Family Food in Paris

by Caroline

My children have been to Paris four times.

I have to pause after writing that sentence. My children have been to Paris four times? How did that happen? How did they get so lucky?

Well, first there was the wonderful boat trip, a week exploring rivers and canals in southwestern France, that my parents took us all on to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Tony and I considered the consequences of jetlagged children in a confined space and (twist our arms) decided to stop in Paris first. Subsequent summers brought my sister teaching in Oxford, a friend living temporarily in Portugal, other friends on sabbatical in Paris and– through it all — a convenient nonstop flight from San Francisco to Paris bringing us closer to people we love. So now here I am, the mother of two children who have a fair amount of experience in the City of Light.

The City of Cheese,” Ben might say, with a grimace. “The City of Sauces,” Eli might add, shuddering.

It seems churlish to complain, but the world’s food capital doesn’t do very well by my vegetarian family. And honestly, that’s ok with me; we eat what we eat and don’t expect people — or countries — to accomodate our habits. But it has made staying in beautiful Paris a little more difficult than it might be for families whose kids will happily tuck into steak frites or a cheese crepe. We find ourselves challenged in a city where restaurants don’t want to make adjustments to the dishes on the menu (just try ordering plain pasta!) and don’t like to accomodate a child who can’t make it through a full three-course meal. In one of my favorite small guides to the city, Karen Uhlmann’s Paris for Kids, she writes, “I use my museum method for taking children to dinner in Paris (one museum, then one park): One pasta night for you; one bistro night for me.” She then goes on to describe her children eagerly trying duck for the first time (and loving it) or a place that offers an oyster ice cream that her children are still talking about (I bet they are!) I aspire to her experience, and keep her recommendations on the shelf for a time when my kids have expanded their palates.

For now, since Parisiens don’t expect (and don’t really want) children at restaurants, we make like Parisien families and try to stay out of them. In the past, we’ve rented apartments and cooked for ourselves, using the glorious produce available in the various markets. But this year, we weren’t staying in Paris long enough to justify an apartment. We didn’t pack food; we stayed in a hotel. It offered a spectacular breakfast buffet that kept us going for hours; we ate salads from the wonderful Monoprix for lunch; and then we collapsed in the hotel while Tony fetched us take-out for dinner. We wound up eating a lot of Italian and (perhaps weirdly) sushi in Paris, and it worked out just fine.

Our hotel picnic dinners gave us some nice downtime together before we headed back out into the beautiful night.

Twenty-One Meals at Camp

by Caroline

Last summer, Lisa detailed her family’s vacation road trip and how they handled forty-two consecutive restaurant meals. This summer — just last week — my family faced a shorter, but perhaps even more difficult, challenge: 21 consecutive cafeteria meals.

We were at San Francisco’s family camp just outside Yosemite, and while we had heard raves about it for years — the lake! the hikes! the freedom for (and from!) the kids! — everyone always paused when Tony or I asked about the food. Well, they’d say, you don’t go for the food. When I asked about vegetarian options, they’d say yes, there’s always a vegetarian option, but then would mention the availability of pb&j and cold cereal at every meal, too, which was simultaneously comforting and worrisome. I read an article in the local paper and paused at the reference to the Sysco truck delivering provisions. The night before we left town, I ran into a friend, just back from her 9th summer at Camp Mather, who told me this year the food had slipped from mediocre to lousy.

But part of the point of this vacation, for me, was the break from cooking, from every aspect of cooking: meal planning, marketing, cooking, serving and cleaning up. A break from the kids’ complaints about what we’d prepared. A break from being in any way responsible for the meal. For someone who thinks and writes and cares about food as much as I do, I found that I really didn’t care too much about the food at camp. For one week, I figured, we could handle anything. So we did not pack extra provisions beyond granola bars for hikes and some salty snacks for cocktail hour. We crossed our fingers, and we hoped — well, not for the best, but for good enough.

