The easier way to feed your family well

As a mum with four kids, all under the age of seven, Cliona O'Connor knows the challenges - and chaos - that comes with feeding a family well. She tells EMMA CONNOLLY about her coking tips, hacks and tips.
The easier way to feed your family well
Cliona O'Connor, aka Leanmeanmomma. Picture: Brid O' Donovan

BATCH COOKING, online grocery shopping, and getting ahead the night before. That’s how Cliona O’Connor, a mum of four children aged seven, five, two and one, rolls.

Originally from Kilworth, the award-winning blogger, also known as ‘Leanmeanmomma’, who boasts thousands of online followers and who now lives in Douglas, is sharing some of her family friendly-cooking hacks at Kinsale Gourmet Academy next month.

The former PE and science teacher’s instagram feed, stories and snaps are full of virtue and vitality with lots of protein balls, vitamin packed smoothies and nut butters being whizzed up at every turn.

She’s potentially the kind of person you’d like to dislike,. but she’s much too down to earth and lovely for that — if that even makes sense.

And even though you’ll rarely if ever see a fish finger peeping from her freezer, she’s far from sanctimonious and admits her household is mostly chaos ‘of the non-organised’ kind.

Cliona O'Connor, aka Leanmeanmomma. Picture: Brid O' Donovan
Cliona O'Connor, aka Leanmeanmomma. Picture: Brid O' Donovan

Her tag line is: “Surviving life with four kids while trying to be the Best ‘You’ Ever” and she doesn’t hold back on the daily struggles — and laughs — of all challenges that involves.

She tries to stick to a few ‘rules’ to help her and the family stay on track when it comes to healthy eating in between the school runs and other activities that dominate her busy household and will be sharing her tips at next month’s demonstration.

“I am both the mum that plans on a Sunday night and the one that wings it! I always have my weekly shop in the house by Sunday night and from there I usually plan a few days ahead. But not rigidly. I have been known to make the next day’s dinner the night before though — just after cleaning up from that night’s one! It’s the only way I can get so much done with four small kids.

“I find that if it’s not under control then I eat more processed food — less healthy options. I do always prep the dinner for the day before lunchtime though — otherwise it’s complete and utter craziness later.”

Favourite dinners among her crew include Shepherd’s Pie (see recipe on facing page) which Cliona says is the only dinner that all her kids have wolfed down since birth, along with homemade pizzas made from spelt bases.

“I bought a bread maker a few years ago and it is mostly used for making pizza dough! They cook in a few minutes and are great cold in the lunchboxes for school the next day.”

Chicken Korma is another popular choice: “We love the Green Saffron curry spices and the korma is a really big hit with everyone. I normally make a giant batch of it and freeze it.”

Cliona O'Connor, aka Leanmeanmomma. Picture: Brid O' Donovan
Cliona O'Connor, aka Leanmeanmomma. Picture: Brid O' Donovan

In fact, Cliona says she rarely makes just one of anything.

“I have two freezers (as I have two fridges) and they are both bursting! I really never cook just one meal portion of anything. I always batch cook but my weakness is not labelling — so dinner has on occasion been quite the odd mix.”

Her online followers will know her kitchen is quite the cook’s paradise and she readily admits she’s a ‘kitchen gadget addict.’

“Everything I bought was well researched and is well used so my conscience is clear. I have bought all the big pieces. My slow cooker is a must — I got mine for €23 in an Argos sale and it’s used constantly — more so in the winter, I will admit.

“I have a Magi-Mix food processor which is fantastic and used daily. I make a lot of nut butters and hide vegetables from the kids by blitzing them prior to cooking.

“I could not live without my Vitamix blender. I wore my Nutri-Bullet out and progressed to the Vitamix last year and it is quite honestly the most used piece of equipment in the house. I make smoothies daily in it and blitz sauces in there too. They are very expensive but it gives fantastic results.”

Other time-saving tips of hers include online shopping.

“I shop online almost 90% of the time. Since I had my fourth child I gave over to it. I liked going to the supermarket and picking my own produce out, to be honest, but now I need solutions and time and home delivery gives me this. I’ll always supplement my shop though in the Farmer’s Market and emergency dashes to local supermarkets.”

MEALTIMES MADE EASY: Batch cooking and freezing is a great way to have some-made meals at the ready.
MEALTIMES MADE EASY: Batch cooking and freezing is a great way to have some-made meals at the ready.

What are her fridge/pantry staples?

“Smoked salmon, apples, eggs, milk, ham, cheese, broccoli, carrots, sweet potato and regular potato, onion, garlic, lemons, limes, bananas, strawberries, blueberries and Glenisk child yoghurts. Every. Single. Time.”

And what will we never find?

“Sodas or minerals of any kind.”

But Cliona says she would hate if anyone thought she lived a holier than thou life: “I am the biggest chocaholic out there and throw in some coffee or wine and I’m sold! Whilst we wouldn’t get takeaway regularly, we do eat out in the likes of Wagamamas, Ramen with the kids. My husband and I cannot help ourselves every time we go out together, we just end up in Orso because the food, service and atmosphere is fantastic. If you get those seats by the window you are set up for the night.”

She also says all her kids are fussy eaters: “Maybe we created that by offering so much choice but we have to live with it now and do our best to get them to try lots of different foods.

“I find kids have a bigger problem with texture than taste. Mine have gotten way better as they get older. Perseverance is my biggest tip — the day that you don’t load those vegetables onto the plate is the day the war is lost.

GIVING IT LOLLY: Cliona stays on track with healthy eating for her family by planning a few days in ahead.
GIVING IT LOLLY: Cliona stays on track with healthy eating for her family by planning a few days in ahead.

“Lunch boxes are the bane of my life. My kids are half ham/half human at this point. I try to have one day a week where they do not have sandwiches. So for example cold homemade pizza goes in.

“The bento boxes with all the little compartments are fab as you can pop little bits of lots of things in. Some of the favourites here are breadsticks with hummus, little pots of berries, Babybel, natural yoghurt with home- made apple sauce and agave is a hit too. Some days something comes home uneaten but for the most part they come home empty, apart from crusts, what is it with kids and crusts?!”

Her advice to mums who struggle to get ahead, stay ahead or even get past processed options is that “it’s all about preparation”.

“If you have to start from scratch each night it can be so difficult to make healthy choices. Try to do as much as possible the night before or even in the morning before anyone else gets up. Small things like chopping the vegetable and popping them in tupperware in the fridge until later. Or prep food for the slow cooker the night before and pop it on as you go out to work. And batch cook so you have the freezer to rely on. Also, a lot of cook books have an Express Index — I never knew what this was until recently. These are fast, easy cook recipes — get familiar with some of these.

“Everyone has to start somewhere. Pick a simple dish, for example spaghetti bol’, and master that. Don’t be afraid to try something new, so what if it’s not perfect the first time? You should see the disasters I’ve had in the kitchen — some of them epic — but you just laugh about it and go to the freezer if all else fails.”

Cliona and head chef David Rice at Kinsale Gourmet Academy, Ballinacurra House, are collaborating for an afternoon on June 11.

“I will be doing three dishes (breakfast, lunch and dinner) that are family-friendly — meaning really simple and non-time consuming. Lots of short cuts! And Dave will be doing similar but in the professional way! So I get to learn too!”

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