While We Were Out: A Kid/Food News Round-Up

while you were celebratingHappy 2015, TLT’ers!  

I think I forgot to mention here that I was taking a hiatus from blogging, but if you happened to notice my three weeks of silence on TLT, you probably figured that out.  :-)

My blogging break started in late December, when I had the pleasure of attending (and speaking at) a conference in Washington, DC arranged by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Pew Charitable Trusts.  It was a gathering of the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity “Council of States,” which meant I had the chance to meet and talk with leading food policy advocates from all over the country.  For someone who usually does this sort of work alone at her kitchen table, it was an incredibly stimulating and educational two days, so huge thanks to CSPI and the Pew Charitable Trusts for inviting me to attend!

And now here’s a round-up of some of the kid/food news you may have missed while you were relaxing and celebrating with your families:

More On Home-Packed vs. Cafeteria Lunches

Another study has found that home-packed lunches are, statistically speaking, nutritionally subpar as compared to cafeteria lunches.  I addressed another study’s similar findings back in July and my take is this: school meals may well be superior to home packed lunches from a “nutritionism” standpoint, in that every nutrient in school meals is analyzed and accounted for.  But a myopic focus on nutrients can still result in a very highly processed, chemical-filled meal that many parents choose to avoid. That said, for parents with few resources or little nutrition education, school lunch is no doubt vastly superior to home packed lunches, if a lunch can even be packed at all.  That’s why I so strongly support the National School Lunch Program and will continue to work hard to defend the new, healthier school meal standards.

Which leads us to….

Republican Congress Gearing Up to Weaken School Nutrition Standards

We’ve certainly known this was coming, but Helena Bottemiller Evich of Politico has written an informative preview of how the new, Republican-controlled Congress is planning on rolling back several key Obama administration food policy initiatives, including improvements to school food.  This is a serious challenge for school food advocates, and we’ll be talking more about it in the weeks and months ahead.

Maybe Family Dinner Isn’t So Endangered After All

Or so says the Washington Post.

Getting Junk Food Out of Classroom Parties

Out of concern over student health and food allergies, several school districts in Pennsylvania clean up their classroom parties.  (Hat tip: SNA Smart Brief)

Is Fast Food Adversely Affecting Children’s Brains?

A study discussed in the Washington Post (and many other news outlets) found an inverse correlation between children’s fast food consumption and their test scores, even when factors like socioeconomic status were ruled out.  What was most astonishing to me was this troubling 2008 statistic cited in the WashPo story: “Nearly a third of American kids between the ages of 2 and 11 — and nearly half of those aged 12 to 19 — eat or drink something from a fast food restaurant each day.”

Does the Timing of Recess Reduce School Food Waste?

It’s long been believed that allowing kids to take recess before lunch leads to greater fruit and vegetable consumption and less food waste, but a new study reported on by Reuters says otherwise.

Coming Soon: The Lunch Tray’s Makeover!

Finally, before the month is out I’ll be unveiling an entirely new look for The Lunch Tray.  I’ve been working on the design with the super-talented Rita Barry, aka Blog Genie, and while I might be a tad biased, I think it’s just so pretty.   :-)  In connection with the blog’s relaunch I’ve also created lots of helpful new resources which I can’t wait to share with you.  Stay tuned.

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A Few More Thoughts on That Home Cooking Story . . .

Before we resume TLT’s fifth annual “It Takes a Village to Pack a Lunch Series” tomorrow, I just wanted to share a few more thoughts about yesterday’s post regarding an article, The Joy of Cooking?,” which posits that most women generally loathe cooking and that we’ve all been fed an overly romanticized view of the task by writers like Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan.

First, I learned late yesterday that the Salon XX Factor writer, Andrea Marcotte, the one whose post about “The Joy of Cooking?” went viral, was so deluged with hateful comments as a result that she’s announced she’ll no longer follow her own mentions on Twitter.  Even though all Marcotte did was relay the NC State researchers’ own conclusions about how women feel about home cooking, Marcotte

got slammed on Twitter by extremely hostile conservatives, most of whom didn’t seem to have read the post that riled them up so much. What was unnerving was how the reaction was just so personal.

The most common tactic was to “diagnose” me, arguing that I am crazy and unloved and therefore I hate dinner, families, and perhaps joy itself. The right wing website Twitchy sent most of it my way by calling me a “perpetual victim,” even though I did not mention my own relationship to cooking and the post had nothing at all to do with me. “Is @AmandaMarcotte an oppressed victim when she feeds her cats?”read a typical tweet. “I wonder if @AmandaMarcotte is ever happy about anything,”wrote another. “She’s not snarky, just bitchy and miserable. And you know what they say about misery loving company and all…” wrote a self-appointed Twitter psychologist. . . .

As someone who has dealt with her own share of hostile and often quite personal online comments (maybe more than my share, actually), I feel a lot of empathy for Marcotte and am sorry I’ll now be unable to connect with her on Twitter due to her new policy.

But the heated reaction to Marcotte’s post and, by extension, “The Joy of Cooking?” demonstrates, not for the first time, how discussions of cooking can ignite a powder keg of emotions surrounding gender roles, class, ethnicity and even right/left wing politics.  Many of you asked, for example, why the NC State researchers only talked to “moms?”  Aren’t we just perpetuating the myth that cooking is exclusively a woman’s duty with this sort of study?  And later I wondered if I had exposed my own class/ethnic biases when I implied that a lot of the women interviewed, due to their economic status, might be unaware of the recent “elevation” of family dinner, i.e., the degree to which writers like Bittman and Pollan now view home cooking as a key to improving our health and our food supply, as well as new pressures put on home cooks by media such as Pinterest and the Food Channel.

One reader also informed me that “The Joy of Cooking?” was not, as I had written, a strictly “academic” piece, given that it appeared in Contexts, an outlet intended for a general audience.  I accept that correction but still feel that if authors — hailing from academia or not — are going to make such sweeping conclusions based on “150 interviews,” then we’re entitled to know a bit more about those interviews: how they were conducted and whether the responses were truly as uniform as the writers in this case lead us to believe.  Also, while the use of the 1950s advertising illustrations is a little less jarring to me now that I understand the nature of the publication, my original point still holds:  those pictures were intended to needle “foodies” (Pollan, et. al) who ostensibly urge people to cook without having a clue about the harsh realities of their daily lives.

