I talk a lot of smack about sustainable food. About the unexpected pleasures of farmer’s markets, about voting with one’s fork, about "local economies" this and "food miles" that. But here’s my dirty little secret: it wasn’t that long ago that I fed my daughter a steady diet of chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, goldfish crackers, and baby carrots.
The first five months of parenting were simple, foodwise: breast is best. The following couple of months were equally simple — I could buy bananas and tiny jars of Earth’s Best organic baby food at the supermarket.
After that, things got hard. Although I’d mastered a handful of dishes in college — carrot-ginger soup, spanikopita with heaps of dill and feta, one-pan brownies, tomato-basil salads, lentil curries, and baba ganoush — my daughter, Merrie, wasn’t interested in any of those. She much preferred “kid food,” as defined by…well…just about everyone I knew. I consoled myself with these facts: the mac and cheese was Annie’s. The baby carrots were organic. The goldfish crackers…well, they weren’t that bad, were they? Not much worse than Kix cereal, which she also ate with abandon, or Cheerios.
And the chicken nuggets? Well, let us not speak of those. They came frozen in a big red box and could be heated in the toaster in minutes.
Look, I’m not proud of any of this. I’m just saying that around that time, I could have used a little help. And I probably would have found the cookbook “Real Food for Healthy Kids” kind of handy.
Released last fall, “Real Food for Healthy Kids” is co-authored by Tanya Wenmen Steel, the editor-in-chief of Epicurious, and Tracey Seaman, who runs the test kitchen at “Every Day with Rachael Ray” magazine. The book offers 200+ recipes, most of which are simple, even for beginner cooks, and all of which are improvements over my daughter’s diet back then.
By the time the book arrived in my life, though, it felt a little late. Somewhere in the years between then and now, our family’s diet changed. With a little nudging from the alternative-food best-seller list (you know the names: Schlosser, Nestle, Pollan, Kingsolver, Bittman and so forth; the list is so predictable that it’s downright banal), we’d mostly abandoned the supermarket in favor of something more local, seasonal, and smaller-scale. By the time my second child started eating, I was a steadier in the kitchen; I could bake a chicken, whip up a batch of kale chips, boil a pot of dried beans, and prepare a simple, kid-friendly carrot souffle.
I still see plenty of value of “Real Food for Healthy Kids.” I'm just probably no longer their target audience.
The book offers plenty of for-scratch alternatives to kids’ menu items — Mega Mac n’ Cheese, Quick Chick Parm, Not-Your-Basic Turkey Burger — as well as some forays into more exotic fare, like Asian Noodle Coconut Soup, Tzatziki, Mango Lassi, Indian-Spiced Spinach, and Thai Green Curry. There are suggestions for healthier kids’ lunches, notes on table etiquette, tips for baby’s first foods, and information on kids' nutritional needs. With this book in hand, novice chefs can learn the basics — like making a pot of rice, poaching an egg, and baking with yeast — and start to feel a little more confident in the kitchen, prouder as they plunk down healthy meals for their kids.
Even parents who are comfortable in the kitchen will find some good recipes. The Green and Bean Enchiladas, made with spinach and pinto beans, were happily consumed by everyone in the house. The Creamed Spinach was comforting and hearty and would satisfy even the most dedicated Boston Market zealot. The Peanut Butter Blondies, made with whole wheat flour and a touch of chocolate chips, make a terrific treat for the non-allergic. I didn’t quite understand what the Warm Strawberry Smoothie was supposed to accomplish —and more important, neither did the kids — but for us, that’s been the only obvious misstep.
There was even a surprise breakout hit: homemade Onion Dip, which is enough like the dehydrated soup mix version to be familiar, but made from fresh yogurt, cream cheese, olive oil, sautéed onions, and chives. It was terrific — delicious with sliced vegetables, with homemade crackers, and drizzled over baked potatoes.
So, yeah: there are some good recipes, and they’re familiar enough that skeptical kids won’t be afraid to eat them.
But there are a few disappointments. Although the authors provide a seasonal menu planner, the range of vegetables you’ll find in the book is far less than you’ll find at your local farmer’s market or CSA. You won’t find mention of kale here, or Swiss chard; the closest you’ll come is in the index, under greens:
“Greens. See also lettuce; spinach.”
The vegetables tend to be heavy on the “kid standbys”: carrots, potatoes, and broccoli. There are no recipes for beets, none for turnips or rutabaga, none for leeks or fennel. One of the co-authors called out Jessica Seinfeld for her hide-the-veggies approach to cooking. I’d second that loudly, but for this: at least Seinfeld gave us something to do with beets.
There are a few other concerns: wild vs. farmed salmon gets a brief mention, but pastured meat, with its lower incidence of pathogens like E. Coli —especially dangerous for young eaters — doesn’t get a nod. In fact, except for a couple of paragraphs buried in a section on Kitchen Basics, food safety barely gets any attention.
If you’ve already mastered cooking from scratch, from whatever is in season — or if you’re committed to shopping at your neighborhood farmer’s market — you might find “Real Food for Healthy Kids” to be less than what you were hoping for. But let’s face it: if you’re doing those things, you’re hardly the norm.
This is a book to keep it in mind the next time you're heading to a baby shower. Baby showers tend to be about booties and blankets, Carter’s onesies and Pottery Barn nursery decor. But ask any parent: children are beyond those things in a blink of an eye. Babies grow fast, quickly moving beyond breast milk, beyond baby food, far sooner than anyone ever expects. When that happens — when their parents suddenly realize that toddlers can’t live on Annie’s and Goldfish crackers and Cheerios alone — this book could make a handy companion.
How about you? Do you have a favorite kids’ cookbook? What’s your approach to getting kids to eat well?