Treasure family dinners


Growing up, it was a rite of passage.  If someone could survive an “Elliott family dinner,” the person was okay in our book.

coming to america

What happened at these dinners?  We shared stories.  We made fun of each other, even berated each other, but in love: I don’t think any of us is in therapy because of them.  We all had the chance to laugh at my dad’s perfectionism and my mom’s quirks, as well as each others’.  My brothers and I played out movie scenes we memorized, all taking on different characters such as those in the “Coming to America” barber shop scenes. My older brother always had a quick-wit, and we laughed hard.  My younger brother was funny and a performer who kept us giggling.  I was simultaneously the most studious child in my family and the one with the least amount of common sense, asking stupid questions in an entirely unsafe environment where I paid dearly for it.  And the stories we share of these family dinners still get repeated over and over again when we are together.

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My own experience – along with scientific proof that family dinners are impactful – are reasons why having dinner together as a family is something I work hard to make happen.  To name a few benefits, family dinners help with health, brain growth, vocabulary and family relationships, as well as promote good behaviors and stave off bad ones.

If I haven’t lost you already, I’m hoping you’ll stick with me.  My husband travels a lot and my kids have activities some nights that make eating together impossible.  This means we currently eat together as a family about three nights a week.  On the nights we can eat together, I work to make these count.  Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. I keep our meals simple.  It’s okay if family dinner is Chipotle.
  2. It makes me SO MUCH HAPPIER when everyone enjoys their food.  That means I make a lot of the same meals for the sake of peace.
  3. I make big pots of spaghetti, chili, soups and stews so I can freeze the leftovers for a night when Greg is traveling or to give to a family in need.
  4. When I had babies and toddlers, I gave them what we were serving as early as possible.  Once a child is about 1, there is very little he cannot eat if you cut it into small enough pieces.
  5. I used the Deceptively Delicious cookbook when the kids were younger to help get more fruits and vegetables in them.  I’ll write another blog about healthy eating strategies for toddlers – someday …
  6. Now that they’re older, I often serve raw vegetables or a salad as the side dish and let the kids pick the ones they like.  They eat vegetables and there’s no arguing, gagging or nose-holding.
  7. Everyone has to at least TRY all the food.
  8. If you don’t like it, we’re not making something else for you.  I have a friend who grew up in a family with six kids, and the alternative if you didn’t like dinner was a microwaved, scrambled egg.  (That sounds more disgusting to me as an adult than an asparagus and Brussels sprouts pie would have as a child.)  Come up with something that works for you if you are concerned your child might not eat.
  9. Though we don’t always remember to do it, we have a “thankfulness journal” where we write down something each of us is thankful for at dinner.  This is a favorite for everyone, but especially our most reserved child, who gets a chance to be thoughtful and heard over the louder two.
  10. Another conversation starter is the “roses and thorns” concept.  Everyone goes around and shares his or her rose (high) of the day and thorn (low) of the day.  I actually got that one from the Obamas!

IMG_4135When I prioritize an activity in our family life, I often ask myself, “Will I regret doing this or not doing this when I look back some day?”  And then I remember my childhood family dinners – which sometimes went very wrong – and how they make me smile.  My mom’s spaghetti, roasts, chicken and dumplings … these foods take me back.  And none of my family will allow me to forget the night the Domino’s commercial came on television announcing (in my defense, with buffalo flying through the sky, flapping wings) that it was now selling buffalo wings.  And I looked at everyone, and before I could process the question that came to my mind, I blurted out, “Wait – do buffalo wings come from real buffalo?”

I want my children to have their own “Elliott family dinner” memories.  And based on our meals so far, I’m sure they’ll have plenty to talk about when they’re older.

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A “get your kids to eat veggies” idea


Okay, I’ll be the first to admit from the get-go that this idea is laborious and geared toward home cooks.  But I seriously think I came up with a great idea while driving home and salivating over the August issue of Bon Appetit.  (And even those who “can’t cook” can steam, roast in an oven, and defrost a bag of frozen veggies).