And though I mentioned this in passing yesterday, I want to reiterate that I fully understand why home cooking can be a dispiriting chore for many.  On my best days, when I’m in the mood to cook and the recipe turns out well and everyone sighs with happiness at the end of the meal, I share Pollan’s view in Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation that preparing your own food makes your world “literally more wonderful.”  And on days when I have to drag myself from satisfying writing work to dash into a store to buy groceries, then take even more time to chop and cook that food, only to seethe with barely concealed resentment as my kids half-heartedly poke at the meal (or, worse, offer some choice commentary about it), and then clean the whole mess up (on nights when Mr. TLT brings some work home and is relieved of dish duty), then I regard cooking as just one big pain in the ass.  And I suspect most people who cook on a regular basis, for years on end, feel the same way.

Given that cooking is not an unmitigated joy for many of us, here’s where I’ll offer a plug for a few resources that, in my experience, really do make home cooking easier.  I love Sally Kuzemchak‘s Cooking Light’s Dinnertime Survival Guide, in part because, unlike many family dinner cookbook writers, she’s willing to tackle the obstacles that can feel insurmountable — kids who are on different evening schedules, lack of cooking skills, tight food budgets, or families in which the cook is trying to lose weight.  I’m also a longtime fan of  Aviva Goldfarb’s Six O’Clock Scramble cookbooks as well as Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food recipes, both of which tend to hit my personal sweet spot of complexity of flavor versus ease of preparation on a weeknight.  And though I haven’t yet read it, I’m also eager to check out Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Fast.

Finally, I just wanted to tell you that yesterday’s post now appears under a slightly different title on HuffPost Food.

Thanks again for the stimulating discussion yesterday on Twitter, Facebook and here on the blog.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Why I’m Ticked Off by (Almost) Everyone in the Latest Family Dinner Debate

I’m interrupting TLT’s “It Takes a Village to Pack a Lunch” series to tell you about a debate over family dinner that’s erupted in the blogosphere — and why just about everyone involved is ticking me off.

The scuffle began last week when Amanda Marcotte of Slate‘s XX Factor blog wrote “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner,” a post that went viral and also prompted a heated rebuttal from Joel Salatin, writing for Mother Earth News.  (Salatin, for those unfamiliar with him, is a farmer, writer and speaker who promotes sustainable farming and was extensively profiled in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.)  But although Salatin turned his ire on Marcotte, her post did little more than recap a new article by three North Carolina State University sociologists entitled “The Joy of Cooking?”  So let’s go right to the source of the controversy.

The upshot of “The Joy of Cooking?” is that we’ve all been fed an overly-romanticized view of home cooking by people like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, but this “emerging standard is a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic, and rather elitist.”  In the real world, according to the authors, mothers who cook family dinner are uniformly beleaguered and exhausted, challenged by lack of time, high food costs, ungrateful family members, picky children and, in some cases, the lack of cooking facilities.

As a five-night-a-week slinger-of-the-family-hash, I can certainly relate to many of the complaints relayed by the women interviewed for the article, and I also agree that sometimes the experts urging us to cook conveniently gloss over some of the drudgery involved.  For example, back in 2011 I was annoyed when Jamie Oliver “demonstrated” to a family on his television show that cooking a meal at home is quicker than going out for fast food.  That’s true, up to a point, but Oliver omitted the considerable time it takes to go through recipes, write up a shopping list, buy all of the groceries (we won’t even count the inevitable second trip to the store for that one forgotten but critical ingredient) and then clean up after the meal.  When you add up all of that time, the allure of a trip to Pizza Hut is far more understandable.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 8.02.16 PMBut even though I thought “The Joy of Cooking?” made some fair points along these lines, it’s abundantly clear that the researchers went into this project with an agenda — and it wasn’t just finding out what home cooking is like for many American women.  Rather, they seem hell-bent on painting people like Pollan and Bittman as snobby, out-of-touch elitists, illustrated by the fact that they snarkily refer to Pollan not as a “journalist” or “writer,” but instead as “America’s most influential ‘foodie-intellectual.”  In fact, “foodie” is used throughout the piece (which is rather jarring in a supposedly academic work) to describe those who promote family dinner, implying that their view stems from self-indulgent “food hobbyism” instead of reasoned analysis about how widespread home cooking might affect our food system.  The article is also illustrated with lots of 1950s homemakers in their gleaming kitchens — a device I, too, once used to poke fun at elitist thinking applied to real world problems.  

But the real evidence of the authors’ agenda is their definition of “family dinner,” which completely stacks the deck in favor of the grim conclusions they reached, conclusions which are then used to supposedly knock experts like Pollan and Bittman off their pedestals.  They write:

“[t]hough the mothers we met were squeezed for time, they were still expected to produce elaborate meals cooked from scratch.” [Emphasis mine.]  

In another instance they write:

“being poor makes it nearly impossible to enact the foodie version of a home-cooked meal. The ingredients that go into meals considered to be healthy—fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats—are expensive.” [Emphasis mine.]

But who says family dinner must be “elaborate,” “from scratch” and/or a “foodie-version of a home-cooked meal?” Are we to believe that when the researchers asked their “150 black, white, and Latina mothers from all walks of life” about “family dinner,” all of them  — right down to the woman living with three other people in a flea- and roach-infested, kitchen-less motel room — were thinking “Martha-Stewart-worthy meal,” instead of, say, a humble box of spaghetti and jar of sauce?  Or did the researchers first plant the notions of “from scratch,” “elaborate,” “fresh” and “whole grain” into their conversations, subtly or overtly, and then predictably find that many women find it hard to prepare meals reaching that high bar?  Given that the authors (1) don’t share their questioning methodology; (2) offer us only a few choice anecdotes instead of hard data; and (3) have a clear anti-“foodie” agenda, I have no choice but to be skeptical of their sweeping conclusions about women’s dislike of cooking.

