Shepherd’s pie and kale salad with squash, cranberries and walnuts

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Tonight’s dinner was simple thanks to all the leftover mashed potatoes and gravy from last night’s not-fried feast. All I did was cook some lentils to make the base of the shepherd’s pie and roast some squash.

Lentils are easy to cook and can easily be substituted as a meat substitute in any recipe that calls for ground beef if you season them appropriately. If you’re looking for a sturdy lentil that will keep it shape, go for the green or brown ones. If you want lentils that will cook down into a mushy consistency or make a thick sauce, choose the red lentils. I used small brown lentils.

Whatever lentils you choose, be sure to look through them carefully for stones and debris. Wash them well. Then cover them generously with water. Bring them to a boil and simmer them for about 20 minutes. Drain any excess water and use them in your recipe.

If you haven’t made lentils before, I encourage you to try them. They’re inexpensive and versatile. My kids love them plain but they’re even better seasoned and served with rice. When I’m looking for an easy win with the kids, I reach for the lentils.

Back to the recipe. While the lentils were cooking, I cubed the squash, brushed it with olive oil and roasted it at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.

kale salad
This kale salad was seasoned with apple cider vinegar, maple syrup, olive oil and a dash or salt. I added dried cranberries and roasted squash and walnuts.

In the meantime, I made my kale salad. The trick to a good kale salad is to use your hands to rub the dressing into the kale. And then let it sit in the dressing to soften.

As a dressing I used a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, a teaspoon of maple syrup, a tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt. I massaged it into the kale, added a few tablespoons of dried cranberries and put them aside until the rest of dinner was ready. I put some walnut pieces in the bowl I used to mix the salad dressing to coat them with a bit of oil and sweetness and spread them onto a cookie sheet and added them to the oven. This bit of warming adds to their flavour. Just be careful not to let them burn.

Once the lentils were done, I mixed them with the leftover gravy and frozen peas and corn, topped this mix with the leftover mashed potatoes, a sprinkling of nutritional yeast and paprika and put it in the oven for about 30 minutes.

vegan shepherd's pie with squash
If my son ever warms to kale, it’s not going to be store-bought winter kale. So I just gave him roasted squash on the side. He ate it with butter and a little bit of whine.

When everything was done, I tossed the squash and walnuts in the salad and dished out the Shepherd’s pie. I went over well with everyone.

Easy, unprocessed plant-based meals for kids and adults

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Here’s my secret to getting lots of vegetables on the table that the kids will eat. I’m often asked by people who are shifting to more plant-based meals – what do I make for dinner? We all know that we should be eating more whole grains, legumes (beans and lentils), fruit and vegetables but the question is how to get started.

When you go to restaurants and look at the kids’ menus, usually the options are limited. There may be burgers and fries, hot dogs and fries, pizza, chicken fingers and fries and grilled cheese sandwiches. You’d be lucky to get a carrot or celery stick on the side of the plate.

If this is what our kids are used to eating, they’re not getting the fruits and vegetables their bodies need to grow strong and healthy.

Some kids genuinely don’t like vegetables. I get it. I find it hard to imagine anyone turning down a fresh cut mango but I guess some kids aren’t fans of fruit either. But I’m an optimist and I think they may not have tasted the fruit and vegetables that they like yet.

When my son was in Kindergarten, his class had Fruity Fridays. One of his teachers would bring in a different kind of fruit each Friday for the kids to try. She cut them all up and had huge garbage cans in the middle of the room. The rule was they had to try it. They didn’t have to like it and they could spit it out but they had to taste a new fruit each week.

That teacher did those kids a huge favour by teaching them to experiment and try new foods. The strides that were made on Fruity Fridays were noticeable at home too. He applied the same rule to dinner as he did to tasting fruit – that he had to give it a try.

My son would be excited in the grocery store produce aisle pointing out fruit we’d never tried but he knew them. At the end of the year, he brought home a book that he had made to chronicle all the different fruit he tried. And for each fruit, he circled a happy face, straight face or sad face.

I like the spirit of discovery and adventure that was fostered in Kindergarten. Try it at home. Encourage your kids to eat more vegetables and try new ones without putting a lot of pressure on them and turning meals into nightmares.

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Here’s my method. Make a whole grain – something your kids will eat (I have used brown rice but it doesn’t matter what you use). While your rice is cooking, slice some vegetables into thick slices or chunks (I’ve sliced eggplant, sweet potato, broccoli, onion, mushrooms and carrots).

Make sure you’ve included vegetables you know your kids will eat and include some they may not eat. Toss them in olive oil and bake them at 425 until they’re done, flipping once. It takes about 20-30 minutes depending on the size of the slices and chunks. They’ll probably be done at the same time.

