Arthur Eats: Fun, colourful, flavoursome kids’ food

“As children we were sent out to the garden to collect eggs and dig up potatoes. This gave me an early appreciation of where food came from.” We talk food and family with Lucy Isotta (@arthur_eats on Instagram) and she shares some brilliant, fun kids’ food recipes…

Lucy Isotta lives by the beach in Sydney with her partner Toby and their children: Arthur, nearly four, and Beatrix, 20 months.

What’s your home like?
Colourful and noisy. Toby is a designer and thinks a lot about aesthetic. The kids and I are mainly interested in designing dens and cubbies out of cushions. So the house flick flacks from curated to chaos.

What were mealtimes like for you growing up?
Lively, as I have three siblings. My mother was a great cook. Dad mainly did roast dinners. We had a large extended family who would get-together at my grandparents’ house on the coast most weekends. My grandfather was Italian and cooked us all beautiful big Sunday lunches. I remember particularly that he used to feed us lots of seafood: he made me langoustine for my 12th birthday meal which I thought was the most delicious thing.

When did you develop an interest in cooking/preparing food?
I’ve always enjoyed eating good food, which brings with it an interest in cooking. I grew up in the countryside (Norfolk). My parents had chickens and goats and a veg patch. As children we were sent out to the garden to collect eggs and dig up potatoes. I guess this gave me an early appreciation of where food came from, and the effort involved in growing it. Eating things you’ve just picked from the garden is a wonderful way to get children excited about food.

I moved to London in my late teens which exposed me to different styles of cooking and inspired me to try lots of new foods. I also went about re-creating a smaller version of my childhood veg patch in our London garden – with gooseberries and rhubarb, apple and nut trees.

Do you work with food, or is it a hobby?
A hobby. My interest intensified when I started weaning Arthur. I was amazed by the exciting new sense he was discovering…taste.  I set up my Instagram account as a way of recording the journey for family and friends.

That said, my career has influenced by food philosophy. Pre-motherhood I worked in the UK Cabinet Office when Government was becoming interested in Behavioural Insights, or ‘Nudge’. I’m passionate about applying some of those insights to children’s eating habits. I’d love to inspire other people by simplifying and demystifying the knack of feeding kids healthily. The ingredients and methods can be basic, but it should be fun!

Thoughts on family/food/mealtimes/eating…
My philosophy is to eat the same stuff as your kids, at the same time, from the start. And to make family meals playful, uninhibited and flavourful. My thoughts on food are summarised below as EATS:

Easy. I’m not a big believer in children’s food as a different genre. To me, eating the same stuff as your children (with minimal tweaks if required by age-specific, or nutritional requirements) is easiest and most effective way. It makes things simpler. The main things I take out when cooking for my children are chilli and salt.

Attractive. Food should be playful. Prohibition isn’t playful. Variety makes things interesting. I believe in enabling children to make their own decisions about what to eat (within reason), and in exposing them to many different types of food, spicy, sweet, home-cooked and eaten out. They may decide they don’t want to eat something on one day, but I never start the ‘ you don’t like it’ narrative. I’d just say that perhaps they aren’t in the mood for it today! As a family, it’s natural to find dishes that work for your family and to make them over and over, but I try to mix those up with new things, to ensure that meal-times stay exciting.

Becoming a mother made me more aware of the importance of food in family life

Timely. I apply this in a couple of ways. Firstly, overall, I have tried to feed my children like this from the start, so that diversity of diet, and big flavours are the norm. Secondly, I try to offer them things I think they might fuss over when I know they are most likely to eat them (i.e. 5 o’clock veg, when they are really hungry).

Social. Eating should be a social thing. Social norms are great influencers. Whenever possible, I eat at the same time as my children, with noisy enthusiasm about what’s on the plate. I take them out to restaurants; invite others over for lunch; and organise kids’ suppers with local friends.

What’s your kitchen like (and is anyone else allowed to use it)?
Borrowed at the moment, as we rent our place. Everyone’s invited into the kitchen. But I’m definitely the head chef. Toby often cooks with me (sous-chef). Arthur loves to get involved. Even Bea has a little ladder to climb up on. Although she doesn’t stop there and often climbs right onto the surfaces which is a bit hectic.

Did having kids change your attitude towards mealtimes/eating?
Becoming a mother made me more aware of the importance of food in family life. For me food is right at the core of our family’s day to day. Meals at the weekend are so much better because we can eat together.

Talk us through an average day of food in your home (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack)…
We have porridge for our weekday breakfast. At weekends we have dippy eggs or pancakes. For lunch during the week we might have a rainbow salad or bubble and squeak (using up whatever leftovers I have hanging about). Snacks are ice lollies, fruity yogurts, or what we call 5 o’clock veg (see below). Dinner buy valium time is pretty varied. Anything from shakshuka to steak.

How important are aesthetics when it comes to food?
The most important thing about food is taste. Because you can’t taste things online, the food has to be attractive in other ways. It needs to look delicious. I’m not a professional food blogger, I use my phone and hope there’s enough sunlight for a photo to work.

You’re from the UK, living in Australia. What food do you miss from home?
I miss Waitrose. I miss Marmite. And I miss food for cold weather.