But now let’s turn to Salatin.  After getting so riled up by “The Joy of Cooking?,” I was just itching for his rebuttal — but I wasn’t expecting Salatin to get on such a high horse to deliver it that it’s a miracle we can hear him from up there.

Salatin kicks things off by positing that “the average American” is “probably far more interested and knowledgeable about the latest belly-button piercing in Hollywood celebrity culture than what will become flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone at 6 p.m.” whereas “In the circles I run in and market to, the home-cooked meal is revered as the ultimate expression of food integrity.”

In the circles I run in, snootily bashing the very people you’re trying to educate is not such a great tactic.  But I digress.

Salatin goes on to weigh down the poor family dinner with such profound significance that it would break the average dinner plate:

The home-cooked meal indicates a reverence for our bodies’ fuel, a respect for biology, and a committed remedial spirit toward all the shenanigans in our industrial, pathogen-laden, nutrient-deficient food-and-farming system.

All kidding aside, I don’t disagree with Salatin here, but if the NC State researchers’ offended me with their anti-elitist bias, it’s almost perfectly mirrored by Salatin’s scathing antipathy for middle America in his piece:

Why doesn’t Marcotte, rather than whining about unappreciated women, write instead about families who seem to think sports leagues and biggest-screen TVs are more important than health? . . . .

Here’s the question I would like to ask these families: “Are you spending time or money on anything unnecessary?” Cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, soft drinks, lottery tickets, PeopleMagazine, TV, cell phone, soccer games, potato chips . . . ?  Show me the household devoid of any of these luxuries, then let’s talk. . . .

Soccer moms driving their kiddos half a day one way to a tournament, stopping at the drive-by for “chicken” nuggets, and then dismissing the kitchen as “too stressful” is an upside-down value system. And how many of the men whining about not liking what they’re being fed spend their Saturdays on the riding mower managing a monoculture, fertilized ecological-dead-zone of a suburban lawn, rather than using their resources to grow something nutritious for their families and wholesome for the planet? When do we start talking about them? Hmmmmm?

Isn’t there a way to say that families short on time or money for cooking might find those resources if they rejiggered their priorities, without letting your obvious contempt for those priorities virtually drip off the page? Meanwhile, someone really needs to tell Salatin that asking Americans to trade in their cell phones for anything is a guaranteed lost cause.

So if the NC State researchers and Salatin both annoyed me in this debate, who comes out smelling like a rose?

That would be Megan McArdle, a Bloomberg opinion columnist who has her own issues with “The Joy of Cooking?” and takes them on with terrific writing, a lot of humor — even a few recipe ideas. I hadn’t heard of McArdle before Michael Pollan tweeted her piece over the weekend, but I might just have a new girl crush.

Check out McArdle’s “Feminism Starts in the Kitchen” and see what you think.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Are You Ready to Take the Family Dinner Challenge?

Whenever I tout the benefits of family dinner here on The Lunch Tray, I know I’m probably preaching to the choir.  You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t already care about feeding your kids well and that usually means home cooking, at least some of the time.

But even the most committed among us face real-world challenges that can make family dinners hard:  late hours at the office, sports team practices, extracurricular school activities, “picky” eaters at the table, and/or a lack of confidence in our menu-planning or cooking skills, to name just a few.  So whenever I learn of new cookbooks, menu-planning services or other resources to help with family dinner, I’m glad to share them here.

family dinner challengeToday I wanted to tell you about The Family Dinner Challenge, going on right now.  It’s the brainchild of Aviva Goldfarb, founder of the Six O’Clock Scramble, a wildly popular dinner-planning subscription service, and the author of two Scramble cookbooks.  (I own both of them, and they’re so well-thumbed they might need to be replaced soon!)

The Family Dinner Challenge asks you to commit to sitting down to dinner with your family at least three times a week for four weeks.   That’s it.  And in exchange for signing up for the challenge, Aviva will send you a free family dinner checklist, four weeks worth of her easy-but-delicious recipes, including side dishes and grocery lists, and extra resources to make family dinners successful.  You’ll also have a chance to win some exciting Family Dinner Challenge prizes, like a Vitamix 7500 blender and a Cuisinart food processor.

Aviva’s goal is to get 10,000 families to take the challenge and she’s over 1/3 of the way there.  I just signed up today and I hope you will, too!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 6,200 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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What’s Ahead on TLT

     It’s the last day of school here in Houston ISD and if you’re a parent, I don’t need to tell you how busy I’ve been this week with various end-of-year activities and celebrations.  There’s been little time for blogging, but I wanted to share a few things and let you know what’s coming up in the weeks ahead on The Lunch Tray.

First, I wanted to belatedly report that I had a wonderful time last week at PS 107 in Brooklyn.  I spoke on a panel with Michael Moss, author of  the best-selling Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us; Liza Engelberg, Director of Education at Edible Schoolyard NYC; and Nancy Romer of the Brooklyn Food Coalition. The discussion was moderated by John Donahue, New Yorker cartoonist, editor and the blogger at Stay at Stove Dad.  NYC City Councilman Brad Lander also dropped by and I had a chance to meet PS 107 parent Susan Tang, blogger of the now inactive but much-loved Little Ladies Who Lunch.  We had a free-wheeling and stimulating discussion about all sort of food issues, from the broader problems with our food supply and food injustice, to micro-issues like cupcakes in the classroom.  I especially want to thank Susan Quinn, one of the event’s organizers, for inviting me to speak.

I also wanted to share an update on “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory,” my recently-released kids’ video about processed food and advertising.  I was honored to be asked to blog about the video — and why I created it — on both the Food Day blog and on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.  The former post also appears today on Civil Eats, a respected source for food policy news.  Even more exciting, Mr. Zee is on the cusp of reaching 10,000 views on YouTube, which was my personal goal for the video.  Thanks to all of you for sharing the video on Twitter and Facebook!

