Chef Claire Thomson won't be running a restaurant for her kids 'until they leave home'
Who says cooking for kids should be boring? Mum, chef and author of the new National Trust Family Cookbook Claire Thomson tells Kate Whiting about her mission to tantalise young taste buds — and plain pasta is strictly off the menu.
Tempting the taste buds of picky youngsters can be a challenge but food writer Claire Thompson says with a little imagination quick and tasty food can be simple.
"I don't serve plain pasta and my kids would think it was weird," says Thompson, family food ambassador for the National Trust, chef and mum-of-three.
"They're excited by the food in front of them, the kitchen is the axis of my home life and I want them to feel that food is a really normal thing, that it's not fetishised or not given enough credence.
"We've got a tiny kitchen but a great big kitchen table, because I think it's important that Grace should be sitting there doing her spellings, or Dot will be colouring in while I'm cooking - it's just day-to-day a real normalcy around food."
If this sounds like a manifesto for how to give kids a love of good food, it is. Thomson (37) has spent the last five years showing the world exactly how we could be feeding children through her daily '5oclockapron' Instagram and Twitter posts.
And you won't find a plain bit of pasta in sight. The dishes she makes for her daughters at five o'clock each day ("they're just so tired after school and I don't want to fill them full of snacks") include sumptuous-looking bowls of tamarind and turmeric chicken broth with soba noodles and cucumber, or seared monkfish with potatoes, chard stalks, serrano ham and rosemary.
She can't totally escape pasta though: "I've had some children come for play dates and that's all they want to eat, but as a grown-up, you've allowed that to happen if you're serving plain pasta."
Two years on from her debut cookbook, The 5'Clock Apron: Proper Food For Modern Families, Thomson has now penned the National Trust Family Cookbook. The recipes in it are categorised by how long they take to cook, with sections for on-the-go breakfasts and lunch box alternatives, from tasty-sounding Yogurt And Cardamom Chicken Wraps and Pea And Halloumi Fritters to Vietnamese Noodle Salad - all with substitutes so you can suit the ingredients to your family's tastes.
"The recipes are all pretty easy. It takes three minutes to slop some chicken thighs in a bowl in the morning, drop some yogurt on and cardamom and stick it in the fridge. Then when you get back from work, you've just got to bang that in a hot oven - the longest thing to do is preheat the oven. And then you chop a quick salad and make tzatziki, which the children can help with, it's just mint and yogurt.
"It's really important to get them to help you, otherwise the food lands in front of them and they're expected to eat it," Thomson adds. "They should set the table or pour the water. There's a community to being in a family; I don't want to be running a restaurant for my children until they're 18 and leave home."
And she's not an advocate for hiding vegetables.
"Hiding seven different types of vegetables in a pizza sauce is fundamentally what I think is wrong about children's food. It's really important you identify vegetables and acknowledge they're on their plate and they know why they're good for them, rather than hiding them. I find it absolutely laughable."
Now based in Bristol, Thomson was born in Zimbabwe and travelled "extensively" with her New Zealander husband before they settled in the UK to raise their daughters - Grace (10), Ivy (7) and four-year-old Dot.
Her travels have shaped her love of food and the dishes she serves up at home, as well as when she cooks in schools.
"I love looking at the world through recipes. I cooked a North African-style dhal for 60 eight and nine-year-olds and one child said he didn't want to eat it. If you get them tasting spices and smelling herbs, that's really exciting for children, they just need to be engaged with food."
Another of Thomson's project to further this mission is a collaboration called Table Of Delights (www.tableofdelights.com). It started as a theatre show at the Bristol Old Vic and now is a website designed to educate kids about food through wacky song and dance numbers, facts and recipes. "We want to get them excited through a Trojan horse of entertainment, so they don't feel they're being preached to," says Thomson.
And she's not a total stranger to fussy eaters, admitting: "Dot's not a saint - there are some days she just wants to eat boiled eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"That's fine, but I don't let her do it every day, and I don't let her say she doesn't like vegetables because I'm a chef and I make them taste nice. I think fussy eaters are a problem, but you just carry on and eventually, they turn a corner and start eating."
Try some of Claire’s recipes with your own family...
RISI E BISI
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
3 rashers of unsmoked streaky bacon or 80g pancetta, finely diced (optional)
1 onion, finely diced
1 leek, white part only, finely diced (or use extra onion)
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
200g risotto rice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1L hot chicken or vegetable stock
450g frozen peas (or use fresh cooked)
Approx 80g Parmesan, grated
Small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
Melt two-thirds of the butter in a large wide pan over a medium heat. Add the bacon if using, the onion and leek and cook for about eight to 10 minutes until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute.
Add the rice, stirring for two to three minutes to coat the grains in the melted butter mixture and warm them through before you add any liquid.
Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the hot stock, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the peas and cook for a further five minutes until the rice is just cooked through. Remove the pan from the heat and add the Parmesan, the parsley and the remaining butter.
Check the seasoning, then serve immediately.
FISH CAKE SANDWICH
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
800g floury potatoes (about 2 large potatoes), peeled and cut into 4cm cubes
400g smoked fish (trout or mackerel), skin and bones removed
2tbsp Dijon mustard
1tbsp mayonnaise, plus extra to serve
1 large egg, beaten
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tbsp fine dried breadcrumbs, plus about 50g to coat the fish cakes
Small bunch of chives or parsley, finely chopped
Vegetable oil for frying
Buttered soft rolls, to serve
Soft lettuce leaves, to serve
1/2 lemon, to serve
Boil the potatoes in salted water until cooked through . Drain well and leave to steam dry in the colander, then mash the potatoes and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, shred the smoked fish into flakes.
Stir the mustard, mayonnaise, egg and half teaspoon salt into the mashed potatoes. Gently fold in the flaked fish with two tablespoons of breadcrumbs and the chopped herbs until everything is evenly distributed and holding together nicely.
Scoop a tablespoon of the fish and potato mixture and roll it between your palms to form a ball.
Pat each ball into a flat patty (round or oblong to match the shape of your rolls) about 3cm thick, set aside on a plate and continue with the remaining mix. Coat a non-stick frying pan with vegetable oil and place the pan over a high heat. You want the oil very hot before you add the fish cakes. Fry them in a single layer, being sure not to overcrowd the pan, for about two minutes on each side until the fish cakes are golden brown with a good crust.
Transfer to a plate lined with kitchen towel to soak up excess fat while you fry the remaining fish cakes.
To serve, add the fish cakes to the rolls with a leaf or two of lettuce, some mayonnaise, salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon.
SQUASHED-FLY CHERRY SPELT BISCUITS
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
120g butter, softened
90g caster sugar
1 egg, separated
210g spelt flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
70g dried cherries (or currants or dried cranberries), chopped
MAKES 15-20 BISCUITS
In a large bowl, using a wooden spoon or an electric mixer, cream the butter with 75g of the sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the egg yolk and beat to combine.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into the creamed butter mix, add the cherries and stir through. Cover with cling film and place in the fridge for half an hour to firm up. Preheat the oven to 180C/170C fan. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of 5mm and cut into rectangular shapes, using a knife. Arrange the shapes on the baking sheet, leaving a space between each biscuit, and place in the fridge for a further 10 minutes.
Bake the biscuits in the oven for about eight minutes until they are just beginning to turn golden.
While the biscuits are in the oven, beat the egg white until stiff.
Remove the biscuits from the oven, brush with the beaten egg white and sprinkle with the remaining sugar, then bake for a further two to three minutes. Leave the biscuits to cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
- National Trust Family Cookbook by Claire Thomson is published by the National Trust Books, £15. Available now