Monday 25 March 2019

My mum, the food superhero

Aileen Cox Blundell has just published her second cookbook, and her daughter Jade is her proudest fan

Jade Cox and her author mum Aileen Cox Blundell. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Jade Cox and her author mum Aileen Cox Blundell. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

Andrea Smith

Jade Cox says that she and her younger brothers consider their mum Aileen to be a superhero. The delightful 17-year-old is also a huge fan of cookbook author Aileen's food, and is a willing guinea pig when new recipes are being trialled. "My mum has always been my best friend," she says. "I can talk to her about anything."

Aileen was 25 when Jade was born, and says that becoming a mum was a dream come true for her. "I was thrilled as all I ever wanted to do is have babies," she smiles. "Jade and I are as thick as thieves and we've always been really good pals. She's a really great girl and she's the kindest person I've ever met."

Aileen (42) grew up in Multyfarnham in Westmeath, and attributes her love of food to her "amazing" parents. Her dad Christy taught her to fish as a child, and her mum Assumpta taught Aileen and her four younger siblings to cook and bake.

Always creative, Aileen completed a two-year diploma in graphic design after school. At 22, she went to San Francisco for four years and worked at a design studio there, where she rose from junior graphic designer to art director. Jade was born into her first marriage, and after it ended, Aileen returned to Ireland with her young daughter.

Aileen worked as art director for Bewley's, and met her photographer husband, Conor Blundell, at Electric Picnic in 2005, when Jade was three. It was really important to her that Jade and Conor had a good relationship and she's thrilled they have a great one. Aileen and Conor are very happy, and have two boys, Dylan (12) and Oscar (4). Aileen set up her own graphic and web design agency, Sweet, in 2006. It does a lot of design around brochures and packaging for food companies, and working on them partly inspired her on her current career in food.

The main impetus was wanting to make healthy food for her children though. Aileen was concerned about the rising levels of childhood obesity, and she decided to stop buying processed food and concentrate on making meals from scratch. Jade teases her that she's a "vegetable-pusher", but she loves how creative her mum is around food.

When Oscar was a baby, Aileen took photographs of him trying out different foods, principally to practise her photography skills. This progressed to her making up a little book with the different recipes, thinking she would give it to him on his 21st birthday. When her own mum saw it, she told Aileen that she should approach a publisher.

As Aileen was unknown, the publisher advised her to start building up a following on social media, so she began sharing recipes online. After the first one was shared, there was a great reaction to it, and her following quickly grew. Her first book, The Baby-Led Feeding Cookbook, soon followed and went to number one, and Aileen was in demand for media interviews, TV cooking slots and giving talks. "I was nervous initially as I'm not a chef or a nutritionist," she says. "I'm just a mum who is out there trying to make a difference to how her children eat."

Aileen's second book, The Baby-Friendly Family Cookbook, has just been published, with over 150 fuss-free recipes designed for the entire family. As well as regular meals, it provides suggestions for healthy lunchboxes, snacks and treats, and is bound to be very useful for parents.

Aileen also participated in the Foodworks programme run by Enterprise Ireland, Bord Bia and Teagasc. She is very excited about the imminent launch of the first product from her Hidden Heroes range, a set of vegetable-based nuggets aimed at children. The nuggets look like regular chicken nuggets but instead contain vegetables. The beetroot, sweet potato and broccoli and spinach varieties will be listed in Dunnes Stores this month.

When it comes to eating at home, Conor and Dylan follow a vegetarian diet, so Aileen makes two versions of the same meal. She allows sweet treats in moderation at the weekends, Jade says her mum produces amazing, healthy food, even when they are out hiking or on picnics. Jade also loves cooking and enjoys educating her own friends around food too, and her pals will often sample the lunches she brings in.

Jade attends St Finian's Community College in Swords, and is very artistic and creative. She particularly loves working with clay, which she says is her "happy place". She's a "cairde, which means helping younger students, and Aileen is really proud of her. "She's a really free-spirited girl and has her own style, and is very confident and passionate about life," she smiles.

Like any parent and child, there is the odd clash at times, as Aileen is strict around bedtimes, curfews and Jade keeping her room tidy. If, for example, Jade breaks a curfew, she has to be in 10 minutes earlier the next night for every minute she was late. As a result, it rarely happens and mother and daughter have a very trusting relationship. Jade is dating her first boyfriend Trevor and is madly in love, and she has great plans to travel after school. Her mum would love her to do that, while also wanting to keep her close.

"It's bittersweet," says Aileen, "as you want to see her blossom into this beautiful young woman, but then you still want her to stay as your little girl. I just want her to be happy in everything she does."

'The Baby-Friendly Family Cookbook' by Aileen Cox Blundell is out now (Gill, €18.99) www.babyledfeeding.com

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