Baby Step 4: Adventure, Experimentation, and Gratitude

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it: “I want to eat healthier, but my kids (partner, whomever) won’t eat that food.”  Everyone who said it was 100% certain that this was true.  The only thing I am 100% certain about as regards feeding others healthy food is that if you don’t have it/make it/serve it, they certainly won’t eat it.

Changing our own eating habits is hard; convincing others that this is a group project can be daunting at best, but the difficulty of the task doesn’t mean the effort is not worth it.  Big Sis and I have both enlisted our families (immediate and in some cases extended) in our pantry transformations and we have some ideas that just might help you do the same.  The truth is that, as with any meal, eating real food is easier and more enjoyable when you do it with the people that you love.

So here we approach the core of Baby Step 4: just as eating healthier foods requires you to be more conscious of what you’re eating and how you’re making it, so too will rallying the troops involve an evolution in consciousness about food.  You must be the leader in the movement to develop an attitude of adventure, experimentation and gratitude surrounding food and mealtimes in your home.

Our suggestions fall into three basic categories:

  1. The Use and Acceptance of Baby Steps as Progress
  2. Attitudinal Adjustments
  3. Education

Baby Steps

I can’t speak for everybody, but when I embark on a new venture that I’m enthusiastic about, I want to share it.  I want to share it with everybody and I (unreasonably) want everyone to be as excited as I am…  It’s sweet, isn’t it?  The cold water of reality is a bit uncomfortable.  Just because I’m enthused doesn’t mean they will be.  My loved ones’ priorities might be entirely different than mine and the mental steps I’ve taken to prepare myself for this wonderful new transformation have not been their mental steps as well.  If we can agree that baby steps are an effective tool for making changes in our eating habits, we must remember that those we wish to encourage (and feed) deserve the same gracious and gentle introduction to foods with which they are unfamiliar and that they may not be initially inspired by.  Does this mean don’t try? No, no it doesn’t.  It may mean don’t try ALL the time.  It may mean be ready to see consumption without complaint (but no real enjoyment) as progress over grousing.  It may mean lovingly saying that you understand when deep inside you’d like to remove all the plates from the table and tell everybody to….  okay, that’s just me now and again – I know, it’s not pretty.

1. Establish baby steps with your family by: designating one meal per week to be healthier food night/ or healthier entree or side dish night if you need a gentler step.

Attitudinal Adjustments

Family mealtime means different things to different people and for many folks it is comfort.  When we are trying new foods, it’s not always so very comfortable.  So rather than highlighting the comfort of familiar foods, we must highlight the adventure of trying new things.  This can be particularly challenging with little people.  I get it, really I do.  But again, if we give up all we can be sure of is that they will NEVER try the new food.  If we persist and attempt to make it fun, who knows what will happen?

This is what we remind my sweeties of.  If you don’t TRY it, you’ll never know.  We then remind them of the foods they’ve tried and discovered how delicious they are.  If we’re trying a dish that highlights flavors from another culture, we talk about that place and the role that this food plays there.  We take an adventure.  When they are adventurous with their food, we lavish them with praise.  Big Sis had a great idea that I think we will implement – the adventurous eater medallion.  We may also try adventurous eating hats. Occasionally, in desperation, we appeal to their sibling rivalry and have a race to try the new food.  I can’t say the last method encourages delightful table manners, but it does seem to work.

Feeding this little mug is not always easy.

In addition the the positive role that adventurousness and competition can play, there is no way to overstate the importance of gratitude at the table.  Mr. Little Sis has instituted a fabulous family tradition at the beginning of our meals.  As head chef, I occasionally become discouraged by the cajoling that feeding twin 5 year olds can require.  When we sit down to eat, Mr. Little Sis immediately says, “Thank You Mommy, for making such a wonderful meal for us.”  The twins usually follow on quickly, even if they are mid-complaint or moving stuff around to see what’s under there icky-face-making.

The most interesting thing about it is that once they’ve said thank you, they rarely return to the complaints, at least not with volume and vigor, which helps keep the mood at the table a little lighter, and prevents them from discouraging one another from trying new foods. Highlighting the importance of gratitude in a positive way, “We are so fortunate to have this healthy and nourishing food, and to be able to enjoy it together,” over the “There are starving kids all over the world who would be happy to eat that ____,” rightly changes the focus at the table from whether or not the meal meets every individual’s expectations to mealtime as a time to come together and recharge.

2. Establish adventurousness and gratitude by asking for it and acknowledging it.  Reward adventurousness and model gratitude.

Education

Different strategies work for different people.  Some like the games (my daughter) and some need the rationale.  I am still making this meal even though you’ve expressed it’s not your favorite because it has ingredients in it that do _____ inside your body.  Anything that helps that boy’s allergies will go in the mouth.  Guaranteed.  It is difficult NOT to take advantage of that knowledge.  We’ve also talked a great deal about why I pack their lunches and why I don’t include many of the things their friends eat regularly.  I marvel at the lack of pushback on this.  They occasionally express their severe deprivation (along with a host of injustices that I have perpetrated), but they also, I’ve found, are able to make choices that they would not if we didn’t share so much food information.

