To an Italian family, food is a way of life, not just a necessity. Brought up in an Italian household with a philosophy of ‘one family, one meal’ Michela and Emanuela Chiappa from Channel 4’s Simply Italian have set about adapting traditional recipes and methods to feed the whole family with their new book, Baby at the Table. S4K caught up with the busy mums to find out their secret of how not to raise a fussy eater…
Q) One meal for the entire family sounds like dinner utopia but is it really realistic if you have a baby and older children?
Absolutely – it’s totally achievable, but you have to be prepared to do some cooking and be organised. If you look at the chapters in our book we have done everything possible to simplify things. For example, weaning is split into the ABC Steps which go from the time a baby starts weaning at six months to 12 months. By one year your baby should be able to eat a version of meals you prepare for the rest of the family. Now you’re not necessarily going to plate up a roast dinner on the baby’s plate but our little ones often loved chewing on a chicken leg for example and then we’d give a plate of chopped up veggies from the roast. Also, the book is designed for time-poor parents and the advice is meant to take the stress out of cooking. So preparing one meal should be a lot easier than trying to cook separate meals for baby, kids and the adults (plus a lot less washing up). In Italy, you aren’t given a kids’ menu, kids just eat a smaller version of what the adults have.
Q) How important do you place eating together as a family, along with what is being eaten and do you think modern families are missing out?
We do think it is hugely important to try and sit down as a family where possible – it helps on so many levels (socially, table manners, interaction etc.) And this doesn’t always have to be as your “family”…if there are nights when your partner is at work, you could invite a friend over for dinner, or arrange a playdate. It’s about a group of people sitting, chatting and eating together – even if it only lasts for 10 minutes. Kids need to learn to wait to speak (not interrupt), be part of a conversation, wait for everyone to finish before they leave the table, say please and thank you. Pick a few simple rules and stick to them. Kids are quick to learn! However, you also have to be realistic too and for some families, this isn’t possible on a daily basis, so don’t stress about it – just try and make time when you have it. Even if it is just once on a weekend.
Q) Coming from an Italian family upbringing do you think culturally we still exclude children too much from social family gatherings?
All we really know is how much sitting around a table and interacting around food is really important and encouraged in Italian households. It’s not easy though, trust me, there have been many evenings when the kids have been tired and crotchety and all we want to do is say for them to get down and play for some peace and quiet….however, the more you hold your ground the easier it becomes. We’re certainly not trying to preach that we are perfect either. There are many evenings where we do cave too…however, we’ll try and make sure the kids know this is a “treat” or a special occasion so that they don’t get complacent. We also, bend the rules when we go out for dinners in Italy. Often it will be a five-course meal and we think it’s unrealistic to expect a three-year-old to sit at the table for long periods of time. The key is to try and keep consistent and make mealtimes fun and enjoyable experiences.
Q) Michela you are the face of the weaning section of Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube channel. You address in your book the debate over baby-led weaning versus traditional old-school spoon feeding. You seem to have opted for a mix of both.
Can you explain why you felt this was the best approach?
We think it’s really important for a child to learn about textures and smells and so giving a baby a piece of broccoli or a stick of cheese to hold is fantastic, plus they love putting everything in their mouths so it’s the ultimate time to explore variety with them. The earlier they can learn to move food around their mouth and spit it out, chew or swallow the better. Giving them finger food snacks in the high chair while you prepare the rest of the dinner is the ultimate pacifier. They are hungry, so keen to explore and chew and it gives you the time you need to prepare the rest of the dinner for the family. HOWEVER, only giving them finger foods was not something we were entirely happy about in the early stages – we had no idea how much they had actually swallowed versus what was on the floor, window or stuck under their bottoms! So we always fed purees as well. Plus we’ve seen so many babies who have only done baby-led weaning who then absolutely refuse all forms of puree/mashed food… and this is an issue down the line as lots of our favourite meals involve a form of pureed food…soups, stews, mashed potato etc.
Q) What is your favourite easy go-to meal when it’s been one of those days of parenthood that you would rather forget?
Probably the classic pasta with pesto – so quick and easy to make (we usually always have a jar in the fridge). Packed with goodness, the kids absolutely love it so we know we’re not going to face any dramas at the table.
Banana Teething Rusks
Preparation time: 10 minutes | Cooking time: 15-20 minutes | Makes: 18-20
Store cupboard essentials: 100g plain flour | 2 tbsp olive oil | 4-6 tbsp water
To buy: 1 ripe banana | 100g baby rice cereal
Method: Preheat the oven to 200 degrees, gas 6. Line a baking tray with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Mash the peeled banana in a bowl. Mix in the rice cereal, flour and oil. Add a tablespoon of the water at a time until a soft dough is formed. Roll into finger-size batons, place on a baking tray and press with your finger to flatten them slightly. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown. Leave to cool completely. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for 2-3 days.
Fish Pies in a Mug
Preparation time: 10 minutes | Cooking time: 20-30 minutes | Serves: 4
To buy: 600-700g fish (salmon, white fillet or smoked haddock) | 300ml crème fraîche | zest and juice of 1 lemon | fresh parsley (you can also use dill or thyme) | 1 packet of pre-rolled puff pastry, approx. 320g
Store cupboard essentials: Salt and pepper, to taste
Method: Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas 4. Cut the fish into approx. 3cm chunks. Mix the fish with the crème fraiche in a medium bowl. Add the zest and juice of the lemon to the fish. Season with the herbs, remove a portion for baby, then add salt and pepper (for toddlers and adults) and set aside. Use the top of a mug to cut out discs of puff pastry and set aside. Pour the fish mixture evenly into 4 ovenproof mugs. Place a pastry disc on top of each mug. Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through and the pastry is golden.
Chocolate Ricotta Pudding
Preparation time: 5 minutes | Makes: 8 expresso-size cups
To buy: 2 x 250 tubs of ricotta | 4 heaped tablespoons cocoa powder | 4 tablespoons melted dark chocolate
Store cupboard essentials: 4 tablespoons honey (or maple syrup if serving to a baby under 1 year. Honey should not be given to infants under 1 year). A handful of chopped pistachio nuts (optional)
Method: Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl, except the pistachios, until smooth, using an electric whisk. Divide equally between your expresso cups and serve. Garnish with pistachio nuts if you like.
Baby at the Table: A 3-step guide to weaning the Italian way by Michela and Emanuela Chiappa RRP £16.99 Images Copyright © Danielle Wood. Published by Penguin Random House UK. Recipes © Michela and Emanuela Chiappa 2016.