Sunday, February 27, 2011

You Can Lead a Child to Vegetables, But You Can't Make Him Eat!

You can find just as much literature on how to get your kid to eat a healthy and well-balanced diet as you can on potty training.  It is my belief that when that much advice is available in print it is a clear indicator that there are no good answers and that each child will respond differently to a particular technique.  Put simply, you're going to have to figure it out for yourself.  I've heard a lot about Deceptively Delicious over the years.  Those who use this cookbook love that they are fooling their kids into eating vegetables.  Personally, I don't really agree with this approach unless you desperately need to get the nutrients into your kid.  How can you get your kids to appreciate and even enjoy vegetables if you dress them up as dessert?  As with anything pertaining to kids, patience is the real key.  It takes a long time to develop a taste for something new.  I like to think that kids feel the same way about vegetables as adults do about beer; it's an acquired taste.  Each of my kids has, over a great deal of time, acquired a taste for something I thought for sure they would never eat.  So, it is possible!

When it comes to eating a well balanced meal, Abby gives me the least grief.  At about two, she started adding vegetables to her diet.  The process was slow and at times a little painful to watch.  Her first veg was green beans, but she didn't just pick up the bean and eat it, she pulled it apart and only ate the little beans inside.  It took me three years to get her to eat the whole thing.   It took over 5 years of offering brussel sprouts before she finally took a bite and said, "Mmmmmm, these are good!"  I had to employ every ounce of self control in my body to remain calm and reply, "yes, I know."  Elijah on the other hand has been a challenge from birth!  It took him several months just to get the hang of nursing, and the only baby food I could get him to eat was bananas.  In my opinion his eating habits were barely capable of sustaining life, and yet his doctor kept telling me he was a very healthy little boy.  He started with a menu that consisted of buttered noodles, bread with butter and french fries.  He viewed anything with color as poison.  So last year when he suddenly asked me for more strawberries, I nearly peed my pants with relief and excitement.  He has since added almost every fruit to his list of likes.  He still won't even touch a vegetable, but I'm holding out hope that he will surprise me one day.  Jonah falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.  He didn't start eating solids until he was nearly 10 months old, and he never did eat baby food.  He always insisted on eating table food, and he insisted on feeding himself.  This meant that he didn't get introduced to yogurt, soup or oatmeal until he was able to use a spoon fairly well!  He'll try nearly everything you put on his plate, but so far the vegetables get spit out.  This doesn't worry me in slightest.  He's not yet two years old, and my past experience has taught me to keep my expectations low.

I don't have all the answers, and I can't offer any tried and true, surefire techniques.  I can, however, throw out a few ideas to mingle with all of the other ideas floating around in your heads.  There is a pretty common belief out there that if you get your kids involved in meal preparation, they will be more inclined to eat whatever lands on the dinner table.  To a certain extent, this is true.  I once got Eli to lick a piece of purple cauliflower after he helped me break it apart for soup.  He didn't like it, and has yet to regain any trust in me when it comes to food, but he did try it and that was a small victory for me.  Obviously, I believe in getting my kids involved.  I have found that when they are driving me crazy with their fighting and their whining in the grocery store, soliciting their help in the produce aisle works wonders.  Picking out green beans is a great way to get them involved and keep them occupied for a few minutes.  I just show them an example of a good green bean and a bad one and then tell them to inspect each bean before they put it in the bag.  Not only am I getting them involved and preserving a bit of sanity, but I'm getting them familiar with vegetables in a way that is positive and non-threatening.  Thankfully, farmer's markets are popping up in nearly every community.  The atmosphere is fun and exciting, the people are friendly and samples are usually available.  I encourage you to find one and take your kids there regularly.  The same goes for gardening.  Most kids love the whole process of planting a seed and watching it sprout and grow into a plant.  The revelation that that plant will then produce a morsel of food that can be served up with dinner is an extraordinary and potentially powerful message.

