What We Spent and What We Ate: The Case for Slow Lunch

Tomorrow is a milestone for our youngest son:  he’ll be eating lunch at school from now on.  He’ll be eating at school for the next fifteen years.  This will help shape his attitudes about food, eating and socializing.  Unfortunately, for most of these years, he’s going to learn to scarf down what he can in ten minutes and shout to his friends above the din of the school cafeteria.  He’ll learn that food should be cold and fast and that most people eat it out of plastic packages.

We spend a great deal of time and energy discussing state standards, test scores, accountability, teacher quality and safety, yet we barely give a nod to issues about food and health.  This is in the face of an obesity epidemic and the likelihood that our children will not have a longer life expectancy than our own.  We can’t divorce children’s health from our attitudes about eating.  Food is a contributor to health–good and bad–and therefore should be approached as seriously as immunizations and safety.  We say we want our children to be healthy, yet we avoid the very thing that could have enormous, lasting effects on their health:  teaching them to eat in a way that keeps them happy and healthy.

I often walk through my eldest son’s cafeteria at lunch time and it’s an assault on the senses.  The noise is almost unbearable, I can never find the kids I know in the huge, packed in crowd, with kids alternately standing, walking, waiting in line and squirming in their seats.  Last month my son got in trouble for throwing a handful of ketchup soaked tater tots.  I was completely mortified.  It was entirely his fault, I know.  But I also wonder if he were eating in a calm, relaxed environment with proper teacher supervision, wether he’d be able to control such impulses.  I’ll probably never find out.

My littlest, however, will start his school lunch experience in such a place.  When I walk into his classroom at lunch, I see twenty preschoolers sitting in a sunny room at little wooden tables with silverware and green place mats.  They chatter quietly while the teachers visit with them and remind them to maintain good manners and polite conversation.  The room is so quiet, I can whisper to the teacher twenty feet away and she can hear me.

It’s hard to know, however, if this experience will be drowned out by the nerve wracking cafeteria experiences of the following ten or twelve years.

It’s not easy to teach kids to eat slowly and mindfully, but we could at least try.  In most schools, lunchtime means herding hundreds of kids into a giant, cold, artificially lit cafeteria, getting them fed as quickly as possible and herding them back out for a few minutes of exercise.  Teachers are expected to skip lunch and patrol the chaos–they rarely get a chance to enjoy a lunch break themselves.

We are missing a great opportunity to teach kids how to enjoy food and conversation.  We are missing an opportunity to show them how adults eat lunch.  And most of all, we are missing an opportunity to keep them healthy.

We should stop thinking of eating as something we need to hurry up and get done so we can get to the next thing.  Last month, I was working with the kids on the school’s Wellness Council.  We were in the kitchen making roasted cauliflower and cookies.  The kids loved washing and chopping the vegetables, mixing batter and watching through the window of the oven.  When I asked them to smell the mint and the ginger, they did so eagerly–and often just popped in their mouths.  While we waited for the cookies to be done, one kid said to me, “You know, cooking takes a really long time.”  This not only cracked me up, but it also made me think about kids’ attitudes about food.  Most kids think food should be ready instantly.  You just open a package and you eat.  It’s high time we re-educate them.  Teach them to cook, let them watch us in the kitchen, feed them food, wether at home or school, that we’ve prepared with love.  Teach them to slow down and enjoy the day.


Here’s what we ate this week.  We spent $249 last week so we spent under $200 this week.

Saturday: kale, sardine and risotto gratin, warm beet salad with yogurt and goat cheese dressing (from Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express)


I know.  What was I thinking with the sardines?  It sounded French and I want to start using sustainable fish.  So sue me.

Sunday: white bean ragout w/toast


Monday: Moroccan Venison Shepherd’s Pie (with elk instead of Venison) from www.deeranddeerhunting.com on which you can find an article about how to give input on hunt guidelines in Arizona.



Moroccan Venison Shepherds Pie


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 pounds venison hindquarter,

cut into 1-inch cubes

1/2 teaspoon roasted ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoons tomato paste

2 cups beef broth

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/3 cup raisins

3 tablespoons honey

1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, divided

1 cup frozen green peas

4 cups sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped

1 large egg, lightly beaten


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium high heat. Sprinkle venison with cumin and salt. Add venison to the pan and brown  for about 1 minute on each side. Remove venison from the pan. Add onions and saute for 3 minutes. Add  garlic for about 30 seconds, then add the tomato paste. Stir well.

Add broth to the pan. Bring to a boil, scraping pan to loosen the browned bits. Stir in olives, raisins, honey, ground red pepper,  turmeric, and one half of the cinnamon. Add venison back to the pan. Reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the peas.

Meanwhile, place sweet potatoes in a pot of boiling water until tender and drain. Sprinkle  with a pinch of salt and the rest of the cinnamon. Beat potatoes with a mixer and add egg.  Continue mixing until well combined. Spoon venison mixture evenly into 4 ramekins.  Spread potato mixture over the venison mixture. Place ramekins on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbly. Serve immediately.

Tuesday: roasted potatoes and crustless duck egg quiche–quick, simple and easy

Wednesday: tofu curry with all the vegetables left in the fridge–I used a Seeds of Change jarred curry sauce I got at Sprouts on clearance for 99 cents.  This took all of 10 minutes to prepare.

Thursday: hot wings from JH Ranch (with crudite and ranch dressing), baked macaroni and cheese and steamed broccoli–requested by the birthday boy

Our oldest turned nine today!  As for the cake, he said he loved Whoppers and wanted chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting.  Ikey chose the devil’s food cake recipe from Tate’s Bake Shop: Baking with Kids,  he got for Christmas.



Friday: leftovers


10 Things We’ve Learned This Year About Eating Well on a Budget

We’ve been trying to stay on a food budget for almost a year now.  It’s a lot harder than we thought it would be.  It would be harder still without my parents supplying us with some of the best olive oil in the world (from my uncle), grass fed beef (from my aunt and uncle, who own Bear Creek Ranch in New Mexico) and various Costco finds.  My students and neighbors give us a lot of food gifts.  From them I get tamales, posole, ceviche, bread, samosas, dolma . . .  and some great lessons in cooking.  We’d like to share some of the most important lessons we’ve learned this year:



1.  Plan and then plan some more.

Sit down once a week (with your computer and some favorite cook books) and plan every dinner.  Look at your calendar and plan easy or frozen meals for nights when you’re busy or out late.  Plan something special for Saturday or Sunday nights when everyone’s home.  

Keep in mind what you’ll be able to find at the farmers’ markets that week (and if you’ll be able to go once or twice or even not at all).  Leave a little room for special finds at the market, too.  

Check the pantry, fridge and freezer and see what needs to be used up.  Plan meals around these items and then replenish them next week when you go shopping.  

When you get good at planning, you’ll be able to figure in ways to use leftovers for new dinners and use up all your vegetables every week.  Take note of what you have left at the end of the week and either buy less of it next time or figure out how to eat more of it.  We often have greens left–a reminder that I need to be more conscientious about working them in to meals. 

