manners

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, The Overview

By Lisa

We’ve just returned from our annual family vacation, which this year involved a long an epic road trip from the Bay Area to San Diego, one of the most southern parts of our state.  Our initial destination was ComicCon in San Diego, which was a blast & included a preview of the upcoming Phineas and Ferb Movie,which is terrfic, if you like that sort of thing, which we do.  But the trip quickly morphed into a week at the Coronado beach, a 3-day visit at Disneyland, an excursion to Hearst Castle, and something Caroline came to call Mission-polooza: a visit to every California mission between our home and our destination.  I will not be writing about that part of the trip here.  (You can check my personal blog for follow-up and fallout on that score.)  But what is of interest to LTE readers is that for the first time ever, we stayed in hotels for the duration of our trip, which was a new experience for us.

For me, this meant a lot things: no cleaning, no sweeping, no making beds, no tidying up at the end of the day. Of course it also meant no marketing and no cooking. No farmers market. No prep. No meal planning.  Honestly, it was a terrific break, but I was nervous about many meal-related things including:

  • Cost
  • Getting the kids ready and out of the hotel for dinner.  Every night.
  • Table manners
  • Stamina–the day in, day out energy it takes to dine in restaurants
  • Finding enough variety in the food to keep us feeling energetic and healthy
  • Theme park food

We were right to worry about some of these things. Variety, for instance: we eat so much seasonal produce that by the end Finn was picking the cucumbers out of his dad’s water in search of fresh vegetables. And I may never again eat another Caesar salad, because at many of the theme parks we visited, this is the closest thing you can get to fresh vegetables.  I also discovered that left to their own devices and an unstoppable tidal wave of kids’ menus, even my accommodating and not-picky eaters will choose chicken tenders or pizza or burgers.  My daughter, who never ate a chicken finger in her life ordered these twice in our last three days.  It’s true she got the side of fruit salad, too, but it just goes to show the deeply subconscious appeal of the kids’ menu–even for a kid who doesn’t really eat like a kid.  And finally, it is costly to eat out all the time, so we were right to budget high for this part of our vacation.

But other things proved not to be problems. In retrospect, it’s not that surprising. In some sense, we’ve been training our kids from the time they were toddlers to eat out in restaurants, so the stamina, the manners, the getting ready, all these things were taken in stride. It surprised us. We stuck to our tried and true rules, and they worked for us through many different kinds of meals: in a car, at a pool, at a taqueria, in a fancy restaurant, in a lodge….Frankly, it was an enormous relief because in the weeks leading up to the trip we were not at all sure that the kids would make it through every meal without incident.  But they did, and at the last meal, a lovely little place in Carmel, we celebrated and we toasted them. While they ate pizza and a burger.

Up next: managing breakfast on the road.

Ella’s Table

by Lisa

We have good nights and bad nights as far as the manners go, as everyone does. Some nights are really peaceful. Other nights it looks like we’re feeding the dog we don’t (yet) have off our floor.   Some nights we have a really fun conversation. Other nights, well, let’s just say other nights we seem to be living in the land of the loud people.

Kory and I try hard not to expect perfection, but aim for gradual improvement.  For us teaching kids to eat involves an ongoing, sustained effort at involving them in the culture as well as the food at the table.

Some of our rules include:

  • no toys at the table
  • no singing at the table (though I know very happy, well-fed families who do sing at the table)
  • no falling off your chair

There are probably others, but they don’t include things like “If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding/How can you have er pudding  if you don’t eat your meat?”

And I am not above bribing my kids to get them more involved.  Ella gets allowance her automatically ($1/week), but if I need help with a task, I often promise to pay her. I do this with setting the table.  Or sometimes I just ask her & Finn to set the table without proper remuneration.  In any case, a small amount of money can be a great motivator, and Ella and Finn like to eat enough and, like all little kids, they appreciate beautiful things enough, that it can actually be fun to give them ownership of the table once in a while.

A recent night resulted in this:

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I let her choose plates, table cloth, candlestick, napkins, etc.  There is always some coaching about what utensil goes on what side (but seriously, I have to coach my husband about this fact eight times out of ten, you know how those artists are…), but she & Finn take this as a fun challenge/puzzle.

She took a lot of pride in her work: note the little flower hooked onto the edge of the glass:

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On the menu was turkey sausage cooked in red peppers and carmelized onions:

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Mini penne with butter and cheese and Erbette chard sauteed with cherry tomatoes:

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It was an easy, pretty Saturday night dinner, but fast enough also to cook on a weeknight.   And it’s even faster and easier if you don’t have to set the table yourself.

