These days, most parents cook multiple meals at mealtimes. It might be down to gluten and dairy intolerances; it could be for moral or environmental reasons; not to mention people just wanting to be healthier and reduce the amount of meat, sugar or saturated fat they eat. It’s exhausting just thinking about it, and all of this has made eating together a little anti-social, as cooking to cover lots of requirements has become hard work. We all need easier ways to put food on the table and sadly many people will turn to ready-meals or takeaways as a solution.
Eating together as a family is such an important occasion. When you eat together, it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up, relax, get things off your chest and generally have a good time. It is crucial, especially with all the pressures that our children are put under these days that there’s a window to chat together and put things into perspective. I’m not saying we should be eating together for every meal of the day of course – one would be ideal, or even just a few times during a week, be that a Sunday lunch, Friday night or even a Saturday brunch.
It is never too early to start getting your children involved in the kitchen. Knowing that food and cooking are part of everyday life is important. I found that getting my children involved as toddlers was a good start – helping pick out fruit and veg in the shops for example, and as they have grown up I try to make sure they are involved in deciding what we eat throughout the week, help to prepare it and now they are older, do the clearing up as well. Obviously, you have to have patience, as it will take longer and will be messier with them helping with the cooking at whatever age – but it really does give them a broader interest in food, cooking and what they eat.
Children are naturally drawn to colour at a young age, so as soon as you can, always offer a selection of any colourful chunks of vegetables (raw or lightly cooked) as a snack or with the meal. One day they may like it and another they may not but persevere. It will eventually pay off. For any children that you feel are not getting enough vegetables in their diet, then combining vegetables within their food is ideal such as adding mixed veg in a tomato pasta sauce, or lots of grated carrot, pepper, courgette, onion etc in a bolognese. For this time of year, I like to make my super veggie cottage pie (see recipe below) which is a vegetarian filling made with healthy veggies, and high protein lentils, quinoa and beans, which all taste deliciously rich and somewhat meaty. The topping is also a selection of root veg, so all in all it is perfect family food.
If you have children of different ages, and varying tastes or dietary needs, sharing food is a good way to go. Put a selection of all sorts on the table so everyone can pick and choose. A current favourite in my house is to have chicken and black bean tacos. The shredded chicken and black beans in a smokey tomato sauce is put on the table accompanied by soft tortilla wraps, rice, watermelon salsa, sour cream, grated cheese, sweetcorn, cucumber and avocado. Fun sharing food gets everyone chatting and engaged in the meal. One-pot or tray bakes are also failsafe family meals – they’re quick to prepare and minimal fuss, not to mention yield very little washing up. My gnocchi, aubergine and tomato bake is super simple (you can see me making this dish on my Instagram @CookWithJoPratt) and has numerous flexible options for flavour changes.
If you know you are going to be short on time on certain days, then it’s handy being able to turn to your freezer. So, whenever you make a recipe suitable for freezing (such as casserole, bolognese, soup, curry etc), double up, bag it up and freeze it so you have an instant homemade meal when needed. You can even freeze leftover rice, mashed potato and couscous. Use any leftovers from the day before to make a quick meal – i.e. leftover roast chicken shredded and added to chicken stock, egg noodles and a handful of fresh or frozen veg. Heat through and you have a tasty chicken noodle broth. Another way to make mealtimes speedier is to prepare food parcels in the morning, keep in the fridge and pop in the oven when you are home. Prawn laksa and Moroccan baked fish in a bag are both super quick to prepare when you are in a rush later on.
Inspired? Here are six family friendly recipes to try…
Step 1Cut the chicken into 2cm chunks. Put in a bowl with the rest of the souvlaki ingredients and add a good pinch of salt. Mix everything together, cover and put into the fridge for 30 minutes, or longer if you want the flavours to get a bit more intense. Overnight would be absolutely fine.
Step 2To cook the souvlaki, the chicken will need skewers. Metal ones are ideal, but if using wooden skewers, cut 8 to fit your griddle pan and soak them in a tray of water for 30 minutes or so to stop them burning during cooking.
Step 3To make the tzatziki, sit the cucumber in a sieve, mix in the salt with your hands and squeeze out as much water as you can. Put the cucumber in a bowl and mix with the garlic, vinegar, mint and yoghurt. Season to taste and set aside.
Step 4Preheat a griddle pan or grill on a high heat. Thread the skewers through the marinated chicken pieces, leaving little spaces between them so that the heat cooks everything evenly. Cook the kebabs on the hot griddle or grill for about 8-10 minutes, turning occasionally, until deep golden on all sides.
Step 5Serve the souvlaki chicken stuffed inside warmed pitta bread with some lettuce, tomato, olives and red onion. Top with dollops of tzatziki and grab a napkin to wipe up any dripping juices.
Gluten-free: if you can replace the pitta bread with a gluten-free variety or even some form of flat bread that’s great. If not, lettuce leaves are a simple alternative. Serve with some sautéed potatoes or chips on the side.
Vegetarian: halloumi is the perfect alternative to chicken. Marinate as you would the chicken and grill for a few minutes, turning occasionally, until golden.
Meat-lovers: don’t just stick to chicken – pork fillet, lamb neck or turkey breast are fantastic alternatives to marinate.
Pescatarian: if you’re a seafood lover, try swapping the chicken for pieces of squid or prawns. You’ll only need to marinate them for around 30 minutes, and they will cook in minutes on a hot grill pan. Chunks of monkfish also work very well as its meaty texture won’t fall apart when cooking.
Step 1Place a chicken breast between 2 sheets of baking parchment or cling film. Using a rolling pin, gently bash until it’s evenly flattened to around 0.5-1cm thick. Repeat with the remaining chicken breasts.
