Monday, May 07, 2007

BOOKS: Whining and Dining

Is it sad that my favourite cookbook these days is one designed for kids, specifically for picky eaters?

Reading this post over at Finslippy reminded me (yet again) of how lucky we are (so far) that Sam is a fairly enthusiastic and adventurous eater. Sure, he has his preferences (i.e. he would happily eat cupcakes at every meal forever and ever; fortunately, he believes muffins are cupcakes), and some days he likes some things and then snubs them the next day, but whatever. I can roll with that. He regularly enjoys such grown-up fare as catfish and roasted broccoli and butter chicken and pesto and goat cheese ravioli, and trust me, I know exactly how lucky this makes me. When I think about what a monstrously picky kid I was, I know that I'm in some kind of karmic debt here. (Oh, wait a second... it took Sam almost two years until he started consistently sleeping through the night. Ka-ching! Debt repaid!)

I was F-I-N-I-C-K-Y. (That spells "pain in the ass," by the way.) You tell me how picky you were as a kid, and I will top your story. I hated eggs, dairy, and pretty much every form of protein. I hated every single vegetable known to man, with the exception of canned peas. I even hated widely reknowned kid staples, such as Campbell's soup and Kraft Dinner (or as you Yankees call it, er... what do you call it?) and pre-sweetened breakfast cereal and pizza and cheese and cold cuts and ketchup. I felt a powerful kinship with Mikey from that Life commercial, except I couldn't understand how a cereal that tastes like cardboard could bend his supposedly iron will.

I have no idea why I was so picky. I think part of it was that I just didn't feel hungry most of the time. I was on the runty side, so two tablespoons of anything was the equivalent of a nine-course Christmas dinner. And part of it was that most things just didn't taste good. (Except for dessert. Sweet, life-giving dessert.) But, lucky for me, I was never pressured to eat, and food was never made into a big issue, so I got over my aversions on my own and now I love all kinds of food.

But recapping my troubled culinary past perhaps explains the time when Sam was around six months old and I almost started crying during a sudden panic attack when I realized that I was soon going to have to face the fact that Sam couldn't live exclusively on breast milk until he left for university, and that I was going to have to find other food for him to eat. And someday I was going to have to pack him little lunches to take to school and whatnot and OH MY GOD WHAT DO SIX-YEAR-OLDS LIKE TO EAT? Because in my experience, six-year-olds like to eat air. And the odd canned pea.

So, fast-forward to the present, and every mealtime (almost) I'm so relieved and grateful that Sam will usually eat at least one or two items on the menu. But there's part of me thinking, It seems wrong to keep feeding him the same dozen things over and over again and not make the most of the fact that he's such a good eater. OH MY GOD WHAT DO YOU FEED AN EPICUREAN TODDLER?

Parenting = A neverending series of no-win scenarios

So I came across this book, Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters and the Families Who Love Them. It's the first cookbook for toddlers I've ever consulted, and I thought that the fact that it's geared toward finicky eaters would mean that the recipes would be extra delicious. I was right.

I love this cookbook. I want it to be my boyfriend, and someday we're going to get married and have two babies, a boy and a girl, but in the meantime I'm going to write our names together on my Trapper-Keeper for all the world to see because our love is real and true and I don't care who knows it. That's how much I love this cookbook. I LOVE IT.

The authors, Emma Waverman and Eshun Mott, claim that their book, which contains more than a hundred recipes, will provide help and inspiration for parents of picky eaters. Now, in the couple of weeks since this book entered my house, I've come to love it deeply, as I believe I may already have alluded to, but as I've become intimate with the recipes therein, I must confess to being a little skeptical about their ability to win over truly, insanely picky eaters such as the Child Doppelganger. As delicious as I now find the dishes I've prepared from Waverman and Mott's instructions, I can tell you with some degree of certainty that I would never have allowed their pad thai ("too ketchup-y") past my lips. Ditto their fajitas ("too many different things all together"), their turkey and bean chili ("too lumpy"), their quick chicken curry ("too smelly"), their carrot bran muffins ("carrots in MUFFINS? Ew!"), and their mushroom and spinach frittata ("excuse me, this is a joke, right?").

But having said all that, there are a few items I probably would have deigned to chew and swallow, things like their buttermilk pancakes, home fries, and chicken fingers. In other words, the white, bland foods that notoriously picky eaters are famous for liking. To Waverman and Mott's credit, their versions of these foods are some of the best I've tasted, making this cookbook worthwhile even if these are the only recipes you ever use.

Speaking of which, I don't know how many recipes make a cookbook purchase worthwhile for you, but for me it's three. If I get three recipes that become mainstays in my cooking repertoire, I consider the book worth the investment. So far, with Whining & Dining, I've made ten dishes, and with the exception of the couscous salad (which Rusty and Sam didn't care for, but I loved), they're all keepers. That's pretty incredible, especially when you realize that there are three different people to please here, and we all have strong opinions about what we like.

Of course, I made the picky eater hall-of-fame dishes: the aforementioned buttermilk pancakes, home fries, and chicken fingers with homemade honey-mustard sauce. The pancakes were lovely. (Using buttermilk really makes a difference.) I adapted the recipe for home fries slightly and tossed the potatoes in olive oil and curry powder rather than madras paste (only because we didn't have madras paste in the house), but they turned out perfect just the same. The chicken fingers were AWESOME. I used free-range chicken, because that's the only way we roll around here, and I think that the extra thickness of the free-range breasts is the reason why I had to cook the chicken fingers much longer than the recommended minute-and-a-half on each side. (I'm a bit neurotic about undercooked chicken, so it's a good thing we all like our food a little crispy.)

