Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Cauliflower and Kids

The other day, I was out to lunch with a friend.  I know, I know, I say that so casually.  It’s been such a short time that such a thing has been a possibility, that it seems ridiculous to just throw it out there, as if I’m just that, a girl who can go to lunch with a friend if she wants, and not have the whole house be turned upside down when she returns.  Or not have to take along a squalling infant who will alternate pawing all the silverware and napkins off the table with wanting to nurse at really awkward angles while I try to eat something that requires aforementioned silverware.

But yes, I was at lunch, after a delightful day browsing books for sale and chatting pleasantly with the authors that wrote those books at a book festival at the convention center.  It was a pizza place, but I ordered cauliflower.  Well, I also ordered a wild boar meatball slider, but what I want to tell you about is the cauliflower. 

I can still hardly believe that this is something that I would order willingly. Although even I must admit that I became a grown up a long long while ago now, it just doesn’t seem that long ago that cauliflower was THAT vegetable.  The one I would pick out of the “California mix” of steamed frozen vegetables that my mom served at least once a week while I was growing up.  The one that you really could not talk me into eating, be it raw, steamed, sautéed, boiled, served in something else.  Not even in my favorite Mongolian Chicken takeout from China Village.  Nope, the Styrofoam bin at the end of the meal on Chinese night was always a pool of brown sauce and some white trees.

But here I was, with a whole menu to choose from, and I picked a plate of cauliflower.  Not a side of it to go with my sandwich.  A whole plate of anti-pasti roasted bits drizzled with vinaigrette.  This wasn’t even an “I’m on a cleanse, I’ll pick the healthiest thing on the menu” choice.  Evidence, course two: a meatball sandwich.  Which I should add, is served on a Blue Oven bread English muffin, which is an item that is actually fried in clarified butter.  Yeah, not so much the healthy choices guiding me this weekend. 

As I was eating those roasted bits of vegetable goodness, I got to thinking how very far I’ve come as an eater.  From a place where I once lived almost exclusively on frozen White Castle burgers and microwaved hot dogs, or just about anything covered with Viva Italian salad dressing, to the place of my current eating habits. Where absolutely the highlight of my last date night meal was a plate of toasted broccoli.

Is this just what happens when you grow up?  Does your palate naturally shift towards these items that your parents promise you that one day you will enjoy?  What is it about vegetables that are so unsavory to young people?  Or, is it, more likely, just the overlap of the general ongoing battle between children and parents over things that are “good for you,” whether it be lean protein, whole grain fiber sources, leafy greens, or books rather than video games? 

Of course there is something different about choosing to eat cauliflower now on my own, knowing that no one is really ever going to pressure me into eating something I don’t prefer.  Yes, I know I should make healthier choices in my dining.  TV spots, Internet articles, whole magazines are out there reminding me to “Eat This, Not That” every day.   But let’s face it, no longer is anyone asking me to just “try it, you’ll like it!”  or forcing me to eat five bites of something I view as repulsive.  I’ve felt a fair bit of shame about the fact that I really do not enjoy fish of any kind, when I know it is a healthy, adult, source of protein.  It seems ridiculous to exclude an entire group of food.  While people express surprise when I mention I don’t eat fish, “Not any?  Have you tried grilled salmon?  How about tilapia?”  Yes, tried them all, and I feel fine with saying I’m done ordering it ever again because every single time I’ll like all the other stuff on the plate, but will leave that lovely fish that gave its life for me largely untouched.

I started this post with the idea that I was simply surprised at my ordering choices as of late, but I’m starting to wonder if this isn’t in some way just a follow up to my most recent post about my approach to cooking for my admittedly picky children. 

It is something I think about all the time.  I’m not interested in being a short order cook most of the time.  I care about their long time health, growth, and nutritional choices. I also want my children to grow up to be adventurous eaters, if only because some of the most pleasurable experiences in my life right now center around sharing delicious food with others, cooking with both new and familiar ingredients, and seeking out places to enjoy meals that have been lovingly and interestingly prepared.

