I am very firm in the belief that the only reason American children eat hot dogs, boxed mac & cheese, meat-that-was-formerly-known-as-chicken nuggets, canned spaghetti rings, white balloon bread, and other bland, over-processed atrocities, is that we adults don’t give them better.
After all, children in Thailand snorf down bowls of pho as soon as they’re old enough to avoid choking on the noodles. Japanese kids eat sushi. European kids enjoy smelly cheese and interesting bread. Swedish kids like lingonberry jam. Scottish kids eat… well, to quote a favorite 80s movie, I also firmly believe all Scottish food is based on a dare, so we probably shouldn’t dwell overmuch on what Scottish kids might eat if given the chance. Particularly if they’re Scottish boys. That’s how we ended up with haggis, I’m pretty sure.
As a child myself (lo, these many years ago), I went through a few food phases that must have seemed odd to on-lookers.
There was the Clam Chowder Era, in which I only ate chowder at restaurants. (This actually became a bonding point with my father-in-law, eventually. I’m convinced he was willing to drive from the Gulf Coast to the upper Oregon Coast to eat the extraordinary clam chowder at Mo’s in Cannon Beach. That he could visit us at the same time was a pleasant coincidence. The man was serious about his chowder.)
There was also the Chinese Fried Shrimp Epoch, in which ordering for me was extremely simple: chow mein, pork fried rice, and tempura shrimps, alternating dunks into horseradish-spiked sauce and good old Western tartar sauce. (Never on the same shrimp, though, as that would be gross.)
(There was also a thankfully short-lived stretch when I insisted on dressing my salads with ketchup. My mother, with great fortitude, resisted sicking up at my choice, but she also refused to let me wander down that culinary path, and grounded me from ketchup until I moved back to more normal dressing options.)
I met my husband at a restaurant. He struck up a conversation over a comment on my entree choice, and things sort of snowballed from there. One date and fourteen years of marriage later, we still enjoy talking about food, and making and eating all manner of tasty things (thus, the Food Nifties here on the blog!) We can (and have) spent entire afternoons at the computers or in a book store, reading recipes aloud to one another.
So, when we added children to the mix, we decided to ignore the Child Menu Atrocities, and feed them from the normal menus and regular plates as much as possible, hoping to side-step the agonies of having to base our dining choices around an immature, stunted palate that had never been allowed to go beyond dino-shaped “chicken” patties dunked in ketchup.
For the most part, it has worked beyond our most joyous dreams. Tell my kids we’re having “hot dogs”, and they’ll be prepared to slather interesting mustard on a bratwurst or kielbasa. Lasagna or ravioli involve a lot of spinach and ricotta, and possibly some spicy Italian sausage. They’ll take minestrone over “veggies and letters” canned soup any day. My Eldest has her own herb plot to keep us stocked up on fresh tasties for the kitchen. We watch cooking programs as a family. And, we can go to any restaurant we choose, from any cuisine, and be confident out kids will find something they like to eat.
(The Eldest, at five, impressed a waitress in a Gulf Coast seafood restaurant, when she very seriously asked “If Chef has any of that flat fish, with both eyes on one side of their head?” The waitress correctly interpreted “Flounder?” and Eldest continued, “Yes, please. May I have that broiled, with some lemon and butter and a tasty herb? And do you have steamed rice? And I’d also like some steamed vegetables, with carrots in them. Could you ask Chef to not put in the squash? But if he needs to, that’s okay, too. I can push them to the side. Oh, and may I please have some plain water with lemon?” She enjoyed her meal tremendously, and Chef came out to meet the little girl who took her food so seriously.)
There are one or two serious downsides to creating junior foodies.
It gets really expensive buying things when you have a spicy little girl of 4.5 who thinks that garlic chevre is something to be inhaled a spoonful at a time. I don’t like having to share my marinated artichoke hearts. And you have to be careful when you turn a kid loose in the produce & bulk foods section and say, “Choose some treats for Christmas stockings!” because they’ll always come back with the interesting (expensive) stuff. I have kids who will quiz a food vendor on the origin of their haggis, because they’re kind of picky about imported brand names, and don’t like the “cheapo” ones. We’re trying to invest the Eldest with a sense of tact regarding her outspoken protest of boxed baking mixes. And explaining to your delicate mother-in-law that yes, that child really does want a lingua (beef tongue) taco, can be… fun.
Don’t think we eat Brie-encrusted handmade pasta for lunch. They do eat some of the normal Kid Menu stuff. I’m just really grateful that they’re learning to have a flexible palate, and that I’ve never once had to open a can of Chef Boyardee, with its insipid, watery odor and gluey, smooshy “pasta.”
Creating junior foodies: one very small way to rebel against limited dining choices for the Thirty Bearing/Raising Children Years of my life. I can’t take another “ketchup as salad dressing” episode in this short mortality. My mom was a saint.