Can television chefs make my 5-year-old a better eater?
Having spent too many meals watching my son skirt around the veggies on his plate — or during more pouty dinners simply shove them off — I wanted to see if the celebrity chefs from the Food Network could persuade him to embrace produce beyond fruit.
After all, when it comes to kids, the network knows its stuff. The Food Network doesn't talk numbers, but children make up a considerable chunk of its viewers. Could that make folks like Alton Brown and Rachael Ray experts at something that stymies most parents?
I called the network and laid it out. I'd give them a profile of my son's eating habits; they'd round up the celebrity chefs who would come up with vegetable-based recipes catered to his (sometimes frustrating) tastes. He'd try them all and declare a winner.
The kidI shouldn't complain about him too much. Parker scarfs eel and shrimp tempura sushi, devours Mexican mole and Ethiopian doro wat, and doesn't know there is such a thing as white bread. He's never been to McDonald's and couldn't pick Cocoa Puffs out of a lineup. Yet I can't get him to eat veggies. Mashed potatoes are fine, but that's the low-hanging fruit of the produce world. As with so many kids, it hasn't always been this way. From 6 months to 2 years, he ate everything. His favorite greens were palak paneer, a sort of curried spinach. Today, it's "That's disgusting!" if something green is even in his presence, never mind on his plate. Supposedly, this is normal. Supposedly, his tastes — especially if he's been exposed to a broad range of foods early on — will expand. I decided not to take chances. And while the experiment isn't scientific, my son's immunity to the celebrity factor (we don't have television, so he doesn't know what the Food Network is, never mind who its stars are) means he'll only eat something if he really likes it.
The rulesSorry Jessica Seinfeld, no hidden vegetables allowed in this game. While sometimes there is cause to force kids (by trickery or brute strength) to eat good foods, it doesn't teach them to make, enjoy or desire good choices. If kids only eat lima beans because they don't know they've been ground up and mashed into a brownie, where's the progress? The only other rule was that Parker had to take at least one bite of every dish. No matter what.
The recipes and celebritiesBrown, host of "The Next Iron Chef," took the easy road and offered parsnip muffins. I almost disqualified him because the veggies are tucked inside a baked good. I let it slide because it didn't feel as devious as putting puree in a brownie.
The recipe also was jammed with 2 cups of parsnips and, based on the recipe name alone, there's no mistaking what you're eating.
Parker eyed the sliced almonds on top of the muffin suspiciously, then plucked them off and piled them next to his plate. "Better than I thought it was going to be," he said. "I'd take it for lunch tomorrow. Without the almonds."
Ray, of "30 Minute Meals" fame, offered up a bechamel-soaked white lasagna baked in a cast-iron skillet. It also was heavy on green stuff — nearly 3 pounds of chopped spinach and chard. It was savory and cheesy and totally delicious.
"What's in it?" Parker asked, poking his fork at the wilted greens.
"There's green cheese, white cheese and lasagna noodles," one of the AP's test kitchen cooks answered.
"I don't like the green cheese," Parker said as he put a greens-free bite of noodle in his mouth. "Yummy, but not the greatest. I'd like it without the green. Sort of." He never did taste any of the greens, but its proximity to the noodles was enough to sour the experience.
Alexandra Guarnaschelli, host of "Alex's Day Off," suggested roasted butternut squash soup with popcorn croutons. I considered this a pretty inspired idea. So did Parker.
"Yum! Dad, your recipes are the best!" he said as he slurped it up. Hmm ... Not only did she get him to eat squash, but I also got the credit for it. Sorry about that, Alexandra.
Holly Smith, a contestant on "The Next Iron Chef," tried a recipe that was doomed before it was even made — pappa al pomodoro, a tomato and bread soup served at room temperature. Parker would rather eat wilted greens than touch a tomato.
"This is the wrong sort of recipe," he said without tasting it. After a minuscule bite, "This is not my favorite. No more of this! The muffins should be the winner."
Melissa d'Arabian, host of "Ten Dollar Dinners," bravely offered a cheese-coated creamed spinach. We felt it best to cover this dish so he wouldn't see it until just before taking a bite. Didn't matter.
"I knew this was the baddest recipe," he said as he dunked the tip of one fork tine in the cheese sauce. "I'm not eating the green." He was true to his word. We asked him to at least hold a forkful up to his nose and smell, hoping the cheesiness might draw him in.
"No thank you because I might miss and put it in my mouth."
Finally, there was a vegetable cake from Jehangir Mehta, another contestant on "The Next Iron Chef." Think zucchini bread, but add beets, broccoli, cauliflower and hot paprika. If Mehta could get my kid to eat this, he deserved way more than just being an Iron Chef. But he didn't.
We renamed it "Confetti Cake" in an effort to get Parker to at least taste it. But when he saw what the "cake" was, he had a "You-mean-Santa-isn't-real?" expression on his face. He nibbled one vegetable-free crumb and fled the table with a polite, "Not the best."
The lessons learnedIs anyone surprised that Parker's favorite was the one recipe that least resembled a vegetable? That felt like a shallow victory (sorry, Alton). But I was pleased that the butternut squash soup was so warmly embraced. That was genuine progress.
And that sort of progress doesn't require this sort of celebrity lineup. Getting children to embrace new foods is just a matter of consideration, searching and repetition.
If children truly dislike something (greens and tomatoes, anyone?), they aren't likely to be won over by cheese sauces or condiments. Parents need to pick their battles and consider other healthy choices. In my case, I'll fight the spinach and tomato battles later.
That means searching for new ingredients and ways of preparing them. Grocers are jammed with numerous and unusual produce choices, making it easy to think beyond the usual suspects.
And don't assume the oft-repeated advice of offering children the same food many times means preparing it the same way over and over. If you offer carrots a different way each time you're much more likely to hit a winner than repeatedly trying the same recipe.
Parker demonstrated this with Guarnaschelli's squash soup. I've offered him roasted squash plenty of times. I'd never bothered to offer it as a soup because, well, he supposedly doesn't like squash. Clearly, he and I were both wrong.