A toddler’s gift of cooking

Young children are sponges. Everyone says it. Infants and toddlers seem absolutely interested in observing those around them and imitating them. In our household, we’ve tried to involve our toddler in our everyday activities. This, of course, would involve cooking. We built a Montessori learning tower and stood him up on it at kitchen counter height before his first birthday, so that he could see what we were doing as we prepared, cooked and plated food. We let him feel, smell and play with vegetables that we grow or pick up from our CSA share. If we harvest some kale or chard from the garden, he’ll help us wash the leaves. He mixes, pours and stirs things.

I’m not much of a fan of focussing on material possessions for birthday gifts, particularly for kids. My personal preference is to gift the gift of an experience. That could be a gift certificate to a paint-your-own-ceramic studio, some books and a pair of PJs, a crafted toy for imagination galore.

So to bring these two things together, I sewed some toddler-sized aprons for the 1 year olds in my life. My hope is that they can be used for arts and crafts, water play or cooking (read: versatile) and they’ll entice kids into the kitchen (and encourage parents to have their kids join them – since I know some folks don’t want to deal with mess…enter the apron!).

They weren’t absolutely perfect but my technique improved with each apron (shows I can still learn!). There is a nice big pocket on the front with a loop where you can slip a wooden spoon through. The apron folds up nicely so that the pocket is on top and the apron ties can be used to present the apron as a neat square gift. I slotted a wooden spoon through and added two felt carrots that I made to finish off the presentation.

Apron The gift of food

A garlic harvest of our own

Last weekend, we celebrated our very first garlic harvest! After eating the little scapes from our garlic last month, we were excited to see what the bulbs looked like beneath the soil. I think we harvested them a little bit later than we maybe should’ve (1 week earlier would’ve been good) but sure enough, we found fully formed bulbs! They were rather small but I’d still say we were fairly successful for a first ever garlic planting. These were from cloves that we picked up at last year’s Carp Garlic Festival. We’ll be going back to the festival this year to buy a few more bulbs for eating and for planting.

Fresh out of the soil Ready to be hung

In other news, our tomatoes are still green but there are a good number of them growing larger by the day. We also have a healthy number of flowers that will become tomatoes very soon (fingers crossed!). The peas are doing fabulously but like last year, the plant is large and unruly. I really need to work on how to grow a nicely contained pea plant. Our purple beans are beautiful as ever and the plant looks like it is doing well. The chard and kale are producing good yields, and unlike last year with a mold issue, this year’s cucumbers are looking great! We’ve got a lot of flowers and a few cucumbers already growing.

Ripen, babies, ripen Future tomatos Part of the haul Peas IMG_4481

I love seeing our vegetables doing well. It is so satisfying! But I also cannot believe that it is August!?

Roots and Shoots CSA share – mid July

The first year we joined our vegetable CSA (community shared agriculture), I took photos of our shares each week. I decided that it would be fun to start with the photos again this year. We are still with the same fabulous Roots and Shoots Farm (see some photos from the farm tour several years ago) and are getting a full share this year, as we cook just that much more from scratch nowadays.

Do you know what each of the vegetables are?
Do you know what each of the vegetables are?

Our shares actually started a few weeks ago. Radishes, hakurei turnips and onions have been the staple vegetables for all of the shares. We’ve had scapes for two weeks, zucchini and cucumber for two weeks, last week was the first showing of broccoli and this week, we have carrots and beans! I’m fairly certain tomatos are just around the corner, which is exciting…but it also reminds me that summer is passing so quickly!

Lately, we’ve been making a lot of green soups. Using our homemade stocks, we add beet greens or radish greens and puree with our Vitamix (new addition to our household this Spring – loving it!). Our toddler absolutely loves these soups and we’re happy because he’s getting greens and fiber. Occasionally if we’re inundated with lettuce or chard, we’ll throw those into soups too.

Cucumbers, when not added to salads, are turned into quick Japanese pickles (I just use rice vinegar, sugar and salt). These are so refreshing on a hot summer day! I tried this recipe with radishes but found that they were a bit spicy; the pickles tasted like wasabi. However, the recipe with hakurei turnips is reminiscent of pickled daikon, which I love!

I love seeing that some of our friends, near and far, are getting onboard with CSAs in their area. They typically start with vegetable CSAs but I like to remind them that there are beef, chicken and pork CSAs too!

My new take on vegan and gluten-free

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet as well as cooking allergen-free family meals. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, and wheat.

A year ago, if you told me you followed a vegan or gluten-free diet, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to have you over for dinner. I just wouldn’t have known how to prepare a meal for you because those words were huge psychological barriers.

Whenever we prepare food for our friends, I ask if there are any dietary restrictions. This has been a habit for me for many years. Usually, the answer was no dietary restrictions (phew). Occasionally, there was an allergy to nuts, an aversion to beef, or a religious restriction on pork. One type of food restriction, I could handle.

