picky eaters

Feeding the Really Sick

by Caroline

I am a little bit obsessed with school lunch. My essay for this book is on the subject, my next column for Literary Mama is on a school lunch documentary; I volunteer in the cafeteria as often as I can because I feel so strongly that it’s a place that can be as educational as any other room at school, and I want to see what the kids are learning there about food and community. But mostly, I just want every kid to eat a good school lunch, and I know that many, for many complicated reasons, just don’t.

But this week I got a little distracted from school lunch and started to think about hospital lunch. Luckily it was nothing personal; we did spend some time in the hospital when Ben was a baby, but he was too young to eat solids and my family brought enough food that, as far as I recall, Tony and I never had to eat the hospital food (I tell some of the story here). First, Lisa mentioned Cristina Nehring‘s lovely piece about mothering her daughter through a long hospitalization for leukemia treatment, and then I read this piece in the Times about Pnina Peled, a chef in New York City who is trying to improve hospital food for the very youngest patients.

You think your kids are picky? Now think about how fussy they get about food when they are sick. Now, multiply that by a factor of appetite-suppressing and taste-altering medicines, IVs, shunts, and probes, plus medically-required low-sodium, low-sugar, and/or low-microbial diets for kids who are missing home and home cooking. Read Marie Lawson Fiala’s Letters from a Distant Shore and Vicki Forman’s This Lovely Life, two gorgeous, fierce memoirs about too much time in the hospital with their sons. This all might give you some sense of the challenges Ms Peled faces — and by all accounts meets — every day, by producing buffalo wings and vegetable skewers, pressed turkey and cheese sandwiches like the ones at Dunkin’ Donuts, shrimp scampi made with Promise instead of butter, eggplant Parmesan made with egg whites, whole-wheat bread crumbs and soy cheese, and pumpkin spice cake made with egg whites and applesauce. It might not all sound so good to us, but we’re not the ones she’s cooking for.

Luckily we’re not eating hospital lunch right now, but if we ever are, I hope we’re lucky enough to be fed by someone like Ms Peled. “Food is about bringing people together and making them happy,” she says — whether you’re at home or hospital.

Giveaway! Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid

by Caroline

I love food and cooking, love raising and feeding my kids, love to write. Sometimes, as in this blog, those interests intersect and I get to write about the food I feed my kids. Sometimes, almost even better, I get to read about someone else doing all of that. This is one of the many pleasures of Melanie Rehak’s new memoir, Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

A few years before her first son, Jules, was born, Rehak began to read more about food and food production – she read Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser and Wendell Berry – and the more she read the more she wanted to learn, first hand, about the food she bought and cooked each day. That growing interest , coupled – at the birth of her child – with a growing person for whom she was (with her husband) responsible for feeding, brought her curiosity to a head:

“What really happened…was the unavoidable collision of two worlds of information—parenting and eating. To begin with, there, in the form of my baby son, was an actual person for whom I wanted to leave the planet in decent condition. That goal was no longer just a noble abstraction. Then there was the amazing fact that I had before me in a highchair someone who had literally never tasted anything, whose body had yet to be tainted by MSG in bad Chinese take-out, or clogged by palm oil ‘butter’ on movie theater popcorn, or compromised by pesticide residue. I was unprepared for both the sheer weirdness of this – was it possible that I actually knew a person who had never eaten chocolate?—and the huge responsibility I felt to get it right. . . .Some part of me resented the fact that something that should have been a pure pleasure, teaching a person to eat, was now so complicated. ”

Oh, Melanie, I hear you.

