I recently read an article in a parenting magazine about a woman for whom cooking was once a joy. She’d spend a whole day making vegetable lasagne and all week preparing for impressive dinner parties. She was adamant that nothing would change once she became a mother. Then she had kids. Her culinary flare slowly faded as she left the land of ‘make it all yourself’ to become a refugee in the pre-prepared food aisle of her supermarket. The story ended, after years of being worn down by fussy eaters, with her daughter having a ‘nothing’ sandwich for tea. A piece of bread, in other words.
As a mother of three myself (the youngest only just reaching 4 years old), I can relate to the author’s sorry tale. Any sentence that starts “Mum, I don’t like…” is bound to steal a person’s culinary mojo. And somehow they conspire to dislike different things on different days, so that just when you think you’ve found a dish that will please them all, one of them has a throw-back to the ‘time that Mum forgot’, when they hated pasta but loved avocado.
It’s not like I molly coddle them or give in to their finicky ways. I could leave a tape recorder on the kitchen benchtop and at tea time switch to a pre-recorded message (looped), leave the room and nobody would notice that I wasn’t there. The message would say “You don’t have to eat it if you don’t like it, but you’re not having anything else before you go to bed”. I would have the foresight to lock the fridge and cupboards before I left, of course.
My middle son, aged 7, is probably the hardest to please. Not that he’s conventional in his tastes. He loves globe artichokes, but will only nibble on the leaves and leave the heart! He’ll eat carrot in his salad, but only if it’s peelings. He hates frozen peas, but loves wasabi peas. He even went through a phase where, after he’d finished his boiled egg, he’d eat his way through the eggshell. As you can imagine, it’s impossible to predict his reaction to any new dish.
There is, however, one constant in our children’s ever-evolving tastes. Tomato sauce. I know it’s not clever nor in the least bit sexy, but I reckon it’s under-rated. It’s like that mate that you’ve known since you were two, and who is a wee bit boring, so that you kind of forget she’s there, but she never misses your birthday and you’d be sad if she was gone.
Tomato sauce casts some sort of magic spell over children, compelling them to eat healthy food – or at least to lick the sauce off it. At our house, McMum burgers are generously slathered in sauce so that the boys barely notice the pickle and salad leaves. I use sauce to draw pictures on top of macaroni cheese and the kids try to guess what I’ve drawn (not an easy challenge given my art skills). No burrito is the same without a tomato sauce topping, and don’t even get me started on homemade sausage ‘hot dogs’! And while dipping raw carrots into tomato sauce may seem like a gastronomical gaff, it’s one way of fooling a toddler into experimenting with taste and texture.
The great thing about tomato sauce is that as a parent, I can almost convince myself it counts towards the ‘five a day’. After all, if you’ve ever made our own you’d realise just how many tomatoes goes into producing a small bottle of sauce. But I’m a little suspicious about the shop bought stuff. On the label of the budget sauce that I’ve got in my cupboard, the first item on the ingredient list is water! And of course it’s much higher in sugar and salt than the recipe for my homemade sauce.
So here’s the recipe I use when I have tonnes of ripe tomatoes in season, along with the nutritional information that I would have to put on the label if I was selling it. It is a bit of a bother making your own tomato sauce, but if you hunker down and make a huge batch, it’ll keep your kids sweet and your nutritional conscience clear. And now’s the best time, when sauce tomatoes are as cheap as the chips they complement so well.
I’d make a big batch of this in one go, upsizing the ingredients in proportion. Each kg of tomatoes produces around 500mls sauce, depending on how thick you like it.
1kg tomatoes, chopped
1 small onion, sliced
25 grams brown sugar
1 cup vinegar (I use cider vinegar)
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp paprika (or smoked paprika)
1 tsp white pepper
Simmer tomatoes and onions until soft. Push through a sieve back into a pot and add the sugar, vinegar, spices, etc. Bubble until quite thick, pour into sterilised bottles, and seal. If you don’t mind a more rustic sauce with seeds in, then just bung the whole lot in together at the beginning, simmer until thick and then blend and re-bubble before bottling.
Remember to stir the sauce to stop it sticking to the bottom of the pan, especially once it starts to get thicker!
Using the nutritional panel calculator provided by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, this recipe would produce the label below, if reduced to 500mls. The shop bought sauces in my cupboards have a sodium content of more than 1,200mg per 100g and a sugar content of between 19g and 25g per 100g.
Qty per 100g
|Fat, Total (g)
|Fat, Saturated (g)