Simple and healthy eating with kids

raw oats

I asked a good friend of mine to share her story on how she keeps her family eating healthy. Meet my friend Jessica Houk. She teaches Early Childhood Education in Portland, Maine. She lives happily with her daughter, husband and a cat named Lily Serious. *image via

Pancakes from scratch

Saturday morning during my first year of marriage I came home from the grocery with a box of pancake mix. My intent was to impress my new husband with a delicious home cooked pancake feast. He found me in the kitchen unpacking grocery bags.

Holding up the box he said, “You bought pancake mix.” “Yes!” I replied exuberantly. “I’m going to make pancakes!” He repeated, “You bought pancake mix.”

“In a box.”
“Why don’t you just make them from scratch?”
“Oh no,” I said. “Way too complicated.”
He looked confused. “Do you know what’s in pancakes?”
“Oh tons of stuff!” I replied. “Why else would you need a mix?”

My husband got a copy of Joy of Cooking (that I didn’t know we had) from a cabinet. He showed me the pancake recipe.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups milk
3 tablespoons butter, melted
2 large eggs

“Oh.” I said, noting that not only did we already have the seven simple ingredients in our kitchen which would have saved me the early morning trip to the grocery store but that the preparation of said simple ingredients was no more complicated than the instructions on my econo-brand Bisquick knock off box.

So- we made Joy of Cooking pancakes together, added a little vanilla extract (the pure stuff), some banana, and topped it with real butter and maple syrup. Oh lordy they were good. When we moved a year later I threw out the box of untouched pancake mix I’d stashed on a shelf.

This story is not about my newlywed attempt to play Happy Homemaker (although there were many others, equally naïve and rather pathetically cute). This story is about food lies. This particular lie is the one spun by the food industry that convinced us (or me anyway) that cooking our own food from our own single item ingredients is too complicated, too time consuming, that the product won’t taste as good, or will cost too much.

This is simply not true. None of it. I believed that because there were not only one type of pancake mix on the market shelves, but many, pancakes must be deadly hard to make. Why else make a mix? The same for pizza. Go to the freezer section at the grocery- how many types of pizza are there? Ten? Fifteen? Maybe twenty? It is SO EASY to make homemade pizza. I promise.

Same for chili, pea soup, tomato sauce, burritos, granola bars, enchilada sauce, macaroni and cheese… all things I love to eat, all super easy to make from scratch. But who knew? I didn’t. But I’ve learned. And I promise: It is entirely possible to make great, good for you food- easily, economically, and work it all into a busy schedule.

Cooking can be easy and fun

The secret is that you have to cook. The good news is, it is also a food lie that cooking is hard. Or un-fun. With practice and the right attitude it is both easy and fun. (I can tell you’re doubting me- but I kid you not.) I did not know how to cook at the time of the above story. I have spent the last eight years learning. Not fancy-pants cooking. Simple, feed your family, nutritious, real working mother cooking. And I gotta say- it’s pretty damn yum (most of the time).

The more I learned about cooking, the more I learned about eating, and the more I learned about eating the more important it became to me to eat well. When I was pregnant with my daughter I became super concerned with what I was feeding her. Because she ate through me, I had to become super concerned with what I was feeding myself.

I started to read labels on the food I bought. I discovered a few things:

  • One, there is a lot of crap in commercially prepared food.
  • Two, there is a lot of weird, unpronounceable crap in commercially prepared food.
  • Three, I didn’t know what the weird, unpronounceable crap was and I didn’t feel so great about eating it.

After awhile, and after some reading, talking and research, I decided I’d see what happened if I stopped buying anything with more than five ingredients listed on the label, and with no ingredients I couldn’t define or whose names I couldn’t pronounce. This eliminated most commercially prepared convenience foods. So, in order that I should continue to eat the things I liked I had to learn to cook them. And I have. With happy success.

Granola Bars from “The Vegetarian Mother’s Cookbook”

3/4 cup raisins or chopped dried fruit
boiling water
3 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1 teaspoon cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice
1/2 cup honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, or agave nectar*
1/3 cup peanut butter, almond butter, or tahini
1/4 cup raisin soak water

Place raisins in small heat-proof bowl or measuring cup. Add just enough boiling water to cover fruit. Preheat oven to 250. Oil a 9×13 inch baking dish. Drain raisins but reserve soak water.

In large mixing bowl, combine oats, seeds, coconut, cinnamon, and fruit. Place sweetener, nut or seed butter, and 1/4 cup raisin soak water in small sauce pan. Warm over low heat, stirring until smooth. Pour over oat mixture. Mix thoroughly. Press into prepared baking dish. Bake for one hour.

If crispy bars are preferred, bake an extra 15 minutes. Score into squares immediately upon removing from oven. Let cool. Bars will harden as they cool. Makes 18.

  • Approximate Nutritional Information for 1 Bar: 163 calories; 5g Protein; 24g Carbohydrates; 7g Fat; 3g Fiber; 4mg Sodium
  • Key Nutrients: .2mg Thiamin; .46mg Pantothenic Acid; 2.18mgVitamin e; 1.14mg Iron; 37.98mg Magnesium; .67mg Zinc

(* I don’t like agave nectar, but that’s for another post.)

– Jessica Houk


Speak your mind…

Was there a moment in your life that changed the way you see food?

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2 Responses to Simple and healthy eating with kids

  1. Alicia W. January 24, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    I am excited to try this recipe! My own newlywed years were much like the story you told….I honestly knew how to cook 1 or 2 things. I learned to cook from my husband.

    I have a feeling my daughters will adore these granola bars. I can’t wait to give them a try!

    • familysponge January 24, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

      Alicia, it’s crazy how much me grow, change and learn over the years. I thought I would eat out and microwave meals for the rest of my life because I’m so “busy.” It’s been a joy to take the time to cook and let my daughter cook with me. I used to really detest standing up in the kitchen. Now I can’t imagine not preparing my own meals from scratch. Let me know how the granola bars turn out! -Jadah

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