And it was fine. We’d set the bar low, and were happily surprised. The food was varied and plentiful and we all found things we liked. Tony taught Ben to work the salad bar like a pro, topping his chopped romaine with tofu chunks and a soy-ginger dressing. Eli, happily taking advantage of how much I say “yes” on vacation, learned how to get just the right amount of cold milk into his hot chocolate, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No one had to resort to cold cereal for dinner.

an evening meal

And we were reminded, again, that it’s not just about the food. We ate every camp meal outside, on a wide porch shaded by enormous pine trees. We sat with old friends and made some new ones.

dinner crowd

We shared drinks, bottle openers, and tips about nearby hikes and swimming holes. At the end of each meal, our messy trays looked like this:

My family looked like this:

And I can’t wait to go back.

Mountain Meals

by Caroline

Every February, the boys have a week off school and we go to the snow. A few years ago, this meant packing a cooler full of breakfast and lunch foods we could fix during a skating-snow shoeing-sledding holiday in Yosemite. Last year, we rented a condo in Lake Tahoe, and discovered the importance of afternoon snack-craft projects.

Our snow vacation has never really been about the food, though this year that started to change a bit. We stayed in a different area in Lake Tahoe and had a great restaurant meal; in fact, for Ben, the highlight of the trip was not skiing blue runs nor taking the chair lift without any adult supervision, but the pasta dish the chef at Manzanita produced for him. And my own food highlight was our last lunch on the mountain, at a new spot with a salad bar and rice or noodle bowls topped with a nice vegetable curry.

Of course, after a full morning of skiing, everybody is hungry and nobody is picky. But it’s nice to feel our food options becoming a bit more expansive.

Feeding a “Picky Eater”

by Caroline

olive pits and rice: the remains of dinner

A friend of mine is currently waiting patiently for the birth of her second son, “due” two days ago but taking his own sweet time to arrive into this world. And her waiting has me thinking about all the ways in which our children never quite do what we expect them to do, when we expect them to do so.

My older son, Ben, is 9 and a half. For the first couple years of his food-eating life, he ate whatever we put in front of him: eggplant caviar. Goat cheese. Pickled daikon. Chard lasagne. And then bit by bit, he started dropping foods from his diet. It didn’t happen when he started school, as many predicted, but it happened obviously enough that I began to think of him as a picky eater. An unusual picky eater, to be sure; he ate chard and pickled things and bitter marmalade, but no melted cheese (hardly any cheese at all), no milk except a bit to wet his cereal, no tomatoes. Birthday parties, with their ubiquitous cheese pizzas, became difficult. Eating out wasn’t so easy, either. And at home, despite our best intentions to keep cooking the foods we like and waiting for the kids to come around, we found ourselves subtly adapting our cooking to our kid’s appetite, or making modular meals of something new (a different kind of green, squash cooked a new way) topping something familiar (rice or pasta). We have fallen into ruts, and then needed to climb out of them. We get excited about new foods and then exhausted by the problem of needing to make dinner every single night.

But this week we’re on vacation. Even though you never get a real vacation from parenting, we’re all feeling relaxed, spending longer over meals, being a little more casual about breakfast for dinner or eating out. Plus, we’re getting excited about planning our summer adventure with friends: ten days in Turkey! Eli is poring over the brochure for the rental house; Ben wonders aloud what might be growing in the garden in August. Tony has wisely researched Turkish restaurants in San Francisco and last night we went to one. After studying the menu a while, Ben asked for an order of olives (marinated in herbs and citrus); we rounded out his dinner by ordering up a buffet of mezze: hummus, muhammara, haydari, falafel and zucchini cakes. We ordered extra pita and a rice pilaf, just in case.

The olives and pita were a hit. Ben picked delicately at the falafel and took a proper bite of zucchini cake. He scowled, but then said he liked the after taste. Not enough to eat more right then, but enough to try it again. We’ve all agreed to eat Turkish food once a month until we go on our big trip, and to try something new each time we do. They may still subsist on pita when we travel, but we’ll try to familiarize them a bit with the (fabulous, delicious) range of options. We had a great conversation over the meal, so even though I think my children really only ate olives, pita, and a bit of rice for dinner, the memory of the meal is a happy one, and — I hope — bodes well for our summer travels.

