Monday, March 24th, 2014

Soapbox: The Plight of the Picky Eater

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So this is a little soap-box piece I’ve been meaning to share for awhile. It was partially inspired by the fact that the #1 question I’ve received at demos and book signings while promoting KEEPERS has easily been “how do you feed a picky eater?” or some iteration of that question. I know this topic has been addressed ad nauseum by many food writers before me, but after lots of thought on the subject—based not only on experiences with my own picky-eater, but the fact that I was actually the pickiest eater ever as a child— I thought there were still some things left unsaid. So here we go…

Chances are that you, or someone you know, is related to a picky eater. If this picky eater resides in your house, and you’re in charge of feeding him or her something other than cheese slices and Puffins, then I’m betting you’ve waged a fair amount of battles at the kitchen table. It’s exhausting, believe me I know, but maybe it doesn’t have to be, because perhaps the problem is not the picky eater, the problem is us.

First we have to ask ourselves why are we—and by “we” I mean the collective parenting culture that exists right now—so obsessed with the plight and reformation of the picky eater? Were we always? As a former picky-eater myself (I survived primarily on Ovaltine and bologna throughout most of my childhood), I would argue that we weren’t. Rather our outsized concern seems to be a newer-fixation, possibly a result of the “foodie” movement that also has us pickling, fermenting, and using words like foodie. On the positive-side of this movement, many of us are now more aware of where our food comes from, and hence are eating better—less processed foods, more grains, good fats, and leafy green vegetables, shopping for locally-grown produce and hormone-free meat, etc. If you have a family, then this newfound awareness extends to them as well, the desire for our children to eat good stuff is arguably even stronger than our own desire to follow a healthful diet. But there can be a dark side to all of this gung-ho foodieness, because what happens when you have a kid who doesn’t care to eat rainbow chard from the CSA or wild-caught salmon or a grass-fed beef burger? What then? Do you become a short-order cook and make the picky-child a customized meal every night, most likely a variation of pasta with butter? Or do you stick to your meal plan but resort to haggling, using dessert as the ultimate bargaining tool? Or perhaps you’ve long ago given in, and instead of making what you’d like to eat, design the menu around the picky-eater, arguing that you can eat salmon again when he goes to college?

I know these picky-eater scenarios well, not only because, as I mentioned, I was a picky eater myself; but because I’m also the parent of a picky-eater: Conor, a 6 year old boy who would happily subsist on jam if we let him. I’ve done all of the things I’ve mentioned above. None of them worked. So now? I’m following the same tactics of my forefathers: I do nothing. And you know what? It worked on me. As an adult I eat everything. Food is not only my passion, it’s my vocation.

As I mentioned before, easily the most frequent question my co-author and I have been asked—from Austin to Minneapolis, Brentwood to Brooklyn— is: “My son/daughter is a picky eater, what should I do?”

These moms (and they’re mostly moms doing the asking) go on describe the typical play-by-play that occurs at dinner time, what I call the Eight Stages of Picky-Eater Negotiations: hope, realization, confusion, pleading, bribing, shouting, crying, capitulating.  One mom, who attended a panel discussion I was on about family dinner, basically hit the nail on the head: “When it comes to food, my husband says, ‘There’s so much drama between you and the kid. Dinnertime has become so angsty.”

What all these concerned parents seem to want us to provide is a pearl of wisdom, a sure-thing strategy, a magical recipe that will suddenly turn their food-shunner into a ravenous omnivore. And there is advice a-plenty on the blogoshpere.
But the only advice I can offer, and the only advice that I think is true and right is:

Let them be.

They just want bread and butter? OK. An apple and a piece of cheese? That’s fine. Another peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Sure, if you make it yourself.

