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How serving up healthy treats can be child's play

Finding getting your youngsters to eat well can be tricky? Local nutritionist Jane McClenaghan offers recipe tips from her new venture with local nursery Little Rays

Encouraging children, or teenagers, to swap sugary snacks for healthier options can be a difficult task, which is why food experts believe a balanced, nutritious diet should be introduced at a young age.

Sometimes it's simply a case of tweaking a few favourite recipes to make them healthier to ensure children are getting the proper nutrients to fuel their bodies throughout the day.

To this end, Little Rays Nursery - which has locations in Moira, Lisburn and Ballymena - has teamed up with local award-winning nutritionist Jane McClenaghan, of Vital Nutrition, to bring the 400 children in its care an exciting new menu plan specially designed to encourage them to try and enjoy healthy new foods.

The plan consists of a range of snack, lunch and dessert recipes expertly created to provide the children with a varied and nutritious diet.

Jane has worked with the team of in-house chefs - and a mini focus group of children aged between four and 10 - to develop the menus based on the children's likes and dislikes, and has adapted some much-loved recipes to make them healthier and more nutritious.

Michelle Rea, owner at Little Rays Nursery, has been delighted with the introduction of the new menu plan.

She says: "We put the health and well-being of the children in our care as our highest priority, so it's important that we are constantly looking for new ways to improve our offering.

"By bringing Vital Nutrition in to work with our chefs, we feel we have really come up with a menu plan that the children will not only love, but that will introduce healthy, tasty new foods, and encourage them to be a bit more adventurous in their dining experience.

"Snacktime and lunchtime are good fun times for the children and when we see them together enjoying their food, trying new things and interacting with one another, we feel that we are doing something right."

The menu plan takes into consideration seasonal choices, which is a great way to help manage budgets.

It has also introduced a greater variety of sources of protein, constantly rotating red meat, fish and chicken and a selection of healthier desserts and treats.

"Creating a meal for a child can be hard work.

Fussy eaters will often have decided at first glance whether or not they are even going to try something, which can make meal times extremely stressful for a busy mum who just wants her child to get the right nutrients," says Jane.

"I've created this collection with that in mind and provided lots of choice, bright colours and fun. Quite often, children will eat well at nursery surrounded by their peers, but when it comes to eating at home they become picky and much less adventurous."

Little Rays Nursery provides day care for up to 400 children aged two months to 12 years. They introduced the Happy Healthy Smart Initiative last year, combining healthy eating with new projects like Prep Fit.

And here are a few child-friendly recipes for you to try at home too ...

For further information visit www.littleraysnursery.com. For more details on Jane's work, visit www.vital-nutrition.co.uk

Banana muffins

What You’ll Need

1 medium egg

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

55g soft light brown sugar

1 large, very ripe banana,

well mashed

55ml sunflower oil 

85g wholemeal flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp bicarbonate soda

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

Method

Preheat the oven to 180C/160C fan. Line two mini muffin tins with mini muffin liners. Beat the eggs and sugar together until thick, stir in the banana and oil.

Sift on the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, cinnamon and salt (if using). Then add the vanilla extract and bran left in the sieve, to the bowl, too. Stir together until just combined.

Spoon into cases (around 2/3 full) and bake 12-14 minutes, until risen and firm. Remove and cool. Store in an airtight box for up to three days or freeze (defrost at room temp for around an hour).

Health Benefits

Bananas are an amazing on-the-go fruit every parent should have in their bag, but we can also use them in some delicious treats too.

Bananas help to regulate bowel movements, increase brain power, are great for the heart, aid healthy strong bones, help protect eyesight and even help to regulate blood sugar levels.

Easy fish pie

What You’ll Need

1kg potatoes, peeled and halved

Knob of butter

Splash of milk

25g butter

25g flour

4 spring onions, finely sliced

400ml milk

1 x pack fish pie mix (cod, salmon, smoked haddock etc, weight around 320g-400g

depending on pack size)

1 tsp Dijon or English mustard

1/2 a 25g pack or a small bunch chives, finely snipped

Handful frozen sweetcorn

Handful frozen petits pois

Handful grated cheddar

Method

Preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan. Put the potatoes in a saucepan and pour over enough water to cover them. Bring to the boil and then simmer until tender.

When cooked, drain thoroughly and mash with a splash of milk and some butter. Season with ground black pepper.

Meanwhile, put the butter, flour and spring onions in another pan and heat gently until the butter has melted, stirring regularly.

Cook for 1-2 mins. Gradually whisk in the milk using a balloon whisk if you have one. Bring to the boil, stirring to avoid any lumps or sticking at the bottom of the pan. Cook for 3–4 minutes until thickened. 

Take off the heat and stir in the cheese (if using), fish, mustard, chives, sweetcorn and peas. Spoon into an ovenproof dish or 6-8 ramekins. Spoon the potato on top and sprinkle with cheddar cheese. Pop in the oven for 20-25 minutes or until golden and bubbling at the edges. Alternatively, cover and freeze the pie or mini pies for another time.