But, I truly intensely dislike the battle of wills that goes on in my house much of the time over food and what my children either do and will not put in their bodies.  So much of the time I feel like dinner starts off as a pleasant enough experience, but then goes south right around the time I realize that no one has eaten anything except the bread portion of a meal.  The reminding, bargaining, and then demanding all commence not too long after that. 

Add to it that we have multiple food allergies and sensitivities in our house that affect what foods we can and cannot have in our house or serve at a common meal.  I don’t do dairy, so I don’t often serve dishes that rely heavily on cheese or cream, even though they might be enjoyed by the majority of people in my house.  We don’t have peanut butter or any nuts in our home, so the alternative of just making oneself a PB&J isn’t there for our family.  That also rules out nuts as a nutrient rich source of protein for the anti-meat eaters in my house.  We also have some issues with eggs, soy, and some fresh fruits for various members of our family, so there have to alternatives for all those options in our house at one point or another.  We haven’t really sorted out my youngest’s food sensitivities in a clear way yet.  So always in the back of my mind when I’m insisting one of my children try a new food is “what if he really means it when he says it’s making him feel like he needs to throw up?”  However, I don’t want any of them to feel like it’s acceptable to avoid eating healthy dinners I spend time preparing  and just replace it with a junk food item later. 

I’ve been thinking about this article by Mark Bittman that appeared in the New York Times a week or so ago.  He was responding to  the requests he often gets from parents asking how to raise children that will try new foods and eat healthfully.  I thought all of what he had to say was interesting, and probably true, at least for him.  He talks about getting rid of junk food as options in the house, and just offering a broad range of healthy choices.  Not to make an issue out of eating what’s on the table for dinner, but only having healthy alternatives available.  This all seems perfectly reasonable, but for some reason really difficult to put into actual practice.

He mentions a mother that cooked in uninteresting ways, but praises that she “always showed up.”  He paints his own childhood eating habits outside the dinner table as one long binge of processed junk, including breakfast of cookies and milk.  He talks about his own current eating habits as a response to that unhealthy way of life, as if it was a natural  progression to rebel against such a thing.  So, that has gotten me thinking.  If raising children with a diet full of junk food eventually leads them to one of discovering cooking and healthy choices, why then do we believe that raising them without junk, and with only healthy choices will lead to a adulthood full of similar items?  Why aren’t we concerned that once confronted with the smorgasbord of junk and processed foods available on the market for the first time that they won’t gravitate to a feast of excess?  I’m reminded of childhood friends who were never allowed to have sugary foods or snack foods at home, who would go to birthday parties and gorge themselves, then head home to vomit.  It was as if they had no boundaries or ability to deal with these temptations.

Like Bittman, many of the items that make up my current diet as an adult are things I would have never dreamed of eating as a kid.  I want to say though, that wasn’t because my parents fed me only a “kid friendly” diet, though there was probably a little of that going on, or that I grew up in a home without much thought about nutrition or food choices.  My mom also "showed up," cooking nearly every night in my memory.  Eating out just wasn't something we did very often.  My parents wanted me to eat, and I wasn’t a particularly easy child to provide food for, since I was allergic to, or at least sensitive to, many different foods in a time when food allergies just were not that common.  My parents were not concerned about my weight or health in general, so I can absolutely see how they were grateful when I found just about anything that didn’t make me vomit. There’s an ongoing joke about the years in junior high and high school when I bought my lunch every day, but my purchases consisted of either green onion potato chips and a chocolate chip granola bar, or a large order of fries.  Also to be fair, I ate quite a few fruits and vegetables without argument, so it wasn’t all junk food entering my system.

I think a lot of the way we view food has just changed over the years.  Health and nutrition education has definitely come a long way from the simplistic ‘four food groups’ model.  Along with the overabundance of convenience food and over processed snacks marketed to children has also come a separate movement towards availability of more vitamin rich produce, better sources of animal protein, and more interesting ways to cook all of it than was available during either my own or my parents’ childhoods.  We’ve moved beyond meat and potatoes and white lettuce to a food culture that embraces multiple ethnic cuisines and regional styles, as well as celebrates locally sourced ingredients.  There are simply more choices available to us as eaters, both good ones and bad. 