Another way to get your child's attention is through color and patterns.  Something that exists on nearly every vegetable out there.  Think back to the purple cauliflower.  I originally bought it because it's color and texture absolutely captivated Elijah.  If you can't picture the details of a cauliflower's florets, take a good look next time you find yourself shopping for produce.  It's really a beautiful and intriguing looking veg.  If at all possible, try to work with colors that are your kids' favorites.  Abby's favorite color is pink, and she is tempted by radishes every time she sees them even though she knows, through painful experience, that they are very spicy.  Carrots catch Jonah's eye and draw him in as do red bell peppers.  He's usually brave and samples a bite or two before spitting it all out on the floor.  I'm hoping this is part of the process of acquiring the taste for these delectable treats.  We've all heard of broccoli and asparagus being referred to as little trees.  I wish I could come up with more of these imaginative comparisons for my kids, but when I look at an eggplant, all I see is an eggplant.

Although I don't agree with dressing vegetables in sheep's clothing, I am definately in favor of pairing them with something more likable.  If your kid already likes mashed potatoes, feel free to add some mashed cauliflower or parsnip.  In fact, you can do this with just about any root vegetable.  They all will change the flavor and texture of the mashed potatoes, so it's not a sneaky trick, it's a new adventure!  And if you're feeling really adventurous add a little food coloring.  (Maybe some green mashed potatoes and turnips for St. Patty's Day?)    I once received a recipe for apple and parsnip soup that my kids actually liked, so I thought it was pretty comical that I didn't really care for it!  Like potatoes, apples go well with a whole laundry list of foods including vegetables.  Don't be afraid to get creative.  A more recognizable pairing would be drizzling cheese sauce over broccoli.  I've tried this only to have my kids slurp up every drop of the cheese and leave those poor little trees completely intact.  If I wasn't so infuriated, I would have been impressed.  Another common vegetable partner is dip.  As in carrot sticks dipped in ranch dressing.  The vast majority of kids in this country think ranch dressing is delicious.  Mine prefer ketchup and soy sauce.  So much so that these two condiments have been promoted to side dish, and therefore must be purchased in bulk.  It may gross you out to watch your darling angel dip celery in ketchup or peas in soy sauce, (I know it does me) but you should delight in the fact that they are finding a way to like their vegetables.  Most likely, these odd pairings won't stand the test of time.  I remember once thinking that wine coolers tasted good.

Lastly, lead by example.  Do you eat your vegetables last or with little enthusiasm?  If you pick half-heartedly at your salad, how can you expect your kids to devour theirs?  Over the past few years I've made a conscious effort to not only make my servings of vegetables larger than the protien and starch on my plate, but to also eat them first.  I can't say that my kids now gobble up their veggies before even taking one bite of their hot dogs.  Quite the opposite, they snarf down their hot dogs and are then "too full" for peas.  But I know they are watching me, and my end goal is to show them that vegetables are not the enemy.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

High Expectations Can Only Lead to Disappointment

What kid doesn't like chicken nuggets?  Mine absolutely love them and, strangely, don't really care for cheeseburgers.  Weird, I know.  This love of little breaded and fried chunks of chicken has sent me on a quest to make them at home many times.  Not every time has been a complete failure, but I have yet to achieve complete success.  Although they don't say it, I can see that my kids are all thinking, "these aren't as good as McDonald's."  My biggest obstacle in trying to recreate the ultimate nugget is that I abhor the process of deep frying.  Just the thought of glugging oil into a pan sends my blood pressure into an upward trend.  I realize it's not that big of a deal to other cooks, it's just not for me.  The problem is, baked chicken nuggets will never measure up to the likes of McDonald's or Chic-fil-A.  About a year ago, I had pretty much given up and resigned myself to just buying the big bags of popcorn chicken at Costco and occasionally, (more often than I like to admit) hitting the drive-thru.  Until this week, that is.