Now that I have spent almost half a year working on cooking and baking without a number of categories of ingredients, I feel as though I can be a much more welcoming host. My pantry includes a host of gluten-free, top 8 allergen-free products: tapioca and potato starches, brown and white rice flours, oat flour (gluten-free of course), sorghum flour, xanthan gum and egg replacer. I’ve become more familiar with the brands that I can buy from: Only Oats for oat products, EnerG for xanthan gum and egg replacer, and Purest for baking ingredients. Unfortunately, brands like Bob’s Red Mill, which is a super popular and widely available gluten-free option, have precautionary labelling for cross contamination with some of our allergens, making those a non-option for us. It isn’t enough to be gluten-free because it needs to be allergen-free for us as well. And yes, I have been that person, sitting on the floor in the natural foods stores/aisles, phone in hand, researching the companies that produce the products in my hand to see if they are allergen-free. It’s a time-consuming process.

I should note that we aren’t avoiding gluten because of celiac disease in our household. We’ve noticed a few welts and itchiness/redness develop after our toddler consumed wheat products (all homemade so we suspect it’s wheat and not anything else), so we’re taking a wheat hiatus. You’d think that would mean just avoiding flour but it turns out that things like oats are usually contaminated with wheat and that wheat can be masked in many products under many names. It’s actually easier just to avoid gluten because if a product is gluten-free, then it is definitely wheat-free.

My recipe arsenal is also growing. When I’m searching for recipes on the internet or in cookbooks, I use certain key words now: vegan, gluten-free, allergen-free. For baking, I find it easiest to search for vegan recipes because I know they will not include butter, milk, or eggs. From there, I can try to substitute my own home-mixed gluten-free flour for the conventional flour the recipe calls for. The only issue with vegan recipes is that they call for nuts. With savoury cooking, I start my search specifically looking for allergen-free recipes and I am so appreciative of the many blogs that I’ve come across, as well as allergicliving.com. I want meal recipes that I can just follow without having to experiment too much with ingredient substitutions. Sometimes I search for vegan recipes to find bean, vegetable or quinoa-based recipes that don’t call for dairy or eggs. I try to make a new dish at least once a week so that we continue to increase the variety of dishes we can eat.

A year ago, if you told me you followed a vegan or gluten-free diet, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to have you over for dinner. A lot can change in one year.

Allergen-free toddler (family) meal planning

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet as well as cooking allergen-free family meals. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, and wheat.

Okay, first things first. Our baby is now a bona fide toddler. I can’t believe it but he is looking more and more like a little person, walking around and expressing his desires ever more clearly. We spend a lot of our at-home time in the kitchen: prepping, cooking, baking, cleaning, hanging out. One of the cool things that our toddler loves to do is stand on his wooden learning tower, which brings him up to counter height, and watch us chop, cook, or clean. He’s also been working on his skill of placing items into other objects, so we help him apply that skill all around the house. In the kitchen, this means that he can pick up chopped items and place them in a pot for cooking or into a bowl for mixing (roasted veggies). He loves helping out!

He’s also picking up on many more details about the world around him and this means that I am trying to only cook food that everyone in the family can enjoy. He notices what is on everyone’s plate and I think he learns a lot about eating food by observing us parents eat, so I’d like to have the same foods on each plate. This can be a challenge because (a) we used to eat a largely Asian diet with soy sauce, dashi, miso, and many other Asian seasonings and (b) we like to eat a variety of dishes. Our running list of foods to avoid is dairy, eggs, nuts, avocado, soy and wheat. We also have yet to try shellfish and a lot of seasonings. Luckily, our list of available proteins includes all animal and fish meats, as well as sunflower seeds…but some days I feel like we eat the same things all the time. We consulted with a dietician very recently just to learn whether or not our food offerings for our toddler were meeting his health and nutritional needs. Much to our pleasure, we were doing a pretty good job. Not surprisingly, with a diet free of dairy, the weak area of his diet was calcium.

His meals look something like this:

Breakfast

  • Oatmeal with prune or gluten-free banana waffles/pancakes
  • Selection of fruits
  • Hemp milk

Lunch/Dinner

  • A protein (beef, chicken, turkey, pork, fish) – sautéed, baked, steamed; OR
  • Beef or vegetarian chili with a variety of beans; OR
  • Vegetarian or turkey/chicken/beef stock with vegetables; OR
  • Tomato sauce with or without meatballs.
  • Rice, brown rice pasta, or quinoa
  • Sautéed, steamed, roasted or raw vegetables
  • Hemp milk

Snacks

  • Baked good using flour alternatives or rice cakes with sunbutter
  • Fruit or vegetables
  • Breastmilk

Of course, there are additional variants on these meal options but this is a general idea of what we offer our toddler at the moment. By extension, this is what we eat as well. We cook everything from scratch now and I swear, we spend so much of our time either planning for, preparing or cooking food. Each week we meal plan to ensure that we get a good variety of food on our plates and to save us from having to hem and haw over what to eat during the week when both of us parents are working. We no longer have the option of just getting take out food from a restaurant as our toddler can’t eat that food.

We’ve recently begun introducing herbs (homegrown and dried). Unfortunately, we only dried thyme and oregano this year, so the remainder of herb introductions will have to be store-bought. I’ve contacted a number of major companies who package dried herbs and so far, they all have a possibility for cross-contamination in their manufacturing facilities with all of our allergens but do claim to follow good manufacturing practices. Some days it feels like the level of scrutiny that I put into our meals is overwhelming and borderline paranoia, but without questioning every preparation method and every single ingredient, I can’t feel safe giving our toddler the food. We’re firm believers in food being an enjoyable experience, as both of us parents love food, and we’re trying hard to instil that in our toddler despite the food allergies.