Don’t just plan for dinners–plan how to use leftovers for breakfasts and lunches.  When you make pasta, lentils, couscous, quinoa or rice, always make extra.  These make good salads for kids’ lunches.  Lentils and beans can be pureed to make dips.

On Sundays (or even better, right when you get home from the market) prep vegetables for that week’s lunches. You can string celery and peel carrots all at once–then store them in cold water (change it every day) for the week.  Chopping all your onions at once makes cooking a lot easier, too.  I often avoid starting dinner if I’m dreading the onion chopping–it’s a relief when it’s already done.   





2.  Buy (almost) everything in bulk.

I buy some bulk items at Sprouts and some at Whole Foods.  I like to buy organic, but you don’t need to.  Make sure you put perishable items (those with a high fat content) like nuts, almond meal, quinoa and sunflower seeds in small jars and use them quickly.  You can buy large quantities, just store it in the freezer.

Bulk foods I always keep on hand: 

  • stone ground whole wheat flour 
  • whole wheat pastry flour
  • long and short grain brown rice 
  • arborio rice 
  • rainbow quinoa (Alter Eco from Whole Foods)
  • dried beans and lentils
  • quinoa flakes (Whole Foods)
  • oatmeal 
  • nuts and seeds (Sprouts or Costco)
  • dried fruit (Sprouts)

I haven’t been able to find wild rice and whole wheat couscous in bulk.  These I buy at Trader Joe’s.  I never buy trail mix or granola in bulk–they’re less expensive, healthier and more versatile if you make them from scratch.  





3.  Get and stay organized.

Last September, after a few morning meltdowns, we made a special cabinet for lunch making equipment.  I put pita, tortilla and root vegetable chips in snack size baggies and keep them in the baskets along with little baggies of trail mix.  All our lunch containers are in the top basket.  These never go in with the tupperware (on pain of death).

Organize drawers and cupboards.  Get rid of any broken or never-used equipment.

Organize menus and recipes.  I keep menus and shopping lists on my desktop and I use Paprika, a decent recipe app that lets you store recipes from many sites.  

Make sure you clean out the fridge and freezer every month.  You have to know what you have in order to plan well and use everything you buy.  We have one shelf in the fridge door that’s for the kids: almond and sunflower butter and fruit preserves so they can make sandwiches.

Don’t keep loose bags of bulk items or packaged food in the cupboards.  They take up too much room and are messy.  Put all your bulk items in jars, label them and keep them where you can see them and get to them easily.  I put the oatmeal and brown sugar in front so our six-year-old can get to them easily to make his breakfast.





4.  Keep a well stocked–but not over-stocked–pantry and refrigerator.

Keep long-lasting staples on hand.  Check expiration dates frequently and when you open something, use it within a week or so.  When you purchase these, always check the expiration date–get the freshest you can:

  • ricotta
  • gruyere
  • parmesan
  • feta
  • tofu
  • yogurt
  • cream cheese
  • shiritaki noodles
  • pancetta
  • bacon
  • small containers of cream
  • sourkraut 

Keep miso, mustard, tahini, hot sauce, soy sauce and other sauces on hand.  I always have fish sauce, mirin, Rooster sauce, concentrated pomegranate juice, ponzu sauce, sesame oil, walnut oil, chili paste and flavored vinegar in the fridge.

In the freezer, stock:

  • frozen fruit and vegetables
  • chicken broth
  • French bread and naan
  • pancakes (always make a double batch)

In the pantry, stock:

  • tomato paste and tomato puree (Bionaturae comes in jars, so it’s BPA free)
  • pasta sauce (check labels and buy the ones with the least amount of sugar–I like the Safeway brand and I stock up when it’s on sale)
  • two cans each of several kinds of beans
  • four cans of chickpeas
  • a couple cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes
  • good quality dark brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, cane sugar and a little white sugar (for carmelizing) 
  • peanut, almond and sunflower butters (sunflower butter will have a little sugar in it)
  • coconut milk (Aroyo D, available at Asian markets, doesn’t have BPA or weird additives)
  • apricot jam, orange marmalade, fruit preserves
  • boxed whipping cream (from Trader Joe’s)
  • tuna and anchovies
  • olives
  • capers
  • roasted peppers (Trader Joe’s are good)
  • pickled jalepenos
  • chipotle and green chiles (cheaper at the Mexican markets)
  • sun dried tomatoes, a can of pineapple (Native Forest is BPA free) and apricot jam (I like the organic, low-sugar preserves at TJs)
  • an emergency box of chicken broth (try to always use homemade–it’s a zillion times better)
  • a box of tomato soup
  • whole wheat pasta

You don’t need light and dark brown sugar, you don’t need self-rising flour, and you don’t need polenta and cornmeal (just grind the polenta).  Try to avoid redundancies like these and you’ll save space.  It’s nice to have semolina and “00” flour for pasta making, cake flour for cakes and bread flour for bread–but keep these in the freezer since you won’t use them often.

Buy olive oil and vinegar in large containers and transfer to cruets.

Always have onions and garlic on hand–you use them every night.





5.  If you make it from scratch, you won’t get fat.

If you make your own snacks, crackers, desserts and bread, you’ll end up eating a lot less of it.  It’s a great way to stay slim.  I’ve also learned to really enjoy making these things from scratch.  I make my own bread, granola, flatbread, crackers, popsicles, ice cream and cookies.  It’s much less expensive, but it’s the difference in taste that makes it worth it.

When you cook, don’t be afraid to use butter and cream.  Use whole grass milk (with cream on top) and full fat yogurt.  If you’re not eating out and not eating packaged food, you can handle the calories.  A little fat makes everything delicious.  Just watch the bread, pasta and sugar and you’ll be fine.





6.  Shop smarter.

Always have a list.  I keep a shopping list on my computer desktop.  I keep things on it that I need every week and add to it whatever else I need after I plan the week’s dinners.  It’s better to shop at the same grocery store every week.  You’ll know where everything is, you’ll be more comfortable going to customer service and you can take advantage of on-line deals and gas rewards with your store card.

I only go to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s once a month.  I get the same things every time.  This way, I don’t go crazy and spend a million dollars.

Shop at ethnic markets.  I love LeLe, Baiz and Ranch Market in Phoenix.  You’ll get better prices at these stores and often better quality.  If you need help, ask an older woman who looks like she knows what she’s doing.  She’ll probably be more helpful than the staff.

This brings up another point I want to make: if you want to save money, you have to learn to cook ethnic foods.  Try to get to know some immigrant women and talk about food.  I have a class full of recent immigrants and all the women cook.  They’ve not yet switched to the American diet (and I hope they never do), and they make many things from scratch.  They’ll be glad to share recipes.  I find most people, especially women, like to talk about food.  





7.  Learn to cook in season.

Learn several recipes for all the fruits and vegetables you love and make them when they’re in season.  If you have a few old standbys to rely on, planning will be easier.   At the end of a season, you can buy up all the things you like from your farmer and freeze them for later.  Peaches, berries and tomatoes are a special treat in the middle of winter.