Through some correspondence with an old friend, I've been graced with a recipe for chicken nuggets using ground turkey.  It's something I haven't tried yet, and her very picky girls love them.  It seemed so simple: ground turkey meat balls dredged in flour, dipped in egg, rolled in bread crumbs and then flattened onto a baking sheet.  Bake until crispy and cooked through.   Since I was headed to the grocery store anyway, I just added ground turkey and bread crumbs to my list.  My expectations of the experience were already forming in my head, which was my first mistake.  Knowing my kids, I don't know how I managed to conjur up this idyllic image of the four of us standing calmly at the counter, happily making these little turkey meatball nugget things in an assembly-line fashion, but that was the picture in my head when we got started.  Though it felt like things started to go horribly wrong almost instantly, I now realize that my expectations were so high, the only direction we could go was down.  My children are super-cute and have angelic moments, but they are not suitable subjects for a Norman Rockwell painting!

My friend doesn't do anything to the turkey because her girls, and I quote, "like their food as boring as possible."  I was going to leave the turkey alone too, but before I knew it I had added some salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder and a little worcestershire sauce.  I just couldn't help myself.  As I mixed in all of my little additions, I could sense the impending doom.  If you've never worked with ground poultry before, (and I hadn't) let me tell you now that it is nothing like ground beef.  It is a lot looser and very sticky.  My first attempt at rolling this stuff into a ball left my hands coated in turkey glue and my brain scrambling to figure out how to get through this project without having to make a trip to McDonald's.  I decided to just pull off a chunk of the ground meat and roll it in the flour without trying to shape it.  Thankfully, this solution worked.  Once covered in a little flour, the mixture was much more manageable.  Dipping the little chunks in the egg and then coating them in the bread crumbs was relatively easy.  As I flattened this first breaded turkey chunk on the baking sheet, I was overjoyed to see that it looked just like a commercial chicken nugget!  So now it was time to get the kids involved. 

I often imagine myself calling to my children in this melodic June Cleaver voice and having them obediently come running to form a perfect little line in front of me.  I did sweetly call to them, but none of my kids came running.  In fact, they flat out ignored me!  Again with the ridiculous expectations leading me down a path of disappointment.  When I resorted to my mom voice which is much deeper and has a growling undertone, two of the little voices yelled back,"What!"  So much for Hollywood's version of family life.  I had to resort to yelling at them through the window that it was time to come in and help me make dinner.  I have no idea what my neighbors were thinking, but I doubt it was "Awwwww, how nice that she has them help her prepare dinner!"

Once I got them in and set up at their flour, egg and bread stations the arguing and whining commenced.  They wanted to do the whole process themselves, not just one part.  This actually sounded fine, so I decided to have them take turns.  Anytime we have to take turns, there is always an argument as to who will go first, and this time was no different.  I could feel precious minutes slipping away from me, so I just picked Abby to go first because she is the oldest.  (I usually try to be more fair)  I explained the steps to her slowly, clearly and concisely, and she retained none of the information.  So I led her through the process step by step.  After all, it is much easier to learn by doing.  Our first nugget took over a minute to complete, but I will say she did a great job and had a huge smile on her face while she flattened her meatball into a nugget shaped pancake.  Eli went next and while the process was a little messier and a lot slower, he too did very well and loved the smashing part.  The baby, also known as Jonah, insisted on having a turn as well, and with one swift movement he dumped a handfull of bread crumbs into the egg.  Needless to say, he was sent away with a cracker and my voice echoing behind him, "No more turns for you buster!"  Ok, so I was a little cranky at this point.  Dinner time was looming above me and I could tell that we would never eat if I didn't hurry this process along.  We were 10 minutes in and 2 nuggets down.  Since both of my older kids didn't really care for the turkey flouring or egging, I took over these two steps and left the breading and smashing to them.  Finally we were getting somewhere!  Fifteen minutes later we were all coated with turkey, flour, egg and bread crumbs, the baking sheet was full of cute little nuggets, the kitchen was an absolute disaster zone, and I was in desperate need of a drink.