I’m not saying Bittman’s approach is a bad one. Nor am I saying my parents had it all right and we’ll all get to the place of eating well eventually.  There are definitely adults I know who still struggle to be adventurous eaters and eat the diets one usually associates with preschoolers.  What I’m saying is that I really have no idea what the best way to get to the right place is, even for my own particular family, so maybe I should stop beating myself up about not doing it one particular way.

There is so much advice out there on parenting, not just in the realm of feeding your children.  There are so many people giving conflicting and strongly worded advice, that’s its hard not to either feel really shamed or alternatively, just want to abandon all of it and do what’s easiest.  I’ll admit, I’ve had both reactions in  lots of areas of parenting.  In this one, however, I guess I’m just going to keep my eyes on the prize of that plate of cauliflower.  I want that experience for my kids, so I’m just going to keep doing things that seem like they lead us in that direction.  Maybe it means lightening up on some of the dinnertime battles.  Maybe it means less junk in the house, and more healthy options for snacks.  O. has recently started to be interested in learning to cook, so I’ve had him help out with meal preparations more lately, and that seems like a good sign even though so far, he still doesn’t eat much of the meals he helps with. For sure, it means continuing to vocally model my own best eating habits in the hopes that they  too, will one day hear a little voice in their head that says “maybe I should at least TRY that.”

Friday, September 12, 2014

Dinner at the Picky Street Cafe

I've long thought if I were going to write a book, one of the angles I've got the corner of the market on is trying to feed picky kids.  Notice that I said "trying," not actually succeeding.  I've been going at it for close to ten years now, and I'm not sure we're really any better off now than when we started introducing rice cereal and pureed squash.

I could go on for volumes about the techniques I've tried to get my kids to eat anything that does not come out of a box or in an unnatural shade of orange.  In large part, our approach involves exposing our kids to many different foods as many times as we can stand it, involving them in the process of choosing and cooking whenever possible, and trying to avoid turning eating food into a battle of wills. You know, all the things all the books and articles and blog posts say to do.  It mostly feels like a marathon we're running with no real end in sight and no idea if we're even on the right road.

Chances are, if you've ever heard me talk about feeding my kids, at one time or another you'll have heard me claim that though I usually make what my kids want for breakfast and lunch, one thing I do not do is short order cook for my kids at dinner time.  What I make for dinner is what we're having for dinner.  Eat it or not, but you're not getting an extra plate of chicken nuggets out of me.

But truth be told, there should be a big old asterisk in a comic book thought bubble above my head every time I trot out that statement.  Because on nights when J... is not here, (and those of you that know the comings and goings of this crew know that happens a good chunk of the time), there is an awfully good chance that there is some short order cooking going on around here.

We do have a few meals that J... hardly ever gets to eat, because they are the standard "Daddy's out of town" meals that both easy to prepare, and are appealing to all the kids.  Tacos, pizza, brinner and spaghetti with meatballs all fall into this camp.

However, especially in the summer, when we've been outside playing all afternoon, or at the pool or some other place, and we don't have any plans to meet our friends at the Mexican joint down the street, dinner without Daddy starts to look a little more like some poor excuse for a diner. Only with a lot more whining and not even any sub-par tips to tuck in an apron pocket.

Last night, for example, I had two pots on the stove, one with water to boil shell pasta, and the other to simmer a couple of hot dogs.  N. and L. had pasta with jarred spaghetti sauce, and O. had his new normal, which is a Skyline Chili knock off hot dog with cheese.

Which left one person in the house to feed.  I wish I could just get by with eating a few bites of whatever's left on my kids' plate.  Or a bowl of cereal at the kitchen sink.  But if and when I skip a meal, soon all the other food in the house will start to look good.  Like, even a half a box of Triscuits shoved in the back of the snack cabinet.  Or five packs of the animal fruit snacks no one else will eat.