Looking ahead, the blog posting schedule on TLT will slow down a bit as it does each summer, but I’ll continue to post here regularly.  And with the school year behind us, I want to turn from the school food issues often discussed here to some other topics, including the all-important family dinner.  I’ll soon be sharing with you information about an exciting new family dinner initiative started by Aviva Goldfarb at The Six O’Clock Scramble, and I’ll also ask for your help for a TLT reader who’s looking for some reliable weeknight dinner options.

Also, now that I have a little more free time, I’ll be digging into my teetering pile of bedside reading.  Lots of authors have sent me their newly released food-related books, so be on the lookout for more book reviews and giveaways over the summer.

Finally, in the coming days I’m also going to ask you a small favor.  After blogging on TLT for three (!) years, I’m feeling the need to freshen things up a bit and I want to make sure I’m fulfilling all your kid/food blogging needs. (Did you even know you had kid/food blogging needs?  :-)  )  To that end, I’m going to post and send out a short reader survey and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to fill it out and let me know how I’m doing.

Happy summer, TLT’ers!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 6,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Live Tweeting the Family Dinner Conference!

I’m excited to report that tomorrow I’ll be attending Time at the Table‘s Family Dinner conference at New York University.

family dinner conference

The speakers include many bloggers who’ve been my “virtual friends” for years but whom I’ve never met in person:  Brianne de Rosa of Red, Round or Green, Grace Freedman of Eat Dinner.org, Aviva Goldfarb of  the Six O’Clock Scramble, Billy Mawhiney of Time at the Table, Kathleen Cuneo of Dinner Together, and Eila Johnson of Meals in a Snap.  Also attending are Alissa Stoltz of Simply Wholesome Kitchen, Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition and many other friends of TLT.  I can’t wait!

I thought it would be fun to “live tweet” the event, so look for the hashtag #FDC tomorrow and be sure to use that same hashtag in any responses to my tweets.  And on Friday, I’ll post lots of pictures here on the blog.

While I’m in New York City, I’m also going to meet up with Michael Moss, Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist and author of the best-selling Salt Sugar Fat.   (My interview with Michael — and a giveaway of his book — are coming soon on TLT.)

Looking forward to tweeting with you tomorrow!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 5,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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Three Uplifting Kid-Food Items To Share

Hi everyone!  I’m finally back from a blogging hiatus taken to celebrate — and then recover from — my daughter’s recent bat mitzvah.  Many thanks to all the TLT’ers who shared their good wishes and mazel tovs (mazels tov?) on the blog’s Facebook page.  It was a lovely, memorable event.

Due to that break and my less frequent posting schedule, I feel terribly behind in sharing so many items with you.  So in the next few weeks I’m going to play catch up, following up on some loose threads from recent discussions we’ve had, sharing some interesting past news items and also hosting the giveaway of a lovely new children’s book I meant to tell you about way back in December!

For today’s post, I’m sharing three uplifting and/or useful tidbits:

Is the Diet of American Children Improving?

Today’s New York Times reports on the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey which shows some potential good news when it comes to children’s diets nationwide.  The study indicates that children’s daily caloric consumption from the period 1999 to 2010 dropped modestly, by about 7 percent for boys, to 2,100 calories a day, and by 4 percent for girls, to 1,755 calories a day.  The shift is attributed to decreased carbohydrate consumption — likely specifically due to a decrease in sugar consumption.  While this is only a slight dip, it could be a sign that the current childhood obesity tide is turning.  Fingers crossed.

Expert Advice on Family Dinner

As a loyal subscriber to Bon Appetit, I was thrilled to see in this month’s issue an entire section devoted to weeknight family dinner, complete with recipes and time-saving tips.  Even better is the fact that the magazine is sharing the same information online in blog format, so you don’t need to be a print subscriber to access it.

It was validating to see that BA’s family dinner Rule #1 is a cherished maxim of mine as well, one I often share here on TLT:  that family dinner goes much more smoothly when meals are “customizable” to suit every diner’s tastes. (In our house, this idea often takes the form of a baked potato bar, a taco bar, make-your-own pizza or top-your–own chili.)  You’ll also find suggestions for grocery shopping, freezing and making several meals from one cooking session.  Who doesn’t love that?

TLT’ers Help Solve a Reader’s Snack Dilemma 

A short time ago I shared on TLT’s Facebook page a request from a reader.  She belongs to a large church and was unhappy about the junk food snacks served at Sunday school.  She waited until a healthy snack was served — apples and water — and used that positive development as a springboard to raise the issue with her church.  (I love that approach!)  In response, she was asked to come up with better snack ideas and TLT’ers came to the rescue with lots of advice, as well as the suggestion by several people, including the bloggers at  Real Mom Nutrition and Spoonfed, that, um, maybe these kids don’t even need a mid-morning snack.  (I couldn’t agree more.)

In a follow-up email to me, the reader reports what sounds like a very successful outcome:

Thanks again for posting that to your page! The responses were great!! I had a meeting with 2 of the children’s staff members last week. They already agree that something needs to change. The problem is that it’s 2 people in charge of buying for a few hundred kids. And the bible lessons they get come with “snack ideas” and they usually just do that because it’s easy. This week it was marshmallows and skittles filling up a cup. My suggestion was to use cotton balls and pennies or rocks and sand.

They asked if I’d want to be the “creative food director” or something along those lines. It’s something I can do from home so it’s perfect! They’re going to send me the lesson plans and I’ll come up with a snack or craft to go with it. As far as the tootsie rolls for bringing bibles or taking the stairs.. we decided to have a punch card type thing. The kids will get a card that they have to fill up with stickers. Once they get x amount, they can pick from the treasure chest.

There is a budget for snacks that’s really not that big. They said we could do whole fruit once a month. As long as I’m willing to help them find it. I belong to an organic co-op in town and know the farmers so I can definitely make it happen. The other 3 weeks they will do a cracker/pretzel but I’m going to give them a list of the most affordable with the least amount of junk in the bags.

I also copied some of the responses that you at Real Mom Nutrition got on your pages. They loved hearing from moms around the country about what they think. My conclusion was that nursery- pre k should have a snack, older than that can go without for 4 hours. IF they’re going to be offered a snack, it should at least be crackers if it can’t be fruit. And sugar should never be offered (unless it’s birthday cake or some celebration a few times a year). They definitely agreed! Thanks so much for your help! I know it will take a few weeks to get things rolling there, but I’ll keep you posted.

