family dinner

Learning to Eat Ceviche

By Lisa

On Friday evening, we were on our way for tacos, when all hell broke loose in the car. It was 5:30 pm. My 7-year-old son had just finished an intense 90-minute soccer practice. During this time his sister had been kicking the ball around with a few teammates. It was the end of another 90 degree day. Both kids were hot, sweaty, and my son’s knees were black from turf dirt.  They were hungry.  They were tired.   It was no surprise what happened next: yelling, fighting, tears, complete and utter irrationality.

Normally, this is not the state in which I take kids out to eat. In fact, taking tired, hungry, cranky kids out goes against everything I’ve ever written here about kids and restaurants, summed up here.

But let me back up. The kids are growing like weeds. These days Finn reminds me of a baby giraffe. He’s all lanky arms and spiking legs and careens around on his bike, or skates, or on the field in a headlong way, as if shot from a catapult, always on the verge of falling.  Ella is an athlete.  She spends long, intense hours at the soccer field and in the pool.  To see her in her soccer gear or swimsuit is to see a girl totally at home in her body and its strength. It’s awesome, and we tell her this every day.   It’s become clear to her father and me that her body craves this kind of  physical outlet just as much as her mind craves the novels she schemes to stay up too late reading. Even Finn, whose sports are less serious will gear up  for roller hockey and skate in the car port on days we’re at home.  All this means one thing:  they need more food.  A lot more food.  A few weeks ago we made the direct link between between the kids’ moods and their blood sugar levels.

There are distinct danger times: right after school, right before lunch, right before dinner.   Snacks have become urgent, no-compromise affairs.  I’ve been tempted to show up at school with those little glucose packs cyclists carry.  Instead, I’ve become an efficiency expert, whipping up smoothies with milk and fresh fruit or peanut butter, slicing cheese, cutting fruit, freezing yogurt, rolling salami, pouring milk, handing over crackers, defrosting edamame, portioning nuts. Protein has become essential for both of  them, pre- and post- practice, and calcium is especially important for Ella in these pre-adolescent years–as it is for all girl athletes.

So that night on the way to tacos (or not) I had two choices: take them home and find something to cook, or soldier on and hope for the best.  The first option was not so appealing to any of us. My kitchen was clean.  I had nothing prepped. We love tacos. What they needed was food. Fast. So against my better instincts, I drove straight past our house and up the hill to the taqueria, all the while scheming about what healthy, sustaining thing I could get into them fast.  Because it was hot, and perhaps because the taste of fresh lime and seafood is still lingering from our San Diego extravaganza, my food brain conjured one word :  ceviche.

Before we entered, tears were dry, kids were calm, and they had been read the riot act in my scariest mom voice.

Inside, they commandeered the table where they could watch the MLS game (another benefit of taco night out). I stood in line. ordered for all of us, and asked for the ceviche to be brought right away.  I had no reason to think they would love it.  But I also had no reason to think they wouldn’t.  It was cool and fresh and full of  citrus and tender white fish.  I knew it wouldn’t completely stuff them before their dinners, and I knew it would complement whatever they ended up ordering.   I also told them they had no choice in the matter, and so two minutes later, while we waited for carne asada, and tacos al pastor, and a quesadilla, the kids confronted a gorgeous pile of white fish ceviche with fresh avocado and a mountain of fresh chips.  Finn dug in first, and then there was no turning back. Not for him, not for Ella, and not for the mood of the night.   As quick as they could load a chip, the mood of the night turned.  They polished off the ceviche until only scraps of fish were left.  Dinner came and they didn’t stop eating.  We went home happy and ate ice cream.

The lesson here?  Food is fuel.    If you’re lucky, sometimes it’s more.

Post-ceviche bliss

Variation on a Theme: End of Summer Pan Fried Gnocchi

by Lisa

In some ways, the food blogging/writing world misleads us.  If you believe everything you read, people out there are cooking new, interesting, fresh, inspired things all the time.  On the one hand, this can inspire you and give you lots of new ideas, recipes, ingredients. The blogging world is great for that.  On the other hand, the constant stream of new content can put a lot of pressure on the cook in the house. It can be hard to measure up, not just in terms of skill and innovation, but simply in terms of getting something new and different on the table every single night.  Where are the leftovers? The repeat meals? The meals that come straight out of the freezer? The take-out or pizza nights?  Not to mention:  those nights when activities and work schedules mean the kids have to eat separate meals and the parents eat even later. Pete Wells got it right: sometimes we are just too busy to cook.

