Monday 16 September 2019

Tortillitas and Thermos flasks: Darina Allen's healthy eating tips for the new school term

Move your family to the top of the class by going back to basics, real food champion Darina Allen tells Katy McGuinness

Dinner is served: Lifestyle changes over the decades can affect our eating habits
Katy McGuinness

Katy McGuinness

FOR many of us, the best time of the year to make resolutions is not January, but September.

It’s a legacy from the days when simple purchases such as a new pencil case and a stack of pristine copy books brought with them a sense of possibility and starting afresh.

By the end of the school year, when both parents and children are exhausted, it’s easy to give up on any idea of your family eating better, and succumb to the path of least resistance. If the ham sandwich and packet of crisps in the lunch box get eaten,even if everyone knows that the accompanying apple get jettisoned in the bin on the way home,then why change the habit of a lifetime?

Generations of Irish children have never gone to school with anything other than a ham sandwich in their lunchbox. But it doesn't have to be like that.

Darina Allen of Ballymaloe is one person who embraces the notion of the new school year as a time to shake things upon the food front, and she’s full of ideas about how busy families can do just that without too much hassle.

“The first thing to remember when children are hungry is that they need nutrient dense food, not empty calories,” she says.(Any of us who has ever taken the easyfix of putting a biscuit into the hands of whinging toddler in a buggy can now hang our heads in shame.)

Hearty breakfast

Unsurprisingly, Darina reckons that the best — and most economic —start to the day for adults and children alike is porridge — “so filling and nourishing” — but if that feels too wintry for September, then fresh fruit muesli isan easy and appealing alternative. Good quality natural yoghurt is another recommendation.

Dip dabs and Thermos flasks

“For lunch, hummus with crudites is great,”says Darina.“And tortillitas made with leftover potatoes added to a few beaten eggs with chives. We serve those with garlic mayonnaise. Children love anything that they can dip.”

When the weather gets colder, warming and nutritious soup is excellent and versatile for packed lunches.Invest in good, safe, leak-proof flasks to minimise the risk of spills. Darina advises making a big pot of simple soupatthe beginning of the week.

“Use a few onions and potatoes and good stock, and then you have the basis for different soups and other dishes during theweek.You can add beans or chickpeas one day, and chorizo for flavour. And if you’re going to soak beans and cook them, doextra so that you can add them to a simple tomato sauce for a basic bean stew another day.”

Family style dining

When it comes to dinner, Darina doesn’t have any time for meal plans that involve different meals for adults and children.“I’m a big fan of the whole family eating the same thing for dinner;it’s too much work otherwise. My daughter Emily’s recipe for chicken casserole is a one-pot dinner that everyone in the family enjoys,from the parents all the way down to babies who have just been weaned and can have a small portion mashed up.”

Another family favourite is macaroni cheese. “Children love it, and so do adults,” saysDarina. “Use lots of cheese and mustard to make it tasty and then add fish, mushrooms or bacon and serve it with a salad or vegetables on the side.”

Cooking together

Asa mother and grandmother, Darina has observed that the more children are involved in the preparation of meals, the more likely they are to eat them.“Everyone in the house should help with meal preparation from an early age,” she says.

“It’s a game-changer. I grew up as one of nine and we took it for granted that we all had our jobs, I learned so many skills that way, from looking after hens to peeling potatoes. I’m not suggesting that tasks should be onerous, and of course children need play time, but no one person should have to do it all themselves.”

For older children, the Ballymaloe Cookery School Runs a week-long Transition Year course designed to equip teenagers with the practical skills that they need to cook nutritious meals for themselves — an essential life skill.Even if you don’t have much of a garden, Darina says that children love growing food.

Grow Your Own

“My grandchildren are the same as anybody else’s and they need encouraging to try new things. I find that getting them involved in growing really helps.“It is fantastic if you can grow something on the windowsills — salad leaves, a few radishes and carrots in a pot. If you grow it yourself you know that it’s not sprayed or doused with chemicals.

“Children will eat anything that they are involved in growing,even things that they would otherwise turn their noses up at; it’s amazing.”

If growing your own seems like a step too far, Darina recommends shopping at the local farmers’ market.

“There’s a perception that farmers’ markets are more expensive than supermarkets, but that’s not necessarily true. If you regularly and form relationships with the people who sell there, then you’ll know when they have a glut of something that you can buy and use to make dishes for the freezer. Freezers are brilliant — if you’re cooking, always try to make a double batch so that you have a dish ready for the day that you don’t have time to cook.”

Inessence, Darina’s message is a back to basics one that encourages families to eat real food. “Buy as much of your food as possible without labels,” she says,“that’s how you know it’s real.”

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