I love happy endings like this one, and nothing is more inspiring to me than when the TLT community bands together and helps someone out.  Thank you for sharing your ideas and if you have your own kid/food dilemma you’d like me to “crowdsource,” just email me using the Contact tab above or via Facebook.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 5,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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TLT Guest Blogger Grace Freedman: “Summertime Meals and Family Dinner”

Today’s guest blogger is Grace R. Freedman, Ph.D. the founder of EatDinner.org and co-founder of the Blog for Family Dinner. With a background in public health and political science, she writes about family dinner and its far-reaching health and social benefits. She is also an advocate for innovative approaches that promote healthy eating and increased play and physical activity, both at school and at home, as ways to address childhood obesity.  Today Grace shares her thoughts on taking advantage of the summer break to kick-start your commitment to family dinner, and she shares an easy slow-cooker chicken recipe for these warm days when standing over a hot stove isn’t so appealing.

Summertime Meals and Family Dinner

By Grace R. Freedman 

Summer and the living is easy…it seems that way at our house. Longer days, later schedules, no homework to do in the evenings, just happy stories from the camp day, frozen juice pops on the porch and watching for fireflies (while battling mosquitoes!).

Of course, parents still have to work, but even work schedules seem a bit shifted. Everyone seems to have conflicting vacation schedules that make deadlines more flexible and lengthen out the cycles of “must-do” assignments. Skipping out of work a bit earlier (or merely on time!) once or twice a week may be more do-able now that in the hectic autumn days.

So why not use this time of looser schedules to re-think family routines, and in particular, family dinner? During the summer, there tends to be less pressure to get children to bed early in order to be awake for school. My daughter’s day camp starts at 9am instead of 8:40am, and even that 20 minutes in the morning seems to give us a little more breathing room. It’s a feeling that seems to last all day. Take advantage of this to stop looking at the clock for dinner time.

Summer is also a prefect time for simple dishes or cold food that requires little or no cooking. No one wants to eat fussy food when it’s hot outside. I’ve included a recipe for chicken below that is so easy; it’s like not cooking at all. Maybe making a few simple summer meals will take the pressure off thinking of family dinner as a big elaborate to-do.  Keep it simple and focus on what really matters, setting up some regular time together to enjoy each other’s company and be a family.

5 reasons why summer meals can help start your family dinner routine

  • Less time pressure for kids and adults, so dinner can start later.
  • Simple or no cook meals, like salad or sandwiches, are welcome.
  • Kids tend to be more hungry after camp and all-day play, so they may be more open to trying new foods
  • Meals taste better outside, if you can manage to eat in your backyard or a picnic at a park
  • More relaxed bedtimes and no homework can mean more time to sit and linger after dinner, play family games or even play outside or take a walk after dinner.

Unlike watermelon on the porch or catching fireflies, a summer meal tradition can be one that you can hold onto into the fall and throughout the year. What better time to enjoy family dinner!

“No-Cook” Slow Cook Whole Chicken

I just discovered this recipe when it was too hot to roast or even grill a chicken I had bought. Not wanting to waste it, I searched my slow cooker cookbook for ideas. The result is very much like a poached chicken. There is literally no water added, but it works!

(Adapted from Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann)

  • 1 whole chicken
  • Salt and pepper
  • 5-6 garlic cloves (optional)

Salt and pepper whole chicken inside and out. Place in crock-pot. Add garlic cloves if desired.  Cook on LOW setting for 4-6 hours depending on size. Test chicken for doneness with a thermometer. Inside the thigh reading should be at least 165 degrees.

When chicken is fully cooked, remove it to a platter. The skin should be removed and discarded. (It will look pretty bland and awful). There will be a concentrated sauce that you can use to make gravy or just save for stock.

Cut the chicken off the bone to be served separately or used in any recipe with cooked chicken, such as tacos or chicken salad. At our house, we used the chicken to make delicious make-you-own sandwiches with good crusty bread, fresh tomatoes and a side salad. Enjoy!


Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 3,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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New Study Says The “Family Dinner” Is Overrated — My Thoughts

In recent years we’ve heard that gathering regularly for a family dinner has all kinds of beneficial effects on our children, from improved academic performance to a lower incidence of drug use. But in a piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, two researchers challenge those claims.

Their study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, looked at data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, a survey of about 18,000 teens, to analyze whether the frequency of family dinners had any impact on three factors: depressive symptoms, substance abuse and what the researchers called “delinquency.” The study’s findings:

. . . only the effect of family dinners on teen depressive symptoms held up. There was no effect on drug and alcohol use or delinquency. . . .

[W]e [also] looked at whether family dinners in the teenage years had effects that persisted into young adulthood. Again, evidence for benefits was thin. We found no direct, lasting effects of family dinners on mental health, drug and alcohol use or delinquency.

While those conclusions might surprise some people, I’ve never bought into the idea that simply sitting down to dinner magically prevents drug use; rather, I’ve always assumed that regular family dinners must correlate with other factors which impact kids favorably, like tighter familial bonds, higher income levels (in that a family dinner is easier to pull off if one spouse stays at home) and possibly higher education. And the study backs up my hunch:

. . . without controlling for such factors [quality of family relationships, activities spent with a parent, level of parental monitoring, and family resources], we found that 73 percent of adolescents who seldom ate with their families (twice per week) reported drug and alcohol use, compared with 55 percent of those who ate with their families regularly (seven days a week). But controlling for these factors, the gap was cut in half, from 18 percentage points to 9.

The authors ultimately believe it’s not dinner per se that matters so much, but the amount of time parents engage meaningfully with their children, and mealtimes are just one setting where such interaction can take place. That conclusion rings true to me, so should we all chuck our frying pans in favor of eating on the fly, in front of the TV or in the back of the car?

I still think the answer to that question is a resounding “no.”

