unsalted crisps and maybe some jellies. They love Kinder eggs but they don’t eat the chocolate. Connor does like vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce once every week or two but that’s it. They’re not saints, you have to have a balance in your life, you have to enjoy it.”
The spectre of child obesity has also been a much-discussed topic in recent years but Maguire is hopeful of what he sees when he visits schools.
“I have seen a huge change in the last two to three years in schools, there is a big move on with healthy lunchboxes. I’ve visited a lot of schools where fizzy drinks are not allowed. I recently had three school groups in the cookery school for a demo and then I gave them lunch. Nearly all of them had water and I was really impressed.
“It’s about educating parents and families, cooking and eating at home, not buying as much processed foods, making food in batches to freeze. If we can educate people about cooking healthily, simply and with the seasons, we will eat better.”
These muffins are wonderfully dense and moist, perfect for a nutritious breakfast. Serve them on the day that they are made or wrap in clingfilm and freeze for up to one month. If you plan to make them on the morning you wish to serve them, get ahead and have all the dry ingredients mixed together and prepare the muffin tin the night before.
150g plain flour
100g wholemeal flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
25g wheat bran
2 tbsp honey
3 ripe bananas
50g ready-to-eat dried dates, pitted and finely chopped
1 large egg
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp rolled oats
Sift both flours, baking powder and cinnamon into a bowl, then tip in anything left in the sieve and stir in the wheat bran and honey. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.
Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper cases. Peel the bananas and mash two of them to a purée, then stir in the dates. Beat the egg with the buttermilk and oil. Add to the dry ingredients and stir until just blended, then lightly and quickly fold in the banana mixture. The batter should look roughly mixed, with lumps and floury pockets.
Fill each paper case two-thirds full with the batter, then cut the remaining banana into 12 slices, discarding the ends, and pop one slice on top of each muffin. Sprinkle over the oats and bake for about 20 minutes, until well risen and golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly. These are best served warm.
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