Now, some of us would spend more time at the library or bookstore, reading everything we could get a hold of about food, nutrition, parenting. Others might just throw their hands up in confusion and defeat, and continue feeding their kids the way, for better or worse, they were fed themselves. Some of us join CSAs, buy local, visit farms. But most of us don’t make the decision Rehak did, which was to volunteer to cook at a local restaurant, Brooklyn’s applewood (yes, applewood, “the lower case a,” Rehak writes, “being a choice the owners hoped would convey plenty in contrast to the sharp, aggressive point of the capital A they had foregone.” A small point, but to me, unfortunately, it never looked like a proper name no matter how many times I read it in this book, and always like a typo). She decides the best way to learn about food is to make it herself, in a small, family-run restaurant whose generous and amazingly accommodating owners, David and Laura Shea (the parents of two young children themselves) buy their restaurant’s meat and produce from small local farms. She also visits those food producers –a cheesemaker, a farmer, a fisherman, a food distributor – riding along in their tractors and trucks and seasick-inducing boats, not just taking notes, but hauling and picking and cleaning – to get a better understanding of the exhausting labor behind writing the restaurant’s menu each night. It’s a fascinating behind the scenes tour, and Rehak’s prose brings these individuals vividly to life.

The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is offering ten free copies of Eating for Beginners to Learning to Eat readers. Just leave a comment below saying why’d you be interested in reading the book; the first ten to comment get a book!

Edited to add: For any of you on Goodreads, Melanie Rehak is participating in a Q&A there for the next couple weeks, so click on over to contribute!

Thousand Island Dressing

by Lisa

It’s a snack food, a packable lunch dish, a side dish, an appetizer, an all around helpful thing to have in your kitchen. It’s lightening fast to make. It’s completely addictive.  It’s a way of getting your kids to eat more raw vegetables.  And even you won’t be able to stop eating it with salads, with crudite, for lunch, before dinner, after school. Even if you don’t like the bottled stuff, try this.  There’s no comparison. And there’s nothing like having a big batch of something healthy to pull out and feed the kids when they’re begging for food and dinner isn’t quite ready.

I dug up this recipe a few years ago, and while we don’t always have it the refrigerator, it’s the kind of thing that the kids suddenly remember and beg for. Last week it was Finn’s turn to remember that “pink dipping sauce” and so I made it. I had half a head of iceberg lettuce in the refrigerator, left over from fish tacos the night before, and we whipped up a batch of dressing, and it has lasted us all week.   I served it to them first over wedges of lettuce, which Finn thought was just about the best thing ever.

The recipe makes a lot, but it keeps really well (even gets better as the flavors blend), so we portion it out all week long, mostly with carrots and celery, which I precut and keep in the refrigerator.

The original recipe is here. My only change is to substitute ketchup for chili sauce and add a dash of tabasco (or more or less to your taste).  I usually don’t have pimentos, so I often leave them out, but when I’m short on pickles I’ve thrown in a few pimento  stuffed olives; you can leave out the egg, but it’s much better with it in.

Homemade Thousand Island dressing

  • 1 1/4 cups mayonnaise
  • 1/3 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup chopped drained pimiento
  • 1 large hard-boiled egg, shelled, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped dill pickle
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons drained capers
  • 2 tablespoons chopped green onion
  • Tabasco or other Hot pepper sauce

Chard & Walnut Lasagna

by Caroline


It seems amazing to me that three and a half years ago, I began a blog post, “Ben’s not a picky eater…” What happened?! One day he was eating toasts spread with goat cheese and eggplant caviar and then, one by one, foods started to leave his diet. I wonder sometimes about the impact of Tony’s and my vegetarian diet on him — after all, we were the ones who, by eliminating an entire category of foods from our diets, introduced the notion of pickiness in the first place. But I don’t care enough for meat, nor know well enough how to cook it, to make that change now, and I doubt he’d eat it anyway (his brother is another story, for another day).

Ben still eats a greater variety of foods than some children I know, for which I am very grateful (and for which I extend their very patient parents my understanding and sympathy); he loves just about any vegetable, including the typically unpopular cooked greens, he likes funny things like pickled ginger and burdock root, he eats all kinds of fruits. But I get sad that his strong feelings about beans and cheese keep him from joining the rest of us for Mexican food, that he doesn’t like soups or stews or any meal, really, involving several foods cooked together.