Spoon the rice in a bowl for each person and arrange the vegetables on a large platter in the middle of the table. Make sure you have a few vegetables you know your kids will eat. Cucumbers are often an easy win. The point is to have a variety on display. My kids like olives so they’re included.

Open a can of chickpeas or other beans and rinse them. Add them to the platter. When the kids come to the table, let them choose what they want. Encourage them to try a bite of anything new.

Have something on the table for them to sprinkle over their meal – if I put seeds on the table, the kids will use them. Hemp seeds, for example, don’t have much noticeable flavour but they’re another source of vitamins, minerals, protein and healthy fats. Nutritional yeast is another flavour enhancer that my kids love.

For the grown ups, it helps to have a nice sauce or two. I topped my meal with a tahini sauce and hot sauce and it was delicious.

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Tahini sauce

  • 1/2 cup tahini
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend well. It will keep in the fridge for a few days.

If you’re always eating delicious vegetables in front of your kids, they’ll see you enjoying nutritious food. It might take time for them to become interested in their vegetables but don’t give up. Keep eating them in front of your kids.

Tell them about the benefits of eating nutritious foods. Talk to them about eating a rainbow. Teach them about the importance of eating well-balanced meals. Give them the opportunity to surprise you – they will.

That’s my secret. I eat delicious, nutritious meals in front of my kids every day. They see me enjoy my vegetables. And they know it makes me really happy to see them enjoy theirs.

Greens with roasted chickpeas, salty seed mix and a tangy avocado dressing

Vegan salad with roasted chickpeas and avocado dressing
Lettuce topped with avocado dressing, roasted chickpeas and a salty seed mix.

People often tell me they couldn’t be vegan because they could never give up cheese. I don’t miss it at all. In fact, when I think of where cheese comes from and I remember the smell of the dairy farm I visited (that inspired me to give up dairy), it turns my stomach.

One food that I do miss, though, is caesar salad. In my early teenage years, I loved caesar salad dressing. I didn’t like that caesar salads don’t include much in the way of vegetables so I would order a garden salad with the dressing and cover it in fresh pepper.

I’ve tried every vegan caesar salad dressing I could find and I was always disappointed. This dressing on my salad above gets its creaminess from avocado and it hits the spot.

Full disclosure – it didn’t pass the kids’ taste test. It was too tangy for my daughter and my son wasn’t interested. They had spaghettini with tomato sauce and roasted vegetables without any salad.

vegan spaghetti dinner
Spaghettini with tomato sauce and roasted vegetables.

I topped their tomato sauce with a salty seed mix.

Salty seed mix

  • 2 Tbsp hemp seeds
  • 2 Tbsp sesame seeds
  • 1 Tbsp nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp olive oil

Combine the seeds, nutritional yeast and salt in a little bowl. Drizzle them with olive oil and toss it well to mix. Use to top pasta and salads.

Roasted chickpeas

Very simple stuff. Preheat the oven to 350. Drain a can of chickpeas and dry them off with a towel. Toss them in olive oil, salt and garlic powder and bake for 20 minutes. Bake further if you want them crunchy.

Vegan spaghetti dinner with salad
Salad, spaghettini with tomato sauce and vegetables

I won’t call my salad caesar because it isn’t a match but it is a nice change if you’re looking for a nice creamy dressing. Here’s how I make it.

Creamy avocado dressing

  • 1 avocado
  • 1 clove of garlic (I roasted my this time but raw is more caesar-like)
  • 2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp dijon mustard
  • 2 Tbsp nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 cup water

Blend the ingredients together and serve.

To make the salad, I topped the lettuce with dressing to ensure ultimate coverage and topped it with the chickpeas and a sprinkling of the salty seed mix.

Find the recipe for the kid-friendly tomato sauce here. The roasted vegetables were chopped to bite-sized pieces and roasted at 425 for 30 minutes.

Bon appétit!

 

Sweet potato taste test

When I was at the store earlier this week, there were a few different varieties of sweet potatoes and they were all on sale. There were Japanese sweet potatoes, purple sweet potatoes and garnets. So I bought one of each thinking it would be interesting to compare the flavours and textures of each. When I brought them home, I decided to cook them alongside our regular variety from our local farm. I don’t know what variety it is – apparently there are 16 varieties of sweet potatoes! How many have you tried?!

sweet potato varieties
Regular, Japanese, Garnet, Purple

The one on the far left is from the farm – I assumed it’s a garnet sweet potato but after reading about the 16 varieties, I’m not so sure. I’ll ask next time I’m there.

I had had the Japanese variety before. They’re a white sweet potato that is very sweet and dryer than the orange sweet potatoes I’m used to. But they do have a unique flavour and I hadn’t had one in many years so I was excited about that one.

3 sweet potato varieties
Insides: Garnet, Japanese, Purple

The purple potato was entirely new to me. It’s purple all the way through. I was concerned that it would bleed (like beets) but it didn’t.