So, I cook something for myself.  Actually, cooking for myself is one of my favorite things to do.  I have never really liked cold sandwiches, and I can't convince myself (or my stomach) that a salad is a meal, even at lunch.  I often heat up and combine leftovers at lunchtime.

But nights when I'm the only adult around, dinner is often a big pan of whatever vegetable no one else in the house will eat.  Roasted Brussels Sprouts.  Carmelized carrots.  And the summer staple:  Sauteed corn and green beans.  Add some balsamic vinegar to any of the above, and we are in business.

And then I just throw containers of whatever fruit is in the fridge on the table and hope someone reaches in there a couple of times.  The dragon fruit on the paper plate was one the kids thought looked cool in the store and begged me to buy, even though we've been down that road before, and of course no one wanted to eat that gelatinous scary stuff once it was cut open.  In the trash at the end of dinner.  Oh well.  There's another one of those suggested techniques to try to curb the picky eating: "let them make their own food choices" we can cross off the list..

And here's what they really ate for dinner.  The rest of the pan of chocolate chip bars I made to take on a trip with us, and forgot to bring, which I just found in the freezer and defrosted today.

So yes, on nights when our whole family is home, we eat dinner as a family, and we try to all eat the same thing.  Or at least we all have the same thing on our plate.  What that usually means is that 2 out of 3 children are suddenly no longer in need of calories as soon as they sit down at the table. Then they eat the five bites I mandate, and then wait until the last dish is put in the dishwasher to alert us that really, a granola bar or cheese and crackers must be in their belly immediately.

It's a battle I hope we are winning by increments, but allow myself a little grace on the days we throw up the white flag of surrender to crappy eating once again.  At least I get to eat what I want those days, too.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Happy 7, N.!

Happy Birthday, N.  You told me today that you don't really want to be seven because it means you won't be a little girl anymore.  My heart agrees, but the rest of me loves the wonderful light your growing up self brings to our lives.  As always, you are sweet, kind, funny and brave.  You care about and gently care for everything, large and small.  Adorable animals, both real and big eyed plush make you swoon and squeal.  You love flank steak, crafting, LaLa Loopsies and Junie B.  Watch far too much Jessie and Full House.  Gymnast, dancer, strong swimmer and fast runner, you are still unafraid to do it all Thank you for inspiring me to be fearless in fashion and style.  It is pure pleasure and privilege to be your mom.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Happy 9, O.!

Happy Birthday to my biggest guy.  Had to go to school on his birthday, but we did okay celebrating over the weekend with family and friends. 
 O. is:
brave, smart, curious and funny.
Reserved and probably thinks too much (like his mom and dad), he's the best of buddies to those he likes best.  
Inventor of creative adventures and games with his brother and sister.  
Kind to his cousins.  
Big fan of Pokemon and Minecraft.  
Is acing third grade in every possible way.  
He is proud to be the one that made me a mom.  
Enjoys Tae Kwon Do, basketball, cheese quesadillas, boneless wings, and driving me to drink.  
Asks the best questions.  
Really glad, as always, that I get to be his mom.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

O., N., and mostly L. speak

L., donning a rack that is supposed to hold puzzles on his head:

"I am wearing mine space helmet.  I am rocket man.  Achully, I don't need mine helmet.  I am riding mine motorcycle."

Me, to L.:  "You're a pretty good kid."
L.:  "Yep.  I sure am.  Tanks.  For sayin' dat."

L., in response to nearly anything remotely good that happens:  "Oh yeah.  Dat's what I'm talking bout."

Or:  "That's dunna be awesome!"

L., in agreement with most things.  "Yep. Yep, I sure did."

Looking around the basement or family room, usually before heading to a nap.  "I need sumting.  For to play with."

Panicked, missing a treasured item (usually in a restaurant booth or grocery cart):  "I got-for mine truck in dere!!"

