IF there’s one thing parents have learned over the past year, it’s that coming up with cheap, healthy and exciting meal ideas can feel almost as soul-crushing as homeschooling.
Even when you do manage to cook something new, there’s nothing more dispiriting than a child looking at the dish you worked so hard to make… and refusing to touch it.
We spoke to Sunday Times bestselling author of the What Mummy Makes Cookbook and What Mummy Makes Meal Planner, 29-year-old Rebecca Wilson, to get her best lazy mum meal hacks and £1 recipe ideas.
Rebecca, who lives in Carlisle with her three-year-old daughter Nina, posts many of her food hacks and recipes to her 450K+ followers on Instagram @whatmummymakes.
Her “lazy mum” philosophy that we can all embrace? When Nina was a baby, Rebecca decided she’d only cook once so everyone would eat the same thing, a strategy she insists can save parents “time, money and energy”.
“My ethos is to cook just one meal for everyone to eat together, from six-month-olds to 60-year-olds. To make that accessible, I want all my recipes to be delicious enough for an adult to want to enjoy them and also safe enough for your baby and young children to eat. I minimise the amount of salt and sugar in my meals,” explains Rebecca.
The mum uses herbs, spices and fruit to flavour her meals – and says baby food pouches are ideal when you want a sugar kick.
“If you pick the ones that have nothing added and that are just 100 per cent fruit, they’re really sweet. You can use them in a cake. I use that in my celebration cake, in my first book. It adds a natural sweetness and it helps to sweeten the whole of the sponge”, says Rebecca.
If you’re finding that your kids are rejecting your food before even tasting it, Rebecca advises adding colour with red berries or cooking broccoli and encouraging your kids to eat their “trees”.
Rebecca’s top tips for parents
1. Get the kids eating more veg
Frozen spinach is my ‘go-to’ freezer stash ingredient. You can pop it into loads of things, like pasta.
Carrots are great – they’ve got a really strong colour to them. Try adding them into fritters. I love to tell my little girl that you can see in the dark when you eat carrots
2. Ditch the salt – add dried herbs and spices instead
Cooking the same meal for the whole family is a great way to save time and cash – but you don’t want to overdo the salt for little ones. Rebecca uses porcini mushroom powder to add a kick to pastas, while smoked paprika gives stews a ‘meaty’ flavour
3. Swap your sugar
Instead of using caster sugar in her sweet recipes, Rebecca uses fruit like ripe bananas and 100% fruit baby food pouches. These add sweetness and won’t compromise flavour, but are a more natural alternative to processed sugar
4. Build up your freezer stash
Batch cook whenever possible – chicken nuggets, fish fingers, pastries, stews – and stick them in your freezer, or microwave or oven cook the next day. You can have a whole week’s lunches or dinners in the freezer ready to go
5. Make gradual changes
If you have been cooking separate dishes for the kids and are looking to simplify mealtimes, try a slow and steady change, one meal a week at a time. Slowly increase the number of meals you’re eating together as a family. Don’t be afraid of children rejecting a meal every now and again: this will help combat fussiness in little ones. While it seems like accommodating your children at every meal is a good idea, down the line you’ll find that it could be turning them into fussier eaters
“Like adults, kids eat with their eyes first. If it looks tasty, they're more likely to dive in. If you try and be really positive about it, find a fun thing in the way something looks or tastes and really describe what you're doing with your little ones while you're eating together, they're much more likely to be interested in wanting to try the food and enjoy it with you,” Rebecca explains.
Rebecca swears by meal planning as both a time-saver for busy parents and a way to keep cash in your wallet. Ahead of doing your weekly food shop, she recommends looking through the freezer, fridge and cupboards. You’ll likely have a few meals in there already once you give it a proper look.
Then take 20-30 minutes a week to plan your meals for the week ahead, meaning you can prep throughout the day and avoid a stress when the kids get home from school or nursery.
How to make dinner cheap and easy
One way you can save money and still feed the kids nutritiously is with frozen alternatives, from fish to veggies.
“Sometimes frozen food is more nutritious than fresh food”, says Rebecca. “Frozen peas are so much more nutritious than fresh ones because they lock in the nutrients when you freeze them straight away.” If you’re not planning to eat some vegetables immediately, freezing them is a good way to preserve flavour and texture (like with broccoli).
One of Rebecca’s go-to meals for kids is fritters, which are cheap and quick – just use some eggs, flour, milk and whatever veg you have lying around.
“I think they’re a really great way to pack in loads of veg and use up whatever you have in the fridge so it makes it really, really cheap. I developed a recipe where you can put all the batter onto a lined baking tray and then pop it in the oven for 15 minutes and then it's done, you just portion it up, slice it up into pieces and serve it.”