Of course, not every parent with a desire to fix the pick-eater will settle for this plan. I was on one panel discussion at a bookstore when a mom-blogger on the same panel volunteered her tips for dealing with a picky eater: She recommended making the child eat 1 tsp of everything on the plate. Her reasoning was that getting a child to try the food, may lead them to realize that they actually like the food. Perhaps this may work for some of the people, some of the time, but is this method (really a mild form of force-feeding, in my opinion) really the best way to teach a child the joy and pleasures of food and eating together as a family? Instead, why not ask why the kid doesn’t want that particular food in the first place? Yes, it may be irrational (the breaded chicken cutlet they happily ate only last week, is now “different” or “browner”, even though you prepared it the exact same way this week; cue the “confusion” stage of the negotiations), but there might also be a legitimate reason. A deep, primal assuredness inside the kid’s physiology that’s saying “Nuh-uh. Not yet.”

After listening to the bit of advice the blogger gave, knowing of course that she meant well, I couldn’t help but ask her:

“Were you a picky eater as a child?”
“No” she said.

I then explained that if my parents had made me eat 1 tsp of everything they served for dinner, not only would I have grown up with a strange loathing for measuring spoons, but I would have clamped my mouth even tighter. It would have made me feel manipulated, controlled, annoyed. I see this with Conor as well, he’s a lot more likely to taste something new if he decides to do so on his own, not as a result of cajoling or begging.

The other bit of advice you hear often is that if you become a better parent, you can miraculously change your child’s palate, as if picky-eaters were made and not born that way. But I can assure you this is not the case. Unlike Conor, Belle, my 10 year old, is an enthusiastic and adventurous eater, who adores shrimp cocktail and stinky cheese and other things that would send her brother running for the hills. Same house. Same mom. Same food.

So how did I go from being a picky-eater to a passionate one? I came to it on my own, when I was ready. One day, while I was in college, I looked at something that I’d previously found repulsive—a bowl of scrambled eggs being eaten by a roommate at a diner—and I thought to myself, “that actually looks good”. I ordered it, devoured it, and haven’t looked back since. It was like someone switched a giant ON/OFF switch in my gullet.

Kudos to my parents, who never pushed or guilted me into eating anything. But what they did do was this (and I’m doing the same with my picky son, especially when the siren-call of pasta with butter calls…):

There was always good food in the house—no fast-food and no processed junk, a bowl of fresh fruit always at hand—we sat down to eat together as a family as much as we could, dinner was simple but homemade.

Without being force-fed, I was still being nourished. And that was enough.

*Special credit up top for this classic cartoon from The New Yorker. I was reminded of it while watching 60 Minutes, which did a terrific profile of cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. You can watch it HERE.

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Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Things I Love: California

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I wanted to share a few food photos from my family’s recent vacation to sunny Southern California. I feel extremely lucky that we were able to escape the east coast’s brutal winter for a few days and run away to the glorious and golden west coast. I went from feeling wan (lack of sunlight), itchy (dry skin situation), and forlorn (the ice pack surrounding my house is never going to melt), to feeling like I could break into a Katy Perry song after my first day of basking in the warm, bright, sea air. For this much-needed transformation, I can thank my in-laws, who have the consideration to snowbird in California every winter so that we can then visit them. Here is their friend and fellow snowbirder from Minnesota, Dan Ivory, greeting me my first night with one of his infamous killer margaritas. Kind of says it all.

photoBesides drinking margaritas all day and hoarding vitamin D, I never fail to eat very well when I’m in California, and this trip took me to both the San Diego area and Los Angeles, so I feasted on everything from mahi mahi fish tacos and animal-style double cheeseburgers at In & Out Burger (see photo up top), to omakase, fresh date shakes, and avocado toast…

P1290702There is always one outlier meal on our California sojourns (a few years ago it was discovering that one of the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten was prepared ironically at the local aquarium). This year it was the discovery of a ramen restaurant in Legoland! After I spied it at the park in the beginning of the day, it was all I could think about as we traipsed from ride to ride, “we’re getting ramen for lunch!” My family may not have been as excited about this discovery as I was, but once we sat down to our bowls of noodles and broth and plates of chicken teriyaki, I think they’d agree that it was worth the lengthy backtracking through Miniland USA to find it. When I looked around to see who the other customers were happily slurping their bowls of ramen instead of eating chicken fingers, I realized it was mostly Asian families or hipster-type parents (not to stereotype but let’s just say they were more Kinfolk than Land’s End). We are neither but I think we could all agree that our lunch was better than what they were serving at Fun Town Hot Dog.