It is true that I do try to cook every night. But last night? Wednesdays are my teaching night, so my sitter prepares what I leave, and my kids had TJ turkey chili out of a can. Which, for the record, they think is one of the best things ever.

Also: we eat an awful lot of the same things for weeks, even months at a time. This is what happens when you eat seasonally. When it’s tomato season, we eat tomatoes. Lots and lots and lots of them. We’re Italian like that.  You can romanticize it all you want, but it’s not exactly inspired.  And unless you’re Mark Bittman, it can be a challenge to figure out something to do with all the same stuff day in and day out. A girl can dream and plan and try, and lots of us do, of course, but if you’re not a food professional, and you’re tired, it can be a lot of work to be inspired.

Moreover, we have had an unusually busy week.  A slight shift in Ella’s schedule has meant that she has 20 minutes to eat dinner in between Finn’s drop off and pick up from swimming and her own drop off at soccer.  I have no idea when Finn is going to eat.  Our afterschool hours are such that I have to have dinner ready for them both to eat by  4pm.  Because between 4-7 pm, I won’t be home long enough to cook. Certainly, this week is not usual, but the fact remains that there are plenty of other families who face this challenge on a regular basis.  It’s one thing to cook and eat a family meal when your kids are young.  I found it a hell of a lot easier to cook for toddlers than it is now, with a 6 and 9-year-old.  It doesn’t help to say my family dinner will never be sacrificed, because if your kids have activities, sometimes it will be.  All of which is to say that how we cook and how our families eat our meals changes.  I am here to say: it’s okay some nights to eat on the run. It’s okay to eat the same thing over and over again.

Which brings me to my dinner dilemma tonight. What could I cook that would keep from 3:45 pm until 8 pm? I had tomatoes, corn, and hooray! a package of gnocchi, which, once cooked, keeps far better than pasta.  I have  a bin full of good produce: green beans and great lettuces for a side dish or salad.  Also some good mozzarella.  And this morning I was talking to my very dear friend Melissa Clark, the novelist, who introduced me to gnocchi, and is also a contributor to our book. Then there was Caroline’s post yesterday, and dishes I’ve made before, and this is the result:  our end of summer (and end of a very long day, and nearly the end of the week) pan fried gnocchi.

Like tonight’ s dinner, which has not yet been cooked, this photo is repurposed. But you get the general idea…

End of Summer Gnocchi with Tomatoes, Corn, and Mozzarella

1 package gnocchi

1 clove garlic

2 T butter

2 T olive oil

1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

2 ears of corn, cooked, cooled and kernals sliced off

2-3 slices fresh mozzarella, sliced into bite- sized cubes

3-4 leaves fresh basil

  1. Mince the garlic & sautee in olive oil and butter in a large pan.
  2. Add the gnocchi to the pan & cook until heated through and lightly golden brown.
  3. Remove from heat, and in a large bowl gently toss in tomatoes and corn.
  4. Toss in mozzarella and basil.
  5. Serve immediately or after (soccer/swimming/piano/tutoring), at room temperature.

Saying Goodbye to the Kid’s Menu

by Caroline

When Lisa told me about her family’s road trip plans, I was envious (the sun! the stars! the Missions! the meals!) and then, instantly, dubious on the one point she was nervous about herself: the meals. Two weeks of restaurant meals. Forty-two restaurant meals. With two kids. At (among other places) several theme parks.

I wished her well and waited to hear the report.

Happily, the family survived well and Lisa’s writing about how to handle two solid weeks of restaurant meals with kids, covering everything from breakfast to theme park meals to the kids’ take on all of it. All of which has made me realize an exciting recent restaurant development in our family: we are saying goodbye to the kid’s menu.

