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Over the last decade, tens of millions of people across the UK have moved towards a flexitarian or plant-based diet. Today, almost 50% of the country are regularly buying plant-based food products, but we know there’s still a huge amount of confusion around all sorts of things from what a balanced meal looks like, to where plant-protein comes from – and how to include sufficient amounts of calcium and iron into your diet, especially for children.
Only one in four adults manage to eat their five a day. Plus, only half of us get our recommended fibre intake and almost 60% of our calories come from ultra-processed food. As a nation, our diets aren’t in great shape – especially when you hear that 71% of deaths around the world are caused by diseases linked to our lifestyles (according to The WHO). Ultimately, we need to shift to a natural, plant-rich (it doesn’t need to be 100% plant-based) diet and data shows that those on plant-based diets are at reduced risk of the common diseases, like type 2 diabetes, total cancer incidences, heart disease, high cholesterol and obesity. The list goes on…
Plant-based cooking is for everyone. The British Dietetic Association days “If the nutritional intake is well-planned, a balanced vegan diet can be enjoyed by children and adults, including during pregnancy”. That’s not to say it’s what everyone needs to do, but it’s worth noting that it can be healthy. It’s important to be armed with information, whether you’re vegetarian or vegan, which is why we worked with a specialist paediatric dietician on the family chapter in our book. It has all the information you need for toddlers to teenagers.
Cooking with your children is a good way to introduce them to vegan food. Involving my girls in the kitchen really helps – it always makes them more open minded to the end result. I also find they’re more willing to try things if we’re eating with them, and it takes the pressure off because you don’t feel like you’re wasting time cooking something they might totally reject.
My veggie meatballs made with dried mushrooms, cannellini beans and breadcrumbs is a winner. I’m also a big fan of our root vegetable and black bean pie, which is perfect for meals with lots of little people. The family favourites chapter has all my staples in it.
Packed lunches are a great way to make plant-based food exciting. I like to make a variety of tasty dips for the kids, which is an easy way to add flavour with minimal effort. I make a big batch at the start of the week, like our herby butter bean dip with thyme, parsley and garlic. Another favourite is the roasted walnut and red pepper dip.
Don’t force your kids if they’re not keen on lots of veg. A good tip is to centre your cooking on plant-based food, but allow for other protein on the side, so everyone can dip into what works for them. For example, make our zingy 30-minute curry with tofu, baby corn, coconut milk and edamame, and have prawns or chicken on the side, instead of making a prawn or chicken curry with just a small amount of veg.
Cooking for fussy eaters can be tricky, but that’s completely normal. We put so much pressure on ourselves as parents and everyone is just trying their best. Remember that simple dishes are often the most delicious. One pot or tray wonders make the world of difference; finding those staples that you can come back to time and time again really helps.
Summer is my favourite time of year for seasonal cooking. Right now, I’ve got three dishes on rotation using my favourite seasonal ingredients. Our one-pot Mediterranean pasta with olives, capers, chilli, chopped tomato and parsley; our simple one tray baked ratatouille with garlic, thyme, balsamic, aubergine and courgettes; and a summer tray bake with sourdough croutons, fresh basil, tahini dressing and red onion.
Every kitchen should have lots of different herbs and spices, and plenty of tinned pulses. A variety of grains is also key (like oats, orzo and rice), as is a freezer packed full of veggies like peas, edamame and spinach. You don’t need any fancy gadgets, but I rely on my NutriBullet for lots of recipes.
With this new cookbook, I wanted to create the ultimate resource for plant-based cooking. It includes information from doctors, dieticians, and nutritionists, alongside 100 delicious and easy recipes. There’s a big focus on one-pan and one-pot recipes, as well as mid-week staples – so there’s something for everyone.
Inspired? Here are three of Ella’s favourite plant-based recipes…
Courgette & Herb Fritters
These are a go-to recipe on busy days. The mint, parsley, spring onions and garlic give the courgettes lots of flavour, and the gram (chickpea) flour adds great plant protein too.
Sprinkle a little salt over the courgettes, place in a colander and set aside to drain for 15 minutes.
Sift the flour and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. Add the nutritional yeast, spring onion, garlic, parsley, and mint.
Squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the courgettes and add them to the bowl. Season to taste and stir the mixture to combine, ensuring that no dry patches of flour remain.
Heat a little of the oil in a large, non-stick frying pan. Add tablespoons of the mixture and flatten into 1cm-thick patties, spacing them a little apart. Cook for 4–5 minutes on each side, until crisp and golden. Keep warm under a tea towel and repeat with the remaining mixture.
Note: Courgettes hold a lot of water so it’s important to really squeeze out as much liquid as you can before adding them to the fritter mixture. Letting them sit with the salt at the start really helps get that extra liquid out too, so don’t skip that step!
Veggie Meatballs with Tomato Sauce
Note: For toddlers, skip the tamari – it’s high in salt.
Preheat the oven to 180°C and lightly oil a baking sheet. Put the mushrooms into a cup, cover with boiling water and set aside to rehydrate.
Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion and carrot and cook over a very low heat for 8–10 minutes, until softened. Stir the mixture occasionally and add a splash of water if it looks like it might catch.
Once the vegetables are soft, add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, then stir in the tomato purée and remove from the heat.
Drain the mushrooms and roughly chop. Blend in a food processor with half the cooked vegetables, the beans, basil, nutritional yeast, oregano, tamari and breadcrumbs to create a thick paste.
Using wet hands, roll the paste into 16 balls, transfer to the baking sheet and bake for 18–20 minutes, until golden and firm at the edges.
While the meatballs are cooking, return the saucepan to the heat and add the paprika. Cook for 1 minute, then pour in the tomatoes, half a can of water and the vinegar. Simmer for 10-12 minutes, until thickened and reduced. Season to taste.
Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti according to the instructions on the pack, then drain well. Toss the spaghetti in the sauce, then serve in bowls, adding the meatballs on top. Scatter over extra basil to finish.
The Perfect Cookie, Two Ways
These cookies are perfectly crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside and completely addictive. I’ve made them two ways for you, one version has dark chocolate and sea salt, the other has cinnamon and raisins.
Note: You can split the batch of dough in half and make some of each version. Just be sure to halve the quantity of the chocolate or raisin ingredients you add to each batch.
Preheat the oven to 180°C fan and line 2 baking trays with baking parchment.
Mix the flour, almonds, sugar, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl. Then stir in the melted coconut oil, oat milk and vanilla to form a dough.
Add the dark chocolate or the raisin and cinnamon (or see Note, below) and mix well to combine.
With wet hands, roll the cookie dough into 15 balls (about a tablespoon of mix for each one) and divide between the two trays, making sure to leave plenty of space between them as they spread out a lot when cooking. Gently flatten them a little.
If you’re making the salted chocolate version, sprinkle over some salt.
Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on the tray. They’ll finish setting while they cool. I think they’re most delicious about an hour later when they’re perfectly chewy.
Once cool, store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.