Rebecca’s cheese twists, cheese tortillas and sweet breakfast pinwheels – which cost about £1.50 for 12 – work as great on-the-go, packed lunch options, too. A healthier take on a Danish cinnamon swirl, the breakfast pinwheels use banana as a natural sweetener.
“I'm really conscious, trying to balance these so they are cheap and affordable for everybody. I try and make my recipes really inclusive so that everything is super cheap and you can whip them up for next to nothing. They’re big portions and they last for a couple of days,” she says.
A full working week of of £1 lunch & dinner recipes
LUNCH: 3-MINUTE PASTA SAUCE Serves: 1 adult and 1 little. Time: 5 minutes
- 125g (41/2oz) dried quick-cook penne
- Large handful of frozen peas or broccoli, chopped into small florets
- 11/2 tbsp tomato purée (paste)
- 1 tsp garlic purée (paste), or 1 garlic clove – crushed
- 1/2 tsp mixed dried herbs
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 50g (13/4oz) grated cheddar or 1 heaped tbsp nutritional yeast
- Freshly ground black pepper
- A few basil leaves to garnish (optional)
Bring a pan of water to the boil and add the pasta and peas or broccoli. Cook for 5 minutes or according to the pasta packet instructions.
Meanwhile, in a medium microwavable bowl, combine the tomato purée, garlic purée, grated cheese and a pinch of black pepper. Stir well.
Add 2 ladlefuls of the pasta cooking water – about 150ml (5fl oz) – and give it a good mix. If you have a microwave, give it a blast for 2 minutes, as this will give a silkier finish. However, you can skip this step if you don’t have one – it’ll still be yummy!
Once the pasta and veg are cooked, drain and stir through the sauce quickly while the pasta is still piping hot. Serve with an extra grating of cheese, and a few basil leaves, to garnish.
TIP: Use nutritional yeast as a dairy free substitute for cheese. Although it won’t melt like dairy cheese, it will add a savoury cheesy taste to your meal, as well as adding extra protein, vitamins and minerals to the dish.
DINNER: 10 MINUTE BROCCOLI PASTA Serves: 2 adults and 1 little (suitable from 6 months)⠀⠀
- 200g of dried pasta (choose a nice long shape like fusilli or spirals for babies under 1 as it’s easier for them to hold)
- Half a head of fresh broccoli⠀⠀
- Half a litre of milk⠀
- A knob of unsalted butter around 20g (can sub for plant based alternatives)
- 1 heaped tablespoon of corn flour – can use plain flour too ⠀⠀⠀⠀
- 1 low salt chicken or veg stock cube ⠀⠀⠀
- Black pepper ⠀⠀⠀⠀
- A handful of grated cheddar cheese (can sub for vegan cheese or 2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast) ⠀⠀
1) Get your pasta on to boil. ⠀⠀⠀⠀
2) Meanwhile, using a coarse grater, grate the broccoli into fairly small pieces. Don’t worry if some are larger than others. ⠀⠀⠀⠀
3) Add the milk and broccoli to a microwavable jug and heat for 2.5 minutes. If you would like a super smooth lump free sauce you can blitz the cooked broccoli milk with a stick blender before step 4. ⠀⠀⠀⠀
4) Meanwhile melt the butter in a frying pan, then add the corn flour and whisk continuously cooking for a minute before gradually adding the milk. Whisk until thickened nicely then remove from the heat. ⠀⠀⠀⠀
5) Add the cheese, crumbled stock cube and pepper and stir into the sauce, if the sauce is too thick add a ladle of the pasta cooking water. ⠀⠀⠀⠀
6) Once the pasta is cooked, add to the sauce and serve. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
LUNCH: CHEESE AVO TOAST. Serves: 1 little. Prep time: 5 minutes. Cook time: 5 minutes
Suitable from 6 months – cut into strips so easy for baby to hold. Best cooked and served fresh and warm. ⠀⠀⠀
• 1 small avocado ⠀⠀⠀
• Juice of half a lemon ⠀⠀⠀
• Black pepper ⠀⠀⠀
• 30g of cheddar cheese sliced ⠀⠀⠀
• 2 slices of bread ⠀⠀⠀
• Soft unsalted butter ⠀⠀⠀
1) Remove the flesh of the avocado, add the lemon juice and a good grinding of black pepper – mash with a fork. ⠀⠀
2) Spread the mixture over a slice of bread, top with the cheese and the second piece of bread. ⠀⠀⠀
3) Spread soft butter edge to edge on the top side of the bread, then pop the sandwich onto a medium heat griddle pan, buttered side down. ⠀⠀⠀
4) Spread butter to the other side of the bread and cook for a couple of minutes before flipping and cooking through till crispy and golden on the outside but melty on the inside. ⠀⠀⠀
DINNER: MY FIRST CURRY. Serves: 2 adults & 2 littles. Time: 15 minutes
- 1 mug of basmati rice
- 1 tbsp coconut or sunflower oil
- 6 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, or 3 large chicken breasts, cut into 2cm (3/4in) wide strips
- 1 1/2 tbsp tomato purée (paste)
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 2 tsp mild curry powder
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 1/2 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp mango powder (optional)
- 400ml can coconut milk
- 2 big handfuls of frozen peas
- freshly ground black pepper
Pour the mug of rice into a saucepan. Fill the same mug up twice with boiling water from the kettle and add to the rice.
