Healthy and Sustainable Kids' Party Food

Healthy and Sustainable Kids' Party Food

A little left field for the Tale of a Teaspoon but I recently excelled myself in creating an entire toddler party menu devoid of ultra processed food, and I thought I'd share it.

Ultra processed food is bad for you. If you haven't caught on to this yet then please read Ultra Processed People or if a whole book feels like biting off more than you can chew, you can read this succinct article from the Soil Association.

The scary thing about UPF is that it's not just in the obvious things like ready meals and junk food. When I started down this road the thing that spooked me the most was how many hidden ingredients there are in bread. Bread is something my family and I eat almost daily. Even though my kids are happy to eat a seed-loaded brown bread, it only took a quick glance at our go-to Warburtons loaf to see that there is a lot more in there than meets the eye.

For those of you who follow on Instagram, you'll know that I've been on a whole journey learning to make bread. I ditched the idea of sourdough and the necessary starters as it was too complicated and overwhelming. I made some bad bread too! However, some friends recommended a YouTube video by Emma Fontanella, which takes you through a simple recipe that delivers fantastic rewards.

We have been making this bread for some time, experimenting and becoming more confident with it, however it isn't great for children's sandwiches. With my son's 3rd birthday party fast approaching I decided to try my hand at Nigella's Old-Fashioned Sandwich Loaf.

First up, I confess there is sugar in the recipe. Could I take it out, probably. Did I, no. Why? Well I've forgiven sugar, it's not the problem. If we choose to eat it that's on us. If it's hidden in an essay-long ingredients list on an ultra processed product that the Government is doing nothing about even though for many living in food deserts it's the only thing they can easily acquire, well that's on them (the Government, the voters, the people of the past that didn't know better than let us get in this diabolical state...) but it's not sugar's fault. And there are only 2 teaspoons in the recipe from which I made 2 small loaves. Sugar is an ingredient not the enemy, and should be used when necessary.

Rant over.

The bread turned out brilliantly. It was a joy to make and in contrast to our rustic, sourdough-esque, Emma Fontanella loaf, the sandwich bread is easy to slice, soft and fluffy but strong enough to butter, and a smaller resulting in sandwiches that toddlers can really get their mouths around.

The Party Menu

  • Ham Sandwiches (homemade bread, freshly thin-sliced butcher's ham)
  • Cheese Sandwiches (homemade bread, grated supermarket own-brand cheddar)
  • Mini Pizzas (homemade flatbread dough, supermarket own-brand organic tomato puree, grated supermarket own-brand cheddar)
  • Chipolata sausages (butcher's)
  • Crudités (carrots and cucumber)
  • Fruit (sliced grapes, bowl of satsumas)
  • Cake (homemade School Cake with royal icing lego pieces)

Hopefully you can see from this that I'm not trying to be "holier than thou". Pizza, sausages, cake - this is a menu my kids want to eat, it's party food! However by doing a few things (see below) I was able to eradicate UPF from the menu.

Top Tips

  • Limit your offering. My initial menu also included mac and cheese balls - which I intended to make from scratch - plain popcorn and fruit on sticks. My husband pointed out that popcorn has almost zero nutritional value and the kids would just fill up on it; I was doing it to make the buffet table look more plentiful, which was not a good enough reason, so it had to go. Mac and cheese balls? Fruit on sticks? Too time consuming when I was already planning to make bread and pizza dough. Gone and gone.
  • Under-cater. Not only do I suggest you limit the offering, I also suggest you don't make too much. As a foodie and a feeder I'm always guilty of over-catering but toddlers are going to have a few mouthfuls and then be distracted by the fun of the party. Adults might nibble too, but you're not responsible for feeding them so do yourself a favour and avoid stale, gently fingered leftovers. An empty buffet table is easier to clean up and means you don't need a bag full of tupearwear or yards of tin foils to take it all home.
  • Pick your battles. Writing out that menu I hear a little voice saying, "you could have used a better quality cheese. You could have cut out the supermarket entirely. Is tomato puree not ultra processed, it's got citric acid in it?" But I made bread from scratch so shh silly voice!
  • Prep in advance. Once I knew what I wanted to serve I sat down and planned my week, carving time out of evenings once the kids were in bed and a few hours during the week when the kids were at nursery. I made, lightly cooked and froze the mini pizzas at the start of the week. I made the cake midweek. The night before, whilst the bread was in the oven, I cut the crudites and the grapes, and grated the cheese ready for the sandwiches. I cooked sausages the morning of the party and served cold, and I compiled sandwiches as close to the start of the party as possible to avoid them going stale.
  • Let them eat cake. I was the mum that tried to make sugar free cake for my kids for their 1st and 2nd birthdays. It's just a bit yuck. I opted for an old fashioned school cake this year because it is easy to make, it doesn't have multiple layers of cake and icing so you dodge extra sugar that way. Plus, it's easy to cut into small cubes and because I made royal icing lego pieces the kids went mad for it. I suggest serving cake 40 mins before the end of the party so that any sugar high can be worn off. The other parents will thank you for it.

And a few more things...

  • You don't have to provide squash / juice. I did and I regret it. My son is like a moth to a flame when squash is concerned and half way through the party he came to me with a fully loaded and leaking nappy because he'd not only helped himself to more squash than I'd have allowed, but he'd also been minesweeping everyone else's cups. I had planned to do blood orange flavoured water - the kids would love seeing the fruit bobbing around - but I forgot.
  • Pom-Bears, get in the bin! It's this weird itch I've realised a lot of people - including me - feel when it comes to party food... there has to be crisps. People recognise that grown up crisps aren't a great choice for small kids, but all of a sudden there is this option of a Pom-Bear, marketed at children. They are the melt in the mouth epitome of UPF. If you want crisps, thinly slice some veggies and whack them in an air-frier.

I'm so interested to know what people think of this. What we feed our kids can be a really sensitive subject and please, especially if you're the parent of one of my kids' friends, please don't feel I'm judging you for any choices you make. You do you! I just want to share that there are easy ways of making party tea that little bit healthier, without taking away the fun and indulgence that we should associate with celebrating birthdays.