Health Benefits

Fish is rich in protein, the nutrient the body needs to build strong, healthy muscles and bones as well as to help repair the scrapes and scratches that are part and parcel of growing up. Protein is needed by every part of the body — skin, hair, nails, heart, lungs as well as muscles, and it is a vital nutrient for healthy development. Children need to eat a protein food at lunch and dinner, and fish can be a very healthy choice.

Open beef and butter bean pie

What You’ll Need

450g pack diced lean casserole beef steak 

1 tbsp cornflour 

1 tsp smoked paprika 

1 tbsp olive oil 

2 red onions, roughly chopped 

390g carton chopped tomatoes 

400ml beef stock, made with 1⁄2 beef stock cube 

400g tin butter beans, drained and rinsed 

375g pack ready rolled lighter puff pastry 

1 medium British free-range egg, beaten, to glaze 

450g broccoli florets 

Method

Preheat the oven to 170C, fan 150C. Put the beef, cornflour and paprika in a bowl and toss to coat the beef. Heat the oil in a large flameproof casserole over a medium heat and fry the beef in batches for 2-3 minutes until browned all over. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the onions to the casserole and fry for five minutes, then stir in the tomatoes and stock. Bring to the boil.

Return the beef to the pot and add the beans. Cover and cook in the oven for one hour 15 minutes, then increase the oven temperature to 200C, fan 180C for the final 15 minutes of cooking time.

After the beef has been cooking for one hour, unroll the pastry. Using 12cm and 6cm star-shaped cookie cutters, stamp out four large and eight small pastry stars.

Put on a baking sheet lined with baking paper and brush with the egg. Bake the pastry stars on a shelf above the casserole for the final 15 minutes of the casserole cooking time. Just before the end of the beef cooking time, cook the broccoli in a pan of boiling water for five minutes. Drain. Spoon the casserole into bowls, top with the pastry stars and serve with broccoli on the side.

Health Benefits

We all know it’s not advisable to eat too much red meat, but in moderation, the lean variety is more than acceptable and provides young children with much needed zinc, iron and protein.

All beans are full of plant proteins and have beneficial fibre, are cholesterol-free and low in fat meaning beans provide extensive health benefits, including helping to aid digestion and control blood sugar levels which can even help eliminate the want for sweets.

Pink beetroot hummus

What You’ll Need

1 tin chickpeas

2 cooked beetroot

2 garlic cloves

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tbsps olive or rapeseed oil

Generous pinch of sea salt

1/2 tsp smoked paprika

Method

Drain and rinse the chickpeas, roughly chop the beetroot and then throw everything into your blender or food processor and blitz. Serve with carrot or celery sticks for an easy colourful and nutritious snack any time of the day.

Health Benefits

Beetroot is a wonderfully tasty and versatile food and is simply jam-packed with nutrients. Beetroot is also excellent for aiding circulation and blood production — especially when eaten raw.

Berry compote and rice pudding

What You’ll Need

1/2 bag frozen berries

1 cinnamon stick

1 tsp honey

50g (2 oz) pudding rice

600 ml (1 pint) milk

1-2 tbsp caster sugar

1 vanilla pod or ½ tsp vanilla essence

Method

Place all the ingredients in a saucepan and heat gently until the berries have defrosted and a syrup starts to form (about 5-10 minutes).

Don’t overcook as you will end up with mushy berries.

Before serving, remove the cinnamon stick.

For the rice pudding, put the rice, milk and sugar in a heavy bottomed saucepan.

Split the vanilla pod, if using, and scrape the seeds into the pan, or add the vanilla essence.

Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover with a lid and simmer the ingredients for around 30-35 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Health Benefits

Packed with antioxidants, berries are a superfood high in fibre and vitamins and even help protect the body from heart disease and cancer. Grow them in your garden and let the children pick them for themselves. 

Pineapple upside down cake

What You’ll Need

6oz butter

6oz caster sugar

3 free range eggs

6oz self-raising flour

1 tin of pineapple rings in their own juice

Method

Heat oven to 180C. Cream the butter and sugar together until the mixture is pale and smooth, add in the eggs, flour and pineapple juice and mix until a smooth texture.

Don’t over-mix as this will take out some air and the sponge won’t rise.

Then place the pineapple rings in the bottom of a greased baking tin.

Pour the cake mixture on top. Place in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until the sponge is cooked through.

Turn out on to a plate so the pineapple rings are at the top of the cake.

Health Benefits

Even when we are having cake, it does no harm to add in a tangy zesty fruit like pineapple. Children aren’t generally huge fans of this fruit on its own, but pop it in a cake and they love it. Pineapple is believed to help bowel movement, remove plaque, keeps skin beautiful and packs a real vitamin C punch.

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