Sunday, May 22, 2011

What do your kids eat? (Babble)

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 fingerprint.

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 cream…. 

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 cheese.

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 plates.

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. 

Other 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 year.

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.

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