Let me back up. We eat out a fair amount. Tony and I ate out regularly before we married (we both did growing up, too), and it was important to us to cultivate good restaurant habits in our kids. So we were strategic about it. Ben’s first restaurant meal, I have to admit, was at Chevy’s; he was about 7 weeks old and gazed at the balloons while I drank a margarita. Success! His first fancy restaurant meal, months later, was at Lulu, a place we chose partly for its delicious menu but also for its volume: we figured a crying baby wouldn’t be heard over the din. We needn’t have worried; he was old enough to sit in a high chair and gnaw happily on baguette, while we enjoyed several courses.

We continue to be thoughtful about eating out and follow the same practices as Lisa’s family. We eat out at fancy places to celebrate, sometimes, (both kids have eaten at plenty of places that don’t offer high chairs or kid’s menus) but more often we walk to one of the many local spots in the neighborhood where we can afford (both in terms of environment and price) to experiment. So if, as happened once when Ben was a toddler, there’s a meltdown between ordering and the food arriving, it’s no big deal to flag down the waiter and get dinner to go. Luckily, it’s been a long time since such an evening has gone awry; more often, we eat and chat and it feels quite a bit like home, just a little more special. But the kids’ preference, always, is to eat at home: it’s more relaxed, they don’t have to wait for their food, they like our cooking.

This summer, we’ve traveled a bit but managed — by booking hotel rooms with kitchenettes or staying with family — to keep the restaurant meals to a minimum (on our visit to Seattle this June, just the second restaurant night made Eli mournful). Tony researched spots that looked good — Italian and Asian restaurants tend to offer a good variety for our choosy, vegetarian kids — and we’ve been eating well. I’ve been remembering the mom I used to be, who would sweep the fragile glassware into the middle of the table, far from a toddler’s grasping reach, or who would set the high chair far from the tempting tablecloth. I’m grateful for older kids who (mostly) sit politely and use the kid’s menu now (mostly) just for drawing.

Kid’s menus certainly offer a welcome landing spot, a sign — as surely as highchairs and lidded cups — that the restaurant welcomes kids, and we’ve been grateful for them. But honestly, the kid’s menu has never offered a great selection for my kids; of the standard burger-fish sticks-chicken fingers-pizza-pasta quintet, most are either too meaty or too cheesy for my kids. So we have always looked beyond it, and are now really moving away from it. Eli will just eat a big salad (particularly Caesar, the gateway salad) if there’s nothing else on the menu he likes, though still often augments with pasta or grilled cheese. Ben, however, is making some new choices. Recently at our favorite local place, he passed up his beloved pasta “shoulders” (a toddler malapropism of his we have all adopted) in favor of a new dish: soba with grilled tofu and greens. It’s the kind of dish he eats all the time at home but would never order out. He’s also not shy about ordering exactly what he wants. He’ll scan the menu and assemble himself a meal from side dishes, he’ll order a salad without that cheese or with that other salad’s dressing (I know special orders can be a nightmare for a kitchen staff, and we always check that they don’t mind). At our most recent meal out, I noted how the water goblets stood a little unsteadily on thick placemats atop the marble table, turned down the waiter’s offer of plastic, lidded kid’s cups, relaxed and ordered a glass of wine. They are growing up and I am enjoying it.

42 Meals: A Vacation Odyssey, what the kids thought

by Lisa

Last night, as we were eating our 15th tomato sandwich since returning home, this time in the form of a BLT, I asked Ella and Finn about the best part of vacation food.

“DISNEYLAND!” they both screamed.

“Really?” I asked. “You liked the food at Disneyland?

“Oh. No.”  They both shook their heads.  Aside from a nice meal at Ariel’s Grotto (which is in CA Adventure anyway), the food at Disney was memorable only for its awfulness.

The short of list of things Ella liked about vacation food:

  • Choice. Getting to chose what you want every night.
  • Kids’ menus: which she says (mostly accurately) include: chicken fingers, burgers, sushi, macaroni and cheese, pizza.

Her affection for kids menus is interesting because I think it has less to do with the offerings and more to do with the fact that they offer a manageable list of food specifically to the child.  I do like the portion size and pricing on kids menus. When you’re eating out every meal, economy of all sorts is important. But I do hate the tyranny of those same five dishes. It’s definitely true that not all burgers (or even mac ‘n cheese) are created equal, and side dishes vary, but like so many other parents, I wish restaurants would think a little more creatively about what to feed to kids.

