Recipes for Families with Toddlers: Roasted Veggie Lasagna

Years ago, Jason and I started experimenting with lasagna recipes. We tried meat, we veggie, we tried all sorts of different things. What we stumbled upon was a lasagna so good that we still (years later) make it about once a month or so. We have it down to a science. Veggies. Spinach basil mix. Rice Noodles. Go.

That it happens to be vegetarian is strange, as we are not…

That it happens to be toddler friendly and gluten-free* is another bonus of the recipe – and one that we have definitely capitalized on since baby RZ was only six months old. It was her first ever real prepared ‘meal,’ and she adored it! I hope you will too. : )

Roasted Veggie Lasagna 

The lasagna is made in a few separate steps. It might seem like a lot at first, but once you’ve made it twice the steps get very simple. Especially if you can make the roasted vegetables the day before.

Ingredients:

5 medium sized zucchini (or more as desired)
1 large eggplant (or more as desired)
1 package hard tofu, smashed by hand
2 balls of mozzarella, grated
1 container of ricotta
3 bulbs garlic, roughly chopped
1 big bunch or package of spinach or baby spinach, chopped
1 bunch basil, chopped
2 jars of spaghetti sauce (Prego works well)

*You can also have a layer of ground beef if you prefer that. We do this sometimes too.

Step 1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Slice the zucchini and eggplant lengthwise, and then chop into iPod Shuffle sized pieces. Don’t they look like little iPods??

Toss in olive oil, sea salt, and italian herb seasoning. Lay these out on a roasting pan with at least the amount of spacing as shown, and cook for 7-10 minutes, then flip if translucent or remove from oven if soft and browned. If you see any burning, turn the temp down… if there’s no sizzle, turn it up.

Repeat with as many veggies as you have – it may take several batches. Place roasted veggies aside or refrigerate if making day before. Make sure you try a few samples, just to be sure they’re delicious. I almost always add a dash of tamari for some extra flavour. (If you are making this Gluten-free, buy the gluten free kind. Tamari is my fave.)

Roasted Vegetables

Step 2. This step can be done any time but it’s a tad messy. You’re going to prepare a big bowl full of chopped spinach, chopped basil, chopped garlic, ricotta and smashed (by hand) tofu. Add a dash of salt. I didn’t get a picture of my spinach mixture on its own but you’ll see it below in context.

Step 3: When you’re ready to build the lasagna (I recommend doing this the day after you’ve done steps one and two), the first thing to do is make the noodles. And pre-heat the oven to 375.

Bring a well-salted pot to a boil and add your noodles. We use (and love) the Rizopia brand brown rice sheets, shown below. It has the perfect hearty texture for lasagna.

The only rice pasta brand you'll ever need.
The only rice pasta brand you’ll ever need.

Cook until done (about 11 minutes I think, but every stove is different. These noodles do like a rolling boil.) Once cooked, strain  and run some cold water over them. Add a splash of olive oil as well. Then you’ll want to lay them out individually (quite quickly) on a cutting board or other non-stick surface so that they don’t stick together.  *Some pieces will not make it out whole. Use those for your middle layers if possible.

Ready to start building a lasagna? Here’s mine in progress:

Lasagna with Spinach and Ricotta

Step 4: Start the layering (almost done!). A really useful tool for this stage is a silicone baster, but a spoon will do. Coat your lasagna pan (preferably a heavy pan like a Creuset) with pasta sauce. Lay out three noodles or enough to cover the surface of the pan, and layer more sauce on top, as pictured. Then, add your spinach/ricotta/garlic/tofu mix. Layer #1 completed.

Next, lay more noodles on top of the spinach mix, coat with sauce, and then lay on the roasted veggies, about 2-3 vegetables thick. Then, add third and final noodle layer, and cover in sauce…. and cheese.

So it’s three layers pasta sheets and two layers filling, with sauce and cheese on top.

Lasagna before

Step 5: Bake at 375 for 45 minutes or until golden brown. *Note, the more browned it gets, the more chewy the cheese top gets, which adults love but isn’t the best for the young ones. Aim for browned in spots but not all over.

Allow it to cool so that the juices settle and then carve up and dive in. Bon Appetit.

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Adventures in the 5 senses of food; a fun way to approach feeding babies and toddlers

Somewhere between the puree approach and baby led weaning, I found a middle ground, and I wanted to share it because there are really so few options out there for introducing solids and meals to babies and toddlers.  *more recipes and chit chat on my FB community here.

Read more about my approach, and how I got here, below or skip down below to the food adventures:

> Food Adventure 1: Touch/Tactile – Exploring food with both hands…and face.
> Food Adventure 2: Smell – Introducing Aromatics
> Food Adventure 3: Sound – the thrill of snap, crackle, & crunch!
> Food Adventure 5: Taste – Big adventures for little palettes
> Food Adventure 5: Sight – the bright, bold, beautiful colours of food

I wouldn’t say it’s a radical departure from either of the approaches above, but it’s definitely an in-between, plus adds some additional elements that I haven’t seen enough of; like the importance of incorporating sense exploration.   Research is pointing out the importance of this more and more, as you’ll see below.

On the scale of puree to BLW, I’m definitely way more on the BLW side, I absolutely love the food exploring, the hands-on style, the self-regulating, the adventurous spirit of it. But I found it to be a bit too grown up at times… and I found myself (still now) making finger food more accessible in various ways. Mostly by making them more bite size, sometimes mashing.

I suspect there are more parents like me who are doing BLW this ‘softcore’ way; supplementing major food exploration with more manageable hands-on meals. BLW foods don’t always have to be big and tricky, do they? Yet somehow I felt like rice and tiny cut up veggies was cheating?