8.  Don’t expect a garden to save you time or money.

Gardening is fun and worthwhile, but it’s not necessarily cheap to get started.  And, unless you have a lot of land, you can only grow so much food.  It also takes a long time to make crappy soil into good soil.  You can do it by composting, though–and composting is a great way to avoid wasting food.  

I get the most use out of my little herb garden.  Most herbs don’t keep long in the fridge, so it’s better to just run out in the back yard and snip what you need.





9.  Meat is expensive, as it should be.

Buy it locally (in season if you can) and make sure it’s organic and grass fed.  Poultry should be free-roaming, organic and, if you can find it, heritage.  Salmon should be wild-caught with no coloring added.  Not Atlantic. These things should be very expensive, or you’re getting ripped off.  Cheap meat is an illusion–it doesn’t exist.  When we buy factory farmed meat (and most of us do) we all pay the cost in health care, pollution clean up and the potential long-term problems associated with antibiotics resistance and environmental degradation.  We are also condoning the low wages and poor working conditions faced by workers in many factory farms.  

At first it drove me crazy.  Every article or cookbook about eating on a budget was really heavy on the chicken dishes.  Often these lacked imagination or were just plain gross.  I finally found some good cook books.  I like the books by Mark Bittman, Alice Waters and The Moosewood Restaurant.  I also consult The Flavor Bible quite a bit to learn (or be reminded of) what flavors go together.  I look to web sites like Epicurious, Eating Well, Food Network and Bon Appetit for ideas on how to use whatever I’ve found at the farmers’ markets.  I have amassed a fairly good battery of chicken-free dinners.  

When we do buy chickens, we buy two whole ones from the farmers’ market.  We eat the meat (and sometimes gravy) for two meals, then make chicken stock for the freezer the next day.  

When you buy 1/4 of a steer (about $5.99/lb), you’re going to get some cuts that you can’t just throw on the grill.  One word: braising.  That and a lot of garlic.

This raises the question how do you afford all this?  Well, you don’t.  At least not more than once a week.  The cost of meat precludes eating too much of it, so you’re forced to do what’s right for your health, the environment and the animals we eat.  Done and done.  If you buy good meat, you’ll also find you take more care in preparing it and you enjoy it more.

Use eggs, cheese, nuts, avocados and tofu.  Add a little bacon–it makes everything good.  Use cream, butter and lard–you won’t miss the meat.  I always ask if the chickens who lay my eggs eat a lot of bugs. If they do, the chickens probably have happy lives and their eggs will be especially nutritous.  Sometimes you can get duck eggs and quail eggs, too.  This allows you to change things up a little.





10.  Waste not, want not.

Learn to use leftovers.  When you have extra bread, make bread crumbs and freeze them, or make bread pudding.  Always make extra chili, soup, beans and lentils and freeze some for later.  Be creative, but expect a few disappointments.  I made sardine and rice gratin this week (I had leftover risotto and bread crumbs) and Pat and Lute both gagged on it.  I mean this literally.

Get in the habit of eating your groceries in order of perishability.  Use salads and fruit first and then move on to things like tomatoes, avocados (never buy them too soft if you’re not making emergency guacamole or tomato sauce) and greens.  As I’m running low on supplies, I turn to more long-lived items in the fridge and on the counter.  

Use as much of the fruit and vegetable as you can.  You can candy citrus peel, use parsley stems in stock, sautee beet greens, put celery leaves in salads, and eat roasted fava beans whole.  When you buy meat and poultry, save all the bones and parts to  make a stock the next day.  Seriously–save it all.  Even the bones the kids have gnawed on.  Fish can be used whole in bouillabase.  Save chicken fat and pork fat for cooking.

  • Use up staples like flour and nuts within a couple months and replenish them frequently.  
  • Use berries, stone fruit, bananas, salad, avocados, asparagus, mushrooms, bean sprouts (stored in water) and alfalfa sprouts within 2-4 days.
  • Use melons, citrus, greens, cucumbers, eggplant,sugar snap peas, tomatoes, green beans, fava beans, summer squash and most cruciferous vegetables (cabbage lasts longer) within a week or so.
  • Use apples, celery, onions, garlic, ginger, root vegetables, winter squash and tubers within a few weeks.  You can keep these on the counter in cool weather.  



Okay, make it 11 things.


11.  Enjoy.

Like anything worthwhile, it takes time to get good at shopping, cooking and eating healthily.  But when you do, you’ll find you enjoy it (at least most of the time).  The best thing about cooking great meals at home is that it brings the family together.  The family meals we’ve shared over the past year have brought us closer.  We enjoy our food and each other a whole lot more this way.

What We Spent and What We Ate: Birthday Boy!

Our neighbors had a fiesta for their granddaughter’s birthday last Saturday.  The boys bounced in the bouncy castle and yelled a lot.  It’s always fine until the piñatas come out—yes, plural.  Each kid gets to whack at the piñata (usually strung near windows or breakables) with a big wooden paddle.  Inevitably one or two kids get hit in the eye and quietly disappear into the darkness to nurse their wounds.  Eventually the piñata song is sung faster so kids are not only whacking hard, but as fast as they can.  When the thing breaks  everyone scrambles to the floor to scoop up candy—young men stand in for the smallest children.  It’s a ruthless Lord of the Flies ordeal with lots of pushing and squealing.  I looked over after it was all done and my middle son was squatting on the sidelines, candy filled piñata cone clutched to his little chest, fists filled with candy and a sucker sticking out of his mouth.  I couldn’t tell if he was panting or growling.

When I told my oldest he had to leave some of the candy (it was the weekend after Halloween for Christ’s sakes), he looked at me like I was crazy.  “I earned this mom.”  I couldn’t argue.

Then we ate giant pieces of  cake and went home.  The next day, we did it all again.

My in-laws came over for dinner and cake to celebrate Walter’s third birthday.  This year, I didn’t make the cake.  Walter saw a one at La Purisima a few weeks ago and his face just lit up.  It had Dora the Explorer, her cousin Diego, Boots the monkey and Baby Jaguar.  Plus, it had every color in the world not found in nature.

We all cracked up when I brought out the cake, but I have to admit, I felt a little guilty giving my kids such a large dose of food coloring in a single sitting.  They survived, but there might be long-term damage (or maybe my grandchildren will turn out funny).

I didn’t get Walter a piñata this year, but he thought the previous night’s party was in his honor, so he was fine with it.

What We Ate:

Saturday: Pat didn’t get home until after the party, so I made him enchiladas with fresh tortillas (I had eaten three of Martha’s pork carnitas tacos, so I only had two enchiladas).


Sunday: chips and pomegranate guacamolebirthday tamales, beans, rice, radishes

I often buy tamales from my Martha–especially for special events.  They’re some of the best I’ve ever had.  If you don’t have a neighbor who makes tamales, buy them at Carolina’s.

