Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Strange Experience of Cooking for Kids -- Who Aren't Your Own

Parents reading this will surely snicker at me, but what the heck. I spent last week in Tempe staying with my nieces while their parents were enjoying a little holiday in New York. The girls are amazingly self-sufficient so there was little for me to do but be transportation and security. I, of course, also wanted to be cook.

The challenge was that these pre-teen kids are on the run. They're in school early in the morning and then come afternoon and evening activities (each night the younger one had to leave at 5:30 for soccer practice that wouldn't bring her home until 8:30 and the older one had tennis lessons and other obligations on a couple of nights). And they're not big eaters. They're not fussy so much as disinterested for the most part. Oh, and, they claim to be vegetarians. Sort of. But it's more along the lines of not eating meat as opposed to choosing to eat vegetables. In other words, they like baked potatoes stuffed with cheese.

Night number one was a surrender to frozen dinner: manicotti. But, my older niece made a nice salad to go with it and let's just say we were fed while discussing options for subsequent dinners. They both like pesto, so the following night I made that with pappardelle from Trader Joe's, along with roasted eggplant with garlic-infused olive oil and parmesan cheese melted on top. I liked the eggplant. They weren't so keen on it. Thursday's meal was something I'd started making years and years before when their cousins were little: chicken legs dipped in a mixture of Italian spiced bread crumbs, garlic, olive oil, and grated parmesan cheese. Bake it at 400 for about an hour and you get a nice crisp coating and moist chicken meat inside. That went over pretty well and the younger one got to make her favorite baked potato filled with grated cheddar and jack cheeses.

By Friday, the girls were over home cooking so we picked up dinner at Pei Wei. And that was it. They made their own breakfasts and lunches for school. They had snacks their mom had left for them. No muss, no fuss.

But still. I cook all the time and yet felt I didn't have a clue for these kids who aren't keen on a lot of vegetables and limit their protein to chicken and shrimp.

So, on behalf of childless aunts and uncles who are sometimes asked to cook for their nieces and nephews, I'd love for you to share some of your kids's favorite meals that we could prepare when called on.

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  1. I think eating the food of aunts and uncles and other assorted family members is an excellent opportunity for kids to experience new flavors and foods. Even if they don't love the food, the exposure will only enhance the development of their palates long term. Learning to be gracious no matter how much you hate the food is another good learning experience. I had to suffer through a great aunts' fruit cocktail, dry, cold roast beef lunches in her very non-child friendly upper East Side apartment. I learned that I hate fruit cocktail and to just eat when someone has gone through the work of entertaining.

    That said, my kids (6 and 9) love burrito/taco dinners which is good for the grown ups bec. we can add what we like and they don't have to, turkey meatball pasta and another night meatball subs with the leftovers, cheeseburgers and grilled pizza. Most other meals are tolerated but eaten. Vegetables are always on the side dipped in ketchup (yes, I know, gross).

  2. Thanks, Rahel! I hate to think my food is to be tolerated but I take your point. Veggies in ketchup? My nieces go for veggies in ranch dressing. Love the taco/burrito idea. I'll keep it in mind for next time.

  3. Oh hey, modern American teenagers who eat nothing but starches and bland cheese? quelle surprise.

  4. I am lucky - I have two very good eaters - but here are some of the things that have gone over well both with my kids and with their friends:

    * Oven-baked breaded fish
    * Blanched green beans w/ butter and coarse salt
    * Roasted cauliflower florettes
    * Pureed cauliflower (w/ a little potato)
    * "Green mashed potatoes" (half potato, half broccoli, with parmesan cheese)
    * Stir-fried Napa cabbage with soy sauce & sesame oil
    * Blanched green beans w/ sesame oil and salt
    * Oven-baked sweet potato fries
    * Any kind of pureed vegetable soup, as long as there are croutons on top

    Hope that helps!

  5. Here are two favs for the younger crowd!

    Chicky Fingers
    Uncooked chicken breast strips, rinse, pat dry.
    Mayo mixed w/ a little Dijon till color changes, Dip chicken in Mayo mixture & then in Corn Flake Crumbs. Bake on a cookie sheet @350 25min. or till crust is slighty crunchy.


