picky eaters

One Step Forward, One Step Back

by Caroline

A friend, with boys about the ages of mine, takes comfort in the fact that my children are picky eaters. “I get that my kids don’t like my cooking,” she says,  “but if your kids don’t eat, then it really must not be about the cooking!” And every time we talk, and we commiserate about the newest things our children have dropped from their diets, I reassure her that I really do think it’s about the kids, not the cooking.

But still, it’s hard. It’s exhausting to keep putting the food on the table when you know it will be met with frowns, groans,  or worse. It’s tempting to give up and set out plain pasta every night — and I do mean plain, because a certain someone in this house won’t eat melted butter. And you do tend to forget what it’s like to set out food that people eat unquestioningly, not to mention with pleasure. It’s also, of course, incredibly worrisome (as Lisa and I have both written) as you begin to fear that your beautiful children will shrink and grow stunted from nutritional deficiencies.

This is where I’ve gotten with Eli and vegetables. Every night, no matter what else is on the table, I’ve gotten in the habit of putting out a bowl of carrot sticks because he will eat a good handful of those. That, and a taste of the spinach/chard/broccoli/etc that the rest of us are eating satisfies me. I’d given up even suggesting he try anything more.

But the other night I happened to notice him eyeing the salad. It was pretty, I agree; I wish I’d taken a picture. I’d tossed some gem lettuces with pea shoots and wild arugula, all from our mystery box. Ben, who is a big fan of salad (despite his reservations about taste and texture), was messily pushing leaves into his mouth.

“Eli,” I offered, “Would you like one of these crispy lettuce leaves?” “OK,” he agreed, “But just the crispy part.” So I broke off a pale white rib from a gem lettuce and handed it over. He munched it like a little bunny. I gave him another, and another, this time with some more tender green leaf attached. He asked for more, and I passed him a few leaves tangled up with the nearly translucent green pea shoots. “What are these?!” he asked happily. “Pea shoots,” I answered.

He pulled a tiny leaf off one of the pea shoots and ate it. He ate a couple more, and then started to sprinkle them on his pasta.

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He took a bite of his pasta and smiled. He asked for more pea shoots, and again tore the leaves off the stems and flicked them on to his pasta. A small pile of pea shoot stems started to grow next to his plate (later, I scooped them up and ate them all in one bite). “This is my new recipe, Mama!” he said proudly. “My recipe is pasta and pea shoots.” Of course, if I’d offered it to him that way, I expect he would have turned up his nose, but that’s ok — I’m glad he’s finding his way to food he likes to eat, and the meal was just one more reminder to keep putting a variety of food out there, because you never know. Or as Eli put it, “Maybe if I start to eat all these foods, I’ll be someone who eats every food!”

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But I’m not holding my breath. The next night I put out the pea shoots again and they were roundly rejected.

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.

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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.

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Kale Crisps

by Caroline

“I put kale on his plate and put kale on his plate and put kale on his plate, and my son tried it and grimaced and we praised him for trying it and pages flew off the calendar and his beard grew down to the floor, and then one day he ate it without comment. And then one day he ate it and said, “This is actually not as bad as I thought!” After which a pair of bluebirds draped around my shoulders the very banner of joy.” –Catherine Newman in Wondertime Magazine, April 2008

Catherine Newman understands how it goes with kids and vegetables, which is to say she understands how it goes with kids and [fill in the blank] — you cannot ever predict. I’m guessing that her son’s eventual, somewhat grudging acceptance of kale did not mean an end to kale refusal, but was just a moment that she could cling to on days when nothing–with food nor anything else–was going right. He tried the kale. Whatever else happened, he’d at least tried the kale.

In our house, it goes something like this: I put the spinach on the table. It’s sauteed with olive oil and garlic, it’s got a good squeeze of lemon juice on top, and maybe even a sprinkling of pine nuts. Three year-old Eli looks at it and says, “Spinach! Yum!” Then he takes a bite and puts down his fork, shaking his head mournfully, “I’m done with spinach.” The next night, I try again, this time with chard, and he shouts “I’m back in chard corner! I ate five serves of chard!” Six year-old Ben, meanwhile, sometimes gobbles it all up easily, sometimes discerns a drizzle too much olive oil and rejects it outright. All you can do is keep putting the vegetables on the table, but I have learned also, whatever else I am serving, to put down a bowl of carrot sticks. Whatever else might happen, they’ll always eat the carrots, and I can offer myself small comfort  at night that at least they won’t die of scurvy.

I tried something new tonight, and they eyed it with great suspicion. They picked it up from the very edges and just barely let it graze their lips before setting it down, not on their plates, but on the table (a sign of true rejection). I don’t understand it, when basically I was offering them kale potato chips. But also I do understand. Potato chips are familiar; kale is familiar; kale chips are New and thus we are starting the clock on these. But I will persist. The pages will fly off the calendar and perhaps one day the bluebirds will come to me, too.

