Gourmet Veggie Mama

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10 easy lunches for a toddler

It can be really hard to come up with inspiration for quick, easy lunches for yourself, let alone a toddler, too. Since Nora goes from zero to famished in 3.2 seconds (and I am sure she is not alone in that), I like to have something quick at my fingertips so we can maximize our play time, and minimize the amount of time I spend with a whiny toddler hanging on my legs as I try to put lunch together.

Sure, now she’s satisfied.

Here are some of my favorite lunch ideas, in case you’re in need of inspiration:

1. Mac and cheese. Cook some pasta (macaroni or whatever small pasta you have handy), mix it with shredded cheese, a little butter, and a splash of milk on the stovetop, and voila! Throw in some veggies (my favorites are broccoli or baby greens like spinach or kale), or serve some on the side for a complete meal.

2. PB&J. You can’t beat a good ol’ peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a quick, easy, and cheap. Peanut butter is good protein, and kids love it on a sandwich with the extra sweetness of jelly. If you don’t like jelly, you can always do peanut butter and bananas or even nutella instead. Be sure to serve it on whole grain bread for added fiber and protein.

3. Grilled cheese. As long as we’re talking sandwiches, a grilled cheese is easy and tasty, too. Serve with fruit and veggies for munching on the side. Nora still prefers hers cut into bite-sized pieces, which she pulls apart and devours cheese-first.

4. Quesadilla. Along the same lines, a quesadilla is basically a grilled cheese with tortillas instead of bread. Easy-peasy, and you can sneak some extra veggies in, too!

5. Cottage cheese. I love cottage cheese and crackers for lunch, and guess what — so does Nora! She gobbles the stuff down with a spoon. It’s great protein, and you can either mix in some fruit (pineapples, anyone?) or serve fruit or veggies with it.

6. Yogurt with fruit and graham crackers. Nora eats YoToddler for lunch once every couple of days, because she loves it so much, and it’s so darn easy and healthy. Serve it with some berries or a peach, and add a graham cracker as “dessert,” and we’re in business!

7. Whatever you’re eating. This is my go-to lunch for Nora, actually. I often eat leftovers from dinner the night before for lunch, and save some extra for her. She loves eating what Mommy is eating, and it’s so much better not to have to fix two separate meals.

8. Edamame and rice. You can buy frozen, cooked edamame and reheat it in the microwave. Add some leftover rice, and it’s a lovely Asian-inspired lunch.

9. Cream cheese and black olive sandwich. This is another easy, favorite sandwich, and I love it, too! Cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches are lovely, too. Add some fresh berries or baby carrots to munch on the side.

10. Hummus with carrots and pita. Oh, how I wish my child loved hummus like I do! It’s such a good, healthy protein, but she won’t touch the stuff. Maybe someday — I keep trying. If you are luckier, you can tempt your little one with hummus and carrot sticks and/or pita bread for dipping.

Please share your favorite quick lunch ideas in the comments. I can always use some new inspiration!

Baby scramble

My new favorite dinners for Nora are egg scrambles. Since dinner is the only meal we don’t eat together,* I’m always trying to come up with new and interesting ideas for her that are balanced and involve plenty of good protein. Eggs are just the ticket!

*She’s an early bird, since she goes to bed at 6:30-ish, and I prefer to enjoy my dinner later, thank you very much.

Scrambles are extremely versatile, since you can throw pretty much any veggies you have into them. I made one the other evening with pieces of quinoa polenta, frozen mixed vegetables (Trader Joe’s Organic Foursome), cheese, and some fresh snipped chives.

Dinner time!

Nora loved it, and it was super-easy to whip up, especially with the frozen veggies.** I’ve also made scrambles with spinach and other greens, peas, squash, potatoes… you name it. As long as there are eggs and cheese, she gobbles them up.

Om nom nom.

**Like many parents of toddlers, frozen vegetables are a staple for us, since they are quick and easy to prepare. Kids this age tend to go from perfectly happy to starving and cranky in 0.2 seconds, no joke.

It’s as easy as making scrambled eggs — just add the veggies, cheese, and any other goodies to the eggs after you’ve scrambled them, and cook over medium heat in a lightly oiled skillet. Frozen veggies can go in without even thawing. How easy is that?

Orzo mac and cheese

One of my favorite quick and easy dinners for Nora is orzo mac and cheese. It’s soooooo much easier and better than mac and cheese out of a box, and it really doesn’t take any more time. So I guess the question is, why wouldn’t you make this instead of the stuff in a box?

This is the stuff.

