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Eating Wisely

Simple Foods for Evolving Palates

Rebecca Konegen
Riverside CA USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 5, September-October 2007, pp. 222-223

My children eat differently than I do. I love to experiment, taste, and try new dishes and cuisines. I like stews, soups, sauces, and spices. They don't. My children like simple foods served separately, and prefer foods that they already know they like. I do feel lucky that they will eat broccoli, sugar snap peas, and green beans. I know that I'm luckier than some because I can serve asparagus, lettuce, and red peppers and have two out of three children respond well. They all like fish, too, which is a difficulty in some families. But still, I do have my moments when I long for the foods I experimented with before having children.

Added to my desire for variety is the concern that so many mothers share: nutrition. I'm responsible for what my children eat, and for fulfilling their needs for a variety of nutrients from a variety of sources. During meals, I want to talk about the day we've had, what we might want to do tomorrow, and maybe some friendly conversation about current issues to the extent that my children are capable. I also want peace -- I don't want to be arguing over a clean plate or a number of bites.

Occasionally, at friends' houses, my children are introduced to foods I would rather they didn't eat -- and sometimes they like those foods better than what we serve at our house. (I also know that a few of the foods that I serve at our house other mothers might not choose for their children.) A well-intentioned friend told my oldest child that if she didn't want to eat a particular food that was offered to her, she could just say so. I realized that in my child's mind, this came to mean, "I shouldn't bother with any food if it is not something I truly love," rather than accepting what is simply good enough or trying something new.

Ages and stages play a role in my meal planning. At around age three, each of my children began a picky stage. My oldest (nine years old) is mostly out of this stage; my youngest (three years old) just started. I have to admit that I've found it easier to handle since I've been through it before and recognize it as a stage.

Recently, I realized that our habit of eating out a few times a week might contribute to my children's food preferences, since even among nutritionally sound choices each individual chooses what to eat with no regard for the needs and preferences of the rest of the family. I have, on occasion, said, "This is not a restaurant. These are your choices." I've also begun to think that variety might be more of an adult need than a childhood one. There are many new things in a child's life, including classes, friends, and activities. Perhaps some children don't want to try new foods because they have to accommodate enough "newness" elsewhere.

Pediatricians assure us that our children won't starve if we don't accommodate their every whim at the table, and in my experience that is true. But it is also true that my children are willing to get pretty hungry -- and correspondingly crabby -- if they don't like what is served at the family table. There is an oft-quoted study about child food preferences that suggests that most children will eat what they are served if they've been exposed to a food enough times -- somewhere between eight and 20 times. I like the idea, but I have a lot of questions about the study. Who was serving the children (researcher, teacher, parent; familiar or unfamiliar person)? In what setting (home, school, etc.)? What sorts of foods were offered (including single/plain foods or mixed/sauced)? What age children were involved? What sort of conversation was made about the food (was it "sold" in any way, as "nutritious" or "yummy")?

While trying to apply the idea of repeated exposure to foods in our own house, I realized that my idea of the "same" food was not my children's idea of the same food. They were thinking of a specific dish as a food, while I tended to think in terms of the main ingredient, such as spinach or tofu, as the same food. I wasn't serving the same dish enough times because of my preference for variety. Pediatricians, in my experience, tend to present this study as a very simple one, with simple strategies to be applied in one's own family, but application in my house has been fraught at best.

At one point, I was frustrated enough to make two different dishes for meal time: one for the children and one for the adults. Or I would reheat leftovers if that night's dinner didn't make the grade for them. I found this approach very unsatisfying. So what's a mother to do? How could I combine nutrition and food preferences -- including my own -- in my own family?

At this point in its evolution, my food philosophy has come to mean serving simple, separate foods, except for one -- and to make that one food a food I won't mind my children missing. Often, lately, it's a salad, so I make sure there's also a bowl of carrot sticks on the table, since carrot sticks (or baby carrots) are easy and my children like them. Salads are also a good choice for the more complex food in our family, since if I run out of time, I can skip the more complex salad and serve a simple green salad. Or we can just all have some carrot sticks. Sauces are another good choice for adding spice to a meal, since a meal still works without one. As long as my children have protein and vegetables, I know that I can feel good about a meal.

