There are days when Atticus just flat out refuses to eat something he has previously taken without any problems. If I needed to make sure that lunch or dinner goes smoothly because we’d be in a restaurant or tight for time or just because I needed it for sanity’s sake, I wanted to make sure I had a fail-proof go-to meal I was sure he would like. And that my friends, is the mac and cheese.
I am a fan of mac and cheese – that creamy intense flavour is something I can’t say no to and I thought neither would he. But the typical mac and cheese seemed a little too indulgent and rich for toddler tummies and I really did not want to serve him one of those instant nonperishable packaged dry mac and cheese in a box. So I searched for healthier options and came up with this toddler version of the mac and cheese.
This is the one dish that has worked every time and when he is a happy camper eating, so am I (especially when I know he’s getting all the protein, dairy and vegetables I could pack into the meal).
What’s great is that mac and cheese freezes really well and can be made in advance. This recipe is also easy to adapt to create variety. Just switch up the main ingredients e.g. from beef to shredded roast chicken, broccoli to thinly sliced asparagus or carrots, red pepper to yellow zucchini… you get the idea. It’s really versatile not to mention easy to cook. Don’t worry so much about following the amount of ingredients strictly. We’re busy as it is and don’t need a recipe that can be foiled by inexact measurements. Use what you have in the fridge and it will still come out pretty tasty I reckon.
One thing to note if you’re going to add other types of cheese is the amount of salt they contain. An indication that it’s too salty for your little one is if he or she drinks a lot of water during or after the meal so be watchful:)
Ingredients (approx. 10 toddler portions)
- 300g macaroni (or any healthy pasta of choice preferably broken into child-friendly sizes)
- 2tsp olive oil
- 1 tbs minced garlic
- 1/4 onion, diced
- 1/4 red pepper, diced
- 3 broccoli florets, sliced into small pieces (and boiled until soft, if your child prefers it)
- 3 brown mushrooms, diced
- 1 packet of minced beef (about 300-400g)
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp sweet paprika
- 1/2 tsp pepper
- 1/2 tsp curry powder (don’t worry, this adds flavour without the spiciness)
- 45g unsalted butter
- 3 tbsp plain flour
- 2 cups milk
- 150g mascarpone cheese (about half a tub)
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (or cheddar cheese)
- 1 1/2 cup fresh butternut squash, steamed and pureed
- 1 tsp dried rosemary
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs (or baby oats)
- 1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese
- 4 tbsp olive oil
Season the minced beef with the garlic powder, sweet paprika, pepper and curry powder by gently stirring it in. Try not to squash the beef patty style when seasoning as this tends to make it tough to chew. Let the beef sit for a while.
Boil the macaroni/pasta of your choice according to the instructions on the packet. (I would leave out the salt that’s commonly added to the pot of water to which the pasta is added.) Try to keep the pasta closer to al dente so that the pasta doesn’t break apart later when stirring (in any case, it will soften further in the oven).
Pre-heat the oven to 200 ºC/ 392 F.
In a frying pan, heat the oil and the minced garlic. Once slightly darkened (be careful not to let it burn), saute the onions then add the minced beef. Once the beef is nearly cooked, add the mushrooms, red peppers and broccoli. Set aside to cool.
In a sauce pan, melt the butter over a very low flame and add the flour. Whisk to form a roux (it should look like very thick mashed potato). Add the milk a little at a time, constantly stirring until well combined before adding more each time. (I recommend using a wooden spoon for this.) As more milk is added, the mixture should transition from the mashed potato-like consistency to a creamy mixture. Once all the milk has been added, turn up the flame slightly and heat the mixture (but not to a boil). Stir until the sauce thickens. Remove from heat and stir in the mascarpone cheese and the butternut squash. Add the grated parmesan cheese according to taste (the more parmesan added, the saltier it becomes).
Add the sauteed beef to the cheese sauce and mix well. Next mix in the pasta and stir to combine well.
Grease a 6-muffin baking tray and 4 large ramekins well. Spoon the combined mixture evenly into each portion.
For the topping, mix together half a cup of grated parmesan cheese, panko bread crumbs and olive oil. Sprinkle the topping over each portion and pat it down to compress the mixture.
Bake on the top shelf of the oven for around 20 minutes (or until the topping browns).
When done, remove from the oven and let it rest for about 15 minutes. Use a wide spatula to transfer each portion of the mac and cheese from the tray/ramekin to a container.
Once the mac and cheese portions have cooled, place the containers with their covers on into the freezer over night.
Pop the frozen mac and cheese out of their containers and keep them in a freezer bag marked with the date on which they were made .
When ready to eat, to reheat I recommend steaming to retain moisture rather than microwaving it. To steam, fill a deep pan with an inch of water. Place one portion of mac and cheese on a plate and place it in the pan, covered, over medium heat for about 20-30 minutes.
Remove and serve!