cooking with kids

The Power of Suggestion

By Lisa

The age old wisdom is true:  put something in front of your kids–even the pickiest eaters–enough times and they will, very likely, eventually, eat it.   It may take 6-months or a year or five or ten (as it did with me and squash, a food I refused to eat in any form for the length of my childhood), but this is the best way to ensure that they are exposed to a range of foods. Hiding food in other food is dumb. It will never teach your kids to like or eat that food, or even to know what that food is.  So, my philosophy is that unless your kid is suffering from scurvy or other nutritional deficiency you and your kids should eat real food that looks like what it is.

And I am not speaking theoretically here.  In a family of adventurous omnivores, my son Finn went from eating anything we set in front of him to being a defiant picky monochromo-foodist.  For about 8-months, when he was around three, he dropped all red, green, yellow, orange food from his diet. He ate white things: Rice. Bananas. Some raw tofu.  Baked potato. I actually did resort to plugging him with vitamins until he began, slowly to come out of it, by adding one color back into his diet at a time. I did nothing during this period but continue to put in front of him the same food that we ate every meal.  There was nothing else I could do, so stubborn was resistance to eating.  So I just refused to cater to him, and he eventually figured it out. Call it the power of implicit suggestion.  I don’t, by any means, intend to sound glib here. It was hard. It was really, deeply worrisome. I worried constantly about his health. But it did prove to me that this technique works, and he now eats better than ever.

Ella, on the other hand, is the child who one morning, over breakfast, announced “I had a dream about the most amazing hamburger last night. It was so delicious. It was on a bun, and it had lettuce and tomato. It was so good! When can we have hamburgers?”

This was from a child who had never in her life eaten a hamburger on a bun, and who hadn’t had a hamburger cut up on her plate for six months.  Not too long after that, though, she got her dream come true, and now hamburgers, when we cook them on Sundays, from the amazing grass fed meat we buy at our local farmer’s market, is the highlight of her week. Finn thinks they’re pretty great, too.

Which brings me to the latest culinary influence in our home:  Harriet the Spy. I’ve written about our cake habit but Harriet has recently and completely infiltrated our lunches in the form of tomato sandwiches.   As soon as tomatoes appeared in our market a few weeks ago, Ella snatched some up for her lunch. No matter that she had never had a tomato sandwich before.  (Even though they’re our staple adult Sunday lunch all summer long, Harriet, who has been eating tomato sandwiches every day for 5 years, was a much more  important factor in Ella’s conversion).

So, I happily made Ella a tomato sandwich and packed her off to school.


And the next day I made another and then another.  And another. Now her favorite thing to do on days off or weekends, or when we lunch with dad in his excellent cafeteria at work, is to make herself her own tomato sandwich.

Which brings me to the point of this post, which is not really about feeding your family hamburgers or tomato sandwiches or even about the wisdom of reading books with good food in them, but about the way that our palate is influenced by the culture around us as much as by the actual food in our plates.  How we think and talk and read about food absolutely influences our children’s diets, and so does how we present food to them–literally but also imaginatively.  Ella and Finn are learning about choice, sure, but they’re also learning about the infinite, lifelong pleasures of the gastronomic imagination.

Desires, dreams, aspirations, expectations, ideals–these things can make us hungry, too.   And, the most beautiful thing may be that these are cravings we can, sometimes, truly satisfy.


Dinners Everybody Likes (An Optimistic Series): Pizza!

by Caroline

On the one hand, you might think, “Well, of course everybody likes pizza, what’s not to like?” But that means you do not know about the boys who do not care for tomatoes in any form and the one boy who typically only eats one kind of cheese, a particular brand of Monterey jack cheese, in slices, please, not melted. Once you know about those two limitations on our pizza dinner, you might understand why the meal is a triumph.

Plus, because my kids always eat better when they’ve had a hand in the meal production, we generally make the crust and sauces from scratch (I am seriously considering buying the materials to make homemade mozzarella. I’ll let you know when I do.)  So pizza dinner here is not exactly a quick meal; it’s more like an art project, so we save it for weekends, start early, and take our time.

First, you make the crust. I’ve tried recipes from a number of sources, including The King Arthur Flour cookbook, Gourmet magazine, the Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza and Calzone cookbook (a recipe that calls, weirdly enough, for milk) and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. This past Sunday’s New York Times magazine has a nice piece on homemade pizza (with a crust recipe I’ll try soon) but my favorite comes from Catherine Newman in Wondertime, whose method I have quoted here:

1 envelope (2 1/4 t) active dry yeast

1 3/4 c warm water

pinch of sugar

3 c all purpose white flour

1 c whole wheat flour

1 T wheat germ

1 T ground flax seed

1 T kosher salt

2 T olive oil

Cornmeal to dust your peel or baking pan

It’s nice (but not necessary) to have a pizza stone to bake in the oven, or a barbecue grill, and a wooden peel or cookie sheet to slide the pizzas onto the stone or grill.

