When chef Lauren Cheney’s baby, Oscar, was born with a rare and life-long immune disorder, to try and help her son get the very best start in life, she threw herself into researching the thing she knew best – food.
The result of all her hard work became the Smart Baby Cookbook, an empowering go-to guide to help all parents as they try to feed their young children well. Ni4kids caught up with Lauren for inspiration on how to make nutritious meals easy for the busy budget-conscious family…
After the shock of watching her son fighting for his life in intensive care for many weeks after his birth, Lauren devoted herself to gathering advice from doctors and specialists and reading the latest research into nutrition for the immune health and brain health of infants. Oscar’s condition leaves him forever vulnerable to infections and she was determined to ensure that once he reached weaning stage, he would get the best nutrition for boosting infant immunity and building neural pathways. But what was the crucial information that she uncovered during her studies which made her want to share her new-found knowledge with other parents?
Lauren explains, “The lightbulb moment was learning that nutrition has been identified as one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, environmental influence during the first 1000 days of baby’s life, that can have a significant and long-lasting effect on health, cognition, ability and predisposition towards disease. It further cements the need to bridge the gap between what the medical world knows and wants us to know but has not yet reached the wider community.
“When we have our first baby, we are so excited to learn all about milestones and what are the best developmental toys and sleeping aids etc. We are definitely informed about the importance of breastfeeding, but we do seem to lack highlighting the significance of diet once baby starts to eat solid foods within this small and sensitive development window and the far-reaching health consequences on the developing body and brain. I want every parent to know that they have the potential to write an optimal health blueprint that can help prevent certain lifestyle diseases, build immunity and support healthy brain development in their children.”
She adds, “There is no doubt that colonisation of the gut plays a major role in the postnatal development and maturation of the immune and endocrine* systems [*the collection of glands that produce hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and development among other things]. However, what is not more commonly known is that this also has implications for the brain.
During early childhood, the epigenetic machinery of the brain is highly sensitive to environmental factors such as nutrition. Half of the food a baby or small child consumes goes toward nourishing and sustaining their brain activity.
“I was amazed by the results of several long term Australian studies on infant nutrition and cognitive development. To surmise, the studies showed that a child’s diet during the first two years has a significant long-term effect on their cognitive abilities. The study went on to point out that the brain reaches 80 per cent of its adult weight during the first two years of life. In essence, the results of this study found that what we feed our children in the first few years really does impact their cognitive outcomes.”
“I wanted to arm parents with the latest nutritional information and break it down into a relatable and achievable format. It is my hope that this book is used as a resource to help parents set their children on a path of good health right from their very first foods.”
Aside from the science behind smart foods, does Lauren believe we parents make life much more difficult for ourselves by thinking we must cook separately for baby? “Most definitely! I’m not exactly sure when or why we moved away from shared family meals and the health benefits they bring compared to being “short order cooks” to our children. I suspect it is because we have become busier, with most families comprising of two working parents who cannot always find the time to sit down and share one meal. Couple this with the belief that children’s food should be ‘dulled down’ to suit their young palates and I think this is why we find ourselves cooking separate meals.
“Since babies learn through the exploration of texture, taste, smell and appearance of food, I believe we need to be feeding our children with flavoursome, nutritious, colourful and tactile meals that help stimulate those rapidly growing neural pathways, whilst also building a robust microbiome.
One way in which to achieve this is to serve shared meals. There are numerous health, time-saving and budgeting benefits from cooking only one meal per evening, bringing the whole family together over a shared dining experience.
“I developed the Smart Baby Cookbook with time-poor parents in mind. I want to show that keeping your family healthy doesn’t need to be laborious, confusing or costly. It really incorporates the ethos of one meal for all; big and small. Ingredients are kept simple by using fresh herbs for flavour and all ingredients can be easily found at your local supermarket. Besides the health benefits, parents will broaden their little one’s palate, help prevent future fussiness and encourage a love of healthy food. For me, food means family and shared meals deliver a wonderful bonding moment and a little meal time magic!”
