Family first at mealtimes

If you want an honest answer, ask a toddler.

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They'll make their feelings known, loud and clear - which means product tasting sessions at baby food brand Ella's Kitchen can get pretty messy.

"If they love it, you can really tell. And if they don't like it, they'll throw it on the floor or the walls," says Paul Lindley, who founded the organic firm in 2006 as an alternative to the "invariably orange" and not very eye-catching jars of baby food available when his own daughter, Ella, was small.

With its handy pouches and colourful, quirky packaging (the current line-up includes Groovy Greens Veggie Risotto and Lip-Smacking Spag Bol), the small start-up proved a hit with parents and little ones, and is now the biggest baby food business in the UK and sold in 40 countries around the world.

Now, the fourth Ella's Kitchen book - The Easy Family Cookbook - has hit the shelves. A collection of recipes from a company best known for pre-prepared food might sound like a contradiction, but Lindley insists it's all about striking a balance.

"We never say you should have Ella's Kitchen and nothing else. In fact we know most of our customers do a mix. They have home-made food and on occasion, whether things are running late or they're running low in the cupboard, or they're out and about or on holiday or whatever, then there's an alternative they can trust."

The book includes all sorts of colourful recipes, from dunkable cheesy broccoli fritters and sunset jerk chicken, to seaside fish with creamy corn dip and sticky sesame bananas. But there's just as much emphasis on eating together and making mealtime fun as there is on flavour and nourishment, with 'Can I help?' tips on how young children can get stuck into the cooking, and games to play around the kitchen table.

"If you involve children in food, however old they are, they're more likely to eat it. Even if it's, 'Let's make a shopping list together', or, 'Let's find it in the shop together'. Even just stirring, or helping to put something into the oven, they're involved in the process," says Lindley.

"Eating together is an increasingly difficult thing, in a world where you've often got two parents working and we're all struggling for time. It is important that you find the time, not only for your own memories and family time, but actually for your child's development and social skills, to eat together."

Ella and her younger brother Paddy - who has a range of bath products, Paddy's Bathroom, named after him - are in their teens now, but Lindley is keen to stay in touch with his inner child at work, where there are games and dressing up days ("being childlike is one of our core values").

"I don't think I ever grew up," Lindley confesses. "I would encourage everyone to 'grow down' and see life through the eyes of a toddler."

Fancy trying some new recipes with your family? Here are three from The Easy Family Cookbook to have a go with...

RAINBOW LAMB & COUSCOUS SALAD

60g couscous

4tbsp flaked almonds (optional)

1tbsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 carrots, peeled and cut into ribbons or coarsely grated

1 courgette, cut into ribbons or coarsely grated

175g leftover roast lamb (or other roast meat), cut into thin strips

4 radishes, thinly sliced

6 ready-to-eat dried dates, roughly chopped

A handful of chopped mint

A handful of chopped coriander

For the dressing:

3tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Finely grated rind and juice of 1 lemon

1 garlic clove, crushed

1tsp cumin seeds (optional)

Put the couscous in a bowl, pour in just-boiled water to cover, put a plate on top and leave for five minutes to absorb the water and until the grains are tender. Fluff up with a fork.

Meanwhile, mix together all the ingredients for the dressing, adding the cumin seeds, if using, and set aside.

Toast the almonds, if using, in a large, dry frying pan for two minutes, or until starting to turn golden. Chop finely for young children.

Heat a splash of oil in the frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and fry for five minutes, until soft.

Stir in the carrots, courgette and lamb and heat for five minutes.

Tip into the bowl with the couscous, add the radishes, dates and herbs and combine gently.

Pour over the dressing and combine again.

Sprinkle with the almonds, if using, and serve warm or at room temperature.

CARNIVAL CURRY AND SUNSHINE RICE

1 onion, coarsely grated

2 large garlic cloves, coarsely grated

2.5cm piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and grated

1tsp mild cayenne pepper

400g diced chicken breast

200g brown basmati rice

2tsp turmeric

2tbsp coconut or sunflower oil

1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped

200g peeled and deseeded butternut squash, cut into bite-sized chunks

200ml coconut milk

200ml reduced-salt chicken stock

1 heaped tbsp tomato puree

Juice of 1 lime

A handful of chopped coriander leaves (optional)

Green vegetables, to serve

Mix half the onion, half the garlic, half the ginger and the cayenne in a shallow dish.

Add the chicken and turn to coat. Cover with clingfilm and marinate in the fridge for one hour.

Put the rice in a saucepan and cover with 400ml of water. Bring to the boil, stir in half the turmeric, then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender. Leave the rice to stand for five minutes.

Meanwhile, make the curry. Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the remaining onion, garlic and ginger, and the red pepper, cover with a lid and cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened.

Add the squash, coconut milk, stock, tomato puree, lime juice and remaining turmeric and cook for five minutes, stirring. Add the chicken and the marinade and cook for five minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Serve sprinkled with coriander, if using, and with the yellow rice and green veggies.

If the grown-ups fancy more chilli heat, separate out the little portions, then stir through half to one teaspoon more cayenne pepper, just before plating up for adults.

AWESOME APPLE HOTCAKES

115g self-raising flour

1tsp baking powder

1 egg, beaten

175ml buttermilk

3-4tbsp whole milk

1tbsp maple syrup or clear honey, plus extra for drizzling

1tsp vanilla extract

1 eating apple (skin on), cored and coarsely grated

1/2tsp ground cinnamon

Unsalted butter or sunflower oil, for cooking

Fruit and natural yogurt, to serve

Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl and mix together.

Whisk together the egg, buttermilk, milk, maple syrup or honey and vanilla in a jug, then gradually whisk it into the flour mixture to make a fairly thick batter. Leave to rest for 20 minutes (or overnight, if easier).

Stir the grated apple and cinnamon into the batter, adding a splash more milk if the batter seems too thick. It should be about the thickness of double cream.

Heat enough butter or oil to lightly grease the base of a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add three or four individual ladlefuls of batter (about three tablespoons per hotcake) into the pan to cook three or four hotcakes at a time. Cook the hotcakes for four to six minutes, turning once, until golden and set. Keep warm in a low oven while you make 10 hotcakes in total.

Serve the hotcakes topped with fruit and yogurt, drizzled with a little extra maple syrup or honey.

Ella's Kitchen: The Easy Family Cookbook is published by Hamlyn, priced £14.99. Available now

THREE OF THE BEST... For tots on the go

:: Vital Baby Stainless Steel Cutlery Set, £4.49 (www.vitalbaby.co.uk)

This brightly-coloured set, suitable from 12 months, has soft finger and thumb locators to help toddlers learn how to hold cutlery properly and safely.

:: Chicco Pocket Snack Booster, £29.99 (www.mothercare.com)

Perfect for when you're eating out and about, this lightweight seat can be secured onto a grown-up dining chair. It's suitable from six months to three years, and folds away compactly so you can easily pop under a buggy or in a suitcase for holiday.

:: Tidy Tot Bib & Tray Kit, £24.99 (www.tidytot.co.uk)

Devised by a mum-of-three fed up with messy mealtimes, this nifty kit comprises of a bib which attaches to a tray, stopping food falling onto your baby's lap, high chair, or on the floor. The tray folds down to dinner plate size so it can be used on the go - no more crawling around to clear up those dropped bits!