I got a bit more adventurous with pasta e fagioli, a recipe which may not have been exactly true to Rusty's Italian roots, but was pretty tasty anyway. On the international tip, I also tried my hand at chicken satay with peanut sauce, and seriously, it was the best chicken satay I've ever had. (Note: I give the recipe, not myself, all the credit.) I also learned how ridiculously easy it is to make your own refried beans, which is good because Sam loves them and I only recently learned that most canned brands are apparently chock full of trans fats.

Since I love baking, the baked goods chapter of this book is probably my favourite part. So far, I've made the banana chocolate oatmeal bread and the blueberry cornmeal muffins, which even Rusty likes, despite his lifelong aversion to cornbread ("too grainy"). What I appreciate about this section of this book is the similarity between my baking philosophy and that of the authors: basically, we agree that we'd like to cut down on unnecessary sugar, but not to the detriment of flavour. We also agree that a little bit of chocolate is A-OK. To that end, they provide chocolate-free alternatives, and their recipes for cakes and muffins contain much less sugar than you'd expect without sacrificing taste.

What really makes me happy about this book is that it's inspired me to branch out and try new recipes from my other cookbooks, too, and I think all of us -- and especially Sam -- are enjoying the new diversity in our diets. I hadn't realized we were in a bit of an eating rut (which is pretty common during a "shoulder season" like spring, when good, fresh produce is thin on the ground and grocery stores can be less than inspiring). I feel like we're out of the rut now and well on our way toward summer, a season that always makes me excited about food.

And now I'm hungry.


Unknown said...

Okay, the part about believing muffins are cupcakes had me laughing far more than it should have. (It is also 3:30 and I am taking a break from a term paper. Take from that what you will.)

Generally we call the Kraft box "macaroni and cheese," or "mac and cheese." Hurray cross-cultural enlightenment!

Amy Palko said...

It sounds like my kids are a bit like yours, in that they eat mostly everything. My middle son, however, doesn't just eat whatever I give him; he wants to try the wackiest things on the menu! So, it's sometimes a trial to make meals that are diverse and exciting, when, after a busy day, all I want to make is something tried and true. His favourite food at the moment is sushi, so one of my friends has been showing me how to make it, and we've been making trips to Japanese restaurants. I think, however, that we may be paying a visit to a restaurant in Edinburgh called the Stockbridge Restaurant, as it has just started a Tots Taster Menu which has 6 courses *Frothy espresso of sweetcorn soup with popcorn croutons *Squashy risotto with butternut crisps *Organic Shetland salmon fish cakes on a bed of vegetable tagliatelle or venison casserole *Paint pot sorbets *Babylicious choc pots with fresh fruit fingers *Choccycinos with baby mallows. Impressive!

A writing mom said...

OK, hadn't planned on buying this book, since neither of my boys are (particularly?!) finicky eaters... but I have to say, it sounds de-lic-ious! And the whole thought of homemade chicken fingers with sauce has this pregnant woman starving at 10 in the morning!

Anonymous said...

Wow. How different could we possibly be? I think I was fourteen before I found a food I wouldn't eat; that must have had something to do with my mother's accomodating way of saying, "Okay, but you're not getting anything else instead." That is a method I copied through my years as a nanny and boy, after the initial acclimation period, it saves you loads of time!

"No, you don't have to eat your burrito bean bake fiesta surprise. But you're not getting anything else instead."

Karen said...

Picky? I'll give you picky. As a child, I too ate the canned peas, but only the Green Giant Baby Lesueur peas in the silver can, and I picked through all of them, removing any that had DENTS.

And now my mother laughs, because I have the three pickiest children on the face of the earth. Pete, for instance, is on what his pediatrician calls the Great Beige Diet: pancakes, bananas, vanilla yogurt, American cheese, plain pasta, etc. And, for instance, he will eat two pieces of American cheese and two pieces of wheat bread, but put 'em together and make a cheese sandwich? No way.


Anonymous said...

You might also like "One Bite Won't Kill You" by Ann Hodgman, and illustrated by the wonderful Roz Chast -- it's also a cookbook for cooking for picky children. Heavy on the chicken recipes, though.

Steph said...

Oh, I am very excited about this! I am a devoted buyer of cookbooks and I never ever make anything from them. I just like looking at the happy photos and imagining us as a family that is able to all sit down together and eat the same meal.

Glad to know my picky little girl who appears to suvive on nothing but air and the occasional bland cracker is not ruining her chances of growing up to be a well read and witty woman.

And finally - you referenced the Trapper Keeper! That pretty much made my night.

Anonymous said...

So, if I'm just a picky eater in my twenties with no kids, would I like this cookbook to cook stuff for myself?

Bybee said...

I'm not in the least bit picky (although my son was) but I'd like to have this cookbook for myself.

feather said...

I was such a picky eater when I was a child; I didn't even like DESSERT. I shunned chocolate and meat and vegetables equally and accepted only toast and the odd potato.

I won't say how long this lasted. I don't want to throw any parents into despair.

I felt like I had my karmic comeuppance this last summer, though, when I was nannying for a kid whose pickiness equaled my own.

kdmacken said...

OK, you make me want it and I am childless and I HATE cooking. Not the hugest fan of eating either. But are the recipes all easy and fast? (NB: I consider Hamburger Helper an involved process.)

BabelBabe said...

I once got a recipe for some yummy-looking chicken-broccoli-cheese conglomeration from a newspaper article about a cookbook for picky kids - I made it and my husband and two children HATED it, but I? Ate the entire pot. Sigh. I think i am afraid to buy this...