We’re coming into July, a month when chilly temperatures can increase the temptation to scoff less healthy comfort foods. While there’s no harm in an occasional treat or unhealthy meal, some forward planning can help us put healthy cosy food on our family’s table. Here are a few ideas for each meal, to fuel your family through the rest of winter.
Breakfasts for brisk mornings
There’s no better breakfast than porridge to give your little ones lasting energy for their busy days. It doesn’t have to be topped with sugar, honey, or golden syrup. Try stewed or tinned fruit with just a little of the juice, or maybe natural yogurt with dried cranberries. Or think ahead and soak oats overnight, like a Bircher muesli with some grated apple, apple juice, and sultanas, then warm them gently in the morning.
I love porridge but am always running late in the morning. My solution is to cook enough for several days and keep the leftovers in the refrigerator. The following morning I mash a portion of the cold porridge, adding a little milk, then microwave it. A great time-saver, and it really does taste just the same. If your kids aren’t keen on a big change to their regular cereal, maybe just try warm milk rather than cold during the winter season.
For a more savoury warm breakfast, eggs can be scrambled, boiled, fried, or poached. Adding tomatoes or mushrooms on the side will add to the nutritional value, and a sprinkle of grated cheese can help to tempt fussy taste buds. Toast soldiers also help in my house!
Lunch ideas for chilly days
Supermarkets are full of fresh and tinned soup options that make a warm and easy lunch (though watch out for high amounts of salt, especially in tinned ones). However, soup is a very easy and inexpensive dish to make at home. Almost any vegetable can be boiled with chicken or vegetable stock (again, look for lower-salt types) and blitzed with a blender or hand-held mixer until smooth. This means you can choose the vegetables your children like. Let it cool a little, then stir in a dollop of low-fat sour cream, or maybe oat or coconut cream, and any extra flavourings. I usually add a slice of wholegrain toast on the side for dipping.
Making an extra-large batch of soup hardly takes any longer than a single meal and extra serves can be stored in the freezer for a quick meal on the run. Some favourites in our house are carrot soup (made with a little ground nutmeg) and ‘frozen pea soup’. I simply take a pack of frozen peas, add them briefly to a couple of cups of simmering chicken (or vegetable) stock, then throw in some fresh mint leaves and blitz. A topping of croutons makes the soup even more appealing for kids, and sometimes we add a sprinkle of crumbled crisp bacon (you could use plant-based bacon if you prefer) for a special treat.
Another warm lunch option, or maybe a soup accompaniment, is a savoury muffin or scone. Most children already enjoy sweet muffins, which can make a savoury one easy to ‘sell’ to them. Again, you can choose the flavourings according to your children’s tastes. Find a basic recipe online and try additions such as grated cheese, carrot or zucchini, or chopped olives or sun-dried tomato – my children enjoy the combination of cheddar, tinned sweetcorn, and a little chopped ham or leftover sausage in their muffins. Maybe mix some chopped fresh herbs and cubes of feta or goat cheese into part of the mix for the grown-ups. Any leftovers are perfect for lunchboxes or can also be frozen for another day, so it can be helpful to double the recipe.
Other easy options for warming lunches or a light dinner are the humble toasted sandwich or baked potato. Try to work in a vegetable if possible, whether it’s baked beans (yes, they count as a veg!) on the baked potato, tomato in the toasted sandwich, or just slices of cucumber or carrot on the side.
Cosy Winter Dinners
As chilly nights draw in, there’s nothing nicer than sitting down to a steaming bowl of curry or casserole. Let’s face it though, most of us don’t have the time to cook like this every night. However, if you can find the time a few days a week, make double the quantities and freeze the extra portions, there’ll be a quick meal in the freezer on busier days.
I do realise this can be tricky with a picky eater. We’ve been on an evolving journey with my fussier middle child, who would never touch (let alone taste) any food in a sauce for the first few years of his life. While he now eats foods like beef stew and mild Thai chicken curry (both made with veg he likes and in a smooth sauce without any onion ‘bits’), we used to take out his meat or chicken and vegetables and rinse off the sauce under the tap! Still, it meant I could cook one meal for all the family, which made my life easier.