Kale Crisps

Preheat oven to 250 (yes, that’s a two!)

Wash, dry and trim the kale: Peel off the tough stems by folding the kale leaves in half like a book and stripping the stems off. Toss with extra virgin olive oil. Roast for about thirty minutes. The kale should still be bright green and will be  paper thin and brittle. Remove from oven and sprinkle with sea salt. Transfer kale leaves to a cooling rack so that they stay crispy if you’re not planning to serve them right away.

Some Like ’em Hot, a Pepper Conundrum

By Lisa

Most of the time, we want our kids to eat what we eat, right? And most of the time, we work really hard to get them to eat what we put on the table, right?

It’s been our general philosophy that the kids eat what we eat. End of story. In our home, this has happened pretty much since birth.  Both were breast fed, so they quite literally ate what I ate.  Both had fewer jars of baby food than I can count on my hands.   I steamed, mashed, pureed, froze.  And now both eat what I cook or they don’t eat at all.  Evidence the new chalkboard door as Exhibit A.

This has generally made for a happy and stress-free family food life.

However, there are some things that Kory and I jealously keep to ourselves. Things we don’t want the kids to eat because that means, well, less for us.  And while we want our kids to have good taste, and to taste good things, some things we just don’t want to share.

One of these things is pimientos de padrones,  grown by Happy Quail Farms.

Padrones are small green peppers, flash fried in olive oil, sprinkled with coarse salt, some are hot, some are sweet, all are addictively delicious.

They’re eaten tapas style. We eat them every week in the summer. We serve them at every party we give. We bring them as hostess gifts. They never fail to please.

Kory and I discovered padrones nearly the moment they were introduced to Happy Quail’s gorgeous kaleidoscopic stand of peppers nearly ten years ago, and like the rest of the fanatic cabal, we spoil ourselves on the bags of green gold weekly ($6) when they’re in season .  As far as we know, Happy Quail is the only producer of true padrones in the area, and they supply markets and restaurants throughout the Bay Area.  The legend I remember of their local origin, told to me by the farmer more than half a decade ago, is that a faithful Happy Quail customer, dining in Spain on padrones, decided that Happy Quail needed to culitvate them and smuggled back the seeds….

And so, for many years, Ella and Finn have seen the padrones on our table week after summer week after summer week.  We haven’t offered them to the kids, or have done so only half-heartedly, in jest.

But the moral of this story is that it is absolutely true, that boring, old-fashioned truism that your mother and grandmother and all those expert books tell you: expose a child to something for long enough and she will eventually eat.  Just leave it there on the table, within reach, within eyesight, eat it yourself. Just wait and see. I dare you.

Because one very sad-happy day, Ella ate a padrone. And there was no turning back.

And from that day on until the end of padrone season, If Kory & I didn’t get to the table fast enough, they’d be gone. Plucked from the plate like so many pieces of candy in the hands of a more normal child, they’d disappear down her gullet faster than she could say “Polly-Piper picked a peck of pickled….”  The only good thing to come out of it (for me and Kory) was that our lovely pepper farmer presented Ella with her very own bag of padrones the next week at the market, with the benediction, “Welcome to the Club!”

Of course, this kind of growth is what one wants for one’s child isn’t it? A life full of education and opportunity and new experiences?

It’s wrong to hoard, I know.  One is supposed to overflow with goodness, selflesslessness, and generosity for one’s children. One is supposed to share.

Whoever thought that one up probably never had a padrone.

Unfamiliar Waters

After a week in Paris, we headed south for a week unlike any we’d ever experienced (or likely will again). To celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, my parents gathered our family on a barge that toured rivers and canals in the south of France. We were the only passengers, cared for by a crew of five including –most importantly, for this blog’s purposes–a chef named Charlie.

Charlie had his work cut out for him. Among the 13 of us are five vegetarians (two of whom sometimes, depending on the circumstances, eat fish), one vegan, two on low-salt diets, one who tries to avoid chocolate (quel dommage!). We had been in touch about our dietary preferences ahead of time, but in Charlie’s broken English and my faltering French, we spent an hour the first afternoon going over the details, a conversation that resulted in this list:

Later it was simplified to this:

Only Ben and Eli never learned how to eat Charlie’s cooking, and he never quite learned how plain they really wanted their food. By the end of the week, when even unsauced pasta didn’t appeal, I realized it wasn’t his food that they were objecting to; they just wanted home cooking. Failing that, we rationed our one precious jar of peanut butter, spreading it ever-more-thinly on each day’s crusty baguette. The rest of us learned to eat like royalty, trying unfamiliar flavors and combinations, indulging in rich sauces and a week’s supply of wine and cheese served at every meal; the boys stuck with the most prosaic meal of all: pb&j.