For one thing, the researchers looked only at the three factors of depression, drug use and delinquency, but there are many other behaviors which are likely improved by regular family dinners, from a child’s eating habits to table manners to conversational skills.

We also know that when family dinners aren’t the norm, the resulting void is often filled by the least nutritious foods such as take-out and fast food, and it’s no secret that restaurants make liberal use of fat, sugar, sodium and large portion sizes to keep us coming back for more. (For a great exposé on those practices, check out former FDA Commissioner David Kessler’s The End of Overeating). Indeed, last summer I told you about a study which found that American children now get more of their calories from food prepared outside the home than ever before, with a resulting increase in caloric intake.

Finally, when no one in the home is preparing dinner on at least a semi-regular basis, it seems far less likely that kids will pick up basic cooking skills, skills which are no longer taught in schools and which are critical if we want our kids to consume whole, fresh foods in later life.

But even apart from these practical concerns, there’s something intangible — but still profoundly important — that’s communicated to kids when the entire family sits down for a meal: a sense of stability, a comforting predictability and the implicit understanding that one is being cared for both physically and emotionally. These benefits of breaking bread together couldn’t be better described than in this moving essay, one I happened to spot over my morning coffee in today’s New York Times Health section.

Written by Dawn Lerman, a health and nutrition consultant, the essay describes how the author’s 450-pound father careened from one fad diet to another throughout her childhood, serving her the same ” calorie-free astronaut mystery powders” and diet sodas he was consuming. Meanwhile, Lerman’s mother

never understood what the big deal with food was and ate only one small meal a day while standing up and chatting on the phone. She had no interest in preparing food. Most of our meals consisted of my dad’s diet foods, a meal replacement shake, a frozen dinner, or a bagel or pizza in the car. We never had meals together as a family; in fact, we never ate sitting down.

As a result, Lerman says she grew up “hungry,” both physically and emotionally. But she found refuge with her maternal grandmother with whom she dined weekly as a child:

When I walked into her kitchen, life transformed from processed packages of salty MSG instant soup to the delicious warm, fragrant smell of homemade chicken soup. Giant salads, fresh fruits and the aroma of just-baked muffins filled the air and my world. It was the only place I can remember feeling happy, safe and nourished. It was what I craved.

My grandmother . . . taught me how good it felt to be cared for, and how to care for myself and others through cooking.

When Lerman’s family moved away and these dinners were no longer possible, her grandmother still sent her a weekly card with “a $20 bill, a recipe and a list of what to buy at the market. It kept us bonded, and her recipes filled my body and soul.”

Even if it’s only once a week, even if the meal is as simple as a box of pasta and a jar of sauce, we know instinctively there’s something to be gained from gathering together and breaking bread. We might not be warding off future drug use or boosting report cards, but let’s not let this study discourage us from feeding our children, “body and soul.”


Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 3,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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12 Adults, 16 Kids, 8 Years of Family Dinners

[Ed. Note:  This post was written as part of the wonderful Blog for Family Dinner project, where it is cross-posted today. This month’s B4FD theme is “All Kinds of Families.” ]

On TLT I write a lot about the importance of family dinner, but I know all too well that for busy working families, getting everyone fed on a weeknight is often easier said than done.  Sometimes a little out-of-the-box thinking is called for.

That’s why I love this story of twelve adults and sixteen children who’ve been sharing a weekly “family dinner” together for the last eight years.

The 16 youngest members of the Thursday Night Dinner set, ranging in age from 3 to 12.

It all started when two sets of parents met through their children’s public school in Washington, D.C..  Another parent at the school, a Mediterranean chef, offered a “meal of the week” each Thursday as part of her catering business.  The two sets of parents — who happened to live across the street from each other — started buying and sharing the meal together.  Over time, three other families on the same street also bought the meal and joined in the  Thursday communal dinner.

But then the Mediterranean chef moved on.  Writes Sue, one of the original founders of Thursday Night Dinner:

We panicked.  We ordered pizza.  We ordered Chinese.  We ordered pizza again.  We wondered if we’d be able to keep it together.  Somehow, we did.  The food wasn’t as good, the planning wasn’t as seamless, but by this point Thursday Night Dinner was as much a part of our collective vocabulary and routine as school and work.

A replacement chef was hired to cook the Thursday night meal until he, too, moved on:

After two tragic breakups, we were resolved:  we weren’t going on the market again. We didn’t need a (wo)man to make us feel complete;  we had each other!  We had kitchens!  We had passable culinary skills!  We had no choice!

So, here we are, in themed pot-luck mode.  These 8 years have brought with them a few more kids, 1 new family added to the mix, and three moves off Fessenden Street, but we’re hanging in there.  And happily so.

As documented in a new weekly blog, Thursday Night Dinners, the group brings a spirit of quirky fun to the project.  For example, the first meal of 2012 had a Mayan theme, one meal was entirely raw, the next made entirely in Crockpots (including the beverage and dessert!), and there was even an homage to that 1980’s favorite, the Silver Palate Cookbook (entree: Chicken Marbella.  What else?)

Firecracker Chinese Nachos from a "Fusion"-themed dinner.

I asked Sue [full disclosure: a dear friend] about the ground rules for Thursday Night Dinner.  She told me that the families alternate hosting according to a set rotation, with the host family setting the week’s theme, preparing the entree and sometimes also a theme-appropriate cocktail.  The other families bring the rest.  No limits are imposed on spending and Sue acknowledged that the host family has to spend a fair amount to make an entree for 28 people.  On the other hand, she said:

In the long run, it probably saves us money because (1) we’re all cooking in bulk every Thursday, and (2) that’s one day of the week we’re always eating quality, multi-course meals and never, ever giving in to the lure of takeout or a restaurant.    It’s also one day a week with sustained adult conversation at dinner and free (i.e. built-in) babysitting, so maybe there are some hidden savings there.

Logistics aside, this sort of communal weeknight dinner seems like a great way to share the burden of getting a good meal on the table, with the added bonus of socializing with friends.

But whether you decide to partner up or go solo, be sure to check out the Thursday Night Dinners blog, which includes photos and recipes for most of the dishes served, along with amusing commentary.


Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 2,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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The Lunch Tray on Pinterest!

For the last few months, every time someone mentioned Pinterest in my presence I plugged my ears and hummed to drown out any discussion of yet another social media site.  Between daily blogging and updates to Facebook, Twitter and my barely used Google Plus accounts, where on earth was I going to find the time?

But, as is usually the case with these things, the chatter finally got so loud I just had to check out Pinterest’s virtual bulletin boards for myself.  And of course now I’m hooked!

So take a second and check out The Lunch Tray on Pinterest.  I’ve started boards like “School Food Around the World,” “Great Sources for Family Dinner Recipes,” “Food Writing I Adore” and “Just Makes Me Happy.”   And I’d love to see the  Pinterest boards of TLT readers if you want to share.  (You can send me an invite at bettina at the lunch tray dot com.)

Oh dear.  I can already tell this is not going to be good for what’s left of my productivity!

[I also now have a Pinterest icon over to the right under “Follow the Lunch Tray,” along with my snazzy new icons for Facebook, Twitter and RSS.  They were created by Tomáš Plecháček in the Czech Republic – thanks, Tomáš, for making me a Pinterest icon so quickly! ]


Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 1,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers.

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Back from My Blogging Break

Well, I’m back from my week off and although I didn’t accomplish everything on my (admittedly unrealistic) to-do list, it was still a restful time.

In going through the TLT archives to share interesting posts during my absence, I realized that there is seriously a LOT of stuff in there.   (I suppose that’s what you happens when you blog daily, or multiple times daily, for a year and half!)  So I think I’m going to keep that practice going — now and then sharing popular posts you may have missed — especially since the readership of this blog continues to grow and new readers are joining us all the time.  (Yay!  And welcome, new TLT’ers!)

While I was out, there were some interesting kid-and-food (or just food) news items worth knowing about (some of which I posted on TLT’s Facebook page):

  • an excellent New York Times magazine yesterday devoted to nothing but food and drink, including a lovely photo-essay showing family dinners around the country, and an interesting Q&A with Michael Pollan in which he answered readers food questions;
  • [drumroll, please] school food blogger Mrs. Q, the anonymous teacher who ate the school lunch every day for a year, will reveal her identity (and launch her new book) in just one week; and
In the coming week here on TLT, I’m eager to share a great guest post from a school food provider who really tells it like it is, and I’m going to have an announcement later in the week that I hope will be of special interest to Houston readers.
Glad to be back!  :-)


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Interview With J.M. Hirsch, Food Editor of the Associated Press (and a Dad Who Cooks)

[Ed Note:  While I take the week off, I’m sharing what I hope are interesting posts from the archives that you may have missed the first time around.   Today I’m re-posting my interview (which originally ran February 9, 2011) with J.M. Hirsch, Food Editor of the Associated Press, cookbook author and a dad who cooks.  And after you read the interview, be sure to check out J.M.’s blog, Lunchbox Blues, which is a continual source of amusement and inspiration for me when I run out of ideas for lunch packing.   Enjoy!]

A while back I posted an amusing video entitled, “Would You Give Your 2-Year-Old a Chef’s Knife?”  The creator of that video, J.M. Hirsch, actually did give his toddler a chef’s knife, compelling evidence of the importance he places on teaching children about food from an early age.  (And of the disregard he has for his child’s fingers.  Just kidding!  As you’ll read below, there’s never been a single knife-related mishap.)

Hirsch is Food Editor for the Associated Press as well as the author of High Flavor Low Labor, a cookbook promising flavorful but simple weeknight meals.  As someone who cooks a family dinner at least five nights a week, I couldn’t get my hands on the book fast enough.  My son and I made a delicious miso-wasabi glazed salmon and I could see that Hirsch’s cooking philosophy is very much in tune with my own – lots of bold ethnic flavors in otherwise pretty simple dishes.  I also love his emphasis on the importance of family dinners and involving kids in the cooking process.

J.M. Hirsch was kind enough to let me interview him for today’s Lunch Tray:

TLT:  Tell us a little about the philosophy behind High Flavor Low Labor.  What do you mean by “blunt force cooking?”

JMH: When it comes to cooking, as much as I love it I don’t have a whole lot of time for it. I also don’t have much talent for it (I’m an editor, not a chef). So I let high-flavor ingredients do the heavy lifting for me. My theory is that if food tastes great before it goes into the pot, I don’t need to work as hard or as long for it to taste great when it comes out. So I rely on ingredients with big, bold flavors, things like balsamic vinegar, feta cheese, soy sauce.

A good example of this is my garlic-lime steak with avocado salsa. You make a mouth puckeringly good marinade out of olive oil, lime juice and zest, vinegar, garlic and pepper. Half of it becomes a marinade for the steak, the other half is tossed with chopped avocado to make a salsa. The result is a deliciously savory steak topped with a salsa that is at once peppery, tangy and creamy. The whole thing is done in under 30 minutes. But the flavors are so deep and so satisfying, it tastes like you put a whole lot more effort into it.

And I call it blunt force cooking because I just can’t do nuanced cooking. I use flavors that bash me over the head.

TLT:  Do you manage to have weeknight meals with your family most nights?  If so, what do you see as the benefits of weeknight dining as a family?

JMH: We eat together every night. Making this happen has required making some changes. Prior to having a child, we ate at 8

p.m. or even later. That doesn’t fly with a 6-year-old. So now we eat between 6-6:30 p.m. It also means I have needed to get creative in my cooking. As my son gets older, he gets involved in more activities outside the home. And for reasons I can only assume are meant to torture parents, these activities always seem to be scheduled at the exact time I need to be making dinner. I talk a lot about this inmy blog — how to cook dinner when you’re not home. I wish I could say the slow cooker is my secret weapon, but I just can’t seem to make it work for me. So I’ve learned to love slow-roasted meats and other meals I can pop in the oven while running around with my son.

Which is to say, family meals for a busy family are not easy. But I totally think they are worth the trouble. It’s an opportunity to talk, to slow down, to catch up. And there is real value in simply being together, eating together, even when nothing of any great importance is said.