There isn’t really an official recipe, but I follow my beloved Grandmommy’s method for stovetop macaroni and cheese. I cook some orzo*, drain it in a colander and return it to the pan, and then mix in plenty of shredded cheddar cheese, a nice pat of butter, and a dash of milk. Season with salt and pepper, and it’s dinner time!

* Other kinds of small pasta are fine, too, but I liked orzo when Nora was littler since it’s not a choking hazard by any stretch of the imagination and was easy for her to pick up.

Nora is a huge fan of this mac and cheese, and I don’t feel guilty letting her have it… as long as she eats her veggies, too.

Okay, Mom.

Try it, and your little one may become a mac and cheese connoisseur, too!

Tricks of the trade

I am often asked how I got Nora to be such an adventurous eater. The answer, of course, is that I’m just lucky. She is a naturally good eater, and I’ve just taken advantage of that by offering her lots of different tastes and textures.

My little adventurer.

That said, sometimes she doesn’t really want to eat, or doesn’t really want to eat what I’m giving her, so I have figured out a few tricks along the way.

I have to preface this by saying that I’m not pretending to be an expert. I’m only an expert on my kid (and even that is debatable!). So, naturally, my first tip is to know your child. I know that Nora likes trying new things (usually), that she’s independent, and that she likes to figure it out herself, which guides my approach. If your baby is different, your approach to feeding him will be, too.

My main advice is to try and go with the flow, as much as you can. If the meal I’ve prepared for Nora isn’t something she’s into, I offer a little something else, and if she’s just not having a very hungry day, that’s okay, too.

I think one of the biggest feeding pitfalls for most parents is catering too much to your child’s preferences. I’m not saying don’t give them food they like — I’m just saying give them lots of new foods and re-try foods they haven’t liked in the past, too. Unless your child has an issue with gaining weight appropriately,* try not to stress too much over how much they are eating, or how much they eat at a particular meal. You baby knows his appetite better than you do!

* If your child does have problems with weight gain, you should obviously be following your doctor’s advice, not mine.

So, with all that said, here are some of the tricks I’ve figured out over the last few months. I hope they’re helpful to someone out there!

Tips for transitioning to table foods/self-feeding:

  • Start slowly: Try to sit your baby down when she isn’t super-hungry yet and offer her some finger foods. She may just play with them, but that’s okay. Eventually some will find their way into her mouth! Offer purée to top her up afterwards.
  • Practice makes perfect: I’m not the world’s biggest fan of processed foods, but puffs worked wonders for us in helping Nora develop her pincer grasp. They stick a little bit to your fingers, which makes it easier for baby to pick them up, and they dissolve in his mouth so they’re not a choking hazard. You can move on to more “real” finger foods once he gets the hang of it.
  • Get a grip: Coat anything that’s a little slippery (sliced strawberries, tofu) with some wheat germ to make it easier to pick up. It adds some nutrition and a little sweetness, too!
  • Learn from my experience: I’ve put together a couple of lists (here and here) of great beginning finger foods. Try some of them out!
  • Stick with it: The transition to table foods won’t happen in a day or a week. It’s a process. The important thing is just to keep trying every so often, even if you’re sure it won’t strike your little one’s fancy. One day it may just be like a switch was flipped!

Tricks for more seasoned eaters:

  • Switch it up: If your little one is not loving the apple slices she had previously scarfed down, try giving here a whole apple and see how she does. You might be surprised. Or, if she’s not wanting to gnaw on whole fruit, try small chunks or slices instead. Another option is to grate up fruit or veggies, or even cheese. Nora had grated cheese for the first time the other day and flipped for it. You can also try peeling fruit, if the texture of the skin seems to be icking her out.
  • Save the best for last: If I am giving Nora one of her all-time favorites (pears with cinnamon and vanilla, blueberries, or sweet potato, lately), I try to save it for after she’s eaten the rest of her meal, like dessert. Otherwise, she won’t want anything else until she’s had her fill!
  • Tickle the palate: Conversely, when your little one just doesn’t seem interested in eating, try offering a bit of one of his favorite foods. Sometimes that can be enough to get his appetite going, and he’ll start eating the other things you’re offering, too.
  • I’ll have what Mommy’s having: If there’s one thing toddlers especially like, it’s doing what the big people are doing. If Nora isn’t interested in something, and I take a bite and offer it again, all of a sudden, she’s all about it. Better yet, just give him food from your plate — it’s easier to only cook one meal!
  • Feeding the animals: Sometimes Nora likes to eat from my hand, like a little birdie. It’s pretty darn cute. She also likes a helping hand at times when she’s trying to take a big bite out of an apple or other fruit.
  • Be cool: I recently discovered that when Nora is teething, frozen berries are a great snack. I let them sit out to soften for a few minutes so they’re not a choking hazard, and then let her go to town. The cold feels good on those sore gums.
  • I’ll do it myself: I recently read this great tip from Half Pint Gourmet on helping your little one learn to use a spoon, so we are now giving Nora her own spoon when we feed her things like yogurt or multigrain porridge. She sort of gets the concept, but definitely not enough to reliably feed herself… but practice makes perfect!

