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.

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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!

Someday, the war will be over, and our everyday battles will be a distant memory


Eating peas one at a time took too long. I preferred to get it over with, putting one on each spike of my fork per bite.

Some days my kids don’t eat.  What I mean is not a lot and not what I want them to eat.

I used to see parents out with their kids in restaurants, judging them for allowing them to eat bread, french fries and ice cream for dinner.  Now I’ve been there and done that to keep them quiet.  In my defense, we’ve taken the kids to some nice restaurants where I’ve weighed the unavoidable disapproving looks for malnourishing my children against those glares I would get if a tantrum about anything ensued (like someone using someone else’s crayon, or one or both not wanting to sit in a seat).  Malnourishment wins a lot of the time.  It’s called picking your battles.  Even at home, mealtime can be a mine field.

Me: “You can eat your dinner, or you can not eat your dinner, and then go straight up for a bath, without building a fort and without a popsicle.  It’s your choice.”

Eliza: “Mommy, I don’t want to build a fort.  I don’t want a popsicle.”

Seriously?  I know she’s lying.  But right now, I’m trying to deal with the not eating, so I can’t get into a discussion about whether she’s telling the truth because I have to deal with the consequences of her answer.  I cannot get sidetracked by her efforts to derail me.  So, we take her up for bed and that’s that.  She doesn’t eat.  My 41-inch tall, 31-pound daughter chooses to go without food.  (She might get to move out of her car seat and into a booster by her sixth birthday.)  Zach refuses to eat any part of his dinner about half of the time.  The pediatrician assures me that he must be getting enough in the earlier parts of the day.  But how infuriating it is that he won’t even taste what I’ve cooked!

I remember my childhood.  I remember secretly feeding my veggies to the dogs.  I remember refusing to eat.  I also remember my parents threatening to reheat the food for breakfast if I didn’t eat it right then (and they did).  When I realized they were serious, I started negotiating.  “I’ll eat 3 peas.”  “No, Christine, eat 20 peas.”  “Four.”  “Ten, and that’s final.”  And then I would hold my nose and gag and make all sorts of crazy torture-enduring faces at them while I drank the peas down with milk.  And now?  I actually like peas.  And I enjoy most of the vegetables I didn’t like as a child.  I grew up and had to make a decision about whether I wanted to live a healthy lifestyle or not.

Someday I’m going to look back and see that the truth is, my kids get food.  They get nourishment.  The probably get more calories each day than 80% of the people in this world.  Could they do better?  Sure.  Everyone probably could.  But there are actually kids who don’t have enough food.  And there are actually kids who don’t eat, like they must be intubated to get the nutrition they need.  I saw a news story on it once.  Those are real problems.  What I face is … annoyance and a lack of control.  (Welcome to parenting 101.)

Thus, I’m hopeful that if my kids see Greg and me eat well, they will grow up to eat well.  I hope they one day make good food choices on their own, because at ages 2 and 3, they aren’t capable of it.  And that’s okay.  I have to stop looking at all these obstacles (they don’t eat, they don’t sleep, they fight, they’re defiant) as battles.

Instead, they are opportunities for growth.  I’m here to teach them to make good food choices, and teach them how to behave and have self-control even when they’re tired (hmm, am I capable of that?), and teach them how to value putting others first, and teach them to be agreeable or others won’t want to be their friends.  (And okay, that sometimes, a person is just asking for it and that’s when you slug ’em.)

Someday they will not be children any more.  They will still be mine, but my prime time for parenting will be over.  So I want to get over the random days they don’t eat and realize that this, too, shall pass.  It’s not letting them win the battle, it’s giving up fighting at all.

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.

My “boss” is moody and completely irrational


Being a parent is the most amazing job out there and I love it.  It is rewarding, challenging and awe-inspiring.  But there are also moments when it seems like you are working for bosses (your children) with about one-sixty-forth your intelligence who will not let you quit – and cannot fire you – for 18 years.  Last night through today is one of those times when I’m just shaking my head, throwing my hands in the air and trusting that sticking to my guns will pay off.

This story begins with us returning from vacation a week ago, when within hours I came down with my first stomach bug since I was a child.  Let’s just say thank goodness I still have Eliza’s training potties in the bathrooms, because I was using two toilets at once.  After Greg and I both got it, I spent a few days fearfully anticipating when the kids would succumb to the violent sickness.  So, as Eliza kept asking for bread throughout the past week, I eagerly complied with the requests, thinking she must have felt nauseated.

It turns out she either already had a mild version of it while on vacation or she’s not going to get it.  So here we are, a week later, and the result is I now have a child who only wants to eat bread and fruit.  This is a situation that I would like to correct quickly.  Thus, last night I made mac and cheese from scratch with carrots and peas.  It was delicious.  I was proud of it.  I served it to Eliza and Zach.  Neither wanted to touch it and both started crying.  (Lucky for Zach, he’s too young for tough love and I gave him something else.)

I told Eliza she had to at least taste it before she could get down from her seat at the table.  What ensued can only be described as madness.  She spent 25 minutes in complete despair, screaming and crying.  She asked to get down probably 42 times, each time receiving the explanation that she could do that after she took a bite.  Sometimes when she asked, I would ask, “Eliza, what do you have to do to get down?”  And she would answer, “Eat my pasta.”  Right.  Good girl.  You get it.  But getting it and doing it are two entirely different things.

I finally took one piece of pasta, one pea, and one carrot, placed them on her place mat, and said, “Eat that and you can get down.”  She took them, shoved them quickly in her mouth, chewed vigorously, opened her mouth to show me it was gone, and smiled.  I asked, “Did you like it?”  She replied enthusiastically, “I WIKE it!”  Yay!  It was the proverbial “Green Eggs and Ham” moment.  Then I asked, “Would you like to eat some more?”  She responded, “No, I wike to get down.”  What could I do?  She held up her end of the bargain.  So that was her dinner.  A pea-sized carrot, pea, and mini penne noodle.

She also didn’t eat but a few bites of her spinach and cheese omelet for breakfast yesterday, and I had saved that, too.  Wouldn’t you know she woke up at 12:30 a.m. asking for bread.  I told Greg she had eggs and pasta in the fridge, and then, in a moment of weakness, I said, “You know what?  Just give her bread.”  I didn’t want her to throw a fit, get worked up, and not be able to go back to sleep.  So I went to bed and he got suckered by a 26-month-old.

This morning I offered Eliza the eggs for breakfast.  She ate a few bites and refused the rest.  She wanted other food, she wanted to go outside, she wanted juice, and I promised her she could have all these things if she would eat the eggs.  I finally threw them out after 2 hours.  Next I moved onto the pasta.  It’s almost 2 p.m. and I’ve been offering her reheated pasta for four hours.  She will not budge.  But neither will I.  Until she eats some of it, she won’t get anything else.  This might cost me her nap because she’ll be too hungry to sleep.  But I must stick it out.

As her employee, she’s given me an inexorable and nearly impossible assignment that is asinine and costing her a lot.  But she’s testing my character.  What she doesn’t realize, because she’s two, is that I am smarter than her and I have more stamina.  I’ll show her who’s boss!