Stephanie Middleberg knows how hard it is to find time to cook healthy meals for both your kids and yourself, in addition to everything else you’re trying to do. As the mother of a 14-month-old boy and founder of her own company, Middleberg Nutrition, she found herself in need of practical solutions as much as her clients.
With her first cookbook, The Big Book of Organic Baby Food, out Oct. 18 on Sonoma Press, the NYC-based dietician tackles the time crunch with more 200 quick and healthy recipes for infants through the toddler years, as well as meals for the whole family. Over the phone, she shared her tips for how to best plan out a week of meals, what to look for on labels when you’re shopping, and how to get kids to eat their veggies.
What are some tips for new parents who are just getting started home cooking?
If you’re making the same foods for you and your little ones and you have all the tools and ideas to make them relatively quickly, it shouldn’t be as much of an undertaking. It’s stressful enough getting food on the table, even more stressful when you have to be a short order chef and make separate meals. In the book, the recipes [should] appeal to both adults and kids. If you have them eating what you eat early on, you can take the foods you're making for yourself and then put them in a blender and feed [that] to your baby.
Much of it is based on cooking in bulk and freezing the purees, so you have it for the week and all you have to do is defrost it. It might take an hour longer on a Sunday, [but] once you get all your produce chopped and steamed or roasted and blended, it will end up making your weekday life so much easier.
When it comes to shopping, what should parents look out for on labels?
Anything that’s longer than five ingredients, or has ingredients that you can’t pronounce, I say to limit that in your child’s intake. USDA Organic is the best label to look at, and foods that are non-GMO. When we talk about certain foods, like eggs, they should be pasture-raised vs. cage-free: they’re not just roaming the cage, they’re roaming the land and feeding off the grass vs. grains that just fatten them up. For meats, ideally if we can do grass-fed, that’s the gold standard there.
Each year the Environmental Working group releases the Dirty Dozen, which lists the 12 fruits and vegetables that are going to have the most pesticides, so those are the ones you want to make sure to buy organic.Sugar is something to look out for on labels. Even a lot of baby foods out there, even if they say “kale and apple,” a lot of times fruit juice is the first ingredient on the label, and that means it has the most.
Moving ahead to older kids, what is the ideal school lunch to pack?
I love thePlanetBoxlunch boxes. They have all these different compartments that make it fun to assemble lunches in. You want to have a protein, animal-based like chicken or plant-based like beans and hummus. You want to get vegetables in. Usually kids love dip, so guacamole or yogurt is good. Then you can put in a complex carb, like whole wheat bread for a sandwich or roasted squash. And add a treat, like fruit.
What about kids who are picky eaters?
Always have something they’re going to like, but then adding every day something new to their lunch, even if they don’t eat it, at least they’ll start to see it. It can take up to 25 exposures for a kid to decide they want to try it and enjoy it. I would also make a picky eater part of the planning and the assembling. Get them involved, ask them what they want for lunch, have them help make cut-outs of the sandwich or package the dip, bring them to the grocery store with you.
That first year/year and a half is really a flavor window, you want to introduce as many herbs and spices and veggies as possible. They’re born with a blank slate so you can get them to really like the taste — they don’t know the difference. When you’re making baby food purees, do all vegetable ones so they can get used to how vegetables taste on their own without having to sweeten them up (with fruit) all the time. One of my son’s favorites combination is rutabagas, spinach and leeks. It’s funny.
What about cookies and treats?
Yes, kids should be kids! I am definitely sensitive to this as a mom and as a dietician, I want my son who is 14 months old to grow up loving food, but I am not of the philosophy that these foods should not be in the house or forbidden. It’s about the amounts they’re going to have and how often. Pick a few days that you’re going to put a dessert in, but not every day, you don’t want them to expect it. There’s always birthday parties and vending machines — it’s going to get in there.
Recipe for blueberry flaxseed mini muffins, pictured above:
MAKES 18 MUFFINS
2 cups almond flour
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
¼ teaspoon baking soda 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup honey or pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup dairy or nondairy milk
½ cup blueberries
These gluten-free mini muffins freeze well, so it’s easy to make a batch and have quick snacks on the go If you’d like to make these muffins dairy-free, you can replace the butter with olive oil.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a mini muffin tin with paper liners. In a medium bowl, whisk together the almond flour, ground flaxseed, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the honey, butter, eggs, and milk. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, using a spatula to gently fold the mixture in until just combined. Fold in the blueberries. Fill each muffin cup three-quarters full. Bake until the muffins are set, 13 to 15 minutes. Store the muffins in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 6 months.
TIP: You can replace the blueberries in this recipe with ½ cup chopped dried fruits, such as cranberries, prunes, or raisins