My sister-in-law, Trish, brought Spanish rice–it’s my kids’ favorite.  She shared the recipe, which she got from a friend’s (“real Mexican”) grandmother, Carmen Jimenez of Indiana.  She made me promise to give credit.  Gladly–it’s amazing.  The notes are Trish’s.  I would use the lard.

1 c. rice

3 c. chicken broth (i use vegetable broth)

4 oz. tomato sauce

1 tsp. minced onion (ew. i use a couple of cloves of garlic and onion powder instead)

1/2 tsp. garlic salt (i just use salt, b/c of the fresh garlic)

1 tbsp. lard (i use olive oil and probably a little more)

brown rice in lard, add all other ingredients, simmer until all liquid is gone. (i use a dutch oven or large saucepan)
i usually double or triple this. have also used brown rice and it’s delish.


Monday: curry with long beans, carrots and shirataki noodles (here’s some more ideas for shirataki noodles just because).

My favorite spot at the farmers’ market is Maya’s Farm–everything always looks pretty.  The long beans caught my eye right away.  They’re to die for–you could just steam them, but they work well in a Thai curry.


Tuesday: smoked fish chowder with purslane and home-made oyster crackers

Pat got this recipe from Diana Trimble, a Facebook friend who lives in Brighton.  Here’s her post:

Tonight I made smoked haddock and celery chowder with sweet corn, topped with fresh rocket (arugula). People in America can substitute smoked whitefish, available from a Jewish deli, or smoked trout. Poach it in milk with peppercorns and bay leaves while low-temp sautéing onions, celery and garlic in butter. Then do a white wine reduction on that, add a bit o flour to make a roux. Take the fish out of the milk (put it on a plate) and start adding the milk into the onion celery mix. Depending on how big your pan is, you may want to transfer the milky onion celery mixture into the milk-fish pan about half way through this blending process. Put little potatoes cut into bite size chunks in there and let it cook for oh til they’re soft. When that fish is cool, flake it off the skin. When the potatoes are cooked, chuck the flaked fish back in the soup. Add the sweet corn and just warm it all through, then after poured into bowls, scatter a handful of leaves across the top. * If you find it bland then add Encona scotch bonnet sauce.

Pat used smoked whitefish, a gallon of Organic Valley grass milk, and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc ($6.99). He generally followed the above directions.  We added a rue towards the end, but it would probably have been better just to let the potatoes cook longer.  The soup separated a little–it makes me wonder if it accidentally came to a boil.  It didn’t do much damage, though.  It was one of the best chowders I’ve had in my life.

Lute helped pick the purslane leaves and buds off–they were the perfect touch sprinkled on our chowder.  The boys loved it.

Another perfect touch was the homemade oyster crackers.  This is one of the rare occasions when I use white flour.

Here’s a super-easy smoked whitefish chowder recipe to try if you’re short on time.


Wednesday: leftover chowder


Thursday: roast chicken and arugula salad with tomatoes

The chicken wasn’t done in time to feed the boys, so I boiled some Einkorn pasta, mixed in some canned mackerel (I just rinsed the skin off and pulled out the bones, making sure they didn’t see because it was totally disgusting) and jarred tomato sauce.  They loved it and it’s a good way to sneak some fish into their diet.

I always roast two chickens–it’s the same amount of work and then I can make a lot of broth, chicken soup, and chicken salad.


Friday:  chicken and gravy, cauliflower and braised greens

I like making gravy the next day so I don’t have to mess with the fat.  I was glad I did this time–when I took the drippings out of the fridge, the fat was such a clean,perfect, bright yellow I had to save it.  I’ll use it as shmaltz to fry leftover potatoes for breakfast.

I got some wonderful greens at Mayas, too.  Plus I brought home some flowers for the party.


What We Spent:

Just under $220.  Not bad for throwing a party.

The pasture raised chickens were a splurge.  They’re called Josh’s Foraging Fowls–from Wilcox, Arizona.  They were 5.99 a pound (I got ten pounds) at Double Check Ranch (at the downtown farmers’ market).  Worth it, I think.  The chicken was so fresh and beautiful.  The necks were still on, so they’re great for broth, too.  I’ll be going back to Double Check soon to try their beef–and I promised Isaac I’d get him hot dogs.

The tamales were $35.  The smoked fish from Scott’s Generations was $9.00.  I spent $45 at Maya’s and another $15 on fruit at other vendors.  My mother-in-law got me $15 of fruit (the little seckel pears I love!) and veggies at the Wednesday Town and Country market.  The rest I spent at Sprouts and Safeway.


What We Spent and What We Ate: Halloween Grinchiness

I fully intend to give trick-or-treaters Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups this Wednesday and then I will stay up late, watch The Daily Show and eat the rest of the bag (along with purloined selections from the boys’ orange buckets).  But I’m still going to promote some alternatives to sugar for Halloween.  Since many kids don’t go trick-or-treating these days (even though the razor blade in the apple was long ago declared urban legend), parents must attend events designed to take the place of this age-old tradition.  These include such euphemistic gatherings as “fall festivals”  and classroom “celebrations” (maybe to make Jehovah’s Witness children feel less like Halloween pariahs).  Several mandatory parties make their way to the family calendar as well.  At every function, kids are met with a barrage of candy the likes of which we couldn’t have imagined as children.  At tonight’s fall festival, an annual fund-raiser, the kids supported their own educations by buying sugar in every conceivable form, including, but not limited to: soda, syrup, powder, floss and various polymers.

I think most developed nations use tax dollars to pay for education.  But who am I to rethink the federal budget?

We could, however, re-think school fundraising.  One local rancher provides grass-fed beef for PTO raffles.  The Vig does fundraising nights and Khalsa Montessori Schools provide an amazing spread of local vegetarian cuisine at their functions.  I’m sure other local businesses would be willing contribute.

In addition to fall fundraisers, many classrooms have parties.  Despite legislation designed to eliminate junk food in schools, parents and teachers still provide candy and baked goods on many occasions throughout the year (one of my children’s classes celebrated every birthday with a sugary treat from parents).

I don’t want to ruin Halloween, but maybe we could limit the candy to just one night–Halloween night.  For classroom functions and parties, we could provide healthier options.

Here a few ideas from one of my favorite web sites, peachsf.org and from foodday.org:

What We Ate:

Saturday: Pat and I had a date night for my birthday.  Luckily our favorite place, Little Saigon, is also one of the cheapest places to eat out.  The back room has a little romantic vibe going on and they have the best Pho (with Pho Thanh a close second and Maxim maybe third) in Phoenix.  It’s all about the broth and their broth is sublime. I always get the Pho with the ox tail broth, but I’ve tasted the chicken, vegetable and pork broths too and they’re almost as good.  My birthday is usually the first time it’s cool enough to eat soup.  This time of year is extraordinary–the city comes alive and there’s suddenly people everywhere and a million things to do–festivals, markets, food trucks, parties, concerts.  The best part, though, is getting to eat comfort food again.  Comfort food=Pho.