I’ve discovered that when they are offered a treat at a party, they limit themselves, without my saying anything.  They tell me when they’ve had a surprise goody at school or with friends so that I can make adjustments to what I give them for the rest of the day.  They GET IT.  When they’re older and they ask about McDonald’s (or whatever) rather than toeing the line on that front as they do now, perhaps we’ll sit down and watch SuperSize Me together.  My husband and I watched several food documentaries before we embarked on the last round of dietary changes, discussed the information we found, researched the questions that remained.  Just as I need information to make a big change, so too do the loved ones in my life.

3. Educate your loved ones by telling them why you are doing what you are doing.

So your Baby Step?  What should you do?  You should consider your surroundings and try (gently and patiently) to get’em on board.  Your life will be easier; your food will be healthier; and your table will be a place of adventure, experimentation, and gratitude while you tackle another pantry swap, or try a new recipe.  Baby Steps for you, Baby Steps for them.  It worked for all of us once, right?

Sneaky Pete Strikes Again

So we’re in it.  High summer with all of its promise and all of its chores.  The bugs are completely out of control (imagine I used to think that grasshoppers were interesting; now I simply loathe them), and the powdery mildew is rampant.  Maintaining the garden is a delicate balance.  It would be easy to spend all day out there and have a neat garden with fewer pests and probably greater productivity.  Well, I shouldn’t say it would be EASY because there is simply not time for me to be that kind of gardener, and my garden elves have an attention span of approximately 35 minutes for garden related chores.  I can sometimes distract them for a while longer, but the fact is that distracting them from their boredom so that I can work is often as time consuming as simply changing course and doing something fun with them, like melting crayons between sheets of wax paper.  Let’s face it, melting crayons is WAY more fun than stalking grasshoppers.  And so, I get what I get from the garden.  It is productive enough and (knocking on wood) it looks like I may get tomatoes this year, provided the squirrels let me keep them….

The gardening tricks don’t end at growth however, we must find ways to eat the lovely produce that we get from the garden.  For me, this often means eating while I pick, but the kids are not always so easily enticed.  And there are few of our glorious garden vegetables that have made it onto the “I will never, not ever eat a ______” list.  Zucchini has taken up permanent residence on this list, despite my fabulous grated zucchini.  This being high zucchini time for many gardeners in the U.S., there are many fabulous recipes that highlight this wonderful veg – accenting its natural deliciousness, mixing it with its natural flavor friends – tomatoes, eggplant, onions, garlic…. a quick Google search on the proud green squash  and you will be overwhelmed with options. But  I had a different goal: getting the zucchini in the little people without them knowing.  Yes, I wanted to sneak in a zucchini.  I am a fan of sneaking in for two reasons: 1) it allows me to get more veggies into my kids without the occasional drama that the “eat your vegetables” command can produce and 2) it provides me with the opportunity to inform them that they’ve eaten something on the black list of produce and didn’t realize they were eating it, and that they in fact enjoyed a much maligned veggie. HA!  The simple joys of parenting.

And so… I messed with the queen mother of my daughter’s favorite dishes: Cheesy Noodles.  I humbly bring you:

Zucheezy Noodles with Crunchy Bits

  • 1 lb noodles (I used whole wheat)
  • 1 zucchini
  • 1/2c water
  • 2 c soft cheese (I used this awesomeness)
  • milk to blend (I used unsweetened almond)
  • 2 T nutritional yeast (opt.)
  • 1 t salt
  • 1/2 t garlic powder
  • 1 1/2  c unsweetened flake cereal/crackers/bread crumbs (opt)
  • 1/2 c wheat germ (opt)
  • 1t kelp flakes (opt)

Preheat oven to 375.  Lightly grease a casserole dish.  For this little experiment, my kids chose gobettie (corkscrews) for this recipe (a little pretend democracy never hurts when trying a new recipe on them), but any thick noodle would work.  Cook noodles according to package directions or your own tried and true.  While waiting for water to boil/noodles to cook, assemble your sauce.  Peel zucchini and put  in powerful blender (in whatever size your blender is going to need) and add enough water to create a slurry.  Blend until the zucchini is unrecognizable.  Add chunks of the soft cheese, adding milk to create motion in the blender and a very thick, but still pourable sauce consistency.  Add nutritional yeast if you like it, and salt if you’re not trying to avoid it.  Add the garlic powder because it makes everything more awesome.  Adjust spice and consistency to your tastes.  When noodles are done, drain them.  Pour half into greased dish.  Add half of your cheese sauce.  Pour the rest of the noodles in and cover with the remaining sauce.  Do not scrape out the blender – you will use the cheese on the sides for the topping.