My kitchen still shows some of the signs of this little experiment.  I keep stepping on runaway bread crumbs and finding little dustings of flour, and there is something on my ceiling that wasn't there before.  But, I have to say, the end product was delicious, and that my friend was right to not add anything to the turkey.  Everytime my kids took a bite they would look at me with suspiscion.  My daughter even looked at Elijah and said, "they're really good with lots of ketchup."  Even though the experience was a little harrowing for me, I did learn a few things.  When it comes to ground poultry and adding little hands to dredging, egging and breading, I'm a little wiser.  I've been reminded that while my children are not the perfect little cherubs that Hollywood depicts, they are perfect, and as long as I can keep my imagination and expectations in check, they will never disappoint me.  To my friend who provided the recipe, you know who you are, "Thanks, I think."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Heart Shaped Cakes and a Fear of Frosting

Two years ago I tried to make a heart cake for Valentine's Day.  I thought it would be relatively easy and not too messy, but still tons of fun for the kids.  I began armed with a boxed cake mix, a can of frosting, and some heart shaped sprinkles. Everything went smoothly until it came time to apply the frosting. In a matter of minutes my beautiful, moist, heart-shaped cake turned into a big blob of frosting and crumbs.  Fortunately, my kids didn't care what the end product looked like.  They raved about how delicious it was and how much fun it was to make.  I was not as satisfied.  After a little research, I learned that cakes made from scratch are more dense than cakes made from mixes, which makes them less likely to dissintigrate when they come into contact with a novice froster.  I also learned that frosting made from scratch is thinner than the kind sold in a can and is, therefore, easier to spread without ripping the cake to shreds.  Who knew? 

I'm a bit of a perfectionist, and that failed heart cake made me swear off cakes for good.  Until now.  I'm usually not one of those people who spouts a bunch of nonsense about facing and conquering your fears before jumping off a tall bridge with only a big rubber band attached to my ankles.  I'm pretty sure that fear is what keeps us alive a lot of times.  But this is a cake for crying out loud!  It is time I conquered my cake decorating fears once and for all!  Besides, my kids need to work with some recipes that require a bit of precision and a gentle touch.  Measuring and folding help to develop fine motor skills and my kids could definately use the practice.

Several years ago I learned that baked goods made with buttermilk are much more forgiving than their counterparts.  (Thanks Mom!)  So we will be using a recipe for buttermilk cake out of my Joy of Cooking cookbook.  Lately I've been determined to get my daughter, Abby, to work on her reading.  It drives me crazy that she doesn't believe that she can read when I know that she can.  So, with the patience of Job and the iron will of the Hulk, I began by having her read the title of the recipe: Buttermilk Layer Cake.  She started out a little intimidated by the number of letters in buttermilk, but once she got past that monster word, she read the last two with confidence.  Whew!  That was easier than I thought.  The next thing that I want to start teaching her is how to read measurments, and then how to translate those into the various sized cups and spoons I have in my drawer.  We definately need work in this area.  She read 1 1/2 teaspoons as "11 and 2, so 13 teaspoons".  I'm thrilled that her math skills are intact, but that much baking powder would have produced an inedible cake!  It took about 10 minutes to assemble all of the dry ingredients.  I had visions of my kitchen being covered in a fine white powder, but she managed to measure everything without flinging any of it across the room. 

