One of the interesting takeaways from our weekly efforts to try new foods is the fact that my kids prefer to eat foods in as close to their natural state as possible.
Squash like zucchini, yellow squash and pattypan? You guessed it.
Potatoes? Now that might be stretching it.
We’ve been able to try a host of new foods together simply by peeling and eating. Which on the one hand is great – introducing new foods into my kids’ diets has never been easier. But on the other hand, my adult palette is craving more mature foods…foods that actually have sauces, and garnishes.
I know that we’ll get there. One day we’ll sit down as a family and heap our plates full of lasagna or pearl barley risotto. I’ll be able to sauce, dip, smother and otherwise complicate food to my heart’s content.
Until then, we’ll move ahead in baby steps, which means connecting with my kids at their level: recognizing that meals with a more complex set of flavors can be intimidating, and developing recipes that are both easy for me and appealing to them. It’s hard to take rejection in the kitchen, so keeping things simple is always the goal. If they don’t like it, so be it, at least I haven’t spent a huge amount of time on the dish.
As part of my work in the food world over the past year and a half, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting others who are on a similar mission to eliminate (or at least reduce) kids’ pickiness at mealtimes.
And what a time to be picky! Our farmer’s markets have grown in size and stature, CSA delivery boxes have become the norm, and businesses offering home-delivery of artisanal food products are sprouting faster than asparagus in April.
This is a time to embrace food, to get back to our roots, and to teach our kids about the availability of beautiful, healthy foods that can both nourish and satisfy hungry bellies.
Today I’m introducing you to someone who I consider to be an ally in my effort to educate kids about healthy food.
Jennifer Tyler Lee is also a Mom and Entrepreneur who has written a book called The 52 New Foods Challenge.
After struggling with her own kids’ picky eating, she came to a similar conclusion: that by making things fun, and encouraging kids to eat a new food each week, she could encourage her kids to accept a healthier range of meal options.
While my blog focuses more on a weekly exploration of a single food independently, Jennifer offers a roadmap for exploring 52 new foods over the course of a year, and has some healthy recipe suggestions to help you along.
I loved reading through her book. Although I’m a voracious home cook, I admit that I still sometimes struggle with mealtime ideas for the kids. Grain salad with spicy Hatch chiles and radishes? Not a favorite of theirs. And they were not pleased to find me inserting lobster and tarragon into their mac ‘n cheese.
I thought that I’d take a cue from Jennifer and create some recipes at home inspired by the 52 New Foods Challenge book, yet still within the confines of my own food philosophy which is summed up by this: all food – even kid food – should appeal to the whole family, even if it means bringing the kids along for the ride.
In other words, I should want to dig into the meal just as much as they do.
Back to my earlier comment about sauces, given my kids’ reluctance to try them, I figured that I’d make a dish out of flavors that they recognize (e.g. carrots, pears, ketchup) along with a set of flavors that are completely new to them (e.g. ginger, soy sauce).
One of the foods on the list of 52 New Foods in Jennifer’s book is Asian pears. We tried Asian pears last year as part of our weekly mystery food challenge and the results were iffy. But with a little persistence, we’ve tried them a few more times (remember, repeating foods with kids is key) and they’ve become a family favorite. In fact we were recently at the Farmer’s market and picked up a basket of Asian pears. To my shock (and glee), my kids ate through the whole lot within the first few days. Scrambling over to Whole Foods to pick up an extra ingredient for the recipe shared in this post has never been so satisfying!
Pears are great for eating out of hand, for baking, and they cook down beautifully to lend a subtle sweetness to sauces for any kind of meat or vegetable dish.
Pears are often a key component in Asian cooking, so I thought that I’d create an Asian-style sauce with pears and use it to glaze tender baby back ribs.