Place the saucepan over a high heat and bring it to the boil, then put the lid on, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for12 minutes. Don’t take the lid off until the time is up.
Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan, melt the coconut oil over a medium heat, add the chicken strips and cook for 4 minutes, stirring every so often.
Add the tomato purée, garlic, all of the spices and a good grinding of black pepper, and cook for 30–60 seconds, stirring constantly so they don’t burn.
Add the coconut milk and frozen peas. Half-fill the empty coconut can with cold water, swilling the liquid around to gather as much of the coconut milk into the water as possible, then add this to
the curry. Stir and let it all bubble away for around 8 minutes until the rice is done. Add more water if you feel the sauce is becoming too thick.
Once the rice timer is up, turn off the heat and remove the lid.
Use a fork to move one section of rice away gently so you can see the bottom of the pan. If you see no water at the base of the pan and the rice looks fluffy, it’s done. Place the lid back on the rice and let it rest for 2 minutes or until you’re ready to serve.
Fluff the rice up with a fork and serve alongside the curry.
This curry is great to serve baby as a finger food. Or you can blitz up a small amount along with some rice and serve as a purée for baby, or chop the chicken and mix through the rice for a more textured meal. Another tip is to mix a little rice with some of the curry sauce and roll into a ball. This helps baby pick up the rice and eat it independently.
OPTIONAL: ADD SOME SPICE! Don’t shy away from introducing spice to baby from the age of 6 months. Getting your little one used to a variety of flavours is important for raising a confident eater. If you like stronger heat, add a scattering of fresh chilli or dried chilli flakes to adult plates.
LUNCH: CHEESY COURGETTE PIZZA
- For the pizza dough
- 8 heaped tbsp self-raising flour plus extra if needed
- 4 heaped tbsp plain full-fat Greek-style yogurt
- 1 tsp baking powder
- For the topping
- ½ courgette
- 70 g Cheddar grated
- 2 heaped tbsp full-fat cream cheese
Preheat the oven to 220°C fan (240°C/475°F/Gas 9).
Coarsely grate the courgette using a box grater, then squeeze the strands in your hands over the sink to release the juices. Add the pulp to a bowl along with the grated cheese, then separate the courgette using your fingers, mixing it well with the cheese. Set aside while you make the dough.
You can get your little ones involved with making the dough. It’s a great messy and sensory play idea that will also help avoid fussy eating with those little veg-dodgers. Add the flour to a large bowl along with the yogurt and baking powder. Stir with the spoon until it starts to come together, then tip the entire contents onto a clean work surface, scraping out any yogurt left in the bowl. Gently bring the dough together; add an extra sprinkling of flour if the dough feels too sticky. Within a minute or so, the dough should form into a ball. Cut in half to make two pizzas.
Take one ball of dough and dust with a little extra flour. Then, using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a circular shape around 1cm (1/2in) thick, moving and rotating as you go so it doesn’t stick to the surface.
Lightly dust a non-stick baking tray with flour. Transfer the pizza base to the baking tray and spoon over 1 tbsp of the cream cheese, using the back of the spoon to spread the cheese evenly over the base. Sprinkle over half the courgette and cheese mixture.
Repeat with the other ball of dough and the remaining toppings. Pop both pizzas into the preheated oven and cook for about 10–15 minutes until the base has puffed up and the cheese is golden and crispy.
DINNER: 3 MINUTE PASTA SAUCE. Recipe as above
LUNCH: MINI PITTA PIZZAS Serves: 1 adult and 2 kids (suitable from 6 months. Cut into strips lengthways before serving)
- 5 mini pita breads (or two regular size)⠀⠀⠀
- 3/4 cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced⠀⠀⠀⠀
- Approx 70g of cheddar cheese, grated⠀⠀
- 2 tablespoons of tomato purée concentrate⠀⠀
- 1 teaspoon of garlic infused olive oil⠀⠀⠀
- Half a teaspoon of dried mixed herbs ⠀⠀⠀
- A good grinding of black pepper
- 5 tablespoons of cold water⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Mix together the tomato purée, garlic oil, herbs, black pepper and water together.
