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Getting children involved in meal prep a recipe for success

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TORONTO -- The relentlessness of daily meal preparation, along with a thirst for nutritional knowledge to boost their children's health, led two urban moms with successful careers in the fashion industry to launch a website to help other parents with the same challenges.

Laura Keogh and Ceri Marsh had children at the same time. As journalists at Fashion magazine, they found themselves researching topics surrounding children's nutrition and lamenting the fact the information was not all in one place. This led to the establishment of The Sweet Potato Chronicles website, where they could pass on recipes and food facts to other parents.

"It was a way to take our professional skills and life stages and marry them. We thought, 'We have something that we can bring to this conversation about food,'" says Marsh, 45.

"There's so much stress around food, what we're feeding our kids, not just the health form, which is obviously important, but how am I going to do it? How am I going to get home from work, make dinner and then get them to eat it?

"So we just thought there was maybe something that we could bring to the table. And then coming from the world that we did we always wanted it to look amazing too, so that was always a huge priority for us, the design of the site and the quality of the photography," which is done by Maya Visnyei.

The Sweet Potato Chronicles went live in spring 2010 and they were approached by Appetite by Random House two years later about writing a cookbook. In the just-released How to Feed a Family: The Sweet Potato Chronicles Cookbook, they provide more than 100 of their favourite family-friendly recipes.

There are sections on breakfast, brunch, lunch-box meals, snacks, dinners and desserts, all of which have been given a healthy twist. They also provide tips on picky eating and nutrition.

The best advice the two can offer other parents is to get kids involved in meal prep and planning at an early age, something they have practised with their own children. Keogh's daughter Scarlett is six, while Marsh has two children -- Esme, 6, and Julian, whose fourth birthday is Oct. 1.

"If you take the job on as the sole cook for the family, you're going to burn out, you're going to be exhausted, you're going to feel resentful," says Marsh.

"It's important for kids to learn about food. It helps them be better eaters and also it's just a really great way to be together, so we really, really encourage people to take kids to the market, get them to choose a vegetable, something new, get them in the kitchen doing whatever they can."

Turn a blind eye to the initial mess, she adds. "It will be slow and messy, but it really pays off."

Even when your children are too young to take part, talk to them about what you're making. As they become toddlers, devise fun projects around cooking they can help with, says Keogh, 43.

"They're far more invested in a meal that they had a hand in preparing and it really builds self-esteem and there's all sorts of life skills you can weave in," says Marsh, with Keogh adding her daughter Scarlett has blossomed with the praise she and her husband heap on the shy youngster when she's worked hard to prepare a meal.

Picky eating can be frustrating, but avoid labelling the behaviour. "As with a lot of things with parenting, as soon as you give a kid a label, you're kind of sunk. And most of these things are phases," says Marsh.

Each family has its own approach -- have kids eat one bite of everything or just eat all the vegetables, for example. The more easygoing you can be about it, the better. Just keep offering.

"You have to admit you have your own likes and dislikes and allow for it," says Marsh, who acknowledges she still doesn't like brussels sprouts. "I don't care how many times my mother offers me brussels sprouts. I don't like them, Mom. Stop.

"A lot of it is about our own feelings. We get hurt when they don't want to eat what we've made."

Keogh says this is yet another great reason to have children help in the kitchen, because they will then understand the effort that goes into putting that food on the table.

Any planning and prep that can be done ahead will go a long way in making life easier.

When preparing a meal, make extra and freeze it or serve it for lunch the next day.

"I try to dedicate at least an hour, if not two, of every Sunday to something that will help me during the week," says Marsh. This can include making muffins, tomato sauce, quiche or mini meat loaves.

"I think that's a huge thing so that you're not constantly reacting at 4:30 -- 'Uh-oh, what am I grabbing on the way home."'

Keogh plans breakfast, too. Her family often wakes up to oatmeal prepared overnight in a slow cooker. They mix in nuts, chia seeds or dried fruit for an extra nutritional punch. She makes a double batch of pancakes on Sunday and toasts leftovers the first few days of the week.

Marsh -- who co-authored The Fabulous Girl's Guide to Decorum and The Fabulous Girl's Code Red with Kim Izzo, which started off as a weekly manners column in The Globe and Mail -- says she and her husband try to instil in their children that food is an adventure.