Sunday: birthday burritos

My mom and dad had a little family birthday party for me.  My mom made her green chile burritos and Spanish rice.  She promised she’d run through the recipe with me so I could post it–maybe next week.  Her green chile is loved by all–it’s mild and flavorful, with perfect little cubes of browned pork. Then there’s the fact that it’s wrapped in La Purisima tortillas and deep fried.  When you put a little sour cream on it, you feel like your life could not possibly be any better.


Monday: watermelon gazpacho, venison tacos

On Saturday I got what was to be our last watermelon of the year.  We thought we should have a little farewell to summer (or F-YOU Summer.  Take that!) party.

So I wanted to do something special with our ginormous watermelon.  Gazpacho sounded good, since it will be too cool for that sort of thing in a few weeks.  Pat got ground venison at Sprouts and made amazing tacos.  It was a nice send-off if I do say so myself.

Watermelon Gazpacho that I should remember to make next summer:

4-5 large heirloom tomatoes (blanche and peel first, then remove seeds)–use your ugliest ones

¼ watermelon (cut in chunks) with juice

4 peeled diced Persian cucumbers (I removed most of the seeds, but you don’t have to)

1-2 cups watermelon diced in small, neat cubes

¼ cup minced green onions

one Serrano chile very finely minced

1 TBS minced basil

1 TBS minced cilantro

1 TBS balsamic vinegar

juice of one lime

salt and pepper

In a food processor, puree tomatoes and chunks of watermelon.  Add vinegar, lime juice, chile, salt and pepper.  Then, in a large bowl, combine puree, watermelon, cucumbers, onions, basil and cilantro.  Chill for at least an hour.  Serve with a drizzle of crema on top.

The tacos were easy, too.  Pat carmelized onion and sauted them with diced green chiles and minced garlic.  Then he added roasted, diced pasillas.  Then cumin, chili powder, oregano and the ground venison.

Cook it slowly until meat is browned.  Serve with tortillas, Cotija cheese, avocados, diced tomatoes, lime wedges and hot sauce.


Tuesday: pumpkin gratin, brussels sprouts (I know I don’t have to tell you) with bacon (for the boys) and greens for us

The pumpkin gratin tasted like quiche.  It was really good–but if I’d wanted quiche, I’d have made quiche.  So I’ll try again.  In the meantime, if you’re interested in pumpkin quiche, here’s the recipe:

Pumpkin Gratin that tastes like quiche:

1 sugar pumpkin (remove seeds, roast at 425 in an inch of water, then scoop out the squash–or read this)

4 eggs (maybe if you only used 3 it wouldn’t taste like quiche?)

½  cup cream

1 cup shredded gruyere

1 minced shallot

some grated parmesan

some ground nutmeg

salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender, pour mixture into a buttered casserole, sprinkle with paremesan and bake at 350 for about 40 minutes.  After the first 10-15 minutes, you can sprinkle ½ cup of dried fresh breadcrumbs (tossed in melted butter, of course).


Wednesday: parsnip and apple soup and baked salmon

I am no great maker of soups.  But I nailed this one.  One of Pat’s patients gave us enough parsnips to feed the free world, so I’ve been stretching my culinary talents trying to use them up.  The soup was subtly sweet and delicately flavored.  Pat ate three bowls.

I think what really made it was that I used the broth I’d made and frozen a few weeks ago.  It was a chicken broth, but it also had a lot of celery, parsnips, carrots, bay leaves and onion.  A good broth always makes a good soup.

Parsnip Soup that you will love:

About 10 parsnips, peeled and chopped

2 pears, peeled, cored and chopped

3 medium/large apples, peeled, cored and chopped

3-4 TBS chopped ginger

1 chopped onion

3 cloves garlic, sliced or crushed

2 TBS apple cider vinegar

salt and pepper




Sauté onion and garlic, then parsnips, apples, and pears, ginger and seasoning in butter, add to stock pot with 8 cups broth.  Cover and simmer for 30 minutes or until parsnips are tender.  Work in batches pureeing soup in a food processor or blender.  Then strain mixture into a pot.  Add about one cup cream, bring just to simmer and serve (with a little parsley on top).


Thursday: I thawed dal and naan from a few weeks ago for a crazy busy night of homework, piano practice, chores and Boy Scouts


Friday:  Fall Festival at Madison Heights!  Dinner was a hot dog, chips and a soda.  Maybe we can do better next year.


What We Spent:

We only spent about  $145 this week.  $105.90 plus $10 for venison at Sprouts.  Then we spent another $40 at the farmers’ market.  My mother in law went to the Wednesday market for us and got us tomatoes, apples and tiny little cute pears.  Yes, I am lucky to have her.

Related articles:

Study: Junk Food Law Help Curb Obesity (www.azcentral.com)

What We Spent and What We Ate: the purse incident

It’s probably not the best idea to talk about barf in a food blog, but sometimes it can’t be helped.  Here’s what happened: Pat and I took separate cars to the farmers’ market last Saturday.  He was going fishing with the two older boys and I was taking Walter on errands.  In the parking lot, Wally tells me he feels sick.  So when I was getting him out of his car seat and he started coughing, I was sort of mentally prepared for the worst.  My my reflexes are slow, however, and I only had time to back away.  Most of it landed in his lap and in my purse, which I had dropped on the floor in panic.  When Pat pulled up, Walter and I were next to the mini van, Walter naked, standing very still with arms spread out in jumping jack pose and I, with purse in hand, very near hysteria.  Obviously, we had to abandon the shopping, so I had to do without good produce for a few days.  And now I have to look for a new purse.

The best thing about this time of year is the farmers’ markets are bustling again.  McLendon’s was back at the Town and Country farmers’ market Wednesday.  Pat went and said he felt guilty about not going to Pinnacle Farms first.  I really do like owner Janna Anderson a lot–she sustained us through this long awful summer and I always get great stuff from her.  But Tuscan kale and purple kholrabi!  The glamour of McLendon’s is hard to resist.   The first thing Pat saw, however, was his mother standing among a gaggle of foodies, intently looking up at Chef Payton Curry, who was standing in his usual spot behind the cups of fresh herbs.  This is hilarious for two reasons.  First, Pat can’t stand the guy.  Not because of his cooking (he’s one of the best in town), but because he’s always surrounded by adoring women. Second, while Pat  fully expects me to stop and fawn over a guy holding fava beans, he’s always maintained the illusion that his mother is better than that.  Apparently, that’s not so.

Payton Curry knows what every vegetable likes.  He picks up a handful of weird beans and says, “These like to be blanched and then grilled” or “These like to be pounded lightly using a mortar and pestle.”  (I just totally made that up).  His sales approach doesn’t appear to make men want to buy more vegetables, but the ladies sure are linin’ up.  Against my better judgment, I do find  his long curly hair strangely attractive,  but it’s his culinary advice that makes me swoon.  I heard good things about his new Brat Haus, so I asked Pat about it.  I guess Pat’s known about it for months, but never mentioned it.  I was stunned.  Pat not going to a bratwurst place the week it opens would be like me passing up free shoes at Nordstrom.  I asked why we hadn’t gone–I’m sure Curry can make a mean bratwurst—and he just snapped, “That guy is an expert on whatever he happens to be standing next to.  You know what he’s an expert at?  Cultivating those ridiculous ringlets–that’s what.”