N., playing outside with the neighborhood boys who are largely ignoring her.  "I said first one to the driveway is the loser.  Loser.  Loser.  Loser.  Winner!!  (pats self on the back)  Way to go, me."

Me to O., dejected because it's only little kids at the museum on his day off of school.  "It's tough to be big sometimes, isn't it?"
O.: "Yeah, I can't just hang out on that car all day.  I'd rather be home."
Me:  "Doing what?"
O.:  "Studying.  Math."
Me:  "Really??"
O. :  "No.  Just kidding."  (runs off to play vet.)

O:  "Do you think there are more road signs, or mailboxes in the world?"

L., looking out his window before nap:  "Hey!  There is a squirrel in our yard!  And in our driveway!  Maybe it is looking for acorns.  Or poop."

L., every afternoon when we put N. on the bus to go to kindergarten:  "It's just you and me, Mom.  And Hazel."

L.'s favorite knock knock joke.  (Still)
Knock knock
Who's there?
Banana who?
In water.

L., backseat commentary on the drive to some errand:  "Why is that mixer truck on da road?  Supposed to be on dirt.  Wish I could be a mixer truck driver.  Or a backhoe.  Wish my backhoe could turn into a jetski.  Or a boat.  Or a ship.  Maybe.  You thought it was a digger man.  But it was a sailor man."

L., imagining any number of strange sights or scenarios. (a bear on our street, a fire man stuck in a tree, something wearing an odd hat, whatever.  "Would that be silly?"

L., wielding a pretend sword or stick or bungee cord with hooks:  "I am bad knight!  They have swords!  And hit people!"

L., every single day:  "I yuv you Mom.  You're best mom in da world."

Friday, September 20, 2013

Happy Birthday, L.!

Happy 3rd Birthday to my 3rd baby.  Liam is:
sweet, polite, persistent, shy and funny.
Loves helicopters, motorcycles and puzzles.
Fan of Batman and Mickey Mouse.
Has 1000 funny faces.  
Still takes a nap with his penguin and doggie blanket.
Would rather be carried than walk. 
Exists largely on cheese, yogurt and sugar.
Told me yesterday I was the best mom in the whole world.
Eyes and eyelashes to win wars. 
Gets away with nearly everything
Is, as he would say, "one of my favewites."

Monday, September 16, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Summer

School has been back in session for over three weeks now, but the weather finally started to feel like summer just when it began.  It's only now we're getting ready to change our long summer days of adventures over to cool weekends of making messes in the basement while we watch Browns games and eat chicken wings.

I think it's worth noting now what a great summer it was before we move on to the new adventures a year with two school age kids and one I'm not quite ready to give up to a school routine will bring.

This summer, we were on the go even more than usual it seems.  We didn't take as many road trips, but we found ways to squeeze the fun out of every day we were home.

This was the summer I made a conscious effort not to over-schedule us with camps and week-long commitments, but still felt like we were always trying to find a a crack in our days to meet up with all the friends we wanted to see and the family with whom we wanted to spend time.

This was the summer all the kids had fun hanging out on the top bunk at the cottage, and two of them even slept up there, rather than piling on top of me on the lower bunk.  At least not all of the time.

It was a time of painting rocks, catching crayfish and tadpoles and minnows and frogs and looking for dead things in the woods.

We had a beach vacation with the extended family, with historic lighthouse and snake sightings along the way to a new beach house further south along the island of the Outer Banks.

We celebrated July Fourth in our matching cousin shirts again of course.
We tried to get decent pictures of all three kids and our whole family, and only sometimes succeeded.

This was the summer we toured the zoo with our friends and our cousins like the experts on the zoo's terrain and wildlife we are.
We shifted from the family that can only hang in Snoopy Land with one kid in the stroller riding nothing once a summer, to the family that has three kids with three different colored wristbands and season passes to Kings Island.  One adult with a kid riding the Beast and the Vortex, the other trying to make the one who has to wait to ride Surf Dog happy riding the swings.  We spent a lot of time soaking wet fully clothed because the Log Flume is one of the few rides we can all do together.
We talked J. into using some of his extra vacation days on a week in the midst of the summer and actually stayed home for once.  Our staycation ended up being more pricey than a trip, probably, but allowed us to really enjoy our city, and sleep in our own beds.  We really do love Cincinnati.