Although Abby was engrossed with the beginning process of making this cake, she lost interest after the dry ingredients and flitted away to play with her Barbies.  I think she found the reading and math lessons a little too much like work and not enough like play.  My 3 year old son, Eli, was happy to take her place.  This changing of the guards isn't as easy as you might think.  Abby is a 6 year old girl who can happily and quietly play with Pet Shops and Polly Pockets for hours.  Eli is a 3 year old boy who not only has the attention span of a gnat, but whose movements seem like a cross between an elephant and a hummingbird.  In order to accomodate that attention span, I need to mentally switch gears in the time it takes to change out their stools.  The key to working with little boys is to always have a task for them.  As long as they are doing something, they are able to be somewhat still and focused.  So, I get Eli started unwrapping butter sticks.  Not only is he busy, but he is working on developing those fine motor skills.  As soon as he is done, I have him throw the butter in the mixer and get him going on cracking eggs.  Oddly enough, most kids are able to crack an egg on a counter top without smashing it to smitherines at a pretty young age.  It's the separating of the shell from the insides that presents problems.  I'm not yet ready to work on this particular skill with my son.

Once the mixer is going, it's easy to keep Eli focused by simply having him keep an eye on it.  He's actually very good at answering questions about color and consistancy.  "Is it the same color as the inside of a lemon yet?"  His excited voice answers back, "Yes, mom.  And it's getting bigger too!"  This would mean that the butter and sugar have creamed until fluffy and lighter in color.  The hardest time to keep his focus is when we are alternating adding the buttermilk and the dry ingredients.  At this point he can barely keep his wits about him as he is just waiting to lick the spoon.  Amazingly, Abby reappears at the very moment I'm ready to pour the batter into the cake pans.  She wants to lick the spoon too.  I had thought to do some instruction about the proper way to evenly separate the batter into two pans, but since I don't actually know how to do that other than by eyeballing it, I sent both kids off to entertain their younger brother.

Our hectic lives prevented us from finishing our project.  Both cakes are safely wrapped and waiting to be frosted tomorrow.  I can still feel a twinge of fear when I think of cutting these cakes into the shape of a heart and trying to gently encase them with frosting.  But, today was such a success that I'm able to push it down and move forward with confidence.  As a dear friend once told me, sometimes you just need to do well at something you don't find too difficult before you can tackle something that's a bit harder and a bit scarier.  You see, baking the cake was never the problem for me, it's frosting the cake that scares me.  And even if I end up destroying that cake tomorrow with my heavy handed frosting abilities, I'll probably give it another shot next year.  Although I'll probably look into covering it with whipped cream instead or butter cream!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Special Rules, Special Tools, and Eyes Wide Open!

There are some special considerations to take when including children in meal preparation.  Sharp knives, hot burners and blazing ovens present some very real hazards.  Not to mention the fact that kitchens are designed for adults who are at least 5 feet tall.  So how do we accomadate short legs, developing motor skills, and no judgement?  The only way I know how is with some special rules, some special tools, and eyes wide open.

The presentation I attended a few months ago provided me with a couple of solutions that have proved invaluble thus far.  The first of which dealt with the short leg issue.  How do you teach a kid who is 3 - 4 feet tall to do anything in a kitchen where the countertops are barely at eye level?  The first thought that might come to mind is, very simply, a chair.  Don't think I hadn't thought of this myself, I just found early on that it really didn't work.  I don't know about your kitchen chairs, but mine don't exactly grip the floor.  They are meant to glide easily in and out of place.  So here is my first rule: If they can slide it across the floor, they shouldn't be standing on it!  The reasons for this rule should be obvious.  For these same reasons, I don't like to move much work to the kitchen table.  A sturdy step stool that has rubber grippers on the feet, and a non-skid surface for them to stand on is essential.  It is also essential that those little chefs be raised up to about waist height over those countertops.  They need to be able to get over their work.  This will put them in the best position to stir without spilling and get enough leverage to chop fruit and vegetables properly.  Basically, they need to be able to see what they are doing just as you do.  If you don't believe me, next time you prepare a meal, try to do it while crouching down so the counter top is about chest level.

