Dr Joanna McMillan On Family Meal Times (And A New Recipe For Your Repertoire) - The Grace Tales

Dr Joanna McMillan On Family Meal Times (And A New Recipe For Your Repertoire)

"For so many, food has become the enemy instead of a joyful part of life. My intention for this book was to bring back family mealtimes, put joy back into food while at the same time nourishing families to promote their best chance of optimal health long term." It's a statement that will come as a beautiful relief for many families agonising over the one consistent thing in our daily lives - meal times.

But thanks to Dr Joanna McMillan, those mealtimes are about to become more joyful. More simple. More nutrient-dense. More of something to look forward to.

With her new book, The Feel-Good Family Food Plan, Dr Joanna has created a single guide to feeding our families well, with simple solutions, easy-to-follow advice and expert tips. She’s done the hard work for us, so we can focus on getting delicious, home-cooked food on the table (that will actually be eaten), even on the most hectic of days, with minimal stress and worry. With 60 weeknight dinners, 4 weeks of meal plans, ideas for fussy eaters and even tips on storing and freezing, this is a guide we can’t wait to get our hands on.

We spoke to Dr Joanna about what makes for a good family meal, and how to bring a little more joy to the process…

The Feel-Good Family Food Plan by Dr Joanna McMillan with Melissa Clark, photography by Alan Benson. Murdoch Books RRP $35.00.

Tell us a little bit about your new book - The Feel-Good Family Food Plan.

This idea for the book from my observation that while there is loads of help out there for parents with new babies, the toddler years and lunchboxes for younger kids, no one seemed to be talking about food everyone in the family. I was fielding questions from people such as: what do I do when my teenager decides to be vegetarian? What are the best foods for my active kids to eat around sport? And I wanted to help families to build a more positive relationship with food and for the next generation a positive body image – for so many food has become the enemy instead of a joyful part of life. My intention for this book was to bring back family mealtimes, put joy back into food while at the same time nourishing families to promote their best chance of optimal health long term. What and how we eat matters and it should not be confusing. I pulled into the project my pal Mel Clark who has worked on recipes with me for years. She is a trained caterer so her food is fabulous, but she is also a mum to teenage boys (as am I) and so we get it. The food, as a result, is totally doable and is not fussy complicated chef recipes – it’s the kind of food we feed our families at home.

As a nutrition scientist, you will have seen it all. What are some of the most common challenges facing families when it comes to food and meals?

The main thing I see is that many families rarely eat together anymore and that is so sad. Everyone seems to grab food when they want it and often everyone in the family is eating something different. No wonder cooking becomes a chore! There is also the complication of different members of the family wanting to follow different diets. In part that stems from the confusion in the media. Dad might be trying to do keto because he heard in the gym that was the way to lose fat and get ripped. Mum might be part of an online program with a set meal plan. Kids may be fussy eaters and parents have succumbed to giving them the foods they know they will eat. It’s not hard to see how family mealtimes can be lost and become stressful. Then of course there is simply the fact that with more families where both parents work, cooking and mealtimes can become a chore that no one wants to take on. We hope we have offered solutions and generated some enthusiasm for getting into the kitchen! I was brought up in a family where dinner was what my mum put on the table and we all ate it – or you didn’t and went hungry. There is no doubt of the physical and mental benefits of eating together at least sometimes around the table and that is what we aim to bring back.

So many of us have the best of intentions when it comes to feeding our families, but things fall over when the realities of day-to-day hit. What are some of the hacks or shortcuts you’d recommend to make things a little easier?

I give lots of tips for meal prepping. Things like cooking extra meat at dinner to use for lunches the next day. Chopping extra veg and storing ready to use in your crisper. Making use of your freezer and tips for how to store foods correctly to improve their shelf life. And of course quick meals that are easy to throw together on a mid-week night. I’m big on reducing food waste so leftovers are also king! You don’t have to cook every night with a little extra planning and thinking ahead.

Tell us about meal planning. Does it have to be a challenge?

Some people are over the top meal planners and others like to wing it. I lie somewhere in the middle. I don’t have a menu for my whole week but do have a rough idea that Monday night we are having chicken, Tuesday I’ll do something with the pork fillets I bought, Wednesday I’ll do a veggie casserole with canned beans…. Then I might have a night where I just look in the fridge and then decide what to cook. Others prefer to have the menu exactly planned and ingredients bought so they don’t have to think through the week. It’s up to you to see what works for you. Planning doesn’t have to be a challenge and if it is you are probably taking it too far. If it is not helping take the stress and time out of meals, then ease back and learn a few key dishes you can throw together from basic ingredients and dial back the perfectionism!