The most important part, in my humble opinion, is to just keep trying new things until something sticks. Guess I could have just said that and saved myself some time in writing this post! I think that simple principle would just about put the publishers of parenting books out of business, though…

Do you have any favorite tricks for getting your little ones to eat? I’m always looking for new ones, since everything seems to work for a while, and then it’s back to the drawing board again.

Roasted parsnips with apples

I never really know what to do with parsnips when they show up in our CSA box. Thankfully they keep well, since it gives me some time to come up with uses for them, other than making veggie broth or throwing them on the compost pile.  However, I read recently that they’re quite nutritious*, so I decided to try them in a recipe for Nora.

* I will confess that I am a little prejudiced when in comes to veggies and fruits, since I tend to feed Nora (and myself, for that matter) by color. The more colorful a meal is, the more diverse nutrients it must have. This is a pretty good shorthand, but there are some tricky colorless foods out there, like parsnips, that are nutritionally valuable.

Personally, I think parsnips are pretty boring on their own, so I added some apple to the mix and roasted everything with a nice coating of butter.

Butter makes everything better.

They were a hit with Nora, and, as an added bonus, I was able to freeze the leftovers in baby-sized portions for use in future meals. Gotta love that!

Butter-Roasted Parsnips with Apples

3-4 parsnips (depending on size)
1 apple
1 Tbsp butter, melted

Peel the parsnips and apple. Chop the parsnips into coins, and the apple into bite-sized chunks. Toss the parsnips and apples with the butter. Spread in a baking dish and bake for 30 minutes, or until tender. Serve or freeze in individual portions for later use.

Sweet potatoes with cinnamon and molasses

Sweet potato was one of Nora’s favorite first foods, and sweet potato purée was one of the last things she’d let me feed her when she started rejecting purées. I’ve tried homemade sweet potato “fries” (just sprayed with olive oil and baked), but she wasn’t a huge fan, so she hasn’t really had them in a while.

With winter upon us, however, and our CSA on hiatus until the spring, I am running out of “creative” veggies, so I picked up a sweet potato at the store and decided to experiment a little. Feeling inspired, I made a dish loosely based on what my mom has always made for Thanksgiving dinner: sweet potatoes roasted with honey and pecans. However, honey and nuts are on the no-no list until one year, and Nora hasn’t had them yet, so I mixed it up a little bit. I omitted the pecans, added a sprinkle of cinnamon, and rather than honey, I used just a drizzle of molasses (which happens to be a great source of iron).

Om nom nom.

She dug into them at dinner last night, so I think it’s safe to say I’ll be making more of these in the future.

Tasty.

Fortunately, one large sweet potato made plenty to go with several dinners, so I have more in the freezer. Bonus!

Sweet Potatoes with Cinnamon and Molasses

1 large sweet potato
2 Tbsp butter, cut into small pieces
generous sprinkle of cinnamon
1 Tbsp molasses

Preheat the oven to 400°. Scrub the sweet potato and pierce it several times with a fork. Place it directly on the rack, with a sheet of foil on the rack below it, just to catch any drips. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the sweet potato seems to have shrunk a little bit inside the skin and is a little oozy.* Remove it from the oven and let it cool a bit. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°.

Once the sweet potato is cooled, remove the skin using your hands (it should slip off easily). Cut the flesh into 1/2-inch to 1-inch chunks and arrange in a baking dish. Sprinkle the butter pieces over the sweet potato, then sprinkle with cinnamon and drizzle with molasses.

Bake for 10-15 minutes, stirring and tossing a couple of times, until butter is melted and the sweet potatoes are very tender.

* Yes, that is a technical term.

Weekend projects

I always feel like I fall a little behind on the weekends. With the hubby home, and between wanting to spend time with him and Nora, my “me” time at yoga on Saturdays and my long run on Sundays, I feel like I have very little time left to get stuff done. I usually compensate by going into cleaning overdrive when the hubby takes Nora to swim lessons for an hour on Sunday afternoon.