Step 2Put the flour, eggs and breadcrumbs in three wide shallow bowls or plates. Season the flour with a good pinch of salt and stir in the paprika. Mix the lemon zest and parmesan into the breadcrumbs.
Step 3Dip a chicken breast into the flour, then the egg, making sure it’s fully coated, and finally into the Parmesan crumbs, also making sure it’s evenly coated. Repeat with the remaining chicken breasts. If you’ve time, chill in the fridge for 30 minutes, for the coating to ‘set’ around the chicken. It’s not essential but just makes the cooking process a little easier and guarantees a crunchier finish.
Step 4Heat enough oil to generously cover the base of one or two large frying pans. If you’ve only one, you’ll need to cook the chicken in batches, so it’s worth setting the oven to low and keeping the schnitzels warm while you cook the remaining ones. Fry the chicken for 3-4 minutes each side, over a medium heat, until golden and crispy. Drain on kitchen paper before serving with wedges of lemon to squeeze over.
Gluten-free: gluten-free flour and breadcrumbs work well for this recipe. Crushed gluten-free cornflakes, tortilla chips or polenta can also be used for adding a crisp crust.
Vegetarian: coat sticks of halloumi in the flour, egg and breadcrumbs (minus the parmesan). Rather than shallow fry as above, they are best deep fried in oil. Be warned, they are exceptionally more-ish.
Flavour swap: swap the paprika for any dried herb or spice, such as Cajun blend, curry powder, chilli powder, oregano, smoked paprika or mustard powder. Switch the Parmesan and lemon for desiccated coconut and lime zest, and use chilli powder instead of paprika.
Step 1Preheat the oven to 240°C/220°C fan/475°F/gas 9. Lightly oil a 23cm ovenproof frying pan or loose-bottomed cake tin.
Step 2Put the flour, yeast, sugar, salt and olive oil in a bowl. Mix together, then stir in the water, bringing the mixture together to form a dough. Turn out onto the worktop and knead for a few minutes until smooth. Press the dough into the oiled tray, pushing into the edges as you go. If you need to make the dough ahead of cooking it, press it into the pan and keep in the fridge until you are ready to add the toppings. I find this very handy when the kids are coming and going, needing feeding at different times.
Step 3Mix together the tomato sauce, passata, or tinned tomatoes, oregano, carrot, courgette, garlic and 1 tbsp of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper then spread over the dough leaving a small border around the edge. Top with the mozzarella either grated or torn into small pieces. At this stage you can add more toppings should you wish.
Step 4Drizzle with olive oil and bake for 20 minutes until the dough is golden around the edges.
Step 1Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/350°F/gas 4.
Step 2Heat the oil in a large saucepan and gently cook the leeks, carrot, celery, rosemary and bay leaf for 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue to cook for a further 5 minutes or until all the vegetables are tender.
Step 3Stir in the tomato purée, Worcestershire sauce, chopped tomatoes, stock and wine. Bring to a simmer and stir in the lentils, quinoa and beans. Stir well and return to a simmer. Cover with a lid and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Step 4Meanwhile, cut the root vegetables into chunks, removing the tough core from the parsnip and cutting the potatoes slightly smaller than the other vegetables (they usually take a little longer to cook than the others). Place in a pan of boiling water and cook for about 10-15 minutes until tender. Drain and mash with the butter and milk and season with salt and pepper.
Step 5Place the pie filling in an ovenproof dish or individual dishes, top with the mash and dot some extra butter on top. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the tops are lightly golden and bubbling at the edges. If you are cooking from chilled, add a further 10 minutes to the cooking time.
Vegan/dairy-free: simply use a dairy-free butter and milk for the topping and make sure the Worcestershire sauce is vegan friendly.
Flavour swap: ring the changes and add a warmth of Moroccan spice to either the Super Veggie Cottage Pie or the classic lamb version. Omit the Worcestershire sauce and rosemary and replace with 1 teaspoon smoked paprika, 1 tsp of ground cumin, ½ tsp of ground cinnamon and 75g/2¾ oz of raisins to the filling.
Step 1Put the apple, cabbage, carrot, onion, celery and fennel in a mixing bowl and toss together.
Step 2In a separate bowl, mix together the lemon juice, tahini, mayonnaise, honey, cumin and yoghurt until smooth. Pour over the vegetables and mix well. Season with salt and pepper.
Step 3Transfer to a serving bowl and scatter with pomegranate seeds and sesame seeds.
Flavour swap: blend together 100g of silken tofu, 3 tbsp of rice vinegar, 3 tbsp of white miso paste, 2 tbsp of pickled ginger, 1 small grated clove garlic, 1 tbsp of toasted sesame oil, 1 tsp of flaked sea salt and 4 tbsp of cold water. Toss into prepared vegetables, such as white cabbage, carrot, spring onions, mooli and chopped coriander. Scatter with sesame seeds.
Step 1Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/400°F/gas 6.
Step 2Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 10-12 minutes until they are almost cooked through. Drain and cool for a few minutes.
Step 3Transfer them to a roasting tray and crush each one lightly so they are just holding their shape but are crumbling at the edges.
Step 4Pour over a generous amount of olive oil and toss to coat. Add the garlic and rosemary and bake for about 40 minutes, tossing occasionally until golden and crunchy.
Step 5Season with salt and serve.
Flavour swap: add 1 tsp of ground cumin, 1 tsp of ground coriander, ½ tsp of chilli powder and ½ tsp of ground turmeric to the roasting tray with the oil, potatoes and garlic. Season when cooked.