Get off to a Healthy Start


I have just read something totally shocking; a recent study conducted at the Wayne State University in Detroit found that 32% of 9 month old babies are already obese or overweight. According to the survey many babies are being fed too much formula to induce them to sleep for longer and or being weaned too early onto a diet of fatty sugary food, pureed chips or the remains of a Chinese takeaway – almost beyond belief but sadly true and there’s no point in us feel smug – similar findings are emerging elsewhere.

Obesity is unquestionably the greatest public health challenge facing the affluent world – a time bomb ticking away – and an increasing strain on every Health Service. Current figures in Ireland reveal that there are 327,000 over weight children with numbers predicted to grow by 11,000 every year. Diabetes and heart disease are on the rise dramatically. An Irish study by Dr Aileen McGloin in 2007 came up with yet another shocking statistic; 52% of Irish mothers of obese children and 86% of mothers of over weight children thought their weight was totally normal for their age.

Blaming parents is far too simplistic; there are a multitude of reasons why we have arrived at this situation. Much of the food available fills rather than nourishes – many children are allowed to nibble from morning to night, unlike the strict no food between meals policy of earlier years. Portion sizes continue to increase as we embrace the ‘grab, gobble and go,’ culture of the US. Many parents have no basic cooking skills so are incapable of anything more challenging than reheating chips or popping a pizza or a burger into the microwave. They simply don’t have the skills to cook a fresh vegetable or roast a chicken and make a nourishing stew. But most seriously of all the food industry is allowed to go virtually unchecked as they target young people through every clever method at their disposal. So it becomes a Catch 22 situation. A myriad of studies have been conducted so now there is ample evidence and a ton of statistics. We don’t need any more research we need action. At government level there has been unforgivable apathy. The National Task on Obesity published in 2005 made 93 recommendations and despite the fact that no-one in the Government Department of Health or the food industry can argue that we don’t know the risks little more than 20% have been implemented. There appears to be no real urgency or commitment to tackle the vested interest in the multinational food industry. We don’t need more studies we need action now the food industry must only produce food that nourished rather than food that just fills their pockets. Perhaps the incoming government will be more visionary in their approach. A virtuous triangle of cooperation between the Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Department of Education working together in a preventative way for our children’s future.

In Australia, they are taking drastic measures to shock the public and the powers that be into action. In a TV advert a mother walks into a kitchen with a brown bag under her arm, ties a tourniquet around her child’s arm and tucks a napkin under his chin. She takes out a syringe and carefully unfolds some heroin from a strip of silver foil. Suddenly the scene changes to a child sitting at a table eating a hamburger – the following question appears on the screen… ‘You wouldn’t inject your child with junk – so why are you feeding it to them?” It caused uproar but certainly got people thinking – after all every culture in the world has a saying ‘we are what we eat’.

Meanwhile a few simple foods to wean your baby onto so no-one needs to resort to pureed chips.

Having said that, a liquidiser or a little ‘Mouli Legume’ is a terrific help for those of you who are determined to make homemade food for their. Be guided by your health nurse for when to introduce solid food.

Potato Soup

Serves 6

Most people would have potatoes and onions in the house even if the cupboard was otherwise bare so one could make this simply delicious soup at a moment’s notice. It’s perfect for babies but is equally delicious for the rest of the family, enough for 6 portions but can also be frozen in little pots as a standby. Go easy on the seasoning for babies.

50g (2oz) butter or extra virgin olive oil

550g (20oz) peeled diced potatoes, one-third inch dice

110g (4oz) diced onions, one-third inch dice

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 litre (2 pints) homemade chicken stock or vegetable stock

100ml (4fl oz) creamy milk

For grownups serve freshly chopped herbs and herb flowers, optional

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan. When it foams, add the potatoes and onions and toss them in the butter until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cover with a butter wrapper or paper lid and the lid of the saucepan. Sweat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes approx. Meanwhile bring the stock to the boil, when the vegetables are soft but not coloured add stock and continue to cook until the vegetables are soft. Puree the soup in a blender or food processor. Taste and adjust seasoning. Thin with creamy milk to the required consistency.

Serve sprinkled with a few freshly-chopped herbs and herb flowers if available.

Carrageen Moss Pudding

Magic food – all our babies were weaned onto Carrageen mosses. The dried Carrageen moss can be found easily in health food shops and keeps almost indefinitely in its dried form.

Serves 4-6

1 semi-closed fistful (1/4 oz /8g) cleaned, well dried Carrageen Moss

1 1/2 pints (900ml) milk

1 tablespoon castor sugar

1 egg, preferably free range

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or a vanilla pod

Soak the carrageen in tepid water for 10 minutes. Strain off the water and put the carrageen into a saucepan with milk and vanilla pod if used. Bring to the boil and simmer very gently with the lid on for 20 minutes. At that point and not before separate the egg, put the yolk into a bowl, add the sugar and vanilla essence and whisk together for a few seconds, then pour the milk and carrageen moss through a strainer onto the egg yolk mixture whisking all the time. The carrageen will now be swollen and exuding jelly. Rub all this jelly through the strainer and whisk this also into the milk with the sugar, egg yolk and vanilla extract if used. Test for a set in a saucer as one would with gelatine. Whisk the egg white stiffly and fold or fluff it in gently. It will rise to make a fluffy top. Serve chilled with soft brown sugar and cream and or with a fruit compote eg. poached rhubarb.

Mashed Potato

Cooking the potatoes in their jackets keeps in the flavours.  They are also easier and less wasteful to peel. This makes lots, again a terrific standby for babies either alone or mixed with a little chicken, beef or lamb gravy. Or a little cooked fish, mashed or pureed carrot.