I cook the ribs in the slow cooker – they require no browning at all, just a light seasoning, and then they cook until meltingly tender for 8-10 hours. It’s easy to start them the morning that you plan to serve them, but you can always cook them overnight. The sauce is made by blending pears with a few other vegetables and condiments (let the kids push the button, it always helps!) and then is used to baste the ribs in the oven before serving. If you have a little toaster-style oven on the counter, you can use this here too for the final glaze, depending on how many ribs you’re cooking.
I let the kids guide me in the development of the sauce, encouraging them to use their senses to figure out what they like, and how to make it taste great. Need a little more salt? Add soy sauce. A little more sweetness? Ketchup will do the trick. You may find after making the sauce that you’d like to adjust it a little more to you/your kids’ tastes, so feel free to play around, to tinker, and to show your kids that there are no right and wrong answers when you’re in the kitchen. Baking? That’s a story for another post…
I don’t always cook with ketchup, finding it a little sweet for my taste, but there are some new All Natural brands on the market that are really flavorful – look for Sir Kensington if you can find it.
Preparing the meal is half the battle. The other way to engage your kids is by letting them help set the table, add the garnish, fill the water glasses. And for the record, buying them their own little Japanese rice bowls and chopsticks makes it a true event. Don’t feel the need to buy extra tableware for each special occasion, but hunting through Amazon and finding some fun reusable kid-pleasing items for $10-$15 is time well-spent.
Experimenting with new flavors is fun. But even more wonderful is the conversation that you’ll ultimately have at the dinner table – “This food looks different from what we usually eat, where is it from?” “How do you use the chopsticks?” “Are there other recipes from other countries that we can try?”
I encourage all of you who are struggling with picky eating at home to try new foods together. Cook together, experiment together, and eat together (not always an easy one to pull off). Making food a priority is the only way to get around picky eating – it won’t magically disappear on its own, although it will certainly lessen as kids get older. But who can wait that long! Not me, my dinner is waiting, and it’s waiting to be shared. If you need that helping hand, go ahead and pick up Jennifer’s book for some fantastic, kid-approved recipe ideas. Cook on friends, cook on…
- 1 small carrot, peeled and chopped
- 1/2 tablespoon of grated ginger
- 1 small clove of garlic
- 1 green onion (+ more for garnish)
- 1 tablespoon of grapeseed oil
- 2 tablespoons of soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons of tomato ketchup
- 1 small Asian pear, peeled and chopped
- 1 tablespoon of unsulphered molasses
- 1 teaspoon of rice wine vinegar
- 2 lbs of pork baby back ribs
- 1 large yellow onion, sliced
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- Freshly-ground black pepper
- To make the sauce, place the first 10 ingredients in a food processor and blend until it forms a thick puree. If you’d like an even finer sauce, you could strain but we liked it a little chunky. Adjust the flavors to suit your kids’ taste. Set the sauce aside in the fridge until you’re ready to use it to baste the ribs.
- To make the ribs, slice the onion and lay it on the bottom of a slow cooker.
- Season the rack of baby back ribs with the salt and pepper and lay the ribs on top of the onions.
- Cover the slow cooker with the lid and cook on low for 6-8 hours or overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- When the ribs are done, remove them and place them onto an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet.
- Brush our homemade sauce over the ribs and bake for 10 minutes.
- Flip the ribs, baste again with the barbecue sauce, and cook for another 10 minutes. The ribs should look sticky and glossy, and charred at the ends. If needed, baste with a little more sauce and cook for another 5-10 minutes; make sure to check them frequently to make sure that they’re not getting burned.
- While the ribs are cooking, thinly slice the green onions lengthwise. If you’d like to make things fun for the kids, place the green onions in a bowl of ice water for a few minutes so that they’ll curl.
- When the ribs are done, plate them and have the kids top them with the sliced green onions. You can then eat the ribs at the table, with the sauce on the side.
- This amount of ribs will feed 4 kids or two adults, so if you're family is larger, simply make more ribs – no need to make more sauce since the recipe makes more than you'll need. Extra sauce can be refrigerated for a week.