For 20 weeks from spring to fall (May to October), do a Family Veggie Challenge.  The idea is to come up with rankings for 20 different vegetables as a family to see which vegetable wins out as your family’s favorite.  I think I will wait to try this next year when Zach and Eliza are both a little older.  (So if you try this, please send me your feedback!)  Here’s the gist:

1. Each week, pick a vegetable to show-case, based on what you can get freshest in the grocery store or farmer’s market.

2. For that week, include one vegetable prepared 3-4 different ways (for consumption at 3-4 of your dinners).  Obviously, this won’t be the only vegetable you eat all week, but it needs to be showcased enough for you to try it several ways without making everyone sick of it (so perhaps every other meal).  You can even eat the vegetable out at a restaurant for one of the nights.  You can try including them in your dinner menu raw, roasted, grilled, sautéed, batter-fried, or steamed.  Of course, you can be creative and search for top-ranked recipes online.  The idea is to make them taste GOOD and not to over-do it by combining the vegetable of the week with too many other ingredients (so your kids really understand the flavor of each veggie).

3. Print up rating cards for each family member for the week and create a rating system (such as “Ew, gross”, “I can swallow this without gagging”, “These actually taste good”, and “Personal favorite”).  At each meal, write down each preparation in a left-column (such as “steamed broccoli with cheese sauce,” “roasted broccoli,” “raw broccoli,” and “tempura broccoli”) and create a chart for people to mark which ratings they choose.  Discuss how everyone has rated the vegetable each night.

4. Each week, declare a winning recipe for each vegetable based on which preparation had the best ratings overall, and collect the rating cards.

5. At the end of the 20 weeks, have your kids declare a winner – the best vegetable.  And you will not only have tried 20 different vegetables, but also 60-80 different recipes for making them.  My guess is that even the pickiest eaters will enjoy tasting for the sake of being able to rate them (even if just about every rating is “Ew, gross!”).  And in the end, you will have a documented reference bible for what vegetables your kids like the most and how they like them best prepared.  You can also give your kids free passes from 3 vegetables at the end of the challenge, so they can choose to not to eat those when you serve them.  (It really is hard to force your child to eat something and watch it come back up through the gag-and-vomit process.  They’re just not going to like every vegetable.)  This would make them have to choose their very least favorites, and would probably help get them to eat the other vegetables that they can get down without gagging.

I’m so excited about trying this out!  Maybe I’ll do a five-week trial this fall.  I think we need to get Zach a little better at consuming food at dinner-time before starting.  Let me know what you think about it!

The scoop on “Deceptively Delicious”


Sweet potato pancakes (well, sort of)

I’m willing to do just about anything to get my kids to eat the foods they need.  I have made up songs and dances about eating.  We get Eliza to eat by telling her the food will make her “BIG AND STRONG” as we all raise our arms and flex our muscles.  (Annoyingly, Zach likes to do this, but it doesn’t encourage him to eat.)  I have really enjoyed using “Deceptively Delicious” by Jessica Seinfeld to sneak veggies and other nutritional foods into their bellies.  I’ve probably tested at least half of the recipes in the cookbook, so I wanted to give my “review,” if you will, of the book thus far.

1. Yes, I would recommend it.  If you have general cooking knowledge, you can easily follow the recipes in this cookbook.  Additionally, all of the baking recipes I’ve tried have been fantastic and I love thinking that my kids are getting a little extra nutrition from their sweets.

2. The “fried” recipes don’t work so well: Chicken nuggets (p.75), mozzarella sticks (p.91), aloha chicken kebabs (p.95), and tofu nuggets (p.100) haven’t come out like I’d hoped.  I did change the chicken nuggets recipe substantially to make it work better.  I’ll send that out in a different post.  But generally speaking, vegetables mixed with egg don’t really stick to the foods very well, and thus the breadcrumb coatings don’t stay on very well.

3. These recipes work well and are easy: French toast (p.49), oatmeal (p.68), pita pizzas (p.96 – you can also use broccoli),  tortilla cigars (p.144), avocado spread (p.136  – this goes well with the tortilla cigars or tacos), tacos (p.148 – they’re just a little advanced for our kids still), chocolate pudding (p.159), chocolate peanut butter dip (p.163), frozen yogurt pops (p.167), and chocolate fondue (p.174).

4. My family’s favorites: Meatball soup (p.72), Italian meatloaf (p.79), mashed potatoes (p.80 – and you can add parsnips instead of cauliflower), beef stew (p.83), buttered noodles (p.108), burgers 2 (p.115), spaghetti pie (p.116), and lasagna (p.131).

5. Great baking: Banana bread (p.54), peanut butter and banana muffins (p.58), brownies (p.156), doughnuts (p.160), carrot cake muffins (p.185 – so moist and you don’t even need the frosting), and yellow cake (p.186).