"If you are an adventurous eater, then you can travel, you can go to a friend's house, you can go to restaurants. It's fun and cool to be open-minded," says Marsh.

"Kids can naturally be a bit cautious and skeptical around food and it can make them a bit anxious, so we try to stress the fun and the world-opening qualities of food."

The kid-friendly recipes featured here are from How to Feed a Family: The Sweet Potato Chronicles Cookbook by Laura Keogh and Ceri Marsh.


Sweet Potato Mac and Cheese

250 ml (1 cup) sweet potato puree

750 ml (3 cups) whole-wheat macaroni

50 ml (1/4 cup) butter

30 ml (2 tbsp) all-purpose flour

500 ml (2 cups) milk

250 ml (1 cup) shredded cheddar cheese

125 ml (1/2 cup) grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper, to taste

250 ml (1 cup) frozen peas


Cook pasta according to package instructions.

In a large heavy saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Sprinkle flour over butter, stir and let cook for a minute or two. Slowly add milk, stirring continually to keep lumps from forming. If it's not thickening, increase heat slightly. Add cheeses and stir as they melt. Add pureed sweet potato and stir well to combine. Taste before seasoning with salt and pepper.

In the last 2 minutes of the pasta's cooking time, add frozen peas. Drain pasta and peas in a sieve. Pour cooked pasta and peas into pot with sauce and give everything a good stir. Serve straight from the pot into bowls.

Preparation time: 20 minutes. Total time: 20 minutes. Makes 8 servings.


Mini Kale and Parmesan Quiche with Phyllo Pastry Crust

30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil, plus extra for brushing

50 ml (1/4 cup) chopped onion

3 cloves garlic, chopped

750 g (1 1/2 lb) kale

4 sheets phyllo pastry

5 eggs

175 ml (3/4 cup) milk

125 ml (1/2 cup) grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper, to taste


Pesto: In a large frying pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saut© until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add kale and coat with oil mixture. Cover and let kale wilt until tough stems are tender, 6 to 8 minutes.

Remove kale from pan and place in a food processor. Process until it has the texture of a fine pesto.

Quiche: Cut 4 sheets of phyllo into 4 equal-size squares. Layer phyllo squares one by one into 4 large ramekins, brushing each layer of pastry lightly with oil. (Keep phyllo sheets between two moist dish towels to prevent them from drying out when you're not working with them.)

In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs. Add milk, then Parmesan and mix until blended. Add kale pesto and stir to combine well. Season with salt and pepper.

Pour egg mixture into ramekins, leaving about 5 mm (1/4 inch) at the top. Place ramekins on a baking sheet and then place on the middle rack of the oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until firm. Remove from baking sheet and let ramekins cool before serving to little hands.

Preparation time: 10 minutes. Total time: 50 minutes. Makes 4 servings.


Kitchen-Sink Granola Bars

125 ml (1/2 cup) packed brown sugar

125 ml (1/2 cup) old-fashioned oats

75 ml (1/3 cup) oat flour (if you don't have it, process 75 ml or 1/3 cup old-fashioned oats in food processor for a few minutes)

50 ml (1/4 cup) flax meal

125 ml (1/2 cup) dried apricots, chopped quite fine

125 ml (1/2 cup) dried cranberries, chopped

75 ml (1/3 cup) pecans, finely chopped

50 ml (1/4 cup) vegetable oil

50 ml (1/4 cup) maple syrup

30 ml (2 tbsp) brown rice syrup or corn syrup


Heat oven to 180 C (350 F). Line a 28-by-18-cm (11-by-7-inch) cake pan with parchment paper, leaving enough overhang to lift out granola bars later.

In a bowl, mix together sugar, oats, oat flour, flax meal, apricots, cranberries and pecans. Make sure fruits and nuts are evenly distributed.

In a large bowl, mix together vegetable oil and both syrups.

Pour dry ingredients on top of wet and stir to combine thoroughly. Dump mixture into prepared pan. Use the back of a spoon to spread it out evenly.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Keep an eye on the pan at the end -- you want the mixture to just begin to brown. Let cool for about 10 minutes before lifting out parchment. Rest parchment on counter and let mixture cool completely. Cut into 4-by-7.5-cm (1 1/2-by-3-inch) bars. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Preparation time: 20 minutes. Total time: 1 hour. Makes 24 bars.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 11, 2013 C1


Updated on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 7:00 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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