If you can find the middle ground between what your children will eat and what you enjoy, you could try:
- Stews and casseroles – There is a multitude of delicious casserole recipes, and a great benefit is that they usually use cheaper meat cuts such as chuck or shin beef, or chicken thighs or legs. Slow cooking with reduced-salt stock, canned tomatoes (again, look for lower salt types), and maybe some herbs or spices, as well as vegetables, gives a meal that pairs so well with many people’s ultimate winter comfort food, mashed potato.
- Warm salads with whole grains – Most children like sausages, so you could try chopped cooked sausages with warm lentils, or chicken with a whole grain such as quinoa, with chopped tomatoes and cooked green beans stirred through. Add a big handful of green leafy veg such as spinach or kale to wilt into the grain before serving, at least for the grownups. Pasta or rice can be substituted for the lentils or grains in the kids’ portions if your children think you have gone a step too far!
- Pasta bakes – These kid-friendly dishes are great to make in bulk so you can feed the family for 2 nights with one night’s effort. They can also be tailored to your children’s tastes, whether it’s chicken, tuna or tofu, along with the chopped vegetables they enjoy and tomato pasta sauce, pesto, a simple cheese sauce (bought from the supermarket for a timesaver cheat), or maybe no sauce at all.
- Mild curry – This is a great season to introduce children to the mildest of curries, such as a korma. Add a touch of spice for flavour rather than heat, plus soothing yogurt or coconut milk, and the veg your child enjoys. I suggest leaving out chopped onion or garlic for those fussier kids who don’t like ‘bits’ in their sauce. You can always add some chilli sauce or spicy Indian pickle to the adult plates, and rinse the sauce off the meat for the extra-fussy like I used to!
For an easy and cosy winter dessert, it has to be old-fashioned stewed fruit and warm custard. Many foods work well stewed – a good way to choose one is to look at what’s on special at the supermarket. You might try apples with a few sultanas and a pinch of cinnamon, or pears with a little fresh or dried ginger. Apricots, plums, and rhubarb also work well. Just chop the fruit into equal-sized pieces and put it in a saucepan with a little water. Add less sugar than you think you might need (if the fruit is really ripe and sweet you may not need any) and only add more if it’s required. Rhubarb is naturally bitter and will always need sugar though. You can stew dried fruits too, such as apricots or apples. A little vanilla or cinnamon works well with these, and they’re also a great topping for plain yogurt or breakfast cereal.
Stewed fruit is great to have on hand if you want a more special winter dessert. With a topping or some pastry (bought at the supermarket in my house), it transforms into pear crumble, plum cobbler, or apple pie. They may not be the healthiest of puddings but, served with custard or yogurt, it’s a treat that enables all the family to tick off a portion of fruit and dairy food for the day.
Putting ideas into practice
I’m really hoping you’ll have read this and thought: these are some great, easy ideas – I should try them. But I know our busy schedules mean it’s a long way from there to actually getting the food on the table. A useful first step is making a shopping list for the ideas you think would work for your family, so you actually have the food in the house.
I’ve given you basic guidelines for some recipes, and just ideas for others, but you’ll find many more online of course. I find it helpful to look up recipes and take a photo or screenshot of the ones I like on my phone. Then I have the ingredient list with me in the supermarket and the recipe in the kitchen when I need it.
©Fiona Hinton 2021
MEDICAL DISCLAIMER: Please note that this blog is for general information only, and should not be taken as a substitute for qualified medical advice. Please discuss medical issues with your child’s doctor before taking any action.
About Fiona: Fiona Hinton is a dietitian, but describes herself as a nutrition translator, taking the science of nutrition and translating it into foods we love to eat, to nourish both body and soul. She has over 20 years of experience as a dietitian, working in a wide range of areas from hospital wards to running her own private practice. Fiona has a special interest in children’s nutrition. As a mum of three school-age boys, she has first-hand experience of the issues associated with feeding young children, such as weaning and fussiness. Fiona specialises in real-life strategies and practical suggestions to convert nutrition advice into food kids will eat. Fiona has collaborated on several books, including one with best-selling children’s food writer Annabel Karmel, as well as training childcare staff in children’s nutrition.