6. I can’t get these to work: Pancakes (p.57) and pink pancakes (p.143).  See the photo above, but I am seriously wondering if these are missing the eggs.  I’ve tried to cook these as flat as possible, but still they don’t seem to cook on the inside.  I’ve cooked them up to 15-20 minutes total (and they’re supposed to take about 5).  I will not try them again unless perhaps with egg to see if that helps.

7. These are not tasty: tofu nuggets (p.100 – they’re just gross), burgers 1 (p.111 – everyone said they tasted like veggie burgers, but I liked them), and grilled cheese sandwiches (p.135 – maybe if you severely cut back on the amount of veggie puree).

Those are my initial thoughts.  I have a lot more recipes to try, and I’m thinking of getting Jessica’s second book, “Double Delicious: Good, simple food for busy, complicated lives.”  If you have either of these books and can recommend recipes or share tips based on what I’ve found, please comment!

Dinner dilemmas and solutions


If you want to be cured of perfectionism, become a parent.  I can’t tell you how much I am struggling to rid myself of this terrible disease, especially in the area of meals.

Before having kids, I definitely looked down on other parents for allowing their kids to eat McDonald’s and other fast food.  Just the other day I told Eliza we were leaving the library, and she said, “So we’re going to stop at Old MacDonald’s for lunch and get chicken nuggets and then go home and eat and then take a nap.  Okay?  Okay.”  How quickly they learn what’s behind the facade of those golden arches.  It’s amazing how living out being a parent can quickly change you.  I read a friend’s Facebook post about how she had two glasses of wine, a fudgesicle and a sleeping pill for dinner (sounds good to me!) and her daughter had pot stickers and chocolate milk.  And instead of thinking about how awful that was (which is what she was implying), I thought, “Hmm, cabbage, meat, carrots, dough, oil, milk and chocolate.  That just about covers all the major food groups.”  See, I’m changing.

But kidding aside (because I do have to laugh about my kids’ eating habits, otherwise I would cry even more than I do already), I daily struggle with getting them what they need.  It baffles me how a child can eat just about every vegetable known to man between the ages of six months and a year, only to shun every single one of them by the time she’s 18-months-old.  Once you add another child into the mix, it just becomes more stressful, because every child has different tastes.  (And I’m sure each subsequent child exponentially worsens the problem and can plunge you deeper into becoming a short order cook.)

Right now, Zach is anemic and Eliza’s iron levels are low.  I am constantly walking a tight rope, where one side is force-feeding what they need, and the other side is letting it go.  I try to stay in the middle, constantly offering good, nutritious food (along with special treats) and trying not to freak out when they refuse to eat it.  I often require Eliza to eat a certain number of bites of whatever it is we’re having before she can be finished.  But I also try to make meals that all our family can eat, which is very hard to do when you have a 16-month-old, a 2-and-3/4-year-old, and two adults whose idea of a delicious meal is a soy-ginger glazed filet of salmon on top of a bed of pea shoots.  (If that sounds good to you, too, the recipe is here: http://aveceric.com/wp/recipes/season-1/seared-salmon-with-sauteed-pea-shoots-and-ginger-soy-vinaigrette/)

So, I figured I’d write about a few of the ways I TRY to keep my sanity when it comes to feeding my kids.  Let’s face it – it’s one of the biggest struggles because they MUST EAT TO SURVIVE.  Please, if ever you were to comment with helpful tips, now would be the time I would beg you to do so.

1. Meal planning – I generally don’t go to the grocery store without planning.  I take a list based on the 4 or 5 dinner meals I plan to cook.  I plan the week’s meals out on either Sunday, Monday or Tuesday (depending on when I get the energy and make the time).  When I run out of inspiration and ideas, I look to the cookbooks and cooking magazines I have on-hand.  To help plan out the week’s meals, I use the “What to Eat” pad from Knock Knock Stuff (http://www.knockknock.biz/catalog/categories/pads/kk-pads/what-to-eat-pad/).  I write my grocery list each week on the back of the “What to Eat” sheet from the previous week.

2. I keep a list of meals that get eaten –  It’s impossible to remember what works for each kid and also what they BOTH end up liking.  Plus, their tastes continue changing and evolving.  So, if I need some go-to foods or meals, I consult this list.