Sprinkle yeast over water in measuring cup, add sugar, and let dissolve for about 5 minutes. If any dry yeast remains on the surface after that, stir briefly to mix in. Proceed with one of the following three methods.

Food processor: Pulse flour with wheat germ and flaxseed, if using, and salt. Add oil to yeast mixture and, with processor running, pour liquid slowly into the feed tube. The dough should cohere and form a ball that sits on top of the blade. If it doesn’t, it’s either too wet or too dry, and you should add water or flour accordingly, a tablespoon at a time, pulsing until the ball forms. Scrape dough (it will be sticky) onto a lightly floured counter, sprinkle with flour, and knead 2 or 3 times to form a ball.

Stand mixer: Pour yeast mixture and oil into bowl of mixer. Using paddle attachment, mix in dry ingredients on low speed (adjust dough with flour or water as directed above if it seems too wet or too dry) then switch to dough hook and knead about 5 minutes, until the dough is smooth and springy.

By hand: Pour yeast mixture into a large bowl with oil, and stir in dry ingredients until the mixture coheres into a mass of dough, about 1 minute. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, then knead, adding as little flour as possible, until dough feels smooth and springy — 8 minutes or so.

Next, whichever method you’ve used, place dough in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place to rise for about an hour, or until it doubles in size.

Halfway through the rising time, start preheating your oven or grill to 500.

Once the dough has risen, flour your fist and punch down dough, then turn it out onto a lightly floured counter, knead once or twice, and use a sharp knife to cut it into desired number of pieces — 4 for 12-inch pizzas, 8 for 6-inch pizzas, or some combination. Shape each piece into a smooth ball, cover balls loosely with plastic wrap, and let rest for 5 minutes. At this point you can freeze the dough if you like; it also keeps fine in the refrigerator for a few days — just bring to room temperature before using.


Now back to Caroline: Shaping the dough is where it gets fun for the kids, and I have to let mine play with the dough for a few minutes before we get serious about crust. You can let them experiment with braids and snail shapes, and there’s nothing wrong with baking a few of these oddly-shaped breadsticks on the side. Once everyone’s ready to move on, use the heels of your hands or a rolling pin to flatten dough, then hold it down in the middle with one hand while moving the other hand around the edge, pulling it gently outward. If the dough resists or starts to spring back when you let go, let it rest for a few minutes. You can also try holding the dough up and letting gravity pull it down. Pull and stretch until the dough is 1/4 inch (or less) thick. Pinch closed any holes as they develop.  Don’t worry if the dough isn’t perfectly even or perfectly round; it’s going to taste terrific no matter what it looks like.

Once the dough is shaped, transfer it  onto a wooden pizza peel or cookie sheet that has been dusted with cornmeal (if you’re using a pizza stone or grill) or onto a pan that has been brushed with olive oil, then sprinkled with 2 tablespoons cornmeal. If you’re grilling the pizza, you need to bake the pizza crust before topping it:


Just slide the dough onto the grill (it won’t seep through the grates, nor will it stick if the grill is good and hot), and bake (with the lid of the grill open) until browned on the bottom. Slide off the grill, flip, and top the baked side. If you’re baking the pizza in the oven, you don’t need to take this extra step; just slide the topped pizza into the oven and bake 15 minutes or so until browned and bubbly.


We top our pizzas with pesto, tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, sauteed mushrooms and caramelized onions. In the summer, we top dessert pizzas with cinnamon and brown sugar and sliced peaches; sliced bananas would work nicely, too. There’s no bad pizza topping in my book, really, go ahead and experiment. If you’re barbecuing the pizzas, close the grill when you bake the topped pizzas:



The finished product:


And then add a  salad and you’ve got a beautiful family supper.


Muffins For the Road (Vegan Banana Wheat Germ)

by Caroline

I have lost count of the number of field trips Ben’s first grade class has taken this spring, and we’re not done yet, and I seem to be driving them all. I’m not complaining; I’m not a committee mom — you won’t find me organizing this fund-raising gala or that anniversary celebration– I like to do the things that involve the kids most directly. I volunteer in the lunch room (more on that in a later post), I help out with messy art projects, and I drive field trips. And when I do, I bring muffins, because it seems no matter how short the drive might be (a recent trip to the symphony clocked in at about 7 minutes) it seems that as soon as the car doors are closed and the buckles are buckled, somebody’s hungry. A good muffin can satisfy hunger pangs and raise morale on a longer drive. Plus, although I have no particular guilt about offering my kids sweeter baked treats (I’m not as organized about it as Lisa, but I, too, let them eat cake), I haven’t found anyone yet who objects to a muffin. These are what I brought along on our farm field trip the other day, and they gave the car a nice banana scent, too.