Yoghurt Blueberry Pikelets
Making time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 10 Minutes
I don’t think there is a kid in the world who doesn’t love pikelets, and that includes all of us big kids too. Yoghurt, cinnamon and blueberries make this a nutritious breakfast or afternoon snack.
• 150 g (5½ oz/1 cup) plain (all-purpose) wholemeal flour (GF if desired)
• 2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 eggs
• 390 g (14 oz/1½ cups) Greek-style yoghurt
• 2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
• 155 g (5½ oz/1 cup) blueberries
• Butter, for cooking
• Maple syrup, to serve
Sift together the flour, bicarbonate of soda and cinnamon in a large bowl. Add the eggs, yoghurt and vanilla and whisk to a smooth batter. If lumpy, strain through a sieve. Fold in the blueberries, then set aside to rest for at least 10 minutes. Melt one tablespoon of butter in a non-stick frying pan over low heat. Pour in a cupful of mix to make your pikelet. Cook until air bubbles start to appear on the surface. Flip the pikelet and cook until golden brown on both sides.
Cut up for finger food.
All Grown UP:
Drizzle with maple syrup.
An important probiotic, Greek-style yoghurt has more protein and less sugar than regular yoghurt.
Supercharged Shepherd’s Pie
Making time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
This family favourite has been given a smart makeover. Packed with veggies and flavour, this dish is bound to make you smile!
• 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 2 onions, finely chopped
• 1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
• 1 red capsicum (pepper), deseeded and finely chopped
• 2 garlic cloves, crushed
• 2 fresh thyme sprigs, leaves picked and finely chopped
• 1 sprig fresh rosemary, leaves picked and finely chopped
• 500 g (1lb /2oz) lean minced (ground) lamb
• 2 tablespoons wholemeal plain (all-purpose) flour (GF if desired)
• 3 tablespoons tomato paste
• 250 ml (9fl oz/1 cup) salt-reduced chicken stock (GF if desired)
• 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (GF if desired)
• 140 g (5oz/1 cup) tinned four-bean mix, rinsed
• 140 g (5oz/1 cup) frozen peas and corn mixture
2 large sweet potatoes (about 1 kg/2 lb 4 oz), peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons Greek-style yoghurt
1 tablespoon butter
A generous pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
50 g (1¾ oz/½ cup) grated parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
To prepare the topping, put the sweet potato in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Boil over high heat for 15–20 minutes until tender, then drain and mash the potato with the yoghurt, butter and nutmeg until smooth. Set aside.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a flameproof casserole dish and fry the onion, carrot and capsicum over medium heat for about 5 minutes until they start to soften. Add the garlic, thyme and rosemary and stir for a further minute. Stir in the lamb, breaking up any lumps, until browned. Pour the contents into a sieve to drain off any excess fat.
Return the lamb mixture to the casserole dish on the stovetop. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for a few minutes until the flour just starts to colour. Add the paste, stock, Worcestershire sauce, beans, peas and corn. Cover and simmer over low heat until the veggies have softened and the sauce has thickened.
Spread the topping on top of the lamb mixture, scatter with parmesan and bake for 30 minutes uncovered or until the topping starts to brown. Leave for at least 5 minutes to cool down before serving.
Purée to the desired consistency, or mash and roll into small balls for a soft finger-food option. Ensure the beans are well mashed before feeding baby.
ALL GROWN UP:
Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with lemon zest for an extra kick.
Super Power Pesto
With a concentrated mix of powerful nutrients, this versatile pesto can flavour pasta, meats, vegetables, or even seafood. Avocado, walnut oil and turmeric combine to make this extract SMART addition to baby’s diet.
1 large bunch mint, leaves picked
1 garlic clove, crushed
100 ml (3½ fl oz) walnut oil
40g (1½ oz/ ¼ cup) pine nuts
25g (1oz/ ¼ cup) grated Parmesan cheese
¼ teaspoon turmeric
Mix all ingredients together in a food processor until a creamy paste forms.
Mint promotes digestion and eases indigestion; great for gut health
Smart Baby Cookbook by Lauren Cheney is available from February 8, 2018. Published by Murdoch Books. HB RRP £14.99.
©Photography by Larisa Blinova.