New research this year is highlighting the fact that current world food production is unsustainable, in terms of supporting the global human population and the environment (www.thelancet.com/commissions/EAT). The two issues of human and environmental health are connected and caused by the same underlying problems; industrial food production and urban lifestyle patterns. In future, more sustainable food production patterns will be moving away from high levels of meat consumption, particularly beef, to more vegetarian options.
In New Zealand we are incredibly fortunate to have grass fed beef farmed on our back doorstep, and it’s a favourite source of protein and iron for many kids. Beef is rich in haem iron, the sort that is readily absorbed and utilised by our bodies. Children from 7 months to 10 years old ideally need around 10mg of iron each day. Iron deficiency (anaemia) is a common problem, and one of the groups at highest risk are infants under 2 years old. The negative effects of iron deficiency are due largely to the impaired delivery of oxygen (as haemoglobin) to tissues throughout the body, resulting in low energy and immunity. In children, iron is essential for brain development and learning.
Brown lentils are a great iron-rich alternative to red meat, and can be introduced to them as solids at the same time or earlier than ground or pureed beef. The two foods have a similar colour, taste and texture, and complement each other well, making it easy to blend them together in a dish. Lentils actually contain more iron than beef (6mg per cooked cup for lentils vs 3mg for mince). Their iron is non-haem, and requires Vitamin C to convert it to the type utilised by our bodies, however, this can be easily achieved by adding cooked broccoli to them, which is rich in Vitamin C.
Lentils are low allergenic, well tolerated by most children, and easier for them to digest than red meat. This is important because poorly digested food is detrimental to intestinal health, impeding nutrient absorption. The gut is our immune system’s first line of defence, and lentils, like most other vegetables, are packed with fibre, which promotes a balanced gut flora, and strengthens immune resilience against common tummy bugs, colds and flu.
Lentils also tick many boxes for being high in protein, Vitamin Bs and minerals, so for a more sustainably produced food, can offer great peace of mind. As legumes, lentils should be soaked in water overnight to reduce their phytate content. They are a high Fodmap food so best introduced slowly with other neutral foods, such as carrot and brown rice to avoid gas build-up and loosening of stools. My favourite way to serve them to my family is as a 50/50 blend with mince in Shepherd’s Pie, which you can see below. I hope you enjoy them as much as we do!
Healthy Shepherd’s Pie
100gms minced beef
1 cup brown lentils (soaked overnight)
1 small carton Campbells vegetable stock
1 small onion
1 tin chopped tomatoes in puree (I like Watties Savoury tomatoes)
1 stick celery (chopped)
1 carrot (grated)
1 zucchini (grated)
A handful of button mushrooms (chopped)
1 cauliflower, chopped into large chunks
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter
In a medium sized pot, boil the lentils in water for 50 minutes until soft and mushy, drain and set aside. Refill the pot with water and boil the cauliflower chunks for 30 minutes until also soft.
In a heavy based frying pan, add the olive oil, and brown the onions and mince meat over a medium heat. Then add cooked lentils, vegetable stock, tinned tomatoes and other vegetables. Simmer on a moderate heat for 40 minutes until flavours have merged.
Mash the cauliflower with butter separately in the pot, and then dollop over the top of the lentil & mince mixture in the frying pan. Place under a hot grill for 5-10 minutes to crisp up the cauliflower topping. Ready to serve.
This can be pureed for infants. A double batch can be kept in the fridge for dinner two nights in a row, and it also makes a quick, tasty breakfast topped with a poached egg.