I always used to think of my family of four as kind of the difficult eaters among my broader family of thirteen. We’re the vegetarians, and my kids have been picky. But as we all– my three siblings, two siblings-in-law, niece and nephew– prepared to gather at my parents’ home this Christmas, I realized there were more dietary issues to take into account than in the past. Meal planning everywhere these days involves an increasing number of allergies, food sensitivities, and food preferences, and my family is no different. Among the thirteen of us, we currently have two on low-salt diets, four managing chronic illnesses with dietary adjustments, one vegan, five vegetarians, one on an elimination diet and one more still in the midst of figuring out what foods are causing new sensitivities.
Lisa’s post recently about
calzone pizza tacos got me thinking about tacos, of course, but also about how even though our kids are growing older and somewhat less picky, the slightest change can sometimes mean the difference between a happy meal and a table fraught with conflict.
Her kids ate the calzones, though not without a lot of discussion. I had a different experience recently when I laid out a dinner with crispy taco shells instead of our regular tortillas. I didn’t think much of it, really. Same ingredients, same shape, different texture. If I had stopped to think about it, I probably would have braced myself because most of the time around here change is Not Good.
But I got lucky. My kids were thrilled. They were in raptures. I was the Best. Mom. Ever. (Even though Tony did the cooking; sorry, Tony). And Eli ate four of them, stuffed with brown rice, pinto beans, guacamole and shredded jack cheese — the same ingredients with which he fills his quesadillas — suddenly transformed by their crispy new jacket. For one night, change was good, and I relished the feeling.
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.
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.
As Tolstoy didn’t write, easygoing eaters are all the same; every picky eater is picky in his or her own way.
So I was reminded the other night when I unpacked our CSA share and pulled out a bunch of escarole bigger than my head:
“Yum!” said Ben. “What’s that?”
Can we just pause a moment to unpack those two short sentences? To marvel at the uncharacteristic enthusiasm — “Yum!” — which precedes the question? Because this cheerful reaction came from a child who generally approaches the world with a healthy dose of skepticism, and examines each bite he takes as carefully as the local health inspector. He will not tolerate butter or cheese (especially–shudder– if they are melted); frets if I put any kind of cooked dried bean (black, white, navy, garbanzo) on his plate; and rejects tomatoes in all their glorious forms (fresh, sauced, dried). On the other hand, he will eat whole wedges of lemon (rind and all), loves pickled burdock root, any manner of candied peel, and all cooked greens. The more sour and bitter, the better.
So I thought I had a good shot at getting him to eat escarole, especially when the sheet of recipes from our CSA included one for a warm salad of escarole, apples, raisins and toasted nuts. The original has cheese, which sounds delicious to me, but I didn’t have any, and Ben wouldn’t have eaten it that way, anyway. As it turned out, Ben liked it (though he found the escarole a bit chewy; I’ll tear the leaves up smaller next time), and even Eli, who of course is his own brand of picky (he doesn’t like any cooked vegetables), gave it long consideration rather than reject it automatically. So I’m calling this one a success.
Warm Escarole, Apple and Walnut Salad (adapted from a recipe by Jonathan Miller):
1/4 c raisins
1 apple, peeled and cut into wedges
1 head of escarole (my bunch was so big, I used less than half, which turned out to be one pound)
1/4 c chopped walnuts or pecans
2 oz gruyere
butter or olive oil
Cover the raisins with boiling water and let sit while you prepare the rest of the dish.
Zest the lemon and then squeeze out the juice. Keep them separate.
Wash the escarole and tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces.
Heat a large skillet with a couple tablespoons of butter or olive oil. Add the apples and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat until the apples have softened. Put in a large serving bowl with a splash of the lemon juice.
In the same skillet, toast the nuts until they’re dark brown and fragrant. Remove from the pan and set aside (don’t put them in with the apples just yet, or they’ll get soggy).
Now add a bit more olive oil or butter to the pan, the lemon zest, the remaining lemon juice, the escarole and a splash of water; cover the pan and let the escarole cook. As soon as the water begins to steam, uncover the pan and continue to cook, stirring, until the escarole is just wilted. Transfer to the serving bowl with the apples. Drain the raisins and sprinkle both those and the toasted nuts on top. Use a vegetable peeler to shave the gruyere on top and serve.
Click here for other escarole recipes.