TLT:  What would you say to someone who thinks he/she is just too busy to pull off family weeknight dining?

JMH: If I can do it, anyone can. My wife and I have demanding full-time jobs. I take care of my son and his many activities, take care of the house, the cats, the bills, the telephone calls… All the many things that intrude on our family time and our ability to get everyone to the table. But I’ve made it a priority. Which isn’t to say I can make a lot of time for it. But I don’t believe you need a lot of time to have a good family meal. And I also don’t think you need to rely on processed food or take-out.

My trick is to simply build meals around staples — grains, seafood, meat and veggies. I take a couple of those each night, add some high-flavor ingredients and call it dinner. Not every meal is a stunner, but at least it will be good food. Real food.

Here’s a good example. On nights when I’ve got nothing going my way, I boil up some whole-grain pasta. A few minutes before it’s done, I add a few cups of shelled edamame. Just before draining, I set aside ¼ cup of the cooking water. Then I drain it and return the cooked pasta and edamame to the pot and add some diced cooked meat (I use deli meat, cooked chicken, leftover steak, whatever). Then I grate in some cheese (whatever I have on hand). Then I season with whatever moves me (lately I’ve been all about the Thai red curry paste, but I’m also a big fan of a tiny splash of hot sauce – heightens the flavors of the dish without adding real heat). I toss the whole thing together, adding a bit of the starchy cooking water to help form a sauce. That’s it. Dinner in 20 minutes from pantry staples and leftovers. I probably wouldn’t serve it at a dinner party, but really, how many of us have the time for dinner parties these days, anyway? It was a fast, healthy, affordable and satisfying meal.

TLT:  I know you believe in involving your son in your cooking — why do you think that’s important?  How do you think he’s benefiting from being in the kitchen with you?

JMH: I’ve involved my son in the cooking since he came home from the hospital. Really. The week he was born, I took him on a sniffing tour of the kitchen, holding up all the spices and coffees and everything for him to smell.

Maybe that’s a bit crazy, but the point is that children have lost touch with food — what real food is, where it comes from, how it is produced and by whom, and what it takes to get it from the farm to the table. Which doesn’t mean every meal should involve a lecture about sustainable agriculture and a reading from Michael Pollan’s latest tome. But the simple act of teaching a child the difference between cinnamon and nutmeg, or how to chop an onion or peel a potato, introduces them to the idea that real food has value and requires effort, that it is something to care about. It also gives them a sense of inclusion, responsibility and ownership in a vital part of family life.

My son is 6 now and he has been doing “real” cooking with me since he was 2. That’s when I gave him his first knife — a 5-inch chef’s knife. Believe it or not, it can be done safely. Parker has never cut himself or me in any way. These days he even sautés for me and a few weeks ago we made hard candy together (which involved him bringing sugar to a 310 F boil).

And I don’t limit his involvement in the cooking to actual cooking. I also involve him in the shopping. Every week we pick out something new to try. We make a special event out of tasting it. It’s a great way to get kids to think beyond their usual foods. They go into the experience knowing they don’t have to like the food, or even eat more than one bite. My son loves this and is always asking if we have new things to try.

TLT: Do you think your son is less picky/more adventurous than most kids due to his involvement in preparing meals?  Was that one of the goals of bringing him into the kitchen?

JMH: My son is a pretty adventurous eater. He loves sushi and chicken mole and Ethiopian food. And he is really good about trying new things. We have the one-bite rule. You have to try it, but you don’t have to like it. Food is such a big part of my life, it was really important to me that he be willing to embrace lots of new ingredients and flavors. One of my proudest moments was taking him to a James Beard-winning restaurant for a four-hour 10-course meal when he was 5. He did awesome, eating everything from red wine-braised beef to crispy fried duck skin.

That said, he’s still a 6-year-old. He’s not a fan of vegetables. And yes, that does drive me nuts. But as with so many aspects of raising children, you pick your battles. He loves brown rice, whole-grain breads and pastas, gobbles fruit of nearly any variety by the pound, and could eat his way through just about any ethnic restaurant. I can live with that compromise for now.

TLT:  You candidly admit in your book that having a kid in the kitchen isn’t always easy.  What are some tips you have to keep little ones involved — but also out from underfoot — as you prepare dinner?

JMH: Involving your kids in the cooking won’t always be fun and easy. But what about raising children is ALWAYS fun and easy? We do it because it’s important. We do it because the only way to teach children healthy eating habits is to teach them what real food is and what is involved in getting it to the table.

But I also find that involving my son in the cooking can help me. If I give him something to mix or chop or stir, I can be doing something else. It also means I don’t have to worry about what he’s doing or have him hounding me the whole time to do something else.

One trick I have is to let Parker make a spice rub. I have assembled a box of spices and seasonings for him to play with _ castoffs from my own spice cabinet, dollar store finds, etc. He is allowed to mix these as he sees fit. I then try to use his mix in the meal. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. You control what goes into the box, so you know in advance the sorts of flavor combinations the kids can come up with. Sometimes I use his mixture as a dry rub for meat. Other times I toss it with oil and cubed butternut squash that I then roast. I’ve never had a bad dinner using this trick. In fact, there’s even one recipe in my cookbook  — child’s play pork tenderloin –that was the result of one of Parker’s spice mixes.

TLT:  Is there anything else you’d like to tell Lunch Tray readers about cooking with kids and/or your cookbook?

JMH:  Just that real food for real families doesn’t have to be hard. I rarely get take-out. I rarely use processed food. I cook dinner from scratch almost every night. It’s not only possible, but it can taste great. And it’s no great secret. I let the ingredients do the work for me. I flavor the basics – I’m a big fan of boneless, skinless chicken breasts — with bold ingredients that effortlessly add tons of flavor.  It keeps my inner foodie happy. It keeps my family fed. It keeps the food on my table real. And it’s all in keeping with my crazy busy life.

*  *  *

A huge thank you to J.M. Hirsch for coming by The Lunch Tray!  You can check out High Flavor Low Labor — and a video that includes little Parker mixing up his spice rub — here.

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