I cubed all the potatoes and coated them lightly in olive oil and sprinkled them in a bit of salt. Then I baked them at 400 for about 40 minutes.

The whole point of this experiment was to give the kids a chance to taste what I thought would be subtle differences between the varieties, determine which ones they liked and to recognize that we all have different preferences.

But it was a weeknight and the kids had their Christmas concert so it wasn’t the leisurely taste test I had envisioned. (It turned out our Christmas advent calendar activity was to sing Christmas carols together so at least that worked out well.)

Roasted sweet potatoes with black beans and quinoa.
Cubed and roasted sweet potatoes with black beans and quinoa.

Since the emphasis was on the subtle flavour differences between the three (or four) varieties of sweet potatoes, I kept everything else plain. Plain quinoa. Plain black beans. (And chipotle mayo for the grown-ups.)

As you can see, the purple potato kept its rich colour – in fact, it darkened to a very pretty purple. The Japanese potatoes ended up a creamy colour and the garnets were bright orange. The farm-bought sweet potato looked the same as the garnet and we didn’t taste a difference.

My daughter said the Japanese sweet potato was her favourite. She thinks they taste like candy. We all agreed (not about the candy. She thinks roasted beets taste like candy. It’s where her mind goes when she likes something). But we all agreed that the Japanese sweet potato was creamy and the sweetest and that the flavour differences were not subtle at all.

Surprisingly, the purple potato was our least favourite. It was the driest and least sweet of them all. Not that I wouldn’t buy them again since they were stunning and delicious but I would follow Saveur’s advice and cook them at a lower temperature to see it that makes a difference.

What kind of sweet potato do you eat in your part of the world?

Marinated tofu with potato wedges, broccoli and purple brussels sprouts

 

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It’s just the three of us for dinner tonight since my husband is working late. Nights with just me and the kids should be simple, win-win dinners with leftovers for making lunches and after dinner, we’ll get on with today’s Christmas activity from the advent calendar. Tonight, we’re doing our Christmas cards (if all goes well).

So, the dinner I’m making is something extra kid-friendly that they’ll eat up in a snap. Tofu marinated in a kid-friendly marinade (I didn’t even use garlic today!). Baked potato wedges that they’ll eat with ketchup to their hearts’ content. Roasted broccoli and brussels sprouts that will have a few little blackened bits for us to enjoy.

Tomorrow for lunch, they’ll get some potato wedges (if they’re not all gone), tofu and carrot sticks. We picked up carrots from our local farm that are amazingly sweet and delicious.

If we eat all the wedges, I’ll make them sandwiches with the tofu, cucumber slices and maybe some shredded carrot if I’m feeling generous. Vegan mayo and mustard for my daughter, plain bread for my son (it’s not worth risking mayo…too often he has come home, looked me in the eye and tearfully told me that he didn’t eat his lunch because I did this or that. “Promise me you’ll never do that again, Mom.” So no mayo or mustard for him).

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I’ve sliced the tofu into small triangles and marinated it in soy sauce, maple syrup, dijon mustard, apple cider vinegar and some grape seed oil. I let it sit in the marinade while the fries were baking. Then I arranged the tofu on a cookie sheet, put chopped broccoli and brussels sprouts lightly coated in oil on another cookie sheet and baked them all at 400 for about 20 minutes, turning once.

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I have leftover spicy peanut sauce for mine from the other day – I’m not a ketchup fan.

And then comes the Christmas cards with the hope of getting them in the mail early this year. Fingers crossed!

Orzo with roasted brussels sprouts, broccoli and romano beans

If you’ve never roasted your greens, you’re missing out. In a high heat oven for just a few minutes, vegetables transform from something you know you should eat, to something that must be dished out exactly evenly to avoid family squabbles over who got more brussels sprouts and broccoli. It’s true.

And it couldn’t be easier. I’ll explain how I made this dinner in less than 30 minutes to prove it.

orzo and vegetables
Orzo with roasted vegetables, romano beans, pine nuts and olives.

I preheated the oven to 400 and pulled the brussels sprouts from the fridge. These guys came from the farm and had been in the fridge for longer than they should have. They needed to be very carefully cleaned and picked over to get rid of any yellowed leaves and a few of them had worms so I tossed those ones. The rest were trimmed with the outer leaves removed. Inside were perfect little sprouts.

This was more time consuming than it would have been had I gotten to them last week when I first brought them home from the farm. As I trimmed them, I tossed them on a roasting pan that was liberally coated with olive oil. Then I trimmed the broccoli into bite-sized pieces. I peeled a clove of garlic and tossed it in the olive oil too and made sure the veggies were all evenly coated with oil. When you’re cooking for kids, it’s important not to skimp on the fats – at least, that’s the excuse I use.