Pumpkin Time

by Caroline

the pumpkin wagon

the pumpkin wagon

It happens every year, the clamor for pumpkin treats: pie, cupcakes, pancakes, muffins. Eli, particularly, adores all things pumpkin and thinks it’s quite reasonable to expect a pumpkin pie for dessert an hour after we return from the pumpkin patch. Well, maybe so, but not with the new pumpkins, certainly. In fact, you all probably know this already but it bears repeating: you don’t want a Jack-o-lantern pumpkin for pie and really, you don’t even need pumpkin (shh!). Roast an acorn squash with a cinnamon stick and some cloves, even a knob of fresh ginger, stuck in the cavity, take out the flavorings when the squash is tender, scoop it out of the skin, puree, and then proceed with your recipe as if it were pumpkin. Really, nobody will ever know the difference.

But still, we go to the pumpkin patch every year, because what’s October without pumpkins? And when we are home from the pumpkin patch, one of our favorite quick pumpkin recipes is for muffins.

pumpkin muffins

Preheat the oven to 350.
Combine in a medium sized mixing bowl:

1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
3 T ground flax seed meal (you can skip the flax and replace it with an extra tablespoon of butter if you like)
1 1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 t baking soda
1 t salt
1 t ground ginger
1/2 t ground nutmeg
1/4 t ground cloves
1/4 t baking powder

Combine in a small bowl or measuring cup:
1/3 c water, milk or apple juice
1/2 t vanilla

In a large bowl, beat until creamy
5T unsalted butter

add
1 c brown sugar
1/3 c granulated sugar

and beat until combined.

Then add
2 large eggs
1 c pumpkin puree

And mix well. Now add the flour mixture to the pumpkin mixture in three parts, alternating with the milk mixture. Stir just until combined. Then add, if you like, chopped walnuts, raisins, or chocolate chips (about 1/2 c each).

Bake in a muffin tin for 30 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.

Dinner in 20

by Lisa

I  love to cook.   I do not always want to cook. These statements are not mutually exclusive.

While I will very often prep a little bit of dinner at lunchtime (the virtue of working from home), one day last week I had done nothing for dinner.  I hadn’t even taken a mental inventory of my produce and pantry to come up with a quick game plan, which is something I do daily. But on this day, I was just so tired I hadn’t done any of that. And  all of a sudden it was 5:35 and there was nothing in the way of dinner suggesting itself.  I took a deep breath, walked into the kitchen,and opened the refrigerator.

For a busy parent, perhaps the greatest virtue of shopping at a farmers market is that you always have something so fresh and so good that it can be cooked very simply and quickly.  That night, I took from my produce bin:

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Italian parsley, sage, basil, chives, green leaf lettuce, a few green beans, 8 eggs

I’ve written before about how eggs are your friends and how simple is very often best, and about how in many ways, cooking for my young family very involves making small, new changes to staple ingredients to keep seasonal ingredients a little bit exciting.  That evening, from some pre-conscious part of my brain “Omelette aux fines herbs” suggested itself. This was a much loved dinner for Kory and me, but a new twist on the omelette for the kids.

I chopped up the herbs, par boiled the green beans until they were tender-crisp, then rinsed them in cool water to stop the cooking, and washed the lettuce.  I made a quick jar dressing:

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One part red wine vinegar, one part mustard and 4 parts olive oil, a smashed clove of garlic, a pinch of salt and a sprinkle of pepper.

Let the dressing sit for 10 minutes so the garlic infused the dressing. Put the top on before you shake it up.

I made a quick omelette with the herbs and the eggs, and tossed the green beans in with the lettuce for a really lovely, tender green salad. The dressing went on the greens.

Dinner was on the table by 5:55 pm.  That’s less than 25 minutes from concept to table, and the hardest part was snipping the stems off the beans and washing the lettuce.

Of course, both Ella and Finn complained about the green bits in the omelette, protesting that they didn’t like them.  I told Ella they were chives, Finn that they were basil, and they both raised an eyebrow and dug in and one bite was all it took to convince them that it was, in fact, delicious.

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The fringe benefit to this fast, easy meal is that it is also an easy, manageable fun meal with which to work on table manners.  Eggs are easy to cut, and whenever possible, I encourage Ella and Finn to use their knife and fork in the continental way. This is how Kory & I eat, and both Ella and Finn at 7 & 4 are old enough to control their utensils. It doesn’t always happen in the ideal way, but this kind of dinner is the ideal place to practice.  It becomes a kind of quiet contest to see who can rise to the challenge of eating like a polite little French child. Of course, it doesn’t always happen like this, but  it really can be done.

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So, while I wished, for a minute that night, that I had a stash of TV dinners to plop on the table, I didn’t really need them.  There was enough in my kitchen to make something fast and delicious, and the lovely fall flowers that live on our table reminded us that even the hastiest, thrown-together meals  can be an occasion.

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