I decided to leave that one alone.  Pat will come around eventually.  In the meantime, there is plenty of good food to be had in Phoenix this time of year.


Saturday: The big boys went fishing–Walt and I had salad with pine nuts, avocados and tomatoes.


Sunday: hot Italian sausage, purple cole slaw and kale chips

Purple Cole Slaw from the blog Torview

This coleslaw is the easiest thing ever.  You just pour boiling water over shredded purple cabbage, cover and let sit for a couple minutes.  Rinse in cold water and mix in mayonnaise, rice wine vinegar, a little brown sugar, some chile powder, salt and pepper.


Monday: orange chicken

This is pretty easy too.  Since it’s done in a crockpot, you can make it in the morning or right when you get home in the evening.  Dredge deboned bite size pieces of chicken (thigh meat is good) in flour and fry in olive oil until browned.  The meat doesn’t need to be all the way cooked.  Saute some onion and garlic, add chopped celery carrots and orange pepper and cook for a couple minutes.  Add a can of mandarin oranges with juice, a cup of orange juice, a jar of orange marmalade and a little chicken stock if you need to.  Add a couple tablespoons of ponzu sauce and rice wine vinegar, adjust to taste.  Then add the meat and vegetables and cook for 2-4 hours.  You can add some chopped basil for the last 1/2 hour of cooking if you want.  Serve over rice.


Tuesday: curry

Sunny Citrus Curry

I had yellow tomatoes, yellow bell pepper and yellow squash.  Great.  But with my uncanny ability to turn adversity into food, I rounded up some sketchy looking greens and herbs from the back of the fridge, grabbed some coconut milk and green curry paste and set to work.  The result was one of the best curries I’ve ever made—bright and crisp, but substantial.  Take note of the tofu, my friends—I nailed it.


1 container extra firm tofu, cubed

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 shallot, minced

2 yellow heirloom tomatoes

1 yellow bell pepper

1 large yellow crookneck squash

1 can Aroyo D coconut milk

3 tablespoons green curry paste

1 tablespoon grated ginger

1 tablespoon ponzu sauce

zest of one lime

2 cups coarsely chopped baby greens (mustard greens, beet greens, chard)

¼ cup torn lemon basil leaves and cilantro

salt and pepper

lime wedges for serving


1.  Put tofu in a bowl and pour boiling water over it.  Let sit for 10 minutes.  Drain tofu and set on paper towels for 15 minutes (change the paper towels if you have time).  Then put tofu in a bowl until you’re ready to use it.

2.  Blanche tomatoes, peel and chop (remember only keep them in boiling water for 30 seconds or so—they’ll get mushy if they’re in there too long.

3.  Chop vegetables.

4.  In an extra large pan, over medium high heat, fry tofu in about 3 tablespoon of coconut oil or butter.  You’ll need to move them around constantly at first—they’ll stick.

5.  Turn tofu regularly.  When tofu is golden brown (about 10 minutes) remove from the pan and set aside.

6.  Sauté garlic and shallots for a couple of minutes—you may need to add more oil to the pan.

7.  Add 3 tablespoons green curry paste and about ¼ cup of the coconut milk.  Stir until blended.

8.  Add vegetables and sauté for a minute or two.  Then add the remaining coconut milk, ginger and lime zest, bring to a boil. and simmer for 5 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

9.  Add a tablespoon of ponzu sauce and salt and pepper to taste.

10.  Reduce heat, stir in greens and sauté until greens are wilted—1-2 minutes.

11.  Stir in basil and cilantro.

12.  Serve on a bed of jasmine rice and garnish with lime wedges and cilantro (and beer).


Wednesday: leftovers on debate night–which, it turns out, was an appropriately boring dinner for a performance by our Commander in Chief.


Thursday: roasted beet lasagna adapted from a New York Times recipe

I fell in love with this recipe when it appeared in the Times last May.  Beets are hard to find in the summer here–but they’re turning up now.  This lasagna was everything I’d imagined.  I used orange beets on the bottom layer and red on the top layer.  It was soooo pretty.  My pictures don’t do it justice as they were taken of the leftovers the next morning.

Roasted Beet Lasagna


6 medium-large beets (3 each red and orange)

4 tablespoons Irish Gold butter

5 tablespoons minced shallot

3 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour

3 cups whole grass fed milk

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 tsp of freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh herbs, like basil, tarragon and chives

1/2 pound no-boil lasagna noodles

4 ounces (1 cup) freshly grated Parmesan–I used a little more


1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut the greens away from the beets, leaving about 1/4 inch of stems. Scrub the beets and place in a baking dish or lidded ovenproof casserole. Add 1/4 inch water to the dish. Cover tightly. Place in the oven and roast 40 to 45 minutes, until the beets are easily penetrated with the tip of a knife. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the dish. Cut away the ends and slip off the skins. Slice crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick rounds and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, make the béchamel. Make a rue by melting the butter, stirring, and just before it starts to turn brown, add the flour and whisk.   Add the shallot or onion and cook, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring, for 1 or 2 minutes, until the mixture is smooth and bubbling, but not browned.  Whisk in the milk a cup at a time and bring to a simmer, whisking all the while, until the mixture begins to thicken. Add the minced shallots.  Turn the heat to very low and simmer, stirring often with a whisk and scraping the bottom and edges of the pan with a rubber spatula, for 10 to 15 minutes, until the sauce is thickened. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Remove from heat and stir in the chopped herbs and 1/4 cup of the Parmesan.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil a rectangular baking dish. Spread a spoonful of béchamel over the bottom. Top with a layer of lasagna noodles. Spoon a thin layer of the béchamel over the noodles. Top with a layer of beets and sprinkle with Parmesan. Repeat the layers, ending with a layer of lasagna noodles topped with béchamel and Parmesan. Make sure the noodles are well coated with béchamel so they will be sure to soften during baking.

4. Cover the baking dish tightly with foil and place in the oven. Bake 35 minutes or so, until the noodles are tender and the mixture is bubbling. Uncover and bake another 10 minutes, until the top begins to brown. Allow to sit for 5 minutes before serving.

I had tarragon and basil to sprinkle on top, but I forgot them.  It was good without, too.


Friday:  Vietnamese spring rolls

Isaac was at his uncle’s house–so this was a good opportunity to have shrimp.  We made spring rolls, which are fun to assemble with kids.  You can make them ahead and put them in the fridge, but it’s more fun putting them together and rolling them up at the dinner table.  They’ll make a mess, but it’s only herbs, noodles and shrimp, so it’s easy to clean up.  It’s good family food, too, because everyone can choose the fillings and dipping sauces they like best.

We julienned carrots, daikon radish, chilies, and green papaya.  Then we washed and trimmed cilantro and several kinds of mint and basil from Le Le Market. (where we also got cute little enokitake mushrooms).  Pat steamed the shrimp in the rice cooker (which was cooking, for the second time this week, sushi rice with a little olive oil and salt).  I put out some ponzu sauce, siracha and sweet and sour chili dipping sauce.  I also threw together a spicy cole-slaw with green papaya.  Right before we sat down, we threw some cellophane noodles in some boiling water for a minute.  It was quite a spread.