1 c plain soy milk
1 t apple cider vinegar
2 very ripe bananas
1/3 c canola oil (I scanted the vegetable oil slightly and added a splash of walnut oil)
1/3 c sugar
1 t vanilla extract
1 1/4 c flour (I used a mix of all-purpose and whole wheat flours)
3/4 c wheat germ
1 T cinnamon
2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt

Preheat the oven to 375 and line a 12-cup muffin tin with muffin papers, or lightly grease the cups.

Combine the soy milk and vinegar and set aside for a minute or two to curdle.

Meanwhile, mash the bananas in a large mixing bowl, then add the soy milk mixture along with the oil, sugar, and vanilla. Mix well.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, wheat germ, cinnamon, baking powder and salt. Add this to the banana mixture and mix until just combined. Spoon batter into the muffin cups and bake for 22 minutes. Let the muffins cool in the pan for a couple minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely. My first batch didn’t last that long…

Blueberry Muffins

by Caroline


I am not a Sneaky Chef. My brownies are not made with white bean purees, my guacamole contains only avocado, lemon or lime juice, and salt (no steamed pureed spinach, broccoli, or green peas), I use neither cauliflower nor sweet potato in my tomato sauce. I do understand the thinking behind trying to boost the nutrition of certain common foods kids like by adding purees of certain foods kids tend to dislike, but honestly, that kind of deceptive tactic really saddens me. If my kids don’t like sweet potatoes, then they’re never going to learn to like them by eating them mashed into brownies. I’d rather roast sweet potatoes, bake regular brownies, and give them more carrots and spinach to get them their Vitamin A. So sue me.

But first, make these muffins. They might seem to be slightly sneaky chef-like, because I’m suggesting you replace some of the butter with ground flax seed, but ground flax seed  is not a food you can really eat or learn to love all on its own. It wants to be baked into things, and when it is, it provides a buttery nuttiness (plus lots of folate and minerals) to whatever you’ve baked. This recipe comes originally from the late, lamented Wondertime, with some revisions (of course) from me; they are the best blueberry muffins I’ve ever made.

2 c flour

2 t baking powder

1 t baking soda

4 large eggs

16 oz sour cream or yogurt (I use nonfat Greek yogurt, which works beautifully)

10 T butter or 8 T butter and 6 T ground flaxseed

1 3/4 c brown sugar

2 c old-fashioned rolled oats

2 c blueberries (if frozen, do not thaw)

Heat oven to 375.

Line two 12-cup muffin tins with muffin cup liners (you really do need them for this recipe).

In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and flax (if using). Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat eggs with sour cream or yogurt until thoroughly combined.

In a small saucepan, melt butter and brown sugar, then cool slightly (about 5 minutes) and stir into egg mixture. Stir in oats. Fold in flour mixture and then gently fold in the berries. Fill muffin cups about 3/4 full.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until edges are medium brown and tops are firm. If you’re using flax, the muffins will brown before they are baked through, so cover with foil after 15 minutes.

I Let Them Eat Cake

by Lisa


My daughter wants to be a spy. Specifically, these days, a CIA operative.

What does this have to do with food, you might wonder?

As we’ve been working our way through the library holdings of spy books for children, I re-found of course, Harriet the Spy, which is one of the best books for children that’s ever been written.  Harriet is wedded to routine, including her spy route, Ole Golly, her coveted notebooks, and a snack of cake and milk every day after school.

Back in January when we were reading the book, we had a house full of leftover fresh cakes:  my Chocolate Guinness birthday cake (in which we substituted the easy glacage in this recipe for the frosting), the Obama cake which is really just an Everyday Cocoa Cake + said glacage + fondant).   One day, with all that cake lying around about to go stale, I had an epiphany:

If I grew up eating cookies and milk after school, why couldn’t my kids have a very small slice of homemade cake and milk?

I decided that what was good for the goose was good for the goslings,  and we started our own Harriet the Spy ritual:  cake + milk every day after school.  Seriously.

This was a big hit with the offspring, of course, solved the problems of all those leftovers, and even made homework a lot more pleasant on tired days.

To keep the cakes  fresh, I cut them into very thin slices, wrapped them in Gladwrap (that spaceage weird plastic that sticks to everything. It’s not green, but used sparingly in your home it is perfect for jobs like this), and froze the whole batch in a gallon ziplock freezer bag.


Now, each day, I can take out 2 small slices, which defrost very quickly.  It gives me unreasonable pleasure to set out the cake on two small plates with two small glasses of milk.

This is an amazingly economical strategy, too–absolutely the recessionista way to give your kids fun snacks.  Recently, when we ran out of our chocolate cakes, I baked a cardamom vanilla pound cake, which was pretty enormous, and delicious. We had two family desserts from it (above, with whipped cream), and still enough leftovers for 2-3 weeks of afterschool snacks.   (Remember, very small slices of something really good is very satisfying. Plus you don’t want to ruin dinner.) Even though the cardamom and vanilla is expensive, at this rate, I figure I can bake about once a month, and have a real treat in the house.  The side benefit is that when they beg for dessert you can remind them they already had it.