Serves 4

2 lbs (900g) unpeeled potatoes, preferably Golden Wonders or Kerr’s Pinks

1/2 pint (300ml) creamy milk

1-2 ozs (25-50g) butter

Scrub the potatoes well. Put them into a saucepan of cold water, add a good pinch of salt (optional) and bring to the boil. When the potatoes are about half cooked, 15 minutes approx. for ‘old’ potatoes, strain off two-thirds of the water, replace the lid on the saucepan, put on to a gentle heat and allow the potatoes to steam until they are cooked. Peel immediately by just pulling off the skins, so you have as little waste as possible, mash while hot. (If you have a large quantity, put the potatoes into the bowl of a food mixer and beat with the spade).

While the potatoes are being peeled, bring about 1/2 pint (300ml) of milk to the boil.  (Use a two pronged carving fork so they don’t break and gently pull off the skin so there is minimum waste – we feed the skins to the hens). Add enough boiling creamy milk to mix to a soft light consistency suitable for piping, then beat in the butter, the amount depending on how rich you like your potatoes. Taste and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Bramley Apple Sauce

Brilliant on its own or with a little natural yoghurt. It’s also a good standby to have in the fridge or freezer.

1 lb (450g) cooking apples, (Bramley Seedling)

1-2 dessertspoons water

2 ozs (50g) sugar approx. depending on tartness of the apples

Peel, quarter and core the apples, cut pieces in two and put in a small stainless steel or cast iron saucepan, with the sugar and water, cover and put over a low heat, as soon as the apple has broken down, stir and taste for sweetness. Puree for babies.  Serve warm or cold.

Old Fashioned Rice Pudding

Another favourite for children. A creamy rice pudding is one of the greatest treats on a cold winter’s day. You need to use short-grain rice, which plumps up as it cooks. This is definitely an almost forgotten pudding loved by children of all ages. Puree for babies.

Serves 6–8

100g (31⁄2oz) pearl rice (short-grain rice)

50g (2oz) sugar

small knob of butter

1. 2 litres (2 pints) milk

1 x 1. 2 litre (2 pint) capacity pie dish

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4.

Put the rice, sugar and butter into a pie dish. Bring the milk to the boil and pour over. Bake for 1–1 1⁄2 hours. The skin should be golden; the rice underneath should be cooked through and have soaked up the milk, but still be soft and creamy. Time it so that it’s ready just in time for pudding. If it has to wait in the oven for ages it will be dry and dull and you’ll wonder why you bothered.

Easy Homemade Yogurt

Homemade yoghurt is easy to make and much more delicious than much of what is available to buy.

2 litres (3 1⁄2 pints) full-cream milk

50g (2oz) skim-milk powder

2 teaspoons very fresh, live natural yogurt

Heat the milk in a heavy, stainless-steel saucepan. When it is lukewarm, stir in the skim-milk powder. Continue to heat until the milk begins to froth, at about 90ºC (194ºF).

Turn off the heat and leave to stand for 15 minutes, by which time the mixture should have cooled to about 40–42ºC (104–108ºF). Having a dairy thermometer takes the guesswork out of this, but alternatively you can test it in the time-honoured way, by inserting a clean finger into the milk. You should be able to leave your finger for a count of 10 without it getting too hot. At this point, stir in the live yogurt and then transfer the mixture into a heavy earthenware bowl.

Wrap the entire bowl in a towel and keep it in a warm place until the milk coagulates a minimum of 5 hours or, better still, overnight.

One way or another, you need to keep the bowl warm. The optimum temperature should be around 40ºC (104ºF), but if it’s a bit cooler than that it doesn’t matter; it will just take longer to coagulate. The longer the mixture is kept warm, the better the flavour.

When the yogurt is set, transfer to the fridge and use as required.

Fool Proof Food

Three Bears Porridge

Pinhead oatmeal make the yummiest porridge, a big bowl kept the three bears and goldilocks happy all morning and their tummies didn’t rumble again until noon.  If you would like to eat a bowl of porridge in a few minutes buy some speedicook oatmeal instead.  Bring the water to the boil, sprinkle in the oatmeal, stirring all the time.  Cook for 4 – 5 minutes on a medium heat, add salt the taste.  Pour into a bowl and eat as above. Porridge is brilliant food for toddlers and young children and everyone. Puree for babies. Our grandchildren enjoy and enjoyed a little porridge from six months onwards.

Serves 8

310g (11oz) pinhead oatmeal

950ml (32fl oz) water

1/2 teaspoon salt (or less for babies)

If you think of it the night before, soak the oatmeal in 225ml (8fl oz) cold water in a saucepan.

On the day, bring 725ml (24fl oz) water to the boil and add to the oatmeal. Put on a low heat and stir until the water comes back to the boil.  Cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the salt. Cover again and leave aside overnight, the oatmeal will absorb all the water.

Next day, reheat adding a little more water if necessary; serve with milk and soft brown sugar.


Louise O’Brien past student of Ballymaloe has opened The Tea Room at Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre, Bury Quay, Co Offaly and is doing gorgeous food – the Red Pepper Goats’ Cheese and Spinach Roulade is delicious. The Tea Room is situated a tiny way off the main street but well worth meandering there for the freshly baked cookies and cakes – contact Louise on +353 (0) 86 2079654.

Alice’s Cookbook – I love this little cook-book, one of the New Voices in Food Series published by Quadrille in 2010. It’s packed with super little recipes from a confident creative chef still only in her 20s. As well as being a chef Alice Hart was the youngest ever food editor of Waitrose Food Illustrated and has run a pop-up restaurant ‘The Hart and Fuggle’ in London and a Vietnamese restaurant is underway. Watch out, this girl is definitely a rising star.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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