What’s your view on veganism, or even simply plant-based diets? Should we be incorporating more plant-based meals into our families’ diets?

I prefer the term plant-rich as there is no doubt that for our health and the health of our planet, we all need to eat more plant foods. However, while we can survive and thrive on a vegan diet it does take more effort and planning, plus at least a couple of supplements, to be able to meet nutrient needs. I get particularly concerned about young children following vegan diets. Putting all ethical arguments to one side, there is no doubt that it is easier to meet nutrient needs by combining both animal and plant foods. What I do support is changes to our agricultural systems to support more sustainable animal and plant foods – mono crops and loss of topsoil are huge problems so it’s way too simplistic to say every just needs to eat more plants. What we can all do is cut back on ultra-processed food – that also means less plastic packaging and so on – and boost our intake of whole plant foods and ensure we make the best animal food choices. In the book there is a chapter on vegetarian meals and it is certainly a good idea for us all to think about enjoying at least one vegetarian meal a week. Throughout the book we recommend and include loads of plant foods, whether or not you also choose to eat animal foods.

If we are going plant-based, what do we need to consider, particularly for our children?

Vit B12 is only found in animal foods therefore you need to either take a supplement, get Vit B12 injections or choose foods fortified with B12. Long chain omega-3 fats also only occur in animal foods, primarily in oily fish, shellfish, grass-fed meat and eggs. While we can make long chain omega-3s from the short chain omega-3s found in plant foods such as chia or walnuts, we have a limited capacity to do so. I would therefore also supplement with an algal omega-3 product. Then you need to ensure a good protein intake, particularly for growing children, by combining wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Nutrients to watch for include iron and calcium – for girls, once they hit menarche they have high needs for iron and it can be really difficult to meet demands without the more readily absorbed form found in red meat and other animal foods (mussels and oysters are great if you are prepared to eat seafood – but may not be the top kids choices! Don’t underestimate them though – many kids will be adventurous with foods if you let them). There is a section in the book on having a vegetarian in the family.

What does a typical breakfast look like in your home?

My kids absolutely love eggs for breakfast and so they usually pester me to cook for them. I make boiled eggs with avocado wholegrain toast, or an omelette with a few vegies and cheese and serve with wholegrain toast, or a wholegrain bread sandwich with spinach, lean bacon & an egg fried in extra virgin olive oil. When I don’t have time to cook or I’m not there they help themselves to a wholegrain cereal or they both love granola, topped with berries, banana, milk and Greek yoghurt.

I usually eat my breakfast later after I have exercised and mine you may find a little weird but I love it! I stir fry with extra virgin olive oil whatever veggies I have in my fridge such as mushrooms, red onion, capsicum and asparagus. Cook 4 Brussel’s sprouts in the microwave for 3 mins and add these to the pan. Meanwhile I poach 2 eggs or sometimes I also fry these in extra virgin olive oil. Then mix a little crumbled feta and a big handful of spinach through the veggies. Top with the egg and serve with avo toast or leftover air-fried potatoes from dinner the night before. It’s a plant-rich feast that keeps me going most of the day! I tend to alternate this with my muesli with berries yoghurt and milk.

What about lunchboxes?

I keep them pretty simple and we give loads of ideas in the book. Kids don’t need endless variety and so you can simply rotate a few key ideas. I always try to cook extra chicken, salmon or meat to put into a sandwich, roll or wrap for them. I add avocado or hummus for good fats, lettuce and then whatever else works. Mine don’t love loads of salad vegies in their sandwich so I tend to give them carrot sticks with hummus on the side. They are both at high school so I can now pop in a pot of nuts or a nut bar. I fill a container with natural Greek yoghurt and add berries and a drizzle of raw honey. When I’m organised I bake muffins or a homemade muesli bar on Sunday (recipes for these in the book) and when I’m not organised I have a few commercial bars in my pantry. The Health Star Rating works pretty well for snack bars so use these to guide you to those with more fibre and less sugar and salt. They also like sliced apple with a chunk of cheese, dried seaweed snacks (available in most supermarkets – seaweed is great for iodine often low in Aussie diets), a pot of fruit salad with yoghurt or if they have sport early I make them a smoothie with fruit, oats, yoghurt, nuts and milk to drink afterwards.