One meal may include salmon fillets, thinly coated with olive oil before baking and sprinkled lightly with salt and pepper. Baking rather than broiling keeps what my children call the "crust" from forming, a good strategy since they dislike "crust" on their fish. The salmon could be served with steamed broccoli, plain brown basmati rice, and a cucumber-feta salad with a bowl of carrot sticks on the table as well. Or I can serve a green salad, and maybe add tzatziki sauce to the table for myself and my husband to have with our fish.

Another meal might include roasted chicken with lemon and dried or fresh herbs inside the chicken or in the roasting pan for the fragrance. My children respond well to fragrances of herbs, but not the little bits of herbs sprinkled visibly on the chicken. Appreciating fragrance seems to me a good first step toward appreciating the more intense flavors of herbs mixed directly into their food. The meal might also include green beans sauteed with bits of garlic (a family favorite), potatoes baked in the same oven as the chicken, carrot sticks, and basque zucchini salad, which includes a variety of chopped summer vegetables in a vinaigrette.

I imagine that my family's food preferences will continue to evolve. I'm hoping, for instance, that my children begin to like tofu again since they all enjoyed it as babies. Maybe one day I'll be able to serve a curry again. But right now this approach works for us: simple, single foods that are easy to prepare (a plus for busy families!) with a bonus dish or sauce for Mom and Dad -- as well as for any of our children who might want to have a little variety with that meal.


Tzatziki Sauce

1 cucumber peeled, seeded, and coarsely grated
3 cups plain yogurt, preferably Greek yogurt*
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 T. extra-virgin olive oil
2 t. chopped fresh dill
½ T. finely chopped fresh mint
½ T. white wine vinegar
½ t. salt
¼ t. pepper

Tightly roll the grated cucumber in a clean kitchen towel; squeeze to wick away excess moisture. Combine with remaining ingredients, stir, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

*Greek yogurt has been strained to remove some whey. A similar effect can be achieved by straining plain yogurt through cheesecloth, set in a strainer over a bowl overnight in the refrigerator. If you skip this step, your sauce will not be as thick, but will still taste wonderful with fish or chicken. The thicker version is better with vegetables or toasted pita. (Adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook, c 2004, edited by Ruth Reichl.)

Roast Chicken

1 roasting chicken, rinsed and patted dry
½ lemon
salt & pepper to taste
1 small onion, peeled
Quartered herbs, one sprig fresh or ½ t. dried, such as thyme, rosemary, parsley, or a bay leaf
2 T. butter, softened, or 2 T. olive oil

Preheat oven to 350°F. Squeeze the lemon into the inside of the chicken; sprinkle inside with salt and pepper. Add the lemon half and the onion quarters (as many as fit) to the cavity of the chicken. Place chicken in a roasting pan. Rub the skin with either butter (for browning) or olive oil. Bake 18-20 minutes per pound, or 1 ¼ hours for a four-pound chicken. Test for doneness by moving the leg of the chicken up and down. If it moves easily, it is done. A four-pound chicken will serve 4-6. (Adapted from The New York Times Cookbook, c 1990, by Craig Claiborne.)

Basque Zucchini Salad

3 medium zucchini, cubed
4 medium ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 large sweet red pepper, cubed
1 red onion, chopped
7 T. extra-virgin olive oil
3 T. wine vinegar
salt & pepper to taste
Finely chopped fresh parsley, to taste (optional)

Steam zucchini for 2-3 minutes (long enough to steam it through and still leave it fairly crisp). Rinse under cold water, drain, and place in a bowl. Add tomatoes, red pepper, and onion. Prepare vinaigrette by whisking olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Before serving, pour vinaigrette over vegetables and toss gently to coat. Garnish with parsley. Serves 6-8. (Adapted from Simplicity from a Monastery Kitchen, c 2001, by Brother Victor-Antoine D'Avila-Latourrette.)

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