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My other must-visit whenever I’m in the San Diego area is to The Vegetable Shop run by the Chino family in Rancho Santa Fe. Here is an Instagram pic of my haul:

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I’ve written about this unique farm stand before, but it never ceases to awe me. What makes their fruits and vegetables superior from any other is not only that they are able grow so many unique varieties with their extended growing season, but also the fact that they do not pick their crops until the vegetables are at their peak (versus days before they ripen so they can be transported to a supermarket). They are also smaller than normal industrial-sized vegetables and pack a lot more flavor.

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This is Tom Chino who summoned a tray of their frais de bois strawberries from the fields for me to try, it was a generous treat because their crop was devastated during rain storms the week prior…

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Tom, as always, was also very generous and gave me two big bags of heirloom vegetables to take home, basically one of everything I tasted. There are always new things that I have never seen before, like this peppery red edible flower used to give heat to soy sauce served with sashimi (see in yellow bowl below)…
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There were purple cauliflowers and violet-skinned  radishes (see below and on the avocado toast up top)…
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And this purple kale and brussel sprout hybrid that was fantastic…
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There was also this beautiful and delicate variety of rapini that I took home and sauteed with lots of garlic and tossed with eggs and prosciutto for breakfast…

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At one point, Tom started opening up these clear little boxes for me to taste, full of different varieties of microgreens, something I never find out here in the mid-Atlantic region. When I got home, I literally showered everything I ate with these tiny leaves of arugula, cilantro and whatever else Tom gave me, including nasturium, which makes any salad look like fairies made it.

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OK, enough vegetables. There was also a Rubio’s run for fish tacos. Why there is not a Rubio’s on the east coast. I don’t know. After In & Out Burger, I think it’s is arguably the best fast food place in the country…

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The BIG event of the trip was taking the kids to Disneyland for the first time. I have only ever been to Disneyland, never Disneyworld, so I can’t compare, but it really is an amazing place. I mean, can it be any cleaner? And everyone who works there is just so into it. No matter if they’re dressed as a monster on a pogo stick or Snow White, there is never any “wink-wink” irony. Everyone is ALL in, so you kind of can’t help but get swept up in it all and before you know it, you want to wear a hat with mouse ears on it like everyone else. I was particularly impressed with the area made up to look like Cars the movie. We stopped at just the right time, at dusk, and I honestly began to feel like I was on an animated Route 66 in southwestern dessert and that pick-up trucks could talk.

P1290855We had lunch at Ariel’s Grotto (my friend Sujin told me they made the best margaritas there and it’s TRUE…I’m now realizing there was a margarita theme to this trip), so that Belle could meet the princess brigade. Since she is at the tail-end of that part of her childhood that is still into this kind of fantasy, I figured we should do it right, and get the full treatment. She met them all: Ariel, Aurora, Belle (get it?). Conor actually blushed scarlet when Show White cooed hello in his ear. I thought the best part of the lunch foodwise were the children’s lilliputian desserts…

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From San Diego I headed north to Los Angeles to film the Home & Family tv segment and stay with my lovely friend Suze, who is about to open up the first drop-in mediation studio of it’s kind. It’s called Unplug and if you’re in L.A. you must go and center yourself in this beautiful and serene space. One day for lunch we walked from her studio to the famed Sushi Sasabune (logo: “No California rolls. Trust us!”) and I had the omasake lunch to end all omasake lunches.

P1290946It was all so fresh, the rice the perfect warmish temperature, each piece of sashimi brushed with it’s own magical sauce or topped with a translucent slice of cucumber. Although they don’t do California rolls, to end my lunch I was given a blue crab roll that was simply nori, stuffed with rice and fresh blue crab meat… it was so simple and perfect.