The Topping: Meausre the cereal and wheat germ into a bowl.  Use a spoon to mash the cereal up a bit for easier eating.  Add the scrapings from your sauce to give a little fat and damp to the crumb topping so it doesn’t burn and actually gets a little crunch going.  Add to top of casserole.  Bake in oven with rack in middle or just below (burned crumb topping is a buzzkill) for about a half an hour, or until it’s hot enough for you, or until the children come completely unglued.  For me, these three seemed to coincide last night, a miracle of good time or simple coincidence.

We served ours with peas (peas are always served with cheesy noodles here) and fresh carrots.  Little buggers had no idea they were also eating zucchini until I revealed that at lunch today.  They were unphased; I’ve no idea if that means they’ll be open to zucchini, but I’m pretty sure I’ll keep it a secret again next time and slip that bugger in there.  The dish was delish and if my zucchini plant produces the way it looks like it might, I’ll be sneaking those things in many suppers to come.

Sneaking in the Greens

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Most people don’t consider me very sneaky, but when it comes to getting vegetables into my kid… I’ll do just about anything.  I have found that the good ol’ American grilled cheese sandwich is rife with opportunity for treachery (mwoo hoo hahaha)!  Read on, if you dare….

One can spread a layer of a number of both pureed or simply sauteed vegetables into a grilled cheese sandwich.  My first foray into the covert vegetable operation was to spread a layer of pureed broccoli on the bread before placing the layer of cheese.  I began pureeing broccoli (along with lots of other things) to make baby food.
1) Puree in the blender or VitaMix with enough water to let the blades turn
2) Scoop out and place in ice cube trays
3) Cover trays with wax paper to aid stacking and avoid frost
4) Pop out and store in container in freezer when solid
Then you can defrost as much as you need per the size of your bread and the breadth of your child’s tolerance or gullibility.  So broccoli, cauliflower or spinach seemed to work best in our house for the kids.  As my now 11 year old aged and realized that it was indeed possible to have a grilled cheese sandwich WITHOUT anything green in it, we had to negotiate a bit…. “Do you want your broccoli in the sandwich or on the side?” worked very well for a while.  And of course my husband and I ate and enjoyed the broccoli/cheese sandwiches as well.

However, there is something better than broccoli for the grown-ups and thus the lovely picture above… mustard greens sauteed in a little oil and garlic make a stupendous extra layer in a grilled cheese sandwich.  Stir some up for dinner and make a little extra.  Doesn’t take long – just a clove of garlic and a little olive oil in a pan, tear the leaves smaller and cook until they are quite wilted.  Stick the leftovers in the frig.  You don’t have to heat the greens up – they’ll heat as the cheese melts around and into the nooks and crannies.  Delicious!  You can also use swiss chard or collards or kale.  And of course, for the grown-ups you can vary the cheese as well.

You do get some funny looks when your child asks their friend who is staying for lunch, “Do you want your grilled cheese with or without broccoli?” but no funny look equals the pleasure of sneaking vegetables onto the plate and into the mouth!
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In this case the words are ‘sandwiched’ between the greens.  Yuk yuk yuk…. just what a lot of kids say when it comes to vegetables.

Small Victories

It was NOT our best day.  Several home repair dilemmas have emerged simultaneously leaving us with limited and inconvenient bathing options.  Sunrise is creeping forward and my darling daughter believes in making the most of daylight.  Mommy and Daddy are not so quick to adjust their schedules and are both engrossed in good bedtime books, so we began our day of interrupted repairs with inadequate sleep.  My little sweetie also decided that today was one of THOSE days.  One of those days where she really is not interested in eating, or at least where she really is not interested in eating anything I provide.  I try not to get sucked into drama about it, but she’s not very pleasant to be around when she doesn’t eat… so you see the problem.  And a sleepy Mommy is probably not as clever in thinking of ways to deal with the situation.  So we finally arrived at dinner and quite honestly I was completely beat.  Done.  Finito.  Needless to say my extensive and totally awesome homemade dinner (homemade whole wheat tortillas and veggie chili) was not her favorite.  We struggled through without much drama, mostly because I was too tired to engage.  But wait, there is a good part to the story.  As we neared the end of dinner, I remembered that I bought some beautiful strawberries yesterday.  I also remembered that our fridge LOVES to freeze strawberries, so they shouldn’t wait.  I rinsed and destemmed them, brought a simple bowlful to the table.    I put them down and my wonderful daughter said, “Oh Mommy!  Is that dessert?”  And she meant it.  She was happy because we had a big luscious bowl of fresh strawberries with no cool whip, sprinkles, fruity goo, or high fructose corn syrup slop anywhere in sight.  She and her brother dug in and made great glorious real food-loving sounds.  Small victories in a bowl of strawberries.