Cooking family meals beneficial all round

Author Pam Brook (centre) and chefs Sarah Swan and Sam Gowing. PHOTOS: ALAN BENSON
Author Pam Brook (centre) and chefs Sarah Swan and Sam Gowing. PHOTOS: ALAN BENSON
In an effort to ease parents’ concerns about what they can feed their children in their first years of life, Pam Brooks has attempted to demystify food allergies and inspire people to cook at home.

In We Can All Eat That, the former dentist and mother, turned macadamia farmer has drawn together some experts and research to help give some practical advice on navigating the world of allergies. This is an edited extract.

THE BOOK: We Can All Eat That, by Pam Brook, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $45
THE BOOK: We Can All Eat That, by Pam Brook, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $45

Home cooking creates healthier families

Over the years I’ve seen many extreme food trends come and go. There’s been a dramatic increase in the variety of processed foods available. This increase seemingly offers more choice but has in fact narrowed the range and reduced the nutritional value of the food we are giving to our children.

As a result, there has also been an increasing move away from home cooking. Advertisers and marketers have lured us into believing its an easier and better choice to buy takeaway or processed food because we’re busy. Then in 2020 came the Covid-19 pandemic and many people changed their cooking and eating practices overnight. When people all around the world went into isolation during the pandemic, they started cooking at home because they had to, and discovered that home cooking really can be affordable, fun and delicious.

The benefits of home cooking

There are so many reasons to cook and enjoy food at home with your family — nutritional, financial and social. For starters, families who cook at home tend to eat a healthier diet with more fresh fruit and vegetables and fewer processed and junk foods. But cooking at home isn’t just about creating healthier, more nutritious meals. As well as making good food choices, its about the other benefits that flow when your family cooks and eats together. At my house, the family shares meals, conversation and our daily highs and lows around the dinner table. It’s a way of life and cooking that inspires me, as well as chefs Sarah Swan and Sam Gowing, every day.

My kids and grandchildren have been around me in the kitchen since they were 6 months old. Children learn about food by sight, touch, taste, feel and smell, and by being part of the preparation process. Children who help to cook, experience a range of flavours and are more likely to eat foods they have helped make or, better yet, grow and become more adventurous eaters. When children help to cook it can start with the simplest fun things, such as licking the bowl or spoon, passing the veges or peeling the banana. Forget perfect presentation, forget perfect attention to detail — just make it fun and delicious.

The many reasons why people don’t cook — no time, nothing in the fridge, I’m a lousy cook — can usually be overcome with a little planning. If you’re time-poor (and who isn’t?), it’s a good idea to plan ahead for ingredients. You could even create a meal plan for the week on Sunday and work up a shopping list. Shopping with a purpose means you’re likely to only buy what you need, thereby saving money and reducing waste. As well, shopping only for what is in season means you get the highest quality produce at the lowest price.

If you don’t have many opportunities to cook, when you do get around to it perhaps cook a large batch and freeze some for later. Make sure you label the container with the contents and date.

You can also find creative ways to cook with leftovers.

Home cooking for children with allergies

Most adults and children are allergy-free and this means having a huge range of choices. However, a small but growing number of both children and adults have food allergies. The good news is that 90% of children don’t, and many children who are severely affected in their early years can outgrow it. Most children with cow’s milk, wheat, egg or soy allergies will outgrow them , but many children who are allergic to shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts will have to manage their allergy for the rest of their lives, or until research finds new treatments and cures.

If your child has allergies you will need to prepare meals that fit their needs, but these meals can often still work for all the family. It’s so much easier when everyone in the house is eating the same meal — one that can be easily adapted for different ages or needs. Most of the recipes in this book are designed to be served to the whole family, with a few tweaks to make them suitable for babies or toddlers.

If your child has allergies, it’s all the more reason to cook with fresh ingredients at home, so you know where your food comes from as well as everything it contains. In each recipe in this book, we have listed all the food allergens and optional food allergens, and we give you many alternatives if you need to exclude an ingredient. Of course there are some great resources, cookbooks and recipes out there, written specifically for people with allergies and/or food intolerances, which I encourage you to look up if you need more help or ideas.

Eating together

Home-cooked family meals and eating together are good for the mind, body and soul. They can make your family feel more connected more than almost any other activity can. It’s not just me saying that. Medical researchers have observed that families who regularly eat home-cooked meals together (five times per week or more) have been found to be happier and healthier and to eat less processed foods, sugar and junk food.

Eating meals together teaches your children that mealtimes are both a family tradition and an essential daily routine. Children of all ages love the connection that happens at family meals. Often everyone’s busy doing their own thing during the day, so dinner (or weekend lunch) is a special time when everyone can be together. It helps your children to feel positive about food and eating as a shared experience. What’s not at the table is just as important — no screens, cellphones or tablets. It’s family time!

Mealtimes should not be a battleground about food. Avoid giving your children too many snacks before dinner, and be firm but fair, and flexible, about kids finishing everything on their plate I still have an aversion to overcooked green beans from a time when my mum insisted I eat everything on the plate! Parents need to be the leaders. People say that if the child observes a parent being fussy, they may be fussy too, but none of us are perfect, so just do the best you can.

Bubble and squeak

Kitchen recycling? Bottom of the refrigerator breakfast or dinner? Whatever you choose to call it, bubble and squeak is not only delicious but makes great sense.

Use leftovers and some of those vegetables that are still fresh but don’t quite make the salad grade. Roasted or steamed left-over veges are easy to digest, and add extra flavour.