To prepare the wrappers, you just put a pie plate of very hot water on the table and dip the discs of rice “paper” in the water.  When they soften up, you carefully remove them to your plate and then fill them like a burrito.  It takes a few tries to get the hang of it, but the ugly ones are delicious too.

Little Walter was not impressed with our culinary adventures and tried repeatedly to ruin the fun, but we mostly succeeded in ignoring him.  He wanted a banana.  We told him no and he just looked at us inquisitively.  He cleared his plate and then came back and asked again.  Again we said no.  He got a towel and wiped off the table and then asked again, looking up at us with a last little glimmer of hope in his eyes.  At this point we were cracking up.  He didn’t see the humor in it and spent several minutes sulking (which makes us laugh, too).  Poor thing went to bed with nothing but a little rice and a glass of milk in his tummy.  I can see we have another picky eater coming through the ranks–but this time, it doesn’t even phase me.

This week we spent $202. 58 ($35 of which we spent at the farmers’ market).  Because of the purse incident, we had to do much of our shopping at Sprout’s and Safeway.  We went to Le Le’s though–and that makes up for a lot.


Picky Eaters Part 2: The Cause (It’s All Your Fault)

Parents of Picky Eaters, It’s Not Your Fault!  Or so said one mother, writer, and former picky eater in a New York Times Motherlode blog this summer.  I’ve been stewing over it ever since.  Steaphanie V.W. Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, boldly stands up to the judgy mothers club–but she misses a few really critical points.  I speak for all the “Mommy McJudgersons” out there when I say, parents of picky eaters–it is all your fault.  Or at least it mostly is.

I came to this realization at Montessori preschool orientation night.  The director began discussing lunches and I settled in, ready to hear the typical harangue about packing natural, nutritious, environmentally friendly lunches in containers the kids could open themselves.  Instead he says, “Just pack what they’ll eat.  Don’t try to impress us with your lunches–just pack something that won’t end up in the trash.”  Then he went on to relate how one kid ate a vegetarian hotdog every day the whole year.  And if that’s what it takes, we should do the same.

What?  Is this what it’s come to?

Of course, I am guilty of the other extreme–I remember sending elaborate bento lunches to preschool with our first son.  I was so excited and I wanted to impress his teacher.  Well, he couldn’t open the containers and he didn’t know what to do with the little onigiri triangles and edamame pods.  Only his teachers wouldn’t put it in the trash.  He’d bring home a box of warm, greasy garbage every day.  I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t impressing anybody.  I get that you should pack something the kid can eat.  But a vegetarian hot dog every day?  That’s going too far.

Our generation has just thrown up our hands and given up trying to eat normally.  We’ve also given up a huge responsibility we owe to our children.  It’s our job to teach them how to appreciate a wide variety of healthy, well-prepared, delicious food.  If we  act like we can’t do a damn thing about what they eat, then where are we?  I’ll tell you where we are–we’re in the midst of a nation-wide obesity epidemic affecting a generation of children who are on their way to enjoying a shorter life expectancy than their parents.  Nope. We can’t just sit back and let them eat vegetarian hot dogs.

Or white bread.  Or cheese pizza.  Ask yourself who’s in charge of your kids’ meals.  If it’s not you, then you have a problem.  Blaming bad eating habits on “picky eating” is a cop out.

Sure, many toddlers (some studies say around 20%) go through a picky eating stage.  And nearly all young children avoid bitter tasting foods.  This is most likely evolution’s way of making sure we didn’t poison ourselves to extinction.  A picky eating stage may be an evolutionary adaptation, but it’s no longer beneficial.  Picky eating usually means kids aren’t eating vegetables and can even mean kids are malnourished, so it’s something parents need to address.

Letting your kid eat Pop Tarts for breakfast or chicken nuggets every night (or, God help you, vegetarian hot dogs), will just make matters worse.  Read the ingredients list on the back of the packages you’re buying.  If there’s more than three or four ingredients, your children probably shouldn’t be eating it–even if it has a day’s worth of vitamins inside.  Take Pediasure, many well-meaning parents’ go to solution to picky eating:

Pediasure Kickstart Strawberry Flavor Ingredients:


I want to hear the justification for feeding this to your kid instead of food.  What did parents with picky eaters do before KickStarts?  Obviously, the human race didn’t starve to death.  I bet not even one little kid starved to death because he was a fussy eater.  Parents of generations past simply put food on the table and expected the kids to eat it.  If they didn’t, parents assumed the kid would eat more at the next meal.  What they didn’t do is hand them a high fructose corn syrup laden nutrition bar and call it a meal.

My mother is a biologist and my father is a psychologist, so for me everything is a dichotomy between nature and nurture.  This is no different.  Food preference is certainly heritable–according to one study, over 75% of food preference can be attributed to genetics.  But lots of things are genetic and not necessarily desirable.  Bad teeth are genetic.  So are you going to let your kid walk around with a snaggletooth for the rest of his life?  No.  You get him braces.  Genetics isn’t destiny–if you come from a bad food gene pool, do something about it.

Picky eaters may be born, but let’s pause a minute before we say they’re not made.  We begin to shape our children’s eating behaviors in infancy (and even in utero).  What a mother eats during breastfeeding (and wether she breastfeeds), how and when parents introduce new foods, the variety of foods introduced before age four and maternal feeding practices can all affect a child’s food preferences.  Studies show that mothers’ eating habits and attitudes about food shape their children’s habits and attitudes.  If you’re always on a diet, your kids take notice and if you won’t eat anything green, neither will your kids.   Children are more likely to try new things if they see their parents and siblings trying new things.  The reverse is also true.  If you’re weird about food, your kid’s going to have issues, too.  For example, mothers who are emotional eaters may be more likely to have picky children. Parents who are overly controlling can negatively affect children’s eating behavior and possibly increase their risk of obesity.  Parents can exert a great deal of positive influence by simply modeling healthy eating behaviors.  Clearly, what we do as parents makes a critical difference in how our children eat.

Developmental stages, evolution and genetics are beyond our control.  But even if we assume we can do nothing to change our child’s genetic destiny, we can still agree that the 25% of food preference that isn’t heritable might be under our control.  Let’s be conservative–say we can influence 20% or our kids’ food preferences (keeping in mind that this a ridiculously low percentage).  Well, then let’s have at it!  Let’s do everything we can to teach them how to eat good food.  Let’s work as hard on food appreciation as we do times tables or reading.

We can’t just chalk our kids’ bad eating habits up to “picky eating.”  We need to take some responsibility.  Our kids’ lousy eating habits are more likely the product our lax (or over-controlling) parenting and our own bad eating habits.

