The second time Ian was deployed in Iraq a relative in town offered to make dinner for my family one night of our choosing. Food is always a nice gesture to offer a stressed household, and in this case it was particularly welcome because she cooked the meal in our home and joined us at the dinner table. I loved having adult company and no responsibility for cooking and cleanup for a night. The only stumbling block came when she asked me ahead of time, “What do your kids eat?”
That sounds like such a simple question. And I suppose it is a
simple question, it’s just the answer that gets complicated. My first
response was, “I don’t know,” which sounds insane. I’m the mom and I
fed them every day so how could I not know?
I realized that the problem
wasn’t that I couldn’t name things they ate, I just couldn’t name
anything healthy that they ALL ate. At the time the only thing all
three of them ate was spinach quiche. Spinach quiche has been our go-to
dish at least once a week since Aden was about two. I don’t know why
they magically all liked spinach quiche, but we were grateful they did
because it isn’t hard to make and it covers all the major food groups in
one dish. But besides that? I didn’t have an answer.
“What about broccoli?” my relative asked. Mona and Quinn eat
broccoli. “Peas?” Aden eats peas. “Mashed potatoes?” Aden and Quinn
eat mashed potatoes. I finally told her that, honestly, she should just
make whatever she wanted, I would like it, different kids would like
different parts of it, and if they didn’t find anything to eat among the
things she served they would get over it. That’s not a satisfying
answer to give a cook who wants to please everyone, but it’s just life
with feeding kids.
Many kids get into weird picky eating patterns. I know for people
without kids or who have forgotten what life with small kids is like it
can look like overindulgence to acquiesce to certain food demands, but I
think we overlook the fact that most of us aren’t that much better, we
just get to choose the food.
Of course I like everything I serve because I made it! I have an
inflated sense of my own culinary adventurousness because I’ve had over
40 years to sort through what I like and what I don’t, and it’s rare
that something unfamiliar gets set in front of me.
When I was in
Southern India I remember sitting at a table set with banana leaves for
plates and my brother looked at the menu in a language we didn’t know
and just kind of gestured to the waiter that we’d take one of everything
because there was no way to predict what any of it would be anyhow.
The yellow ball of goo tasted the best, but I had to get past that
childish sense of anxiety about the unknown. It’s a big leap of faith
to put a strange food in your mouth when you don’t know what to expect, I
don’t care what age you are.
I don’t think kids are silly to be wary
of that. Even when my kids were in a phase where we had to have three
kinds of ravioli on hand because one ate meat, two ate cheese, but of
the cheese eaters one only ate round ravioli, I don’t think it’s that
crazy. I was at the store the other day with a craving for unsalted
sweet potato chips and couldn’t find them, and then I laughed because
there were dozens upon dozens of different chips in every variety you
could imagine and yet I still was not satisfied. Somehow if a toddler
makes that kind of specific demand we think they are crazy, but
honestly, I would be very unhappy if someone else picked out all my food
all the time and I didn’t get a say.
I’m fascinated by how other families eat. It’s such a basic thing,
and no two homes do it the same way. We inherit certain recipes or
patterns of eating from where we grew up and add to that our own
preferences and experiences and eventually develop a unique manner of
eating and preparing food that becomes the new pattern that gets passed
down. I think that’s why there is such a strong nostalgia component to
certain foods for people because few things evoke a sense of what your
specific home is more clearly. It’s like each family has a food
I never think about that in any detail until we go stay in someone
else’s house and the things we take for granted aren’t there. A
different house means different bread, different peanut butter, and
different jelly, so even a lunchtime staple looks new. I’m always
touched when we go to my brother’s home in New York
every spring that his wife, who is a lifelong vegetarian (and has a
bumper sticker in her kitchen reading ‘Friends don’t let friends eat
meat’), always stocks up on whatever will make my kids happy, even if
that means ham or hot dogs. On our last visit she asked Aden in the
grocery store what she wanted and Aden said ‘meatballs,’ and my poor
sister-in-law knowing nothing of meatballs looked for them in vain on
the shelves because she didn’t know that was something people make
instead of buy, generally. Food is a quick way to either divide people
or bring them together, and I’m grateful the people I love do their best
to have it be the latter.
So what do my kids eat? Well, not surprisingly, desserts are
universally popular. Whenever we use the grill we make s’mores for
dessert and that always goes over well. I can get a lot of toys and
laundry picked up by the kids with the promise of s’mores after dinner.
Strawberry shortcake, pumpkin pie, cookies, any kind of cake, ice
Everything you’d expect kids to eat too much of given the
chance, they eat. Our only issue is that Aden happens to be allergic to
tree nuts (including coconut) so she has to be wary of mystery cookies
and pastries outside of our home. In our house dessert is at most a
once a week phenomenon. There are enough candy laden holidays and birthday parties
and bake sales floating around that adding extra sugar to their diets
is overkill much of the time, but occasionally it’s still fun to work
with the kids to make an apple pie or a batch of snickerdoodles. We are not anti-dessert, we just don’t make a habit of it.
