“Eating is her forte; cooking is mine”

How do you raise a little one who loves veggies and all things healthy?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
How do you raise a little one who loves veggies and all things healthy?

Most kids squirm in horror when you show them green juices, let alone drink them. But 1½-year-old Alessandra Yeung happily sips half a bottle of cold-pressed vegetable juice, while snacking on goji berries.

The little one also laps up meals that feature bittergourd, bamboo shoots, kale and lady’s fingers, among other healthy ingredients.

“Eating is her forte, while cooking is mine,” declares work-from-home mum Bella Koh, 35, who documents her parenting moments, cooking, yoga, fashion and travel experiences on Instagram.

Her account, @catslavery, has amassed 69,600 followers and counting.

“Have I turned my child into a health junkie?” she muses in one post. Here, she tells Young Parents how she instils good eating habits in Alessandra. (Turn to page 42 for her recipes, as well.)

Where did you pick up your cooking skills?

It was mostly through watching my mum cook. I remember making my first dish when I was nine years old. I made a mess of her kitchen, but that was the beginning of my food journey.

My late paternal grandma also had a strong influence on me. She made excellent Teochew and Peranakan dishes. I’d usually observe her while she cooked up a storm in the kitchen every Sunday for our family of 20!

My maternal grandma, on the other hand, owned a medical hall. When I was young, we were made to try bitter traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and “odd” Hakka dishes that no kids would love.

Interestingly, I took to loving bitter medicines and foods. The rest of it was self-taught and through curiosity, based on my travels.

You’re such a multitasker. How do you juggle work and a toddler, and still find the time and energy to cook?

I never knew I was one until I became a mum! I think the situation forces you to juggle many roles all at once. I still sleep at 4am these days and wake up at 9am. I’m not even sure if I’m alive on some days (laughs).

I work from home and look after Alessandra by myself. On Thursdays, I send her over to my mum. That very precious one day of being child-free really makes me more efficient with my daily tasks.

It clears my mind and I have time to plan for the entire week.

I used to make food in batches and freeze them when she was younger. However, I have somewhat learnt the French way of parenting – children eating what the adults eat. So I try to cook dishes that cater to everyone in the family.

For breakfast, I keep it easy: two bananas, an avocado, two hard-boiled or scrambled eggs and optional wholemeal bread. I eat these with her.

Lunch is usually fish porridge or miso soup with tofu and brown rice, which I set to cook the night before.

I’ve made many different dishes for dinner, but decided to stick to brown rice and a one-pot dish. Usually a nabe dashi stock with bittergourd, simmered daikon, mountain yam, tofu, carrots, pumpkin, cabbages, salmon or barramundi, and plenty of leeks, garlic and ginger.

Conforming to a fixed menu with ingredients on rotation is what does best for us.

Of course, you’ve really got to love cooking. That’s what keeps me going.

Has your cooking style changed since Alessandra came along?

I cook almost every day. I don’t think it has changed much, except we eat more often at home for dinner. I’ve always enjoyed making Japanese food and it suits kids in general.

I like simple, healthy and yummy dishes. No frying, if possible – that means less washing up. In fact, I even plan my cooking around how to minimise prepping ingredients and cleaning up later. That helps me decide on my cooking style.

My most used ingredients in the kitchen are dashi stock, mirin, cooking sake and pink Himalayan salt. With them, I can make anything.
What was the first food you introduced to your little one?
Avocadoes. The next were organic red apples – pureed, of course. Subsequently, pumpkin and mountain yam.
A lot of books will tell you to start with bananas and apples. But I’m a strong believer of neutral foods that have a balanced pH. Avocadoes are creamy, not too sweet and full of nutritional value. I wouldn’t want my child to start on something that is overly sweet, like a banana, as her first food.
In fact, I prefer starting babies on pureed root vegetables (a lot of purple root vegetables are high in antioxidants) over fruits. Fruits are either too sweet or sour, and not too friendly for babies.
Also, I taste everything before letting her try it.
Is she on a fully organic diet?
I don’t think it’s necessary to put anyone on a fully organic diet, as not all foods are exposed to pesticides or are genetically modified. The only fruits or foods I am extra careful about and which have to be organic when I feed her are: apples, any berries, bananas, tomatoes, peaches, any green leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables.
In general, fruits with a thick rind or skin that’s not easily penetrated by pests or insects are mostly safe.
Your Instagram food photos show only vegetarian and fish dishes. Has Alessandra tried meat?
My mum fed her homemade pork congee without my knowledge when she looked after her (laughs). In any case, that made me realised that Aless should be making her own food choices, instead of us limiting her.
Imagine if she grows up not trying any of that. I don’t want to find her sitting at some fast-food restaurant years later because we never allowed her to try meat.
Until now, she has taken a liking to minced pork with tee poh (dried flat fish) and succulent free-range chicken breast meat. She eats them only if they are fresh and properly cooked. She throws anything that is overcooked on the floor, literally.
It’s interesting that she loves bittergourd, bamboo shoots and lady’s fingers. Even some adults don’t eat them.
We never forced her to eat them. They were what I made for dinner and she would ask for them while watching us eat. We’ve been eating our meals together since she was born as we have no helper.
The bittergourd was stir-fried with free-range eggs, the lady’s fingers baked with minimal salt and the bamboo shoots were cooked in dashi stock. I mean, they were tasty and it would be strange for her to reject it (laughs). Either that or she is the kid who eats anything.
I also don’t believe in making her sit on a chair, and force-feeding her. If she doesn’t want certain foods, I stop immediately.
Do you insist that Ales sandra eats healthily all the time?
Yes, I do try, but you’ll get other family members or people who try to feed your baby something else and you can’t stop that.
The only less healthy food we’ve given her were French fries, sans salt and truffle oil.
I hope her palate, which we are starting to develop, will help her differentiate between good and bad food eventually.
For example, she will never consume salmon when we eat out as she is used to having the cold-water salmon that I cook at home. It melts in your mouth.
Even with snacks, I’ve given up on packaged baby finger foods, which are mostly unhealthy. Instead, I opt for organic goji berries, dried mulberries and cacao nibs that are nutritious and high in antioxidants.
We never forced her to eat (vegetables).
They were what I made for dinner and she would ask for them while watching us eat.
You feed her homemade milk. Why not just buy formula milk?
I only breastfed her for three months.
Due to stress and fatigue, I had very low milk supply. We started her on raw goat’s milk as I did a huge amount of research on formulas and I didn’t think there was anything legitimate out there, except for maybe one brand that I found.
We were worried that the goat’s milk would not be nutritious enough, so we added brown rice si shen powder, which was recommended by my mum.
Apparently, it makes children grow strong and tall. It contains four types of ingredients used in TCM.
We also added oatmeal and organic black glutinous rice with a bit of gula melaka that I made twice a week, and blended them fine enough to add to her goat’s milk.
After six months, we found out she had a dairy allergy and swopped that with organic oat milk. This time, we replaced the black glutinous rice with soya powder, as it was too much work for me (laughs).
We still make the same homemade milk from scratch every night till today.
I tell you, it tastes way better than any milk formula.
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