UAE: Cooking for children made easy by a working mother of two in Abu Dhabi

Children not eating
Toddlers and young children are always looking for the smallest excuse to stop eating, and if the food on the plate is the same as yesterday’s, well there is a good chance that they won’t agree to even a single bite Image Credit: Alex Green/

It must be a truth, universally acknowledged, that a parent in charge of young children must be struggling to feed them right. It starts from the first day, with challenges related to breastfeeding and formula feeding, and only gets more complex with time.

As a new mother, I naively believed that breastfeeding was as complex as it would get. Incorporating pumping and more than eight feeds a day into my daily routine, I dreamt of the day I could get my son to sit at a table and serve a freshly prepared meal for him to finish on his own.

It’s been five years since, and I can say that this is still a vision in progress. In the meantime, I’ve also come to calmly accept all the challenges that mealtimes and nutrition bring for a working mother of two.

While every household will eventually navigate the feeding task with what suits it best, a few learnings have served me well.

Meal prepping doesn’t work for us

Meal prep by Pavel Danilyuk
Image Credit:

It may be all the rage for working couples around the world. But when there are two young children to be considered, batch making meals over the weekend doesn’t work. Toddlers and young children are always looking for the smallest excuse to stop eating, and if the food on the plate is the same as yesterday’s, well there is a good chance that they won’t agree to even a single bite.

With that being said, certain meal prepping hacks can come in handy. For instance, I no longer make a whole lot of pasta. Instead, I boil pasta and store it in the fridge, adding a different mix of sauces, condiments and proteins just before mealtime.

Making attractive plates is an additional task I do not need

On Pinterest and Instagram, there are hundreds of examples of parents who manage to make mealtime fun by crafting elaborate landscapes and scenes with foods. I am in awe of them, and of their preppy Bento boxes and plates. As for me, I’d had enough of convincing my once two-year-old son that a biscuit broken in half tasted the same as a whole biscuit. Afterwards, I no longer wanted to cut pancakes and snacks into little star and heart shapes because I was worried that he might not go on to eat a differently shaped pancake on another day. So, I simply avoided the practice altogether

I choose to offer foods in boring, regular shapes and rely instead on variety. It makes me very much an old-school parent, but I can live with the tag if my children are eating right.

Varying meals

Speaking of variety, all I can say is that children are huge fans. My two-year-old daughter is such a proponent that I find I even have to offer subsequent meals from vastly different food groups. It’s not difficult, to be honest, but I do have to be somewhat mindful.

For example, she is quite all right with a peanut butter sandwich and some fruit for breakfast. But her mid-morning meal cannot include any bread afterwards, and any that I serve will be rejected. So I simply cut up and offer some different fruit, and that’s quite enough variety for her from one meal to another. If she gets the variety, she is much more likely to actually finish her portions.

Food bowls work spectacularly

To be very frank, my children aren’t really eating anything radically different – I simply arrange our basic desi (Indian) meal in a bowl and hand them a spoon. Bowls, in fact, fit right in with a desi meal, which is typically layered with grains, vegetables and protein, and doused with gravy. Offering it all in a bowl just makes it easier for small hands to enjoy. My children relish sifting through the various tastes and textures, especially my five-year-old, and I can relax knowing they’re enjoying a balanced meal.

Speaking of variety, all I can say is that children are huge fans. My two-year-old daughter is such a proponent that I find I even have to offer subsequent meals from vastly different food groups. It’s not difficult, to be honest, but I do have to be somewhat mindful.

– Samihah Zaman, Senior Reporter

Grating and thin slices help

When they had crossed the pureed food stage, I was keen on getting the kids to eat raw vegetables for their daily fibre intake. They loved the colour of carrots, so I began grating it onto their plates. Later, when my son claimed not to like tomatoes, I began adding thin slices to his food bowl and he ate them right up. And, thinly sliced lettuce in a sandwich got the kiddy green light too.

Fun, kid-friendly cutlery whenever possible

While I’ve religiously eschewed the attractive plating trend, I’m all for cutlery that help my children enjoy the eating process. We’ve gotten light, colourful plates and bowls, and spoons that are easy to hold, including ones with their favourite cartoon characters. Why not, if it helps make their boring mealtimes fun. Plus, they’ll even eat cut fruit without much coaxing when I serve it with a pretty pick.

Healthy fats bring the charm

When it comes to cooking itself, I’ve found that healthy fats add that extra bit of magic to any dish I prepare for my children. While I try to minimise the sugar and the refined carbs, I do feel that a dollop of butter or a splash of coconut milk is both paediatrician-certified and magical. I avoid sweetening the milk for a bowl of cereal while still adding a quarter teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa for the taste. And, the right dipping sauce or some mayonnaise gets my children finishing even the vegetables they least like to eat.

Food education is helpful even with small children

It sounds boring, but children do like eating healthy. I tell my son it makes him stronger to eat those extra veggie sticks, and he actually goes on to finish them without much complaint. What’s more, there is today a ton of videos and pop-up books that explain healthy eating in fun, engaging ways. I looked up a few videos and bought a lovely book, and at times when the kids are being especially picky, these do help provide that extra bit of encouragement.

Pavel Danilyuk/
Educate kids about healthy eating Image Credit: Pavel Danilyuk/

There have to be substitutes

Of course, young children will always be most excited about junk food and sweet treats. But having healthy options around helps. When they’re begging for a treat, fruit yougurt often works in place of ice cream. Bread bites or quinoa chips are almost always a good substitute for potato crisps. And while there really is no substitute for chocolate, nearly 50 per cent dark chocolate is a tad bit healthier, and my kids are just as happy to get some.