3. Breakfast is key – My kids eat the most in the morning when they are hungriest.  I take advantage of this and generally cook old-fashioned or steel-cut oatmeal with fruit, or I make them a spinach and cheese omelet, or I do both.  (I keep a frozen bag of spinach instead of the boxes of it, so I can dump a few ounces in a glass bowl with some water and heat for 30 seconds and voila – have a serving of spinach.)  I save cereal for those mornings I just don’t have energy.

4. Sneaky sneaky – I add pumpkin to pancakes, parsnips to mashed potatoes, and do things like roast kale and call it “potato chips.”  (At the very bottom is my recipe for kale and Eliza loves it!)  If you make it fun and cool, your kids are more likely to eat it.

5. Don’t give up – I am constantly reminding myself of this.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve planned a great meal, served it, and been greeted with blank stares and, “I don’t like its.”  It is frustrating and exhausting.  But just like every other parenting challenge, you must not give in and stop trying.  If you eat a wide variety of healthy and nutritious foods, your kids will, too.  You just have to stay the course.

6. Don’t give in – Eliza has to at least try every food I put in front of her before she can leave the table.  My friend, Debbie, has a five bite rule.  Your kids will not die if you force them to eat food they don’t like that you know they need.  Remember, you’re the parent and you know best.

7. Give yourself a break – Date nights or nights when you put the kids to bed and cook together with your spouse or a friend are the perfect times for making a pizza or heating up some frozen chicken nuggets and sweet potato fries for the kids.  I will be the first to tell you – it is OKAY to do this sometimes!

This will not be the last time I write about meals and planning them, I’m sure.  I’ll try to post some of my kids’ favorite recipes over time.  For now, tell me what YOU do!  We can all use a little inspiration, even those of us who are perfect.  😉

KALE CHIPS – enough for a small side dish; ingredients: kale, about 1 Tbsp. olive oil, salt and pepper to taste
Preheat your oven to 375 and make sure there’s a rack pretty far from the heat (if your burners are on the bottom of the oven, put the rack near the top and vice versa).  Get out a big cookie or baking sheet.  Then pull all the kale leaves off their stems, and while doing so, break the leafy parts into small pieces of equal sizes, like a small potato chip.  As you’re breaking them apart, put them straight onto the baking sheet.  What you want to do is make sure all your kale “chips” are the same size and thickness.  Some kale is big and thick, and some of it is more “baby,” so the leaves are thinner and curlier.  So try to separate them out even to that degree so you bake “like kale” with “like kale.”
Once you have a tray full so the pieces are all in one layer, drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil on it, and sprinkle on some salt (I use kosher) and freshly grated pepper.  Mix it all together with your fingers so all pieces have some seasonings and oil on them.  Bake them for 11-13 minutes, watching them at 10 minutes.  They go from perfectly baked to burned in about 1 minute.  So as the thinnest pieces start to turn brownish, you know they’re done.

TIPS: Homemade baby food can be a cinch


Yes, it’s convenient to buy baby food for when you’re on-the-go or when you just don’t have time to make some fresh food.  But if you do a little planning and you cook big batches at once, you can feed your baby less expensively and more wholesomely.  Below are some tips for how I do it.  If you have anything to add, I’d love your feedback!

1) You should have on hand, at the very least: a) a steamer insert for a lidded saucepan, b) an immersion/hand blender (preferable), a blender, or a food processor, and c) a baby food cookbook.*  You do not need a special baby food maker (such as a Beaba cook – see my other post regarding this) or a food mill (though it does help with things such as peas and corn).

2) If you pick one morning and one night that are 3 1/2 days apart in the week to cook for your baby, you can make enough food for the entire week.  For example, pick Saturday mornings (when it might be easier to have someone else watch your kids) and Tuesday nights.  Or, if you’re not that much of a planner, you can cook as you need it or realize you are running out.  Sometimes I’m not good at planning ahead, but when I get low on Zach’s food supply, I’ll make it a take-out night so that after the kids go to bed, I have the energy to cook for him.

3) If you DO have several ways to cook baby food, you can make more batches at once and thus save time.  So, when I make anything on the stove, I also run something in my Beaba cook simultaneously.  Now that Zach is eating more “meals” (such as onion, carrots and chicken cooked in stock and finished with cheese), I can cook those in a large saute pan while I steam a vegetable in my stove-top steamer AND cook some fruit in the Beaba cook.  (If I were really ambitious, I’d also cook him a grain at the same time.)  I can make a bunch of food in about 45 minutes total from start to finish that way.