Another highpoint: the dining room at Hearst Castle, also the inspiration for their beloved Hogwarts.

Now they both want to be billionaires.

What didn’t she like? Eating out every night. By which she meant having to make the effort and “be perfect” at the table.  But so go the trials of childhood.

Finn’s response was more measured. He says he didn’t much like the menus which had “good things, but not always things you feel like eating.” He is a creature of habit. Also the one picking cucumbers out of water by the end of the trip. He likes restaurant booths, because they’re cozy. And I can add that they both love the menus they can color on and take with them. We have several now glued into scrapbooks.

The lesson here is that choice is important, and so is control. Kids like to be spoken to directly. They like to be offered things that are their size and fitted to their taste.  A smaller list of choices, so as not to overwhelm, is a great idea for school age kid who wants to master her own menu.  But maybe it’s not such a great idea to have the same choice at every single restaurant. Because really, fries with a quesadilla are kind of ridiculous.

They did resoundingly agree on one thing: San Diego food. So stay tuned because tomorrow, straight from our favorite place in San Diego: the only new recipe you need for the summer.

42 Meals: A Vacation Odyssey, Surviving Theme Parks

by Lisa

It’s no secret that food at theme parks, generally speaking, sucks, is lousy.  The food lowpoint of our vacation was not, however, what any of us ate or didn’t eat, but the moment when we were standing in the brunch line at our hotel, which was full of great, fresh food, and my husband saw a young boy waiting for his turn at the colorful tray of melons only to have his father push him along, saying, “What are you doing? You don’t need any fruit. Come down here.” And they made there way down to the bacon and sausage and biscuits and gravy–all of which are fine things to eat, but I wish that boy had gotten to choose.

We were all starved for fresh, whole fruits and vegetables. And while the food in Disneyland is pretty awful, they do have carts filled with fresh fruit, including watermelon, wedges of pineapple, and containers of cut mangos. We ate a lot of mango while we inside the Magic Kingdom. But we also quickly discovered that (sit-down restaurants aside) the grab-and-go/cafeteria style food is much, much better at California Adventure, so we tried to eat there as much as we could. Plus, they serve wine and beer, which is always a good addition to a meal when you need a little extra downtime.  Or a boost of courage for, say, Tower of Terror. There’s a new set of restaurants way out on Paradise Pier that serves really good flatbread pizza, fresh salads, and a whole range of grilled mediterranean skewers.  There’s also a lot more ethnic food (Mexican & asian inspired rice bowls) all around the park, and an infusion of California wine country sensibility–which also leans toward fresher, leaner, more seasonal meals.

We made it through all the parks (Legoland, Seaworld)  by eating less meat, seeking out cold fruit instead of ice cream, finding simple salads(lots and lots of Caesar’s), avoiding sweetened drinks, and substituting fruit for fries. Because we were on the road so much, and the choices were generally less fresh than we’re used to, even the kids didn’t complain. Of course we got ice cream & fries and candy and treats, too. It was vacation, after all.  We just didn’t make these choices every day at every meal.

The best surprise of all was a lovely al fresco dinner at Ariel’s Grotto in California Adventure (I know. I know.) It wasn’t a character dinner, and the kids have long since traded princessphilia for the adrenaline of the fastest rides they can find, but they dinner came with preferred seating for the night show, which we wanted to see.  The service was excellent, the margaritas sweetened with agave, and the food was really good.  Our appetizer was served family style: a tower of salumes, salads, and olives which the kids also dug into.  My main course ravioli was the best thing I’d eaten in 3 days. Kory’s meal was equally satisfying. And the kids had “meatball lollipops”: lovely little meatballs on skewers atop a plate of spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce.

Dinner. Before the kids attacked the fruit.

What I loved most was the kids’ appetizer, which was ingeneous and a standard part of their meal.  I loved the assumption that the kids could have a first course. It acknowledged the parents’  right to relax over a meal and assumed kids are capable of dining right along with them. I especially loved the cute little green apple jelly.

Watermelon, cheese, and a green apple gelatin

What the kids loved most was probably the family style dessert, which wasn’t great, but was really fun to look at.   Especially the white chocolate film strip.

Happy kids. Happy meal. And for this night, certainly, one of the happier places on earth.