So I was kind of stunned the other night at dinner when Ben said, “Remember that lasagna you used to make? With chard? I think I would eat that again.” And so I promised to make it for him the very next day. This afternoon after school, Eli and I harvested the chard from our backyard, and then it was quick work to turn it into this fabulous dish from Deborah Madison’s wonderful cookbook, Local Flavors:

1 cup walnuts
2-3 bunches chard, leaves only (save the stems and toss them into a potato gratin or something)
2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for the dish
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup white wine
1 cup ricotta
1 cup grated parmesan
8 oz (about 2 cups) fresh mozzarella, coarsely grated (divided)
1 1/4 cup milk
8 oz lasagna noodles

Preheat oven to 400. While it’s warming, put the walnuts in to toast. Give them 7-10 minutes, until they are nice and fragrant, then chop finely and set aside.

Cook chard leaves in a large pot with a couple cups of water till tender, about 5 minutes. Scoop chard into colander, press out most of the water, reserving 1/3 cup of the cooking water. Chop chard finely.

Heat oil in a wide skillet and add 2 cloves of garlic, then chard. Cook over medium-high heat, turning frequently, for several minutes, then add wine and allow to cook down. Turn off heat.

Combine ricotta, parmesan, 6 ounces of the grated mozzarella, and remaining garlic in a bowl. Stir in 1/3 cup of the chard water, then add chard. Mix, and season with salt & pepper.

Lightly oil a 9×13″ baking dish. Drizzle 1/4 cup of milk into the dish (it won’t spread evenly because of the oil but that’s ok). Fit 3 pieces of uncooked (really, it’ll work just fine) lasagna noodles into baking dish. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of milk, 1/3 of the cheese mixture, and 1/4 cup of walnuts. Repeat twice more with pasta, milk, cheese mix and nuts. When you get to the last layer, add the remaining milk, mozzarella, and walnuts.

Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes.

Remove foil and bake 10 minutes longer, or till lightly browned.

Let rest 10 minutes before serving.

Feeding the sick

by Caroline

Despite timely flu shots, good eating habits, and frankly pretty impressive personal hygiene in kids this age, my sons have been passing a cold back and forth for over two weeks now. I can hardly remember what it feels like to send two children to school. And although I’ve managed to stay healthy (knock wood), the broken nights and the days spent tending to one or the other languishing child has worn me down.

While I know that this is not the time to slack off on the meals, know that they need a varied diet of fresh fruits and vegetables all the more now to get them healthy, I’m honestly relieved that when my kids are sick, probably like most kids, they shut down and eat like birds. This worried me somewhat when my first was a toddler, but now I recognize this as an inheritance from their father. I am the only one in the house who feeds a cold (or fever, or strep throat, or whatever other illness has hit me). The boys in my family subsist, as near as I can tell, on water and something crunchy until they’re back to themselves. They eat dry cereal, pretzels, rice crackers, and plain toast. Again, as someone who rarely misses a meal, who generally starts thinking about lunch even as I’m taking bites of breakfast, this continually surprises me. I might not want enchiladas or mushroom stroganoff when I’m sick, but as I’ve written before, I still usually want a couple flavors on the plate.

I’m lucky, I know, that I’m not talking about serious illness here. A friend’s son is recuperating from brain surgery and, while he’s recovering, has been vomiting daily for weeks. One of Ben’s classmates was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes a couple years ago, and continues to have a caregiver attend school with him daily to monitor his blood sugar and his meals. My kids don’t have allergies or any chronic illness that we have to factor into their diets. They’re picky eaters to start, and now with stuffy noses and taste buds dulled by fever, there’s not much they are interested in eating. For days, their meals have looked like this:

bunny plate with rice & edamame

bunny plate with rice & edamame

(note the attempt to add appeal by serving the food in a cute plate, one that belonged to Tony when he was a boy.)

Today was the first day in a while that Eli could hold his head up long enough to come to the table, but I was feeling pretty droopy myself so was grateful to discover that our favorite local bakery, Arizmendi, was making a family-favorite pizza: pesto and roasted potato. Arizmendi makes a different pizza every day, and while we all love to make pizza from scratch, this was not the day for that. Instead, we let our bakery friends do the cooking, and saved our energy to make a nice salad and slice some crudites:


Everyone ate a great dinner, and when there was interest in fresh Bolinas apples for dessert, I went to some trouble for my congested children and served them up in slices with sugar and cinnamon for dipping:


Dessert was followed, of course, by their nightly doses of sudafed, tylenol, and a fervent wish for a good night’s sleep.