O. continued to work on his Tae Kwon Do skills, attended Reptile Roundup nature camp, and perfected his flip off the diving board.  He became fondly attached to Animal Planet, watching marathons of "My Cat From Hell" and "Call of the Wildman" and "Gator Boys."  He was into hatching new breeds of dragon on the iPad via Dragon City, and hadn't quite learned about Minecraft.  Yet.

It was a summer of constructing ever more elaborate hideouts in our front woods, with buckets and pulleys and swings and chairs and nerf guns hula hoops and every other toy they could drag out of bins in our garage and then pile up in the middle of the garage floor when they were done.  There were obstacle courses and lemonade stands and races on scooters down the driveway.  There was often more than one child that did not belong to me in my yard, or one of my own missing into someone else's yard. It was the summer I sat mostly on the edge of the lawn in a chair, and sometimes didn't even come out of the house at all to supervise for stretches of time.  It was the summer there was a big difference between my 'big kids' and my baby, and one of the first times he looked like this when he couldn't go in the woods with his brother and sister:
L. got himself potty trained, swam all over the pool in his puddle jumper (but wouldn't get his head wet on purpose), and learned to shoot water guns like a champ.  His favorite pasttimes in the driveway were filling watering cans and playing with pla-doh.  He watched Fireman Sam, Jake and the Never Land Pirates, Dora and Diego, and lots and lots of Mickey Mouse.  He continues to be a pro with the iPad.
Sweet N. wore those dangly earrings and my sunglasses every chance she got. She played with makeup and nail polish, but also with dolls and stuffed animals.  She dyed her hair with chalks that she got as a prize for undergoing allergy blood work.  We found out she's not outgrowing any of her nut allergies, and in fact is even more dangerously allergic to some than we thought.  She didn't go to camp this summer because she did not feel safe enough to do so.  I grieve her future opportunities a little each day, but know that if there's anyone that can cause change due to sheer infectious love and joy, it's this girl.  She got a little moodier, a little more headstrong, a little more of her own person, and while I'm not enjoying this glimpse of her pre-teen self, I admire her spirit and know it will serve her well.  She watched hours and hours of Jessie and Good Luck Charlie, discovered the Full House gang, and has most of the song lyrics to Teen Beach Movie memorized.
These two are friends, enjoy playing babies and animal doctor together, and I could watch them ride this ride all summer.
I saw more of O.'s smile this summer, and it made my heart sing.
We welcomed our new pet, Spike into our house exactly one year after we adopted our sweet Hazel.  I'm not convinced we will love the bearded dragon quite as well as we do our dog, but time will tell.  He is pretty darn cool.

In the space of a month, N. went from a kid who was terrified of riding her bike even with training wheels to a hot rod who rides far ahead of me on two wheels only when we go for walks.
This was the summer we switched from apple juice in sippy cups lined up on the counter every morning to downing orange juice by the gallon.  We shifted from almost all baths to nearly all showers.

We gave up playing with a lot of toys, though we're not quite ready for them to leave the house.  We gave up diapers during the day, the double stroller, and booster seats at restaurants.

We wore jeans in the evening and looked for ways to entertain ourselves in the rain.  We ate lots and lots of meals at restaurants because we were too lazy to cook even the gorgeous produce from our CSA.

There was fighting over who would sit in which seat in the car, whether the windows should be up or down, and what movie should play in the DVD player in the van.  Until most of the DVD's got scratched or coated with gum, and we just watched Alvin and the Chipmunks every day for a month.

It was a summer I reminded myself often that the days are long but the years are short, and for once actually found myself finding solace in the thought.

I miss summer already, but am ready for what's next.  How about you?  What treasures did summer bring your way?