So, I think, does this: Midway through the meal, Ben pulled the bay leaf out of his olives and ate it. I didn’t notice until afterwards, when he said, “That leaf on the olives is really bitter!”

“That’s a bay leaf, Ben,” I answered, “It flavors the food, but you’re not really meant to eat it.”

“Oh, well, maybe it’ll flavor my water.” And with that, he stuck the bay leaf in his water and drank it down.

Sometimes a hot dog would be so much easier

by Caroline

We were not having a very good food day.

Hotel breakfast (comped because we’d been woken at dawn by construction noise the day before) was a cold buffet of cereals, pastries, and steam table eggs (also fairly cold).

who let my kid choose this terrible breakfast? (he did later add scrambled eggs)

We’d been warned off eating at the American Museum of Natural History’s food court, but we couldn’t avoid it, so lunch, too many hours later, was grabbed quickly and bolted between our timed entries to the Big Dinosaurs exhibit and the planetarium show. Eli found a decent rice and bean taco and Tony and I split a veggie burger, while Ben somehow got away with only a fruit leather and sun chips. It hardly mattered — the museum is so amazing — and with more time maybe we could have done better, but we all just wanted to get back to the exhibits.

Several hours later, we finally emerged blinking into the light of Central Park. We let the kids fortify themselves from a snack cart — a banana, a hot pretzel — but then even that went sour; Ben liked his lime popsicle shots — basically a cup of popsicle gravel (see: saying yes to things on vacation) but Eli (who lately ignores his own preferences in favor of being just like his older brother) ate a couple spoonfuls and then abandoned his fluorescent snack.

like astronaut ice cream, but popsicles

Now, I can write off a meal or two, but I don’t really have it in me to shrug and say, “OK, I’ll just eat something delicious tomorrow.” It makes me too sad. Plus, of course, I feel some responsibility to my kids — not just that they eat healthy food (though admittedly I relax this on vacation) but good quality, tasty food. And this day wasn’t offering that. So dinner really needed to be something decent, maybe even something with a vegetable.

I wasn’t optimistic — we were in Central Park, planning to head down to Times Square and then west to the pier to take the boys on a Circle Line tour. We were in a part of Manhattan I don’t know at all, going to one I know less. I figured the boat would offer ballpark fare (hot dogs, popcorn and beer) and didn’t have high hopes for Times Square. I was wishing I could fill them up on hot dogs, roasted nuts, and pretzels, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the energy (or battery life in my phone) to explore mobile food apps. We were like pioneers.

Walking up 8th Avenue, though, we spotted Dean & Deluca in the ground floor of the New York Times building and got excited. But inside, they’d shut down the salad bar already and only had prepared sandwiches available; next door, at Schnippers Quality Kitchen, we found a place reminiscent of our local favorite, Taylor’s Automatic Refresher (aka Gott’s) and a menu listing seven or eight different, interesting tossed salads, hot and cold sandwiches, burgers, even fish tacos and milkshakes. Somehow the boys skipped the milkshakes (it’s not like they can’t read), apparently sensing their own need, after their mediocre lunch, for something healthy and fresh. (Plus, they know we’re going to the Red Rooster soon). Ben ordered the Asian Chop Chop, a crunchy mix of Napa cabbage, edamame, snap peas, tofu, croutons and peanut dressing (he held the scallions and peppers) and Eli had a Caesar.

happy salad eaters

Tony ate an arugula and roasted tomato sandwich with fresh mozzarella, while I had a fabulous market salad of corn, avocado, beets, tomatoes, slivered almonds, chickpeas and croutons on arugula and chopped romaine, served with a nice piece of multigrain bread.

fabulous market salad

We augmented with freshly-baked cookies and a pack of rough cut potato chips and ate on the boat, our food day redeemed.