Whipping up simple meals my kids enjoy

As a busy stay-at-home mum, cooking for my children is rewarding and less of a challenge with healthy, kid-friendly recipes

Learning to cook has been a milestone of sorts in my journey as a mum.

I was not interested in cooking when I was younger. But with three kids to feed and no helper, it is easier, not to mention healthier, to whip up simple meals at home.

Since I started working from home several years ago, I've experimented with various ways of cooking dinner.

On days when I'm on top of my game, I throw ingredients in my slow-cooker before I head out for interviews and have a one-pot meal ready for the family when I return.

On other days, I find myself staring into my fridge at 5pm wondering what I can possibly concoct with half a head of broccoli and some leftover chicken fillet.

There are people who relish making everything from scratch, and love spending hours in the kitchen. I'm not one of them. My aim is to get dinner on the table in as short a time as possible. That is the only way I can manage at this point.

With picky eaters at home, there is no guarantee the meal will get eaten up after all the effort. But... at least I'm feeding them healthier food when I can, to balance the occasions when we eat out, have fast food or snack on processed food.

Recipes that make the cut in my home have to meet four criteria: easy to cook, healthy, easy to clean and kid-friendly.

EASY TO COOK

Any dish that takes longer than 20 minutes to make or has a long list of ingredients or instructions is not for me. So it means that our fish is steamed, meat grilled in the oven, soups done in the slow cooker and vegetables blanched.

I'm usually on my own with the three kids when I need to cook dinner. So any preparation should not take more than five to 10 minutes a dish - that is about as long an interval as the toddler will allow me to be away from her.

To save even more time, I try to do batch cooking. So I might double the portion of a dish I'm making and freeze the other for another meal.

I do the same by marinating and freezing dishes on weekends so that all I have to do on weekdays is defrost and bake or pop them in the slow-cooker.

HEALTHY

The top reason I make dinner is so that we can eat food that is less salty and oily. I usually use herbs rather than salt or condiments such as fish sauce or oyster sauce.

We switched to eating brown rice a couple of years ago, making the move gradually from a blend of white and brown to the current brown, red and black rice with the occasional mixed grains for variety. The gradual shift meant the kids had time to adjust their taste buds and have since stopped complaining.

For picky eaters, a dash of dark soya sauce on the rice helps with the adjustment.

EASY TO CLEAN

There is no deep frying at home because I have neither time nor energy to mop off layers of oil in the kitchen. My family members who love fried fish get their fix when we eat out on weekends.

I do the occasional stir-fry. I regularly make the kids "fried" rice for lunch - stir ingredients and sauces (anything that you would add to fried rice) in the rice cooker when the rice is cooked. This is less oily, less messy.

The same goes for "fried noodles" - when noodles are cooked, I drain the water and add ingredients and sauces in the pot. Give it a good stir and it's ready to serve.

KID-FRIENDLY

I try to make sure there is something my kids will enjoy each meal. I balance out a meal of blanched broccoli and spinach with their favourite stir-fried lady's fingers on another day.

When I first introduced blanched vegetables to them, I offered a dip on the side to make the greens more palatable. These days, they have it without a dip; on occasion I top it with sesame seeds, shallots, caramelised onions or dashes of sesame oil.

It helps that my 20-month-old toddler can now share our food.

I've also realised that I'm more likely to throw together a meal when ingredients are prepared. I chop vegetables over the weekend for the week ahead, hard-boil some eggs, roast and shred a large batch of chicken breast, have cooked quinoa in the fridge, so that I can assemble a quick weekday lunch without cooking from scratch.

I also always have minced garlic and cut frozen vegetables as a contingency.

Some gadgets in the kitchen help me with dinner without my having to watch over the stove.

I once wrote about the slow-cooker being my best friend. I use it for soups and stews, and sometimes to slow-roast meats to make, for instance, pulled pork sandwiches.

When I need to cook soup in a jiffy, I turn to my trusty rice cooker, a basic model with a rice/steam, and soup/porridge function.

I use the oven, not only for grilling meats, but also vegetables, which the kids love (because it's tastier than blanched vegetables). My two younger children love baked cauliflower with turmeric, while the oldest digs baked potatoes or carrots.

The other day, my daughter reminded me that we haven't made kale chips for a while and so we did it one afternoon for a snack and finished most of it when it came out of the oven.

So there are hits, but there are also misses.

Like the time I left the oven on broil mode, which made the chicken charred instead of golden brown. Or when I attempted to cook the lady's fingers quickly by adding water and they turned into a mushy mess.

With picky eaters at home, there is no guarantee the meal will get eaten up after all the effort. But even when they don't, I tell myself at least I'm feeding them healthier food when I can, to balance the occasions when we eat out, have fast food or snack on processed food.

It is gratifying when they enjoy a meal.

My foodie son, after eating his favourite grilled herbed chicken, once said: "If there is a MasterChef competition that stipulates no salt, sugar or sauces, you must go and take part."

I choose to take that in a positive light.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline 'Whipping up simple meals my kids enjoy'. Print Edition | Subscribe