However, tomorrow we are going to meet friends in Tomales Bay for oysters, which is basically an all-day trip. (And yep, I’ll be indulging in oysters, based on my “occasional fish” policy and the fact that oysters are almost indistinguishable from plants.) In between baby wrangling and praying that Nora takes a halfway decent nap or two in the car, I won’t have time for anything more than ordering pizza and collapsing on the couch when we get home, so today was my only shot at getting something done this weekend.

In any case, I kicked it into high (or at least medium) gear today and got a couple of things done. First, I made crock pot applesauce with apples from our CSA that needed to be put to good use, plus a handful of cranberries thrown in for extra fall goodness (even though it was in the 80s today, hmpf). Second, I make a big batch of chocolate chip cookies, baked some to eat for dessert tonight and put some in the freezer for a rainy day, per one of my favorite lazy tricks.

I got the idea for crockpot applesauce from my lovely and talented friend Emma, who showed up at our Labor Day barbecue with a jar of homemade organic applesauce in hand. I fed some of it to Nora for dinner than evening, and she went wild for it — this from a girl who has never eaten store-bought applesauce by itself (although she is okay with it mixed into other things).

The applesauce smelled wonderful bubbling away in the crock pot all day, and it was super-duper easy to put together. In fact, I think I may try using the crock pot for some other “baked” fruits in the future, like pears, since it’s just way less hassle to throw everything in and forget about it for eight hours.

All Hail the Crock Pot!

Although it’s supposed to be for Nora, I snuck a taste before I stuck it in the freezer, and it’s great!

Crock Pot Applesauce with Cranberries

8 apples, peeled and cored
a good handful of cranberries*
1/2 cup water

Throw all the ingredients in the crock pot, cover and cook on low for 8 hours. Give it a good stir and you’re done. That’s it!

* I had some freeze-dried cranberries around, since Nora has been eating them lately (although the flavor is way too tart for me, she seems to like them), so I just rehydrated them for a couple of minutes in a little water and threw them in, but you could use fresh or regular dried cranberries just as easily.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I also had a sweet tooth today, and the hubby has been nudging me to bake some chocolate chip cookies for a while, so I decided to give in to both of them and make a batch. I was going to make it a double and freeze tons of them for future use, but I didn’t have enough butter, boo!

In any case, they were fantastic, especially when served with a scoop of Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream (a couple of gallons of which were my birthday present from my awesome mom this year, shipped straight from the factory in Brenham, Texas).

A la mode? Yes, please.

I have experimented with quite a number of chocolate chip cookie recipes, and this is my favorite (aside, perhaps, from the more time-consuming New York Times recipe). My secret weapon is double-strength vanilla extract from Penzey’s.

Chocolate Chip Cookies 
Adapted from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe*

2 cups plus 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
12 Tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg, plus one egg yolk
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325°. Line baking sheets (or just one, if you are freezing some for later) with parchment paper.

Sift the flour, salt and baking soda together in a large bowl and set aside. Mix the butter and both sugars together in an electric mixer until well blended. Add the egg, yolk and vanilla and mix well. Gradually add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Using an ice cream scoop or large spoon, scoop out large-ish sized dough balls and plop onto the baking sheets (the recipe makes 18 or so, if you sample a little dough here and there, like I tend to do!). Bake for 15-18 minutes. Remove from the oven, cool slightly, and enjoy warm!

* Kori had an excellent point the other day — Cook’s Illustrated recipes are often a little fussy. I tend to use them as a guideline and improvise some here and there. Case in point? The original recipe calls for scooping out the dough, pulling it in half and re-forming it into a perfectly jagged little dough ball that will bake up to be picture-perfect. Do I need that kind of perfection? Not as much as I need the extra few minutes it will save me to skip that step. And they still taste great!

The best part, though? Is this:

Plenty more for later!

Now if only I can just find time to bake and purée the Asian pears we just picked from our tree, finish reupholstering our dining chairs, finally get on top of Mt. Washmore and, oh yeah, sort through and put away, sell or donate all those outgrown baby and maternity clothes, I’ll be all caught up! Those will have to be projects for another weekend, though.

Beets!

So I figured out how to get the kiddo to eat beets. I just had to mix them with sweet potatoes! It figures, since sweet potatoes are one of her favorite things, and she’ll eat pretty much anything mixed with a sufficient quantity of them.

Beet-tastic!

She’s refused them a few times before, and I think it’s a texture issue, since they didn’t end up puréed so much as just very, very finely chopped. Mixed with the smooth sweet potato purée, though, they were acceptable to my little gourmet. Next time I make them, I think I’ll bake them a bit longer so they’re mushier, or else just add a bit of liquid when puréeing. Not sure if that would be the best idea, though, since the purée came out pretty thin as it was.

