published in the Chicago Sun-Times
George was having a fine time with our little cooking exercise. He was eager to pour, eager to measure and especially eager to whisk.
But he was not eager to taste. “I don’t like vegetables,” George announced. His 4-and-almost-a-half palate had seen the enemy, and it was green. Or maybe red, if you counted the pepper we had just added to the bowl.
Getting some kids to eat their five-a-day is more difficult than others, and begging, pleading, reasoning, bribes of ice cream and offers of cash have all proven ineffective. There are kids like my kid, who likes her green beans even better with a splash of vinegar, and there are kids for whom bitter and texture are four-letter words, never to cross their lips.
Three cookbooks take three very different approaches to this issue of children and vegetables. All achieve the same result—the ingestion of healthy nutrients—but with varying degrees of involvement or deceit.
We put these three cookbooks to the test with a tough crowd. I am a mom who doesn’t cook much (we eat a lot of salads), and I was joined by three very small children borrowed from Kids’ Work Chicago, a day care on the north side. George and Dale are both 4, and Ellie is just 2.
I attempted to select a recipe from each cookbook most similar to the others. I prepared the dishes from Deceptively Delicious and Feeding Baby at home first, then took them and my ingredients for the Spatulatta recipe to Kids’ Work, where we gathered around a kitchen table.
As it would turn out, each of my little friends made the case for each of the cookbooks in his or her own way.
Perhaps the clearest example of “what they don’t know can’t hurt them” is Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious (HarperCollins, 2007).
Here, vegetables are the light-and-sound guys of the production—necessary, but never seen or appreciated. Fruits and veggies are pureed en masse to a consistency resembling baby food, then stored in pre-measured quantities in your freezer. Each recipe includes one or more of these purees in amounts just small enough that your kids will never see, smell or taste the existence of the powerhouse slipped inside.
The cookbook offers excellent nutritional profiles of the most common fruits and vegetables. Nutritionist Joy Bauer also has vetted every recipe; healthy highlights are sprinkled through the book along with comments from Jessica, her kids and other moms. (Comedian husband Jerry shares just a few thoughts.)
Enthusiastic justification for this approach seems to be missing just a few steps in its logic, however. The introduction states that “the best parenting solutions are the ones that build good habits—invisibly.” Yet if a child is in the habit of eating macaroni and cheese or muffins, it seems likely he or she will continue to do so into adulthood, even when Mom isn’t slipping undetectable creamed vegetables inside. It’s hard to make something a habit if you don’t know you’re doing it in the first place.
In the foreword by Dr. Roxana Mehran and Dr. Mehmet Oz, they say, “Later, as [your children] grow, they will want healthy vegetables on their own, since, for years, they had their chicken nuggets coated with them already!” Yet the idea here is to make these vegetables “as invisible as possible,” Seinfeld says on Page 49. When later presented with the flavor and texture of naked beets or broccoli (part of the chicken nugget recipe as purees), will a child dig in or demand chicken nuggets?
Bauer offers this wisdom, too: “…it’s important for kids to develop control and confidence when it comes to what they eat.” Yet with this approach, your children will discover they had no idea what they were eating. Might they become suspicious rather than confident?
No one involved with Deceptively Delicious was willing to be interviewed for this story, but Bauer does go on to state that “proper nutrition increases energy, prevents injury and enhances healing, improves academic performance, and even has a positive effect on moods.” For the parent who has lost all hope that even a carrot might make an appearance at dinner, and academic performance or health is at stake, this might be a technique of last resort. Seinfeld says it brought peace to dinners with her three kids. And George did eat his couscous (see sidebar).
For children brought up on the plan espoused by Chef Joachim Splichal and his wife, Christine, vegetables have an expected role. So do salmon, wild rice and lentils. And yet he says there’s no drama in this dinner theater. His twin sons, now 12, will eat anything.
In the Splichals’ Feeding Baby (Ten Speed Press, 2008), even the first solid foods you prepare for your child are openly diverse. Couscous with soft-yet-visible cauliflower and carrots is served to babies 9-12 months. When they’re a year old, children eat what their parents are eating, with a few modifications: grits and spinach with cheddar, white fish in mashed potatoes.
When children are 2, options expand to artichokes with extra virgin olive oil, white beans with parsley, and braised pork with apricots. The whole family eats the same. Notes at the beginning of the book offer advice about nutrition and cautions against choking hazards and allergies.
Chef Splichal, founder of the Patina Restaurant Group, decided when his kids were born in 1996 that he wanted to write a cookbook on healthy baby food. He and Christine prepared everything for their children from organic and farmers’ markets. By age 3, the boys were eating razor clams and venison at dinner. “We really developed their taste buds very early,” he says. “Every night as babies, a little protein and a variety of veggies.”