This is why I wanted to share the approach we took, and put it out there for others that might be feeling like I was; that I needed something in between. Don’t be fooled by the spoon below – the spoon feeding only lasted about a month or less, but yes, that’s how we started….

Avocado mash introducing solids

Avocado mash (above) at 6 months, corn on the cob (below) at 12 months.

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So. Where does this leave us?

The best way to describe what we did is what I’m calling THE 5 SENSES METHOD.

What’s it about? Quite simply, the great human adventure of starting to eat and appreciate food; and how the awareness of taste, smell, sound, sight, and touch is key to that.

Practically speaking, this method is about serving 80% of meals as bite size finger foods made from grains, meats, and vegetables. Choosing (or designing) meals that are colourful, interesting, and aromatic but still unprocessed, nutritionally dense, and in most cases ‘whole’ like a grain of rice or a piece of fruit. The other 20% of the time; having fun with texturally challenging, ‘bigger’ whole foods, and helping baby learn how to manage the little obstacles that come with eating grown-up sized table food. Independent eating, yes – all the way. But also simple and gentle, with an appreciation for flavour variety, shape, aroma, & texture.

Irresistible sticky rice with mango for toddlers

Mango sticky rice at 9 months above, veggie dinner at 10 mos.

Toddler Dinners - Bi Bim Bop
Veggie Dinner at 10 mos.

Recent research has shown that everything from colour and shape to what music playing in the background affects our perception of flavour. The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve realized that what really doesn’t come across in either puree or BLWing is how important it is for babies and toddlers to be stimulated by and interested in what we’re feeding them. But also, how important it is that we share in their flavour experience, and delight in the food we’re providing as much as we want them to delight in eating it.

Putting this all in the context of the 5 senses helps it all come together, so here it is:

Food Adventure 1: Touch/Tactile – Exploring food with both hands…and face. 

BLW does the best job of introducing this concept; letting the baby explore food freely, and feed themselves. The part of this that I’ve really found great value in is how babies take so easily to the concept of a “whole” food — I was amazed to see my daughter navigate whole fruits, eggs… even a chicken drumstick at nine months old. While I don’t think this type of eating is necessarily practical for every meal, it’s really important to experiment with soft textured whole foods. Smaller ‘whole’ foods like brown rice and well-steamed broccoli were absolute staples.

Examples to try: partly peeled bananas, whole tomatoes, and peeled oranges (acidic foods only weekly though, not daily). Avocado,ends of bread. Colourful, messy, tactile foods like Lasagna and Spaghetti with prima vera sauce, mango sticky rice, dried fruit, large piece of baguette to gnaw on, burgers/slider patties.

Toddler eats whole orange

Food Adventure 2: Smell – Introducing Aromatics

Smell is the most advanced sense that babies have at birth. We know that babies can smell their moms from across the room – that super sniffing power comes into play with real food too.

I love the way my friends did this with their baby; they’d have their son in the bouncy chair while they cooked, and would let him smell the basil, mint and whatever other fresh ingredients they were chopping as they cooked. Did that baby grow up to eat everything? Yup. And we did the same thing for just that reason. (And it worked out pretty well for us too).

Aromatic examples to try: Italian-herb pesto pasta and sauce, indian food, watermelon salad, smell/taste exploration with mint, basil, and other delicate herbs.

Watermelon-Salad

> Food Adventure 3: Sound – the thrill of snap, crackle, & crunch!

There’s growing evidence for the idea that sound affects taste, including the concept that we derive direct enjoyment from the crackle of a Rice Krispie or the crunch of crudités.

Crispy Examples: steamed peas, raw or light poached apple and pears, mum mum crackers or other melt-in-your-mouth crackers, wheat puffs, baked veggie patties

*Also, play music at meal time… not kid music … real, enjoyable music that’s fun and will make you smile. It’s infectious, and creates that important association between smiles, fun and eating.

> Food Adventure 4: Taste – Big adventures for little palettes

The simplest of all. But maybe not so simple, now that research is proving how powerfully other circumstances influence it. The best example I have of a culture that does taste adventure well is the French — who entrust their youngsters with leek soup and baguettes practically from birth.

Big credit to my husband, the true epicure, who has always been a master of flavour and definitely brave when it came to letting our daughter explore tastes. I’m so glad he did – I think that his natural passion for new things and sharing flavor adventures has been a wonderful influence on RZ, who does eat almost anything.

Flavour-experience foods: baby-green fried rice, miso soup, jambalaya, pesto pasta with chicken.
What I like about this style of eating is that it’s such a good introduction to how we eat, ideally, as adults; taking pleasure in the different elements of food and flavour, appreciating the way food looks on a plate, and taking great enjoyment out of a hearty slurp, bite, or crunch.

> Food Adventure 5: Sight – the bright, bold, beautiful colours of food

 For adults, it’s about a pop of green or red, a beautiful browned crispy edge, or the bright hues of fresh veggies and citrus. The natural joy of enjoying food with our eyes is something we carry with us for life. For babies and toddlers, we need to pass on the knowledge that food is a delicate art that time and effort goes into. It’s not about spending an hour in the kitchen working on the presentation of the babies food, but it could be taking an extra 10 minutes or so to consider how a meal can an an extra bit of twinkle to those big, beautiful, eyes and curious baby faces….

By the age of 2, you’ll be hearing words “hair”, “eyes”, “green”, “smile”… “happy”… food can help bring the world of shapes and colours and names of things to life.

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What do you think? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.