P1290948I can’t wait for my next trip to California, but until then, I’ll dream of spring and maybe ask Dan for his margarita recipe. I also watched the new show Doll & Em last night, have you seen it? I feel like it totally captures that certain feeling and vibe of L.A., from the houses and hedges to the conversations and people you meet at parties. Check it out!

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Monday, March 17th, 2014

Winning!

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So happy to share the news that KEEPERS won a big culinary award this weekend…

We were chosen as Best General Cookbook by members of the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals), which I compare to winning a SAG award because you’re chosen by your writer and editor peers. Our fellow nominees were cookbooks from two grande dames of the food world, which makes this even more gob-smacking: Alice Waters and Mollie Katzen. It’s kind of like going up against Meryl Streep, twice. The first cookbook I ever bought was The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, by Katzen, and my first forays into cooking in my early-twenties were with her recipes as my guide. And I own several of Water’s books (THIS one is actually my favorite) and I’m waiting for the day when I can finally visit the famed Chez Panisse.

HERE is a list of all this year’s winners. Congratulations to everyone!

 

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Thursday, March 13th, 2014

KEEPERS on Home & Family!

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Yesterday, my co-author and I filmed a cooking segment for the morning show Home & Family on the Hallmark Channel! The experience was a bit surreal because the show’s set is in an actual working house that was built on the Universal Studio Lot; so on one side of us was a wild west street right out of Bonanza, up the hill was the Bates Motel (a guy playing Bates actually popped out and gave me a creepy wave when I drove by), and then down the road was the New England village they used to shoot Jaws.

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While we hung out on our set by the trailers and craft services, trams with tourists would drive by and I could pretend for a moment that I was an actual sitcom star (or more like a sitcom extra) rushing to the set. Here is me, pretending to be a character from Desperate Housewives in the green room:

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Hallmark Home & Family

For our cooking segment, we made Shrimp Wonton Soup with the extremely lovely host, Cristina Ferrare, who has always wanted to learn how to make wontons from scratch (it’s super easy if you buy the store-bough wrappers and a great thing to make with kids who are interested in cooking). We made the filling, filled the wontons, cooked some up, and then served them in gingery broth with bok choy for the rest of the guests…luckily there was a lot of hmming-and-ahhhing, especially from Ed Begley Jr. (he was on as a guest to promote his new reality show about building a new “green” home).

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For the recipe click HERE and to view the episode, just go to the Home & Family website. And of course, it’s also in our cookbook KEEPERS, along with lots of helpful step-by-step photos for your DIY wontons that I promise are better than take-out.

 

 

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Friday, March 7th, 2014

What Meal Makes You The Happiest?

photoI’m happy to report that I’ve temporarily left behind the frozen tundra that is New Jersey and shed my Spiewak parka and salt-crusted snow boots (which I literally haven’t taken off in three months) for beautiful and sunny southern California. My legs are as pale as marshmallow sticks but I don’t care, I’m wearing shorts and life is good. So my posts will be a little less frequent  this week, but I wanted to share a photo of a bowl of ramen I recently devoured at one of my favorite places—Ippudo NYC—as a reminder that, no matter where you are, or what the weather, a favorite meal can have the power to make the best of anything.

For me, ramen is that happy button meal that I can push to improve any polar vortex situation (a large Sapporo doesn’t hurt either). The rich broth, the silky noodles, the runny egg, the tender pork belly, the healthy dollop of miso paste and drizzle of garlic oil,  the cabbage floating atop it all like a savory Japanese bath of goodness…I’m a happy slurping mess whenever I get a bowl in front of me. And funny enough, on our first full day in San Diego, we took the kids to Legoland, and guess what we had for lunch…yes, ramen! As my friend Sujin said, only at a California-based theme park would they have a ramen restaurant.

So what is your happy meal (not the kind with the movie-tie-in toy inside…but you know what I mean)? I’d love to know!

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