By the time the veggies were trimmed, the oven was hot. So I tossed them into the oven. I had 20 minutes until I needed dinner on the table.

Orzo bowl

I put a large pot of water on the stove to boil to make the orzo.

Next came the beans. I peeled another clove of garlic and put a pot on the stove over medium heat with some olive oil. I crushed the garlic into the oil and opened the cans of beans. Draining the beans and rinsing them first, I tossed them into the pot when the garlic was browned (but not burnt) and added about a quarter cup of broth. Let that simmer.

Time to add the orzo. It’s about 10 minutes until dinner time. Perfect. That’s how long the orzo needs to cook.

Stir the roasting vegetables so they’re evenly cooked. I grabbed some pine nuts from the freezer (they go rancid quickly so it’s best to keep them fresh in the freezer) and tossed a handful into the veggie mix when they had about a minute left of roasting to do.

The garlic clove was a big one so I didn’t think it would be done at the same time as the other vegetables. I poured about 1/4 cup of olive oil into a ramekin for the garlic to stick it back in the oven when I took the vegetables out. It was in there for an extra 5 minutes because it was a huge clove.

Orzo, vegetables and beans

When the orzo was done, I drained it and added a bit of olive oil to keep it from clumping together. I dished it out into the bowls and topped them with the veggies and pine nuts, beans and a couple olives. Voila! Super easy and quick. I grabbed the straggling garlic clove from the oven and crushed it into the oil with a fork to add to the adults’ portions. Yum!

It had been a while since we’d had pine nuts so I didn’t know how they would go over with the kids – plus some of them were a little browner than others… my son gave them a thumbs up initially. But both kids tired of the taste of the pine nuts by the end of the meal. Crazy!

I would argue that roasting vegetables is easier than steaming or boiling them. It requires the same amount of chopping but the difference is that you toss them in oil and seasonings and go about your business without having to worry about them while you prepare the rest of the meal. Their sugars slowly caramelize and their flavours intensify while they cook. Anything that can be steamed or boiled is much better roasted, in my opinion.

Seed and kidney bean loaf with carrot and parsnip sticks

carrot and parsnip sticks with olive oil and sea salt

It’s a cool fall day so I considered making soup. But leftover soup doesn’t work well for lunches so I’m doing the next best thing – a veggie loaf made with sunflower and pumpkin seeds (nuts aren’t allowed at school) and some roasted parsnips and carrots from my garden.

Loafs and parsnips don’t usually go over well with the kids but there are four of us in this family and we all take turns having our favourite foods for dinner. Plus, with the brussels sprouts and squash successes I’ve had lately, I’m willing to take another risk. But I threw in some trusty carrots just in case the parsnips are still on the yucky list.

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These are on my yummy list.

Seed and kidney bean loaf

Veggie loaves are great – they can be made with whatever ingredients are on hand and personalized to match any preferences. You can start with The Magical Loaf Studio’s handy recipe maker for a dependable loaf or find a recipe in a book. The options are endless. The loaf I made today was made on the fly with seeds and beans to make a filling, tasty and nutritious meal. I avoided using any ingredients that would put my kids on the defensive (like onions or celery).

  • 1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1/3 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1 can of red kidney beans
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 1 carrot, chopped finely
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1/2 cup oats – blended into a flour
  • 1/3 cup tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon of chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon grapeseed oil
  • salt to taste

Blend the seeds into a powder and put them in a large bowl with the drained and rinsed beans. Mash them together with a fork or potato masher. Add the remaining ingredients and put them in a greased loaf pan. Bake at 400 F for an hour.

Pumpkin seed, sunflower seed and kidney bean loaf
Seed and kidney bean loaf

While the loaf was baking, I sliced the carrots and parsnips and coated them in olive oil and placed them on a roasting sheet with a bit of sea salt. These went in the oven with the loaf for about 40 minutes, turning once.

carrot and parsnip sticks with olive oil and sea salt
Carrot and parsnip sticks with olive oil and sea salt

The kids loved the carrots and parsnips – there were no leftovers for lunch. The loaf went over well with my daughter but my son complained he didn’t like it. He ended up eating a fair portion of his loaf with a bit of urging so it went better than I expected. I thought the loaf was delicious.

About lunch…

Despite making it nut free, this dinner won’t fly for the kids lunches. The loaf would look strange to the other kids who are used to more traditional Canadian meals. So I won’t embarrass my daughter by packing it for her even though she liked it a lot. My son will have a hummus sandwich with cucumber slices on whole wheat bread and my daughter will have a vegan ham sandwich. I’d pack the carrot and parsnip sticks if I had any leftovers. They’d have no problem with that!

I’d love to know what other vegan moms pack their kids for lunch. Do you worry about other kids teasing your kids if you pack them something like a veggie loaf?