Beyond the sweet things? That’s where the agreement breaks down.
And sadly the rein of the spinach quiche finally ended a couple of weeks
ago when Quinn declared out of the blue that he no longer likes the
spinach part and would only eat the crust. Now when we serve spinach
quiche he gets himself out some yogurt or a slice of turkey ham to bring
to his plate. At the moment they will all eat hamburgers, although the
last time we made them Aden inexplicably peeled off the outer layer of
her bun and ate nothing else, so I don’t know what that means. They
will all eat my matzoh ball soup if I serve Mona’s without the matzoh
balls. They all eat mashed potatoes, just not at the same time.
Usually either Mona or Quinn will decline but I never know which one it
will be. Sometimes they all eat spaghetti.
I’m amazed by the phases things go through. Aden used to be crazy
about these chicken and mushroom stuffed crepes I would sometimes make
and Mona wouldn’t touch them. This year it switched around, and I
served them one night at Aden’s request and she decided she didn’t like
them, but Mona scarfed them down. Now we make them per Mona’s request
from time to time.
Things they were crazy about will go out of favor if
they’ve been out of the menu rotation for more than a few months.
There is a chicken and wild rice casserole that they used to love that
I’m sure they would be suspicious of now. Zucchini-crusted pizza
remains unpredictable, where they either eat it all or don’t even want
it on their plates. Aden used to be a huge fan of salmon until she ate
some while she had a stomach bug and threw it up, and now that’s done.
Mona still asks for salmon, and Aden just looks sullen when we serve
it. I may have the only kids in America who don’t ask for mac and
If I want to push a certain food I serve it in a pattern. If I need
to use up some bananas, for instance, I cut them up and arrange them on a
big plate in the shape of a spiral or a star which attracts their
attention, and then they find it amusing to ruin the pattern, forcing me
to arrange the remaining slices into a smaller pattern, until it’s
gone. My kids are also more likely to try something if I just serve it
to myself and tell them about how they used to steal whatever it is off
my plate when they were little (which is true). Often after a few bites
from my plate where they think they are being silly and I pretend to
act annoyed that my food is disappearing, they ask for some on their own
Renaming things often helps. If I buy the carrots with the tops
still on we call them bunny carrots, and suddenly they all want carrots
so they can pretend they are bunnies. If I can throw the word ‘yummy’
or ‘cheesey’ onto something, that spikes interest. We call baked beans
‘sugar beans’ (which is pretty accurate when you get down to it) and
that gets Aden and Quinn to eat those. Parmesan is ‘sprinkle cheese.’
If it sounds like something a cartoon character would eat then they are
more likely to try it.
The rule in our house is that dinner is dinner, and for the most part
we don’t make separate extra meals for people. There are some
exceptions, such as if we order in Chinese food, Mona doesn’t want any
but asks if she can have ramen. It takes about one minute to cook her
some noodles, and on a night where we don’t have to cook anything else
it’s not a big deal. But most nights we just try to serve enough of a
variety of things on the table that there is something for each person
to eat. They may not try the main course, but if there are peas and
potatoes and cut up bananas on the side, everyone will get something.
If they don’t like what’s on the table they still have to sit with us
during dinner, and they are allowed to supplement if they do the work
themselves. If they want to heat up some ravioli or make some toast or a
sandwich, that’s okay, as long as Ian or I don’t have to do it and they
come eat it at the table.
I don’t believe in fighting about food, but dessert is only for
people willing to at least try some of the vegetables. If they know
there is dessert coming they will point out that they are eating the
broccoli or the beans early in the meal so they get credit. My kids are
actually pretty good about fruits and vegetables. We try to keep
grapes and apples and bananas around all the time in easy reach, and
they can always have a piece of fruit (or a vegetable) without having to
ask. They will turn to things like crackers for a snack first if we
have them in the house, but are just as likely to eat grapes if they are
there. Quinn loves cucumbers. Mona eats a lot of bananas. Aden likes
carrots. Mona surprised me at a pasta dinner at her school where she
helped herself to salad on the side. I knew she loved tomatoes, but I
didn’t expect her to choose salad when it was optional. She told me she
always has some of the salad when they offer it to her at school! And
she ate every bite. Who knew?
Because of the random levels of pickiness among the three kids we
serve a lot of deconstructed dinners whenever we can. Taco night and
BLT night are both examples of serving all the individual components on
the table and letting everyone pick and choose what they want. Mona
makes a full BLT and adds Swiss cheese. Quinn sometimes skips the
bacon, and last time forgot that he doesn’t eat tomatoes until he was
halfway through one and handed me the rest of it. Aden uses only the
bacon and calls her sandwich a BOB (bacon on bread). None of my
children will make a taco, but they all eat bits and pieces of
everything on the table and usually turn the tortillas and cheese into
quesadillas on their own.
