Hereâ€™s something that I discovered when we started weaning Oscar: that old chestnut, ‘the baby just eats what you eat’ is a fantasy – at least for the first few months. Unless, of course, you already eat mush for dinner at 5.30pm, or you have a particularly open-minded, adventurous baby who will give anything a try.
My workaround for providing a variety of home-cooked meals for Oscar without going mad was to cook Annabel Karmel dishes in batches and freeze them in small portions. That way, I just had to remember to defrost a couple of items each day. This worked on the whole – although in the scrum of daily life, I often crawled into bed of an evening without going via the freezer. The next morning, I would have to get creative.
For a while, Oscar couldn’t get enough of scrambled eggs, so that was my default meal on days when I had nothing to hand. But one day, he flat-out refused them, and since then he has rejected anything egg-based – which means quick solutions such as omelette also went out of the window. Cheese on toast was another brainwave I had, but when I attempted to feed it to him he was not impressed, probably by the cheese’s rubbery texture. So on particularly uninspired days, I would end up spreading the contents of an Ella’s Kitchen pouch onto pitta bread and feeding him that as a sandwich. And of course, weâ€™ll always have finger food (and cruditĂ©s).
However, on more inventive days, I would improvise – and here are the best dishes I’ve come up with so far for satisfying a hungry baby or toddler straight from the fridge. Iâ€™ve left the quantities fairly vague, because otherwise youâ€™d be faffing about weighing out piddling quantities of ingredients. I’d love to expand my repertoire with your recipe recommendations, so leave me a comment below!
Smoked mackerel pĂ˘tĂ©
We all know it’s a good idea to coax our babies to try new flavours – but it’s also so difficult! Particularly with flavours as strong as smoked mackerel. This recipe uses just a hint of it. Again, you can make an adult version of this using extra smoked mackerel and a dollop of horseradish sauce.
Peel and finely grate a small piece of cucumber, then drain in a fine sieve, squeezing out excess moisture using the back of a spoon (or wring the grated cucumber in a clean tea towel). Flake the smoked mackerel and check for tiny bones using your fingers. Then stir together the cucumber and mackerel with about 3 tablespoons of Greek yoghurt and a squeeze of lemon juice. Either serve it with the toast alongside, or make a sandwich using the toast, cutting it up into manageable squares.
Super-speedy spinach and sweet potato pasta
Funnily enough, most of the babies I know go nuts for quite earthy vegetables like broccoli and spinach. But they also tend to love sweet potato. This is a great combination of the two.
Bring a little water to the boil in a pan. Add a steaming basket to the pan. Grate a small pile of sweet potato into the basket using a fine grater. Steam for 3-4 minutes, or until tender, then add two large handfuls of spinach leaves and a spoonful or two of frozen peas and steam until the spinach has wilted and the peas are warmed through. Drain the mixture through a fine sieve, squeezing excess water from the spinach and mashing the peas using the back of a spoon. At the same time, cook five teaspoons of baby pasta according to the packet instructions, until tender. Chop or blend the spinach and sweet potato mixture, then stir in a couple of teaspoonfuls of cream cheese and the cooked pasta. Loosen with a little stock (for flavour) or boiling water (for ease) if necessary. (NB: this makes enough for a couple of dishes and it tastes great cold with couscous and chopped avocado – another quick lifesaver.)
Oscarâ€™s so fussy about eggs, but even he will eat this cross between a frittata and a pasta bake. The good thing about this dish is that is appetising enough for adults to polish off if need be, and it doesnâ€™t feel as degrading for us to eat as, say, mushed vegetables.
Preheat the oven to 150C. Boil a handful baby pasta until almost al dente, then add a handful of frozen peas to the pan for the last couple of minutes. Drain and transfer to a small ovenproof dish. Add a chopped slice of ham to the dish. Beat an egg with a large splash or two of milk and a tablespoon of Greek yoghurt (or cream cheese), then pour the mixture over the pasta. Sprinkle some grated cheese on top. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes, until just cooked through (grill the cheese topping just before serving to brown, if you like).
Oscar loves tomatoes. For breakfast at the weekend, Juan and I have this mixture on toast with jamĂłn (if we’re lucky), and Oscar gets a bowl of gazpacho.
Blend 3-4 ripe tomatoes, a small piece of cucumber and 1 small garlic clove in a jug using a stick blender, until smooth. Add a little extra virgin olive oil to loosen, as necessary. Depending on how easily your baby handles lumps, either pour the gazpacho into a bowl and dunk small cubes of white bread (from a nice, crusty loaf) into it to soak, or blend the bread cubes into the soup, to thicken.
Fruit and custard
This might horrify some of you, but when desperate I have given Oscar custard for dinner. Obviously, I haven’t had any complaints from him so far… I’ve tried making it without the sugar, but it’s gross, so I now include it – you could try adding honey at the end in place of sugar (for babies over a year). Add other pieces of chopped, cold fruit (such as ripe pear, orange or raspberries) to the finished dish, for texture.
In a bowl, mash a handful of blueberries with half a ripe banana. In a small saucepan, mix one tablespoon of Birdâ€™s custard powder with one tablespoon of brown sugar and a splash of (ideally hot) milk to form a smooth paste. Gradually whisk in 200-250ml of hot milk until the custard is smooth and thick. Pour the custard mixture over the fruit. Top with chopped fruit. Allow to cool slightly before serving.
Chickpea and butter bean mash
This is a creamier, subtler version of hummus that’s ready in minutes. Oscar loves bread, so anything with pitta attached usually gets his vote. To avoid being left with half a tin of chickpeas and beans, make a larger batch of this mixture and gorge accordingly – adults find it just as tasty.
Boil the chickpeas, beans and one small garlic clove in water for 5 minutes, then drain. Blend or mash to your baby’s preferred texture. Stir in 3-4 tablespoons of Greek yoghurt, a squeeze of lemon juice and a teaspoon or so of tahini (for babies over 12 months). Serve with pitta bread fingers for ‘dipping’. Season the adultsâ€™ portion with salt.
What dishes do you knock up for your baby or toddler in a pinch?