What’s your go-to dinner on busy weeknights?

Probably Tuna Chilli Spaghetti – Mel and I both have versions of this and have refined it over the years. You’ll find the current one we like best in the book. It’s so quick and easy I can make it without thinking and everyone loves it. Otherwise I turn on the oven, stuff a whole chicken with a halved lemon, drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the top and sprinkle with dukkah. Throw it in the oven to roast. Then I serve with air-fried home-cut potato chips (potatoes are underestimated as a healthy food I reckon – keep the skins on and cook them in good oil and they are a wonderfully nutritious food) and a big salad. The chicken takes some time to roast, but it couldn’t be easier. I can get back to my home desk or be organising the kids’ homework and so on while it is cooking…. Or sitting down with a glass of wine with my husband!

How do you go about encouraging kids to get into the kitchen?

My boys are teenagers and so I keep telling them their partners of the future will expect them to be able to cook! I see cooking everyday meals as a life skill everyone should have, so I’m trying to get them to help more. But it is an ongoing challenge I have to admit. I have one who is just not interested and would rather go without eating than have to prepare anything for himself, while the other loves food and is more keen to get in the kitchen with me. I just try to make it fun and you’ll find a bunch of tips from me as to how to get all kids, including teens, interested in cooking and eating healthily. That is just as important and actually, with my teens, I find talking to them about nutrition as a science is now helping as they get it. So, use age-appropriate language and teach them why food matters.

What do you think about ‘cheat meals’ or ‘cheat days’?

Hate the concept. It implies that ‘naughty’ food is the fun stuff and that healthy food is boring! It also implies the concept of being on a diet most of the time, adhering to rules and that is a recipe for disaster. I much prefer to think of eating mostly whole nutritious foods, prepared to be delicious, and if you really fancy something you know is not so healthy, then just have a little bit and not every day. If you do overindulge you pull back the next day.

What’s your top tip for parents when it comes to meals?

Don’t allow mealtimes to become battlegrounds. Make them pleasurable instead. Cook one meal for everyone – I give you some tips for how to adjust meals to suit different ages and so on – and don’t make a big fuss if one kid won’t eat it. They won’t starve overnight and they are much more likely to eat what is put in front of them if they are hungry. So make sure they are by watching the snacking, especially for the 2 hours before a meal. You can also get kids involved in the decision-making process, choosing between healthy options.

Ricotta Zucchini Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time:
45 minutes

This recipe makes enough meatballs for two meals for a family of four, so you can serve half now and freeze the rest for another meal with a fresh batch of polenta. Admittedly, if you have hungry teenagers they may devour it in one meal!

Serves 8

500 g extra lean beef mince
500 g extra lean pork mince
1 large zucchini, grated
11/2 cups (150 g) finely diced mushrooms
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed and chopped
1/2 cup (115 g) ricotta cheese
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
700 ml jar tomato passata (puréed tomatoes)
Basil leaves, to serve

Soft polenta (serves 4)
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (190 g) polenta
1/2 cup (40 g) grated parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Add the beef, pork, zucchini, mushrooms, onion, garlic, parsley, capers, ricotta, eggs and pepper to a large bowl. Mix with your hands until well combined. Roll the mixture into balls about the size of a golf ball.

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Heat the oil in a large ovenproof frying pan over medium heat. Gently fry the meatballs in several batches until browned all over, adding a little more oil to cook each batch if necessary.

Return all of the meatballs to the pan and pour in the tomato passata. Half-fill the passata jar with water and shake to loosen the remaining tomato, then pour into the pan. Cover the pan and transfer to the oven. Bake for 30–35 minutes or until the sauce is rich in colour.

After the meatballs have been cooking for 15 minutes, cook the polenta. Combine 4 cups (1 litre) water and the salt in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Slowly pour in the polenta while whisking to ensure there are no lumps. Simmer the polenta, stirring often, for 15 minutes. Stir in the grated parmesan and the oil.

Serve the polenta immediately, topped with the meatballs and basil leaves. 

Nutrition per serve

Energy 2060kJ
Protein 39g
Fat 19g (Sat Fat 6g, Poly 2g, Mono 9g)
Carbohydrate 39g
Fibre 3g