Spread the tomato sauce onto your pita breads, then place on a lined baking tray.
Top with slices of tomato and the grated cheese. ⠀⠀⠀⠀
Bake at 200d /390f for 10/15 minutes until the cheese has melted, golden and crisp!
DINNER: 10 MINUTE HULK MAC ‘N’ CHEESE. Serves: 2 adults and 2 littles. Time: 10 minutes
- 250g (9oz) dried macaroni (or any pasta shape will work)
- 140g (5oz) frozen chopped spinach (about 7 blocks)
- 500ml (16fl oz) milk of your choice
- 100g (31/2oz) grated Cheddar or 2 tbsp nutritional yeast
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter or dairy free spread or coconut oil
- 2 tbsp cornflour (cornstarch)
- Freshly ground black pepper
Bring a pan of water to the boil and add the pasta. Cook according to the packet instructions.
To a microwavable jug, add the frozen spinach and milk. Cook for 3 minutes until the spinach is nearly defrosted and the milk slightly warmed.
In a hot frying pan, melt the butter then add cornflour. Stir and cook for a minute, then add the spinach milk gradually, whisking continuously. Stir until the sauce is thickened. Remove the pan
from the heat and add a good grinding of black pepper and the grated cheese. Stir to melt the cheese into the sauce then set aside until the pasta is cooked.
Add the drained, cooked pasta to the sauce, stir and serve with an extra grating of cheese on top, if you like.
Any leftovers will keep for a couple of days. Spoon them into an ovenproof dish, top with more cheese and bake for 15–20 minutes for a delicious pasta bake.
Alternatively, if you’re thinking ahead, make extra sauce and reserve some of it before mixing with the pasta. Freeze in portions for up to 3 months for a quick pasta sauce on days when you’re feeling rushed. Defrost in the microwave with an extra splash of milk until piping hot, before stirring through freshly cooked pasta.
TIP: To use fresh spinach you’ll need to finely chop around 3 handfuls of spinach and add to the sauce in the pan at the same time as the grated cheese, rather than in the microwave.
LUNCH: SHEET PAN FRITTER RECIPE – COURGETTE VERSION Makes 10 small fritters. Time: 20 minutes. Freeze the leftovers for a busy day
- 1 courgette
- 2 egg or 2 tbsp ground flaxseeds (linseeds) mixed with 75ml (21/2fl oz) water
- 100g (3¼oz) self-raising (self-rising) flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 80g (2½oz) grated cheddar or 1 tbsp nutritional yeast (optional)
- 80ml (2½fl oz) milk of your choice
- baking tray, lined with non-stick baking paper
Preheat the oven to 180°C fan (200°C/400°F/Gas 6).
Add all the ingredients to a bowl and stir until combined. Pour the batter into the lined baking tray and spread out evenly to about 1cm (1/2in) in thickness. If your baking tray is too large, form the batter into a smaller bake, ensuring the thickness is correct.
Bake in the preheated oven for 15–20 minutes until puffed up and golden on top.
Using a pizza cutter, cut into squares (or finger strips if serving to baby).
Serve with a picky salad and some full-fat Greek-style yogurt for dipping.
These fritters will keep in the fridge for 2 days, or top up your freezer stash for up to 2 months. Either defrost and warm up in the microwave or allow to defrost at room temperature and reheat in the oven for 5 minutes until piping hot inside.
DINNER: CRISPY PAPRIKA HASH Serves: 2-3. Time: 15 minutes
- 7/8 boiled and cooled leftover new potatoes ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
- 2 teaspoons of smoked paprika ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
- 1 fresh corn on the cob with the kernels removed or 150g of tinned ⠀⠀⠀
- 130g of grated cheddar cheese ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
- 1 garlic clove, minced ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
- 1 tablespoon of garlic infused oil ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
- 3 or 4 eggs ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees fan
Roughly chop the potatoes to half inch cubes and add to the frying pan along with the garlic oil. Let the potatoes start to crisp up a little for 5 minutes, tossing every so often.
Now add the smoked paprika, the sweetcorn, cheese and minced garlic and continue to cook for a further 5 minutes, stirring and tossing regularly.
Once the potatoes have fully warmed through and gained some lovely crispy bits on the edges, form 3 or 4 wells and crack an egg into each one. Pop the pan into a hot oven for 5 minutes until the white has just set.
Serve with a sprinkling of coriander or parsley and some crusty bread for dunking!
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