My five year old son is many things. He is fighter of monsters who is sometimes afraid of the dark. He is a hater of "girly things" who is heartbreakingly tender with his sister. He is a fearless knight on horseback who sometimes needs his mum. He is a playground jedi. He is an admiral of bath-time sea battles. He is 22kg.
My son - an ordinary five year old boy, in other words. Twenty two kilogrammes - the average weight for his age. But they are something else too, my boy and his weight. According to research published this month by Public Health England, 22kg is what the sugar consumed annually by the average 4-10-year-old weighs. That's 5,500 cubes. In a year, an ordinary five-year-old boy consumes his own body weight in sugar.
You can barely leave the house without a lecture on the evils of sugar these days. They are being intoned from parliament, worried over on blogs, dramatised on TV, scribbled in medical journals. And its greatest dangers are posed to kids, for whom the lure of lurid sweets and fluorescent fizzy drinks is stickily and overpoweringly irresistible: tooth decay, type two diabetes, obesity, heart disease and, more immediately, sugar-rush hysteria and sugar-slump huffs.
But... is cutting sugar from a child's diet even possible? And if possible, is it, well... a bit hellish? Flicking through the sugar-free blogs and books it all looks terribly alluring and delicious in a grown-up sort of way. It also, though, appears to be designed for 20-something singles with disposable incomes and desires towards a "hot yoga bod".
Sadly, I gave up all pretence of either of those years ago and my children, thankfully, are oblivious to both. We're more into superheroes than superfoods. More Lego Chima and Green Lantern than chia seeds and green smoothies. I don't have the time or the money to source cacao nibs or bee pollen, and the children would rather walk over hot coals than consume a thimbleful of kale.
My beautiful kids don't need to diet to sign up to food fads and I, well... I'm moving into a phase of my life that involves a lot more 'comfortable' jumpers and acceptance. But 5,500 cubes isn't what I want for my boy, or my two-year -old daughter right now. And tooth decay, diabetes and obesity aren't the future I want for them either.
So I went to see my friend, Hattie Rhodes, stepmother of a 13-year-old and a professional cook who not only possesses a fantastic name (of course) but has also been living sugar-free for half a decade. She said that going sugar-free doesn't have to involve signing up a new religion.
You don't need to buy a new lifestyle, yoga pants, ingredients sourced from the foothills of the Himalaya or even a trendy blender. You can just make some simple, easy tweaks to your usual food, with easily accessible, cheap and naturally sweet ingredients like fruit, nuts, coconuts and sweet potatoes...
So, tentatively, we have decided to make some changes this year. 2016 will be a year of testing new recipes together. Here and on our instagram (@thetwohatties) we will sharing both those and the honest reaction they get from friends and family of all ages. No food fads, no faffing, no obscure ingredients. The kids promise that you will find "no yucky green flecks". We promise you will never hear the word "nourish" or "glow".
Just delicious, accessible food that all generations can get stuck into preparing and eating together. That happens to be sugar free. Oh, and ideally involves only a single mixing bowl or oven dish so very little washing up (you've got to dream, haven't you?)
This week - apples...
BREAKFAST BERRY AND APPLE CRUMBLE (with crunchy granola topping)
Because there's no better way to sweeten the 'sugar-free' deal than letting your kids eat pudding for breakfast...
300g mixed berries of choice
1 apple, peeled and diced
3 tbsp butter
a handful of flaked almonds
a handful of porridge oats
2 tbsp ground almonds
6 tbsp flour
1) preheat the oven to 180C. In a saucepan, place the berries with a few tbsp of water and let them simmer until the mixture is thick and gooey. Then add the apple and cook until soft. Stir in your butter and pour into a heatproof dish
2) melt the butter for the crunchy bit in a pan and once liquid, stir in the dry ingredients. Spoon over the fruity mixture and bake in the oven until warmed through and the topping is starting to get golden (this can be prepared in advance and kept in the fridge until ready to warm through and serve).
3) grab a spoon and dig in!
APPLE AND CINNAMON MINI MUFFINS
50g spelt flour
50g softened butter
30g birch sugar*
1 tsp baking powder
50g apple, chopped into small chunks
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1: preheat oven to 200C
2: beat the sweetener into the butter until combined. Add the remaining ingredients and let sit for 10 mins
3: pour batter into some silicon cupcake or muffin moulds (should make about 6 small portions)
4: bake in the preheated oven for 15-20 mins until lightly risen and golden. Cool on a wire rack and devour!
*We know it sounds poncy (and a little scary) but birch sugar, or xylitol, is actually available from most supermarkets and every high street Holland and Barrett so its the only slightly unusual ingredient we've allowed to sneak its way in. Its great stuff, in small amounts. It doesn't cause spikes in blood sugar levels and can be substituted 1:1 for normal sugar.
THE MAIN MEAL:
THE BEST STICKY SAUSAGE, APPLE & POTATO BAKE
Ever. No really. Every member of the family will have seconds. And it's all in one pot, so minimal washing up.
2 baking potatoes
2 cooking apples
4 cloves garlic
200 ml chicken stock
Pre-heat the oven to 200. Peel the spuds and chop them into bite sized chunks. In an oven proof dish, add a glug of olive oil and place on the hob. Add the potatoes, stirring occasionally, to brown them.
Remove from the hob, add the sausages, peeled whole garlic cloves and apples (chopped but not peeled). Shake to cover everything in olive oil. Season. Pour over the chicken stock, so that it half covers the contents. Then stick it all in the oven for around 50 minutes or till everything is a lovely, sticky, golden hue.