Fair warning: Beets are messy under the best circumstances. Feed them to a baby and you are pretty much taking your life into your own hands.

Baby Food Extravaganza!

Whew. I have spent the past week or so catching up on making baby food. This tends to happen, since I make a bunch at once, and then (of course) run out of several things at once, so I need to replace it all and/or add some new things. This time was a little bit of both. At last count, I made:

  • Butternut squash
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Mangoes
  • Banana
  • Kiwi
  • Pears
  • Summer squash
  • Nectarines
  • White peach
  • Plums
  • Sweet potatoes

I’m sure there was more, but I’m forgetting. Like I said, it was an extravaganza. Done over the course of a week, it wasn’t all that much, but still, I’m ready for a break from baby food for a little while!

Favorite new recipe: Pears baked with vanilla and cinnamon. This is probably Nora’s favorite food ever. She opens her mouth soooooo wide for each bite. I tried it too, since it smelled so awesome baking in the oven, and they are tasty! Just peel and core 3-4 pears, place them in a baking dish with about an inch of water, sprinkle with a dash of cinnamon and a few small drops of vanilla extract, bake in a 350° oven until tender, and purée. Yum!

Revelation that I wish had come sooner: A good blender is much easier than a food processor as a tool for making purées. As long as you have a good, sturdy blender and you aren’t trying to purée something too tricky, it’s a snap, and a much easier option for pouring into freezer trays.

Easy-peasy.

Pretty though it may be, kiwi was not a hit. I gave it to Nora for the first time at lunch today, and she clearly was not a fan. To her credit, she did try a few bites before turning up her nose. Oh well — try again later!

Since I am now ever-so-experienced, I’ll offer a few tips for the newbie baby chef….

Freezing and Storing: I like to freeze in these Green Sprouts trays. They’re silicone, which makes it easy to twist and bend them to pop the cubes out for storage. I have three of them, and that’s usually plenty for the amount I make at one time. Once the cubes are frozen, I pop them out and store them in labeled and dated Ziploc freezer bags.

Thawing: I have never really been organized enough to get the next day’s food cubes out and transfer them to the fridge to thaw. I tend to decide on the fly what a meal will be anyway, so I just microwave the frozen cubes. A minute or two (depending on how much you are heating) on 50% power usually does the trick. I’ll usually start with a minute and then test at intervals. If you’re going to do this, make sure to stir well to avoid hot spots, and test the temperature before serving.

Cooking: Generally I either steam or bake fruits and veggies before puréeing. Banana and kiwi don’t need to be cooked. Bananas can brown a bit, so you can add a drop or two of lemon juice to the batch to help keep this from happening (although it doesn’t affect the safety or taste).

Fun fact: I HATE bananas. Loathe them. Even the smell makes me gag. The fact that I will deal with them because my child likes them is a testament to how head-over-heels in love with her I am.

Anyway. In general, fruits like peaches, plums, apples, nectarines and pears can be baked in a 350° oven for 30 minutes to an hour in a baking pan filled with about an inch of water. Bake until the fruit is soft and the skin starts to pucker. Once cooled, the skin should come off easily, and you can use the liquid to thin the purée, if needed. Veggies like green beans, snap peas, squash and peas can be steamed until tender and then puréed, again, using the steaming liquid to thin if needed.

Quick tip: Trader Joe’s has a good (though erratic) selection of organic bagged veggies that in some cases are already pre-peeled and chopped, and some of them even steam in the bag in the microwave. Makes making baby food a snap! I especially love it when they have butternut squash, since it can be a pain to prep.

The verdict

The porridge is a hit!

Tasty, man, tasty.

The only thing I think I’d do differently next time is cook the rice a bit mushier so that it blends in better with the rest of the porridge. Other than that, it was great. Nora liked it thinned out with a bit more breast milk than I originally added, but that’s easy to do when serving.

I feel like I should say a couple of things about making your own baby food, since a friend brought it up. First, it’s easy! Really. This particular recipe is more involved than most, and it took me less than an hour on a weekend to whip up. It made two freezer trays (15 one-ounce cubes each), so that’s 10 to 15 breakfasts we’re talking about. Most baby food is just a matter of steaming or baking a fruit or veggie and pureeing it, which takes even less time. Plus, your baby gets to eat actual food, and you know exactly what’s in it. Have you ever smelled the jarred stuff? Not something I’d really want to eat. Sure, it’s fine in a pinch, but Nora clearly prefers mama’s cooking. If you’re thinking about making your own, or just need some new inspiration, I love wholesomebabyfood.com for ideas and technique. Check it out!

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