There are several suitable options for this sturdy step stool, and the prices range anywhere from $15 to $100.  Like most young and growing families, we live on a pretty tight budget, so we chose two good, step
ladder type, stools made by Rubbermade.  The cost for both was under $50.  These fold up nearly flat for storage and when unfolded, they lock into position.  They are solid, heavy, and they have steps that are big enough for an adult to stand on comfortably.  We needed two different stools because we have 3 kids of varying heights.  If you have a larger budget and a larger kitchen, Pottery Barn has a nicely made stand that can be adjusted as your child grows.  I have seen these in other people's homes and I love them.  If you are leaning towards the stand, you should consider that although two kids can fit on one stand, they end up being a bit too close to each other and would also need to be about the same height.  The only other thing to consider is that the stand is more or less a permanent structure.  It's not easily broken down and put away, so it needs to be able to stay wherever it is set up until your kids are about 12 years old.

The second issue that was addressed is the sharp knife issue.  We have all learned, (usually the hard way) that if you run a very sharp edge across your skin at a certain angle, it will result in a deep cut and lots of blood; lots of pain shortly follows.  This knowledge is almost second nature for anyone 8 and up, but for those little souls who are under 8, the deep cut, blood and pain are a pretty big surprise.  Any parent would worry about the damage that a sharp knife could do to their kids, and I'm no different.  Especially after watching them weild their silverware at an average meal.  I have watched all of my kids poke themselves in the eye and ear with both spoons and forks, as well as draw these supposedly safe utensils across their necks, so there is no way I am putting a well honed blade into their hands!  Fortunately, some genius inventor out there had those same thoughts and came up with a tool called the Kiddie Food Kutter.  This little kiddie knife looks like a paring knife with a very dull, wavy blade.  The handle is the perfect size for little hands, and the "blade" is duller than a butter knife.  The wavy part  kind of mimics a serrated knife in a cartoony kind of way.  When I first saw this thing, I actually burst out laughing.  I honestly thought there was no way anyone could cut anything but a banana with it!  But the amazing lady who was giving this presentation proceeded to quell all doubt by cutting potatoes and carrots with it.  Needless to say, I was convinced.  The only two places where I've been able to find these knives are and Pampered Chef.  Solely for financial reasons, I chose the Pampered chef version.  Although my kids could still put out their eyes with them, there is no possible way they can cut themselves, or each other for that matter.  They are safely able to learn how to cut anything but meat, and hopefully the difference between large chunks and a small dice.

There are literally hundreds of things to think about when you have little kids in a kitchen, but many of them should be common sense and are covered under this next rule: never leave your children unsupervised.  Kids don't come with a highly developed sense of self-preservation, nor are they very coordinated.  I have watched my kids spontaneously fall down, trip on lint, walk into walls, check to see if a fire is hot, chat up creepy looking strangers, eat candy found in an aiplane lavatory, and lick a public phone.  Many times when their grandparents are gushing about how smart they are, these are the images that come to mind.  While children are virtual sponges who absorb new information so fast most of us can barely keep up, I wouldn't exactly call them smart.  You don't need to treat them like the village idiot, but you should communicate with your kids, give them the guidelines before trouble is imminent, and don't let your guard down.  Warn them that you are going to open the oven and that it is very hot and can hurt them.  Yes, you need to do this every time.  Tell them, before you even get started, that only grown-ups get to touch sharp knives and that if they choose to disregard any of the kitchen's rules, the consequences will be immediate.  Yes, you need to do this every time.  Stay alert and keep your eyes wide open.  If you need to leave the kitchen for any reason while burners are on or knives are resting on counters, take the kids with you.  Yes, you need to do this every time! 

Teaching your kids and helping them to grow and mature will always be at odds with keeping them safe and un-maimed.  Nearly every aspect of parenting that I know of, is a balancing act.  I am always trying to balance letting them have the room to explore and learn with keeping them out of harms way.  Sometimes it's pretty easy, and other times it's very hard.  With proper preparation, a couple of specialized tools and nerves of steel, teaching your kids to cook can be fun and safe for all of you.