When the boys were between 3 and 7, they traveled often with their parents to Europe, where they were willing to try delicacies such as sweetbreads and tongue. In fact, about the only thing Nicolas and Stephane have resisted are Brussels sprouts, Splichal says. “That hasn’t gone over well.”
As someone in the restaurant business, he’s particularly pleased that his children are adventurous. “I think it’s a lot of fun that you can take them anywhere, and they eat off the regular menu,” he says. In fact, when they were younger, they’d keep notebooks about places they’d dined and their favorite things. “They can have a conversation about food,” he says.
With this cookbook, no food is too sophisticated. “I think it’s a really great tool to help children learn what they should eat,” Splichal says. As they grow, their choices won’t be limited to pasta and French fries, he says. “It’s much healthier than all that.”
The Spatulatta Cookbook
A third cookbook makes your child the star of the show. The Spatulatta Cookbook (Scholastic, 2007) is authored by Isabella Gerasole, 12, and her sister Olivia, 10, of Evanston. They first gained fame when their filmmaker neighbor helped them launch a cooking website for kids. Now they are a veritable franchise, but they’re still learning techniques and foods.
The Gerasole girls were taught to cook by their Italian dad and ate a lot of pasta growing up. Olivia recalls making so many noodles that they ran out of chairs from which to hang them to dry and had to use the chandelier. That’s changed a bit: “We’re all just trying to eat a lot healthier now,” Olivia says. “These days it’s something grilled and something green,” Isabella concurs.
They include lots of green things in their cookbook, along with very kid-friendly (or novice-adult-chef-friendly) tips. Beside the Weiner Weenie Dogs food-as-art recipe, they list green beans with garlic, curly Creole salad, root vegetable bake, and even tass kebab, chicken yakotori and tofu salad.
The girls are learning useful skills. “I’m now very good at sautéing,” Isabella says. “I can use a knife.”
But they also are learning to experiment. “I think because I was cooking, I got used to trying lots of new things,” Olivia says. She is a bit more bold than her peers. “My friends definitely do not try spinach,” Olivia says. She hesitated too at spanakopita (Greek spinach pie) at first, but discovered a new favorite.
And while Olivia’s still not sold on tilapia, Isabella likes salmon. “Salmon makes you smart,” she says. She admits she’s not a fan of rapini—but she has at least tried it.
While we were chopping our red pepper, Dale, also 4-and-almost-a-half, made that very point to George: “How do you know you don’t like it if you’ve never tried it?” George may have been confident in his stance, but these cookbook options mean he might be persuaded to waver when he’s reached the grand old age of 5.
Slip ’em some nutrition
One major thing to note about the Deceptively Delicious concept is that all its recipes employ purees. So while the dish at hand might not be terribly complicated, it is assumed that you’ve set aside some time over the previous weekend to shop for fresh and organic fruits and vegetables, then steam and puree them and measure them into freezer baggies labeled and dated for future use.
I’m sure pureeing gets much easier with practice. I had trouble getting my carrots to the right consistency with my blender; some soft lumps always rose to the top. The squash, on the other hand, might have been overly runny. But it all worked out in the couscous, as long as I picked out any carrot clumps first. I also ended up with some puree leftovers, which I measured into slightly messy freezer baggies and labeled and dated for future use.
This dish got a thumbs-up from all three testers. It’s impossible to taste the carrots or squash—in fact, the only flavor at all was a hint of Parmesan.
Couscous with Yellow Squash and Carrot
Instructions for pureeing are found at the front of the book. Seinfeld first advises a schedule of shopping and pureeing over a few hours each weekend. One pound of each vegetable you think you’ll use is enough to start with.
Next are detailed instructions for washing and preparing the vegetables, referring to a chart a few pages back that tells whether each should be peeled or not, and in what sizes to chop things. The carrots needed to be peeled, trimmed at the ends and cut into 3-inch chunks. The squash needed to be trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces.
Step 3 describes the various methods of steaming. Because I do not have a steamer, I followed her suggestions for steaming in a saucepan. You bring 1/2-inch water to a boil, add the veggies, cover and steam. You have to flip back to that chart again to discover that carrots take 10 to 12 minutes, while squash takes 6 to 8. You have to change the water between each vegetable or risk bitterness. You then drain each steamed veggie. (Roasting and microwaving are options in place of steaming, Seinfeld says.)
In Step 4, you puree, using a blender, food processor or similar implement, adding teaspoons of water if necessary. You then let each puree cool. Be sure you wash out your blender or processor between each puree.
Step 5 offers advice for measuring, labeling and freezing the purees. I had carrots and squash beyond what I needed for the recipe, so I poured it as best I could into baggies. The squash required double bags—it was runny enough to ooze out.