Mealtime challenges are fun

This one certainly works best when there is more than one child around at mealtimes. I use it generously, telling both the kids they have won ‘the eating race’. “You’re the first five-year-old to finish his meal,” I tell my son, while adding to my daughter, “You’re the first two-year-old to finish eating.” They’re both happy, and so is their mummy.

My children, only two and five right now, will soon become wise to my tricks and hacks. And I will have to navigate the minefield of pre-teen love for junk food. But those are bridges I will simply cross when I get to them.

In the meantime, we’ll keep modelling healthy eating. That one is the oldest trick in the book, and what’s more, it actually works through all the different childhood stages!

Recipes for kids

I’m very much a home cook, and eyeball pretty much everything that I add. I also almost never prepare the same dish, adding in whatever my fridge or pantry has in store at that point in time. And I do love quick hacks and one-pot meals.

Here are three recipes that are a firm favourite at home.

My own version of congee, or savoury porridge

Savoury rice porridge
Savoury rice porridge or congee Image Credit: Samihah Zaman/Gulf News

This dish is typically eaten in Sri Lanka at breakfast, and is often much spicier. For my children’s palate however, I hold off on the spices for this filling dish.

Prep time: 1 hour. Serves 4 medium bowls, but can vary based on how runny or thick the porridge is.


4 tablespoons of Canola oil

2 medium onions, sliced thin

1/2 teaspoon of turmeric

2 teaspoons of coriander powder

2 teaspoons of cumin powder

3 bay leaves

3 long cinnamon sticks

1 ½ teaspoon ginger paste

4 cardamom pods

5-6 cloves

4 pieces of long pandan leaves

4 cups of water

500gm chicken breast, diced (as small as your children prefer their bites)

2-3 pieces of cinnamon

10 cloves of garlic

2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds

1 cup broken red matta rice

3-4 tablespoons instant oats

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons coconut milk

Salt to taste


Parboil the chicken in 2 cups of water, 1 teaspoon of salt. Also parboil the rice in 2 cups of water. The rice should be soft, and almost fully cooked. These can be done simultaneously, and takes about 30 minutes on medium heat.

Use a large pan, as the volume of the congee increases when the rice is cooked and coconut milk is added.

Place it over medium heat and pour in the remaining oil, and add the fenugreek leaves and pandan leaves.

After a minute of cooking, add the onion and cook on high heat for another minute.

When the onion is translucent, add the garlic, turmeric, coriander powder, cumin powder, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks and garlic paste with a splash of water.

Cook on high heat for a minute, then add in the parboiled chicken with another teaspoon of salt. Cover and cook on medium heat for 10 minutes.

Add the remaining cups of water to the chicken, then add the parboiled rice. When the water has reduced by half, add the milk and coconut milk. Let the porridge simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes, and in the meantime, taste for salt, adjusting as you like.

Now check the consistency of the porridge. It should be just a little bit runnier than you like, as the porridge will thicken once it is taken off the heat. If it is too runny, add half the remaining oats and let it simmer for 10 minutes. If it is too thick, add 1-2 cups of milk and then let it simmer for 10 minutes.

Take off the heat and serve in bowls.

Egg cups

Egg Muffins
Egg muffins – picture used for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Kseniya Chernaya/

I modified a mini quiche recipe for this to get my children to eat eggs. And it worked!

Preparation time: 1 hour from start to finish. Makes 12 mini quiches


6 eggs

1 onion, thinly sliced

1/2 cup shredded parmesan cheese

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

½ cup chopped parsley

250g chicken breast, diced into tiny pieces

3 tablespoons Canola oil

½ cup milk

1 ginger-garlic paste

½ teaspoon chilli powder

Salt to taste


Cook the onions over medium heat until translucent.

Chicken mix: Add the diced chicken, chilli powder and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook over high heat for 5 minutes until chicken looks cooked. Then add in the parsley and give it a stir, allowing the leaves to soften slightly. Then remove pan off the stove.

In a bowl, crack the eggs and whisk. Then add the chicken, parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese and milk, and mix it all. Add another ½-1 teaspoon of salt.

Scoop the mixture into little muffin cups. I use silicone baking cups for easy extraction.

Place into pre-heated oven and bake at 180 degrees Celsius for 15-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Serve with ketchup as a dip.

Tuna pasta

Tuna pasta
Tuna pasta Image Credit: Samihah Zaman/Gulf News

Pasta is absolutely the most versatile thing to prepare, and if you leave aside the time it takes to boil the pasta, it is always quick and easy. Plus, you can make it as healthy or as decadent as you like.

Prep time: 45 minutes


300gm pasta of choice, I usually use whole wheat penne or fusilli, or even fettuccine.

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small red onion, minced

6 garlic cloves, minced

1.5 cups tomato paste

1 teaspoon dried basil

1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1 to 2 cans of tuna in water

1 cup peas

½ cup chopped parsley

Salt and pepper to taste, basil and cherry tomatoes to garnish


Cook the pasta to al dente according to package instructions, then drain, reserving some of the pasta water.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add the butter and olive oil. Once the butter has melted, add the onion and cook for 4-5 minutes until softened. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.

Then add the drained tuna and the tomato sauce. Sautee over medium heat for 7 minutes, till the tomato paste has reduced a little.

Add salt and pepper to taste, then throw in the parsley and the peas. Let the leaves soften, then add the shredded mozzarella.

Add the cooked pasta, toss to combine and warm through for a few minutes. If sauce is too thick, add a splash of pasta water. If you like a bit of sweetness, add some tomato ketchup teaspoon by teaspoon. Or add some chillies to make it spicy.

Garnish with basil and chopped cherry tomatoes. Enjoy immediately.