Okay, I’m judging, but I’m not excluding myself from the judgment.  I’m just as guilty as the next over-worked, over-scheduled, exhausted mother of three fussy, hungry kids who need to eat all the damn time.  We just want them to eat something.  I fed my kids macaroni and cheese (but it was organic!) and steamed broccoli every other day when I was working full time.  I don’t know how it happened–I certainly didn’t plan it that way.  It happens to all of us.  But at some point, we have to make it a priority to feed our children well.  We are missing a good opportunity to enrich our children’s lives when we don’t prioritize teaching them how to eat well.  As a society and as families, we need to decide that what our kids eat is just as important as what they learn in school or what they watch on TV.

We’ve forgotten how to eat.  It’s not just our fault for accepting the status quo, it’s the fault of the status quo itself.  Americans don’t eat normally.  French fries are the most common vegetable eaten in the United States.  Our school lunch rooms sell Cheetos.  We eat 20 percent of our meals in the car (and you can’t drive a mile without passing a fast food restaurant).  Our grocery stores are lined with aisle upon aisle of packaged food and we are so busy and tired, we justify buying it to save time.  It’s almost impossible not to make these kinds of desperate choices as parents.  And it’s hard to change habits when you’re exhausted and stretched thin as it is.  It feels like all you can do to get the chicken nuggets on the table.

But this isn’t something that we can’t fix if we acknowledge that our food culture is damaged and we’re partly to blame.We can examine our own attitudes about food and eating.  We can reject the food system American industry (with the help of American government) has created and embrace real American food culture.  There’s a bounty of fresh produce at your farmers’ market.  There’s a world of ethnic cuisine to sample.  There’s a spot in your back yard waiting for a garden.  And there’s time to cook and eat dinner together (almost) every night.  We just have to make it important enough.


Picky Eating Part 1: The Cure

Our first son never really had a picky eating stage.  But our second more than made up for it.  He ate absolutely everything until he was about three and a half.  Then every day he would stop liking another favorite food.  Eventually we were down to little more than boxed macaroni and cheese and broccoli.

One night, he decided there was cheese on his casserole.  No amount of swearing on Bibles, explaining, or demonstrating would convince him otherwise.  Finally Pat just started yelling at him.  One thing we know is that if we engage this kid in a battle of wills, we will not win.  But it was too late.  Isaac threw himself on the floor kicking and screaming and pretty soon everyone at the table was either yelling or crying.  Something had to be done.

I looked up “picky eating” the next morning and came across Karen LeBillon’s bestselling book, French Kids Eat Everything.  By the third chapter, I knew I’d struck gold. Le Billon moved to her husband’s home town in France with their two daughters.  Culture shock set in quickly.  Especially when it came to feeding her daughters.  Her husband’s family, their friends, their girls’ schools all rebuked her for her permissive, indulgent attitude toward snacks and meals.  Instead of retreating or growing resentful, Le Billon began observing and asking questions.  She soaked up everything she could learn about how the French eat.  She was amazed at how French children enjoyed food and she wanted her daughters to be able to join them.  Her determination and success were encouraging.

Le Billon’s book is a quick read, peppered with funny anecdotes and relevant research.  For something so light, it’s surprisingly powerful.  Her principles of healthy eating are ones my family innately understands, but has trouble putting into practice on a day to day basis.  Le Billon, however, puts them in simple terms and lays out a plan that any busy parent could live with.

And why should we do what the French do?  For one, France’s rate of childhood obesity is one of the lowest in the developed world.  Obesity is increasing in most of the Western world, but in France, obesity rates are stable and may even be decreasing.  The French are to be envied—they’re thin, healthy and well-fed (this is true of most French people–not just the rich). Another reason is French kids really do eat everything.  They are often adventurous, curious, enthusiastic eaters.  Why should we not want that for our own children?

In principle, I’m opposed to rules.  Especially rules about food.  Rules make eating a source of anxiety and can turn food and cooking into a chore instead of a pleasure.  This book didn’t scare me off, though.  There are rules, but throughout the book she reminds us the most important thing is that we relax and enjoy meals together. Sometimes advice to relax makes me anxious, but this makes sense.  She shares how hard it was for her to fit in and understand how the French do things.  She recounts many of the times her mother-in-law scolded her for how she fed her kids.  She is like most American moms- worried about her kids’ eating habits and health, but too busy to cook and too tired to deal with the whining and tantrums that new foods inspire.  She put all her energy into learning to fit into French society–and that, of course, meant learning to eat.  If she could do it under such stressful circumstances, I can at least try.  So these rules (slightly edited) are the exception to my rule about no rules.

1.  Parents:  You are in charge of Food Education

2.  Avoid emotional eating.  Food is not a pacifier, a toy, a bribe, a reward, or a substitute for discipline.

3.  Parents schedule meals and menus.  Kids eat what adults eat:  no short-order cooking.

4.  Food is social.  Eat family meals together, with no distractions.

5.  Eat vegetables of all colors of the rainbow.  Don’t eat the same main dish more than once per week.

6.  For picky eaters:  You don’t have to like it, but you do have to taste it.

7.  Limit snacks, ideally one per day (two maximum), and not within one hour of meals.

8.  Take your time, for both cooking and eating.  Slow food is happy food.

9.  Eat mostly real, homemade food, and save treats for special occasions.

10.  Eating is joyful, not stressful.  Treat the food rules as habits rather than strict regulations. 

Le Billon also offers some examples of how to respond to complaints of hunger and demands for snacks:

You don’t like it?  That’s because you haven’t tasted it enough times yet.  Maybe next time!

You’re hungry:  That’s fine.  You’ll really appreciate your [insert next meal].  We’er having something really yummy: [insert name of dish].

If you eat well at mealtimes, you won’t be hungry in between.

You’re still hungry?  I guess you should have eaten more at your last meal.

When I finished the book (24 hours after I got it), I sat down with my husband and we discussed the rules.  We agreed to implement them for at least four weeks—putting all our effort into following them as closely as possible.  We had low expectations—we’d tried “methods” before and always gave up after a week or so.  Two nights later, however, we looked at each other across the dinner table and just shook our heads in disbelief.  It was working.

The next week, I heard Isaac talking to a friend (a notoriously picky eater) about trying some fruit salad.  “Just take one bite to see if you like it,” he said.  I almost fell over.  Soon after this, upon trying some grilled fish (he hadn’t tried fish in three years, by the way), he asked, “Is this one of those things I’ll like when I’m older?”  My other son piped in, “Yes, Isaac.  You’ll like it when you’re my age.”  Score.  We are by no means perfect parents of perfect eaters.  We never will be.  It’s a process and forming good habits takes years.  The proof will be how our kids eat as adults.

When we do “follow the rules,”  we all eat far better.   And cooking and eating together is making us closer as a family.  If you’re going to listen to anybody about food, it should be the French.  Nobody in the world takes the enjoyment of food more seriously.  But it helps that Le Billon isn’t French.  She is like most moms in the U.S. (although she’s Canadian), so you know she’s been through the same meal time trials.  Besides, I wouldn’t want to listen to some skinny French woman telling me how to feed my kid.

Watch the Katie Couric interview with Karen Le Billon!