Whenever I have the kids with me at the grocery store I let them pick
out some fruit or vegetable to try, and that’s been a good way to get
them interested in more unusual things. Aden, we’ve discovered, loves
steamed artichokes. Every once in awhile we’ll have a little artichoke
party where we eat a couple of them together after school. Last time
Quinn joined in, but Mona steers clear.
When Ian and I take the time at the beginning of the week to plan our
meals they go much better, but we’re not as consistent about that as
we’d like to be. We try to let each of the kids pick one meal a week,
but they aren’t good at it. Quinn can never decide what he wants and
half the time shrugs his shoulders and the other half just says pizza.
Ian makes good pizza dough, and often on pizza night the kids get to
make their own. We mostly use pineapple on our pizza. Mona nearly
always picks spinach quiche for her dinner night. Aden, if she can’t
think of anything better, tends to pick spaghetti and meatballs.
typical meals are chicken and rice, or sloppy Joes. When the fridge is
looking too messy we have a leftover auction for dinner, where we clear
out as many of the little containers of old food that we can. We try
really hard to eat a home cooked dinner together whenever possible, but
every couple of weeks there will be a time crunch where no one is home
between work and shuttling kids around to different activities and we
just pick up pizza and call it a night.
During the school year we don’t think about lunch very often, but a
typical lunch at the moment is some combination of sandwiches, yogurt,
hard boiled eggs if we have them, fruit… They all like grilled cheese,
but for Mona that means a ‘grown up sandwich.’ I like to make a grilled
sandwich that has mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and avocado on it, and
the first time Mona saw it she was curious and asked what it was and I
told her it was a kind of grown up sandwich rather than a kid sandwich.
She tried it and was hooked.
Breakfast is probably more elaborate at our house than seems typical
among people we know, but I think that goes back to my childhood. When I
was a kid, my mom (who is the most amazing cook, and I’m not just
saying that because she’s my mom–ask anyone who has eaten at her house
and you will hear the same thing) had an idea for teaching her three
kids to cook. She came up with a schedule where each of us would
help/learn how to cook a meal. The first week I was on breakfast,
Barrett was on lunch, and Arno was on dinner. Dinner was the busiest
assignment, and lunch was kind of the freebie week because we were in
charge of our own lunches anyway. It was a great plan, but life being
the busy mess it is we never got past that first week, so Arno learned
some decent cooking skills, Barrett learned nothing, I became pretty
good at breakfast foods, and that was that.
So before school my kids are used to things like banana pancakes,
French toast, crepes, something called a David Eyre Pancake which is a
German style pancake you bake in a skillet until it gets puffy and curls
up on the edges. On the weekends when there is no rush to get to
school we do waffles or popovers. (When we make popovers we serve them
with strawberry butter, which is just butter blended together with
strawberry jam, but it’s really good.) It sounds like I’m pulling some
weird Martha Stewart stunt, but the truth is even crepes are easy if you
are in a habit of making them. I timed it once, and from the minute I
step into the kitchen to the time I can get pancakes made from scratch
on the table is ten minutes. Crepes take longer only because they are
bigger and I can’t fit eight of them at once on the griddle like I can
pancakes or French toast, but the girls have started making the batter
on their own so that speeds things up from my end. I told them anytime
they want to get up early and make the crepe batter I will cook it for
them. Saturday I came downstairs to find crepe batter portioned out in
three bowls, each one tinted with a different food coloring. Pink,
green, and blue crepes don’t look that appetizing to me, but hey, I’ll
still cook them.
I don’t have any interest in whether things are supposedly organic,
but I do like buying things from our local farmer’s market in the park
in the summer. It’s only a few blocks from my violin store, so I try to
walk over there and pick up some things before we open on Saturdays
when I can. We don’t keep soda in the house but occasionally buy it for
birthday parties. For the most part we just drink water from the tap.
We’re not vegetarian, but there are enough vegetarians among our
friends and family that we regularly cook meals without meat. All of us
look forward to funnel cakes at the fair in our neighborhood every
I have my own complicated issues with food,
but I’m trying to set a good example for my kids. They are interested
in the idea of healthy food and are more likely to try something new if
we tell them it’s good for their bodies. I like passing down family recipes
and having the kids help me make banana bread. I’m glad that Aden is
getting more self-sufficient in the kitchen all the time and that Quinn
will always at least try something before he decides he doesn’t like
it. I’m sure the way we eat looks different from what other people do,
but as long as the food fingerprint for our family includes some healthy
meals and the house sometimes smells like pie I think we’re doing okay.