    Toaster Oven Quesadilla Triangles
    Spread Flour Tortilla with a little margarine
    Layer on your fav. Cheese (kids love cheddar) fold the tortilla in half & put in toaster oven. (I spray a little Pam over the tops) Toast just until cheese melts. Cut in triangles with a pizza wheel cutter!

    Both easy & delish! Enjoy!

  6. Stir-fry veggies over rice. Beef Stew. Omlettes w/ sausages from Trader Joe's. Baked potatoes with choice of fixings. Make-it yourself pizzas on Boboli crusts. And everything Sue just mentioned.

  7. What great ideas. It's bringing back memories of meals my folks made when we were kids. Of course, we didn't eat and run back then. It was more dinner together as a family and then homework and TV. But times have so changed!

  8. There was a good recipe in Real Simple magazine - Rigatoni with broccoli and chicken & apple sausage.

    You just sautee an onion, then add in slices of the chicken apple sausage. Steam a cut up head of broccoli, and add it all to some cooked rigatoni with a little olive oil and seasoning to taste - salt, pepper, parmesan, whatever you like.

    The sweetness of the sausage seems to work well. The recipe is a little on the bland side, but I think that works for picky kids.

  9. Thanks, Tracy. What's great about this recipe is that you can easily substitute or add other ingredients. Just a good basic combo of pasta with veggies and a protein.

  10. I should add that you can mix shredded zucchini into LOTS of dishes so that it's virtually invisible: casseroles, taco filling, chili, pasta sauce....

  11. Thanks, Erika! Plus, I just remembered my zucchini pancakes. I don't know if kids would enjoy them, but I don't see why not since they're finely grated.

  12. Oh God, the "vegetarian" claim. My oldest daughter pulls that one too, and her cousin, and what it means is they'll eat French fries and quesadillas, but not necessarily vegetables. My sisters call it the "beige diet": potatoes, pasta, toast, peanut butter, fish sticks, rice, rolls... you get the idea. It used to just annoy the crap out of me when I subscribed to "Working Mother" magazine that they'd have a section on recipes for kids, and the dishes always included things like caremelized onions or escarole salad. Oh please, my husband won't even eat that!

    Here's what my kids will eat: Pasta shells stuffed with ricotta and mozarella cheese, turkey burgers on buns, tortilla soup, Caesar salad, ground turkey sloppy joes, stir-fry with tofu, teriyaki ramen noodles and scrambled eggs.

  13. As the father of the girls, I would offer that they LOVE vegis! They plant their favorites during the year in their garden by the horse stalls. Artichokes will bring smiles to their faces and be a meal of themselves. Instead of potatoes they go for Cauliflower mashed potatoes with garlic. Sweet Peas they will eat raw all day as a snack and on and on... But a nice baked potato every once in a while is fine as well. Its just moderation and as the author pointed out, lots of exercise ie. club soccer, club volleyball etc...
    Their Loving Dad

  14. Hey, anonymous! They may love veggies, but they weren't crazy about the ones I was making... Wish I'd known they love cauliflower mashed potatoes.

    Well, I can try again next week, right?

    Your loving sister!

  15. I guess I'm really lucky because I never made "kid's food" and I have five of them! I know some kids (big or small) can be picky and want the same thing over and over, but for the past 20 years I just cooked what sounded good and if the kids didn't like it they could always eat cereal (the good kind...not sugar). My family's favorites range from baked ziti with homemade sauce and throw in any veg that is easy to get my hands on...eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, squash. I often make pasta with a homemade ragu and instead of adding meat I use lentils. Moussaka is one daughter's favorite while I fully expect my 21 year old to return from college and ask me to make soyrizo y papas. Semi-homemade veggie chili is pretty fast and you can throw in almost any canned beans for variety (favas, garbanzos etc..) I make a killer Foul Mudammas with chopped cucumber, tomatos and scallions on top. I hope this helps! Enjoy.