4) Some baby foods are super easy to make on-the-go and don’t need to be cooked at all.  If you know you’re going to be out for breakfast, pack some baby cereal and a ripe banana with a small mixing bowl and a fork to mash it together, and you’ve got a meal.  If it’s lunch, take a cooler bag and mix some fruit or veggie puree with some plain yogurt or soft tofu.  When we go out to dinner, I just heat up what I would have fed him at home to a pretty hot temperature, and when we get seated in the restaurant, I feed it to him and it’s still warm.

5) Once you know your baby likes a certain food or meal, then make larger batches at once and freeze the excess (that you won’t use within 3 days) in ice-cube trays wrapped in plastic wrap.  Then transfer them to plastic zip top bags once frozen and label them.  Or, if your baby is a little older and you need larger servings, you can freeze them in disposable tupperware.  I like the Gladware mini-round containers because they hold 4 oz. each.

6) I try to label my baby food containers with what’s in them and the date they were made.  I highly recommend using erasable labels by LabelOnce.  I found mine at The Container Store.  http://www.jokari.com/labelonce/product/items47802_47803.html

7) Once your child has had “first tastes” of the different food groups, try making it easy on yourself by picking food groups to feed at each meal instead of worrying about specific fruits, vegetables, grains or proteins.  For example, I now feed Zach some fruit and grains at breakfast every day.  Sometimes he also gets a protein with it from yogurt.  For lunch, he gets fruits and/or vegetables, and a protein from either dairy, meat or beans.  For dinner, he gets vegetables and a protein at the very least, and sometimes he gets grains and fruit.

8) Because it’s summer and lots of fruits and vegetables are fresh and in season, introduce your baby to these.  Zach is currently eating a lot of melons, peaches, nectarines, pluots and plums.  If they’re very ripe, they don’t need to be cooked and can be mashed together or with banana with just a fork.

I think that’s all I will list for now.  If you have any questions, let me know.

*I LOVE Annabel Karmel’s “Top 100 Baby Purees”

and I’m also starting to try recipes from the Williams-Sonoma “Cooking for Baby” cookbook as well.

http://www.williams-sonoma.com/products/cooking-for-baby-cookbook/?pkey=x%7C4%7C1%7C%7C4%7Ccooking%20for%20baby%7C%7C0&cm_src=SCH

Baby food suckers beware.


Now that Zach is six-months-old (as of yesterday, sniff sniff) and started solids last week, there is a new pungency to his diapers.  (Incidentally, we are about to fast-track Eliza into potty training, which is another post entirely, but having two children creating such stenchy messes is too much to bear.)

As a type-A person, of course with Eliza I pretty much made all of her baby food because, well, it’s healthier, less expensive, and what any self-respecting woman who takes her stay-at-home job seriously would do (right?).  Now that I have even less time to plan and prepare Zach’s food, though, I’m looking for more shortcuts.  My mother-in-law bought me the Beaba cook baby food maker for Christmas with some of those individual, 1- and 2- oz. containers for freezing the food.  The Beaba cook is nice and convenient, easy to use, and easy to clean in the dishwasher.  I’ve already figured out that you don’t have to change the amount of water you are supposed to put in it for steaming depending on the amount of food you’re cooking.  And it’s nice that after steaming, you can then blend the food right in the contraption.

However, suckers beware.  From what I can tell, it is no easier than using a regular pot with a steaming insert on the stove, and then using my hand blender (I have the Breville handheld food processor) in the pot to mash up the food.  There are a lot of pieces in the Beaba cooker as well, versus an easily removable blender handle and a pot and a steamer insert for the other method.  And finally, the cooker only holds so much food.  It’s not conducive to making large batches of baby food, or cooking meals that have items that require varying cooking time.  So it’s lifespan is going to be short in my kitchen.  Thus, if you want to make baby food and save some money, buy a hand or immersion blender, which is much more multifunctional for years to come than a specific maker of baby food.

As far as freezing extra food goes (which is the point because for a little effort I get a lot of meals), these individual little containers are freaking frustrating and stupid.  You have to run each one under water to get it to pop out, which is highly irritating and time consuming.  Of course, washing them in the dishwasher is a pain as well because they could easily fall through.  For Eliza, I used ice cube trays I had on hand.  I wrapped saran wrap around them a few times, froze them, ran them upside down under a bit of water, and then easily popped all the frozen food cubes into a freezer bag.  Sometimes you really don’t need all these specialized contraptions.  This is one of those instances.  Just use your ice cube trays and some saran wrap.