And what new foods have you been introduced to out there?
Arthur is obsessed with dumplings, which weren’t really part of our culinary vocabulary at home. We eat a a lot more papaya and tropical fruits. All the fish here is different, which was intimidating to begin with.

How important is Instagram as a platform for food, cooking and meal ideas?
I’m old-school and prefer books. I borrow new cookbooks from the library every few weeks. Like a luddite.

Family meal ideas…

5 O’Clock Veg

5 o'clock vef

What?
This involves whatever vegetables I have to hand, cut up into sticks or rounds, raw or lightly steamed, and offered with some sort of dip. The usually eat these on the floor, often watching Peppa Pig, with a little tea-towel underneath the plate to catch and drips!

When?
Around 5pm. My kids are ravenous by then and ‘5 o’clock veg’ meets their need for sustenance, and my need for 10 minutes to prep a proper meal without them under my feet. It also means they get two or three of their veg servings in one wallop.

How?
Dips could include: a splash of salad dressing, tahini with lemon and garlic, humous, guacamole, butter (for lightly steamed greens, broccoli etc), olive oil with balsamic vinegar.

Regular raw veg options include: carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, frozen peas, sliced cabbage, broccoli stalks, kohlrabi, red peppers, petite pois, sugar snaps, radishes. Or steamed: broccoli, green beans, cauliflower, courgette, sweetcorn.

Ice Lollies

Arthur Eats lollies

What?
Kids love lollies. They love the ice-cold, and the bright colours. They’re particularly useful when babies are teething.

When?
We have these around 3pm to bridge the gap between lunch and supper. Usually when Bea wakes from her lunchtime nap. We eat them most of the year. But they’re particularly pleasing in the summertime.

How?
In my experience, you can pretty much put whatever you want into lollies, and they still get eaten. We’ve experimented with so many different flavour combinations. Everything from tahini/ nut lollies, to spinach and apple. Fruity staples include: mango and lime, papaya and lime, pineapple, spinach and apple, cherry, pomegranate seeds, frozen berries. We often add a creamy layer, of yogurt or coconut cream/milk.

Protein Pancakes

Arthur Eats pancakes

What?
Soft, fluffy pancakes, with an extra wallop of protein in them. These are inspired by Nigella’s Cheesecakelets. The cheese has an added bonus of giving them a sourness, a little like a cheesecake. I tend to use cottage cheese. But ricotta, mascarpone or plain yogurt also work.

When?
Anytime. We usually have pancakes on a Sunday. I developed this recipe around Easter and called them hot cross pancakes because they’re spiced like a hot cross bun. You can omit the raisins and the spices if it doesn’t seem seasonal. Just have them with some fresh or poached fruit on top.

How?
3 eggs (separated)
1 cup spelt flour (wholemeal or plain)
1/2 cup almond meal
1 cup milk
1 cup cottage cheese
1 tsp baking powder
vanilla essence
(if you’re making the hot cross spiced ones, Soak a handful of raisins or sultanas in a little warm water (or orange juice if you have it) with cardamon, cinnamon and nutmeg. If I remember I soak mine overnight, but you could do it in less time).

Separate the eggs, whisk the white; combine yokes with all the other ingredients; fold egg whites through the yoke mix; and fry briefly in butter or coconut oil on each side

Arthur Eats Breakfast Puffs

Arthur Eats puffs

What?
Anyone else grow up with Sugar Puffs? These are my healthy version of puffed cereal.

When?
We make these when we have overdosed on porridge and need a break from it. They’re good with plain milk, or a fruity smoothie milk/ yogurt.

How?
2 1/2 cups of mixed puffed cereals; 1 cup of seeds (I have used sesame, linseed, sunflower and chia seeds); 2 tbs crunchy pure peanut butter (omit for non-peanut flavoured puffs), 2 tbs honey/ maple syrup; and 2 tbs coconut oil. Mix the wet with the dry ingredients; and pop it into the over at 160 for about 12-15 minutes (but check and turn every 5).

Cheese Threes

Cheese threes

What?
Crispy cheese crackers. These were named because I used three-shaped cutters to make them for Arthur’s third birthday. You can make them in whatever shapes. We often do all the numbers. Don’t be alarmed by the amount of cheese they contain. They taste amazing.

When?
These are great lunch-box fillers, we often make them before we go away for a weekend because they travel well. If you’re making them into number shapes then they have the added benefit of helping with number recognition. With Arthur, I insist he identifies each before he cuts it out, and then later when he eats them! You can use whatever cutters you like.

How?
200g cheese
50g butter
100g wholemeal, plain, or spelt flour
A handful of poppy seeds
1 tsp baking powder
Whizz all the ingredients together in a food processor until you get a dough ball.
Put the dough in the fridge (wrapped in clingfilm or baking paper) for 15mins. Ours sometimes hangs out overnight if I get busy with something else.
Roll it out on a floury surface, to about 3mm thick, and cut your shapes
Pre-heat oven to 200c. Cook on a baking paper covered tray for 10 mins, or until they are still a little soft in the middle (they continue to crisp up as you take them out).

Follow Arthur_Eats on Instagram: @arthur_eats