We love our bubble and squeak served with soft scrambled eggs (make sure they’re thoroughly cooked through for children under 2) and often cook a little diced ham (omit for babies) through it as well.

Serves 6-8

Prep time 5 minutes
Cooking time 8 minutes

8 medium-size cooked potatoes, mashed roughly with a fork (or use any leftover cooked root vegetable, e.g. carrot, pumpkin/squash, swede/rutabaga) an equal volume of shredded greens, such as kale, English spinach, cabbage or chard

sea salt (omit for babies)

freshly ground black pepper (just a tiny amount for babies)

1 Tbsp plain (all-purpose) flour (substitute with gluten-free flour if family members are gluten intolerant or coeliac)

40g ghee, butter or nut oil


Mix the potatoes and greens together in a large bowl and season lightly with salt and pepper. Mix through the flour.

Place a medium-large frying pan over medium-high heat and add a good dollop of ghee, butter or your nut oil of choice. When the pan is hot, add the vegetables.

Press the mixture down firmly with a spoon, reduce the heat slightly and cook for a further 2 minutes without touching - you want a nice crust to form underneath.

Carefully fold the bubble and squeak over in large sections so the crusty bottom comes to the top.

Cook for a further 2 minutes, then serve.

Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.


For younger babies: Thin the mixture with a tablespoon of water or milk of your choice before pureeing until smooth. Allow to cool before serving.

For older babies: Add a tablespoon of water or milk of your choice and mash to a lumpy texture. Allow to cool before serving.

For toddlers: Chop into pieces and allow to cool before serving.

Chicken curry with yoghurt and mint

Here’s another gentle curry that’s so easy to prepare. There are no hot spices, so it’s perfect for baby and toddler.

If you want to spice it up, add a chilli to the spice paste at the beginning. Serve with poppadoms and a side dish of red lentil dal.

Serves 5-6

Prep time 10 minutes
Cooking time 35 minutes


10g (½ cup) mint leaves

1 red onion, coarsely chopped

2 garlic cloves (just a tiny amount for babies)

1 tsp coarsely chopped fresh ginger

2 Tbsp ghee or macadamia oil

1 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp garam masala (just a tiny amount for babies)

125g (½ cup) plain yoghurt

2 small zucchini, coarsely chopped

2 tomatoes, coarsely chopped

1kg skinless boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces

155g (1 cup) frozen peas, defrosted

salt (omit for babies)

To serve

coarsely-chopped mint

coriander leaves, coarsely chopped

steamed rice

lime cheeks


To make the spice paste, blend the mint, onion, garlic and ginger to a smooth paste in a blender or food processor. Add a little oil if it’s too dry.

Heat a large heavy-based saucepan over medium heat and add the ghee. When the ghee is hot add the spice paste. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring gently, until soft and fragrant.

Add the turmeric and garam masala and cook for another 2 minutes.

Add the yoghurt, zucchini and tomatoes and cook for a further 3 minutes until the liquid starts to reduce.

Add the chicken and stir it through to coat it in the mixture.

Cover and cook on low heat for 20 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through.

Add the peas for the final 5 minutes - you may want to leave the lid off at this stage to reduce the liquid, but leave enough so the curry has its own delicious sauce. (Set aside baby’s portion now.)

Season the dish with salt to taste. Top with the chopped mint and coriander and serve with the steamed rice and lime cheeks. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.


For younger babies: Puree with rice until smooth. Serve with a swirl of yoghurt, if desired. Allow to cool before serving.

For older babies: This makes great finger food. Make sure the ingredients are finely chopped to avoid choking hazards. Crumble poppadoms (if using), as these can be sharp. Allow to cool before serving.

For toddlers: Serve as for adults, but allow to cool before serving.

Pumpkin and almond slice

This is a delicious recipe for all ages, as a mid-morning coffee break or pick-me-up, and it’s great in lunch boxes or as a first cake for older babies.

We prefer to use butternut pumpkin (squash) for its natural sweetness, but it’s fine to use a different variety.

Makes 24 pieces

Prep time 10 minutes

Cooking time 50 minutes

½ butternut pumpkin (squash), makes about 375g (1½ cups) mashed pumpkin

250g butter, softened

230g (1 firmly packed cup) brown sugar

225g (1½ cups) plain (all-purpose) flour (substitute gluten-free flour if family members are gluten intolerant or coeliac)

185g (2 cups) quick oats

4 eggs, beaten

80g (½ cup) almonds (skin on), ground or very finely chopped

1 Tbsp maple syrup

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger (just a tiny amount for babies)

½ tsp ground nutmeg (just a tiny amount for babies)

½ tsp salt (omit for babies)


Peel the pumpkin and cut it into chunks. Steam for 10 minutes, until the pumpkin can be easily pierced with a knife, then mash with a potato masher - don’t puree, as you want to keep some texture.

Heat the oven to 180degC. Line a 23cm x 33cm shallow baking/slice tin.

Whisk the butter and brown sugar using an electric mixer until light and creamy. Stir in the flour and oats. Add the egg to the mixture, along with the mashed pumpkin and remaining ingredients. Mix gently for another 15 seconds or until just combined.

Pour the mixture into the tin (the mixture should be about 2cm deep), then bake for 40 minutes. When cooked it should be lightly browned and a skewer inserted into the slice should come out clean.

Allow to cool on a wire rack. Serve cut into squares.

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.


For younger babies: Babies 7 months plus who can chew or gum their food, this is a lovely soft, smooth slice.

For older babies: Break off small pieces of the slice to serve.

For toddlers: Serve as for adults.


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