After this process, you are ready to cook. You can thaw the purees in the microwave or in a bowl of hot water, snip off the corner of the baggie and pour it into your dish:
- 1/2 cup reduced-fat low-sodium chicken broth
- 1 cup regular or whole-wheat couscous
- 1/2 cup yellow squash puree
- 1/4 cup carrot puree
- 2 tablespoons trans-fat-free soft tub margarine spread
- 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan
- 1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- Bring the broth to a boil in a medium saucepan.
- Turn off the heat, stir in the couscous, squash puree, carrot puree, margarine, Parmesan, garlic, salt and pepper. Cover and let stand for 6 to 7 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed, and the couscous is soft.
Dishing up the real deal
Despite the sophisticated ingredients in Feeding Baby, the recipes are fairly simple. Most include a short list of supplies and only a few steps.
This dish was at a slight disadvantage: The philosophy behind the book is that your kids will like the ingredients because they’ve grown up with them. I certainly wasn’t whipping up baby food for Ellie, Dale and George, so I couldn’t be sure they’d ever had couscous, cauliflower or carrots, let alone sampled a similar dish when they were 9 to 12 months old, as the cookbook suggests.
Preparation was minimally challenging. It took the longest to peel and chop the carrots and cauliflower, which ideally are fresh and organic.
I made the mistake of serving this couscous-and-carrot recipe to my young friends a half-step after I served the Deceptively Delicious couscous-and-carrot recipe, which is nearly identical but without visible vegetables.
Dale and Ellie liked both equally well. Ellie, my star eater, apparently represents the Feeding Baby concept best. Her parents like spicier and more flavorful foods, her day care director later told me, so she has been eating a variety of things from early on.
George definitely favored “couscous number one” and couldn’t be bothered to eat more when presented with the second. He was ready to get down from his chair and be done with this cooking and eating business!
Couscous with Cauliflower and Carrots
- 4 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 cup finely chopped cauliflower florets
- 1 1/3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup couscous
- Sea salt (optional)
- In a medium saucepan with a steamer, bring 2 inches of water to a boil.
- Add the carrots and cauliflower and steam for 10 to 12 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Drain and set aside.
- In a small pan, heat the broth over medium-high heat.
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the couscous, stirring to coat well with the butter, and cook 1 minute. Add the broth, cover and cook over low heat for about 4 minutes, until the broth is absorbed. Stir in the carrots and cauliflower. Season with salt.
- Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Freeze leftovers that won’t be eaten the next day. (Feeding Baby also describes safe and easy ways to freeze, thaw and reheat food.)
This Spatulatta recipe called for hands-on participation from my young friends. We took turns around the table with each job. I gave Ellie the can of sliced black olives to shake into the bowl. George poured the chickpeas. Dale added vegetable stock to our pan.
Dale also helped me with the red pepper. As I chopped, I asked the children whether they had ever seen the inside of a pepper. Nobody had, so I invited them to gather round. I suggested that Dale reach in and pull out the cluster of seeds, which took all of her muscle and might.
Then I chopped the pepper into small bits and offered to let them taste. Ellie was the first brave soul. She ate one piece. Then another. Then she took a whole strip.
George refused to have anything to do with it, and Dale was right there with him until she saw Ellie go back for more. Plus, she was kind of curious, having helped pull it apart. Lo and behold, Dale liked it, and pretty soon she and Ellie had polished off my pepper leftovers.
All three kids were enthusiastic participants in the process. They noted that the vinegar smelled like pasta, that millet looks like rice or like spaghetti chopped into tiny balls, and that onions can make you cry.
The resulting dish might have been a little more strong-tasting than expected, because George poured in just a little too much balsamic vinegar. Dale was not much of a fan, and as for George, I actually had to wipe bits of it off of his spoon before he’d use it again to eat the other food.
Only Ellie had more than a bite. And she might have eaten more if we had not thoroughly exhausted the attention spans of two 4-year-olds and a 2-year-old in preparing the whole thing start to finish.
Millet and Chickpea Salad
Makes 4 salads
Spatulatta recipes include both ingredients and equipment.
- 3/4 cup whole millet
- 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
- 1/2 cup canned chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
- 1/2 cup sliced black olives
- 1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
- 1/2 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- measuring cups and spoons
- small saucepan (1 to 1 1/2 quarts) with a tight-fitting lid
- large bowl (about 4 quarts)
- large metal or wooden spoon for stirring
- 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup
- Pour the millet and vegetable stock into the saucepan, stir and cover. Cook over medium heat until the grain is tender, about 20 minutes. (Test the millet for doneness as you would pasta.)
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and fluff the millet with a fork.
- Transfer the millet to the large bowl. Add the chickpeas, olives, red onion and red bell pepper. Stir to combine.
- In the measuring cup, whisk the vinegar and oil until well combined.
- Drizzle the “dressing” over the salad. Use the fork to toss the salad until all the colorful vegetables are spread throughout. Why not pack your salad in a resealable container and take it with you to school?