For Bon Appetit, by Chris Morocco
There’s a pleasant whiff of Elmer’s glue and hand sanitizer in the air, because it’s back to school week at BonAppetit.com. Every day we’ll be celebrating the good, not-so-good, and artificially-colored snacks of childhood, school cafeterias, and beyond.
I started to cook professionally because I love food and I am fulfilled by the experience of feeding people. Lately my son Alec has made me reconsider. He is a 3-year-old culinary tyrant, with tastes that change by the day—sometimes by the minute. People assure me that this is completely “normal.” But just because it’s normal for kids to be picky eaters doesn’t mean it won’t drive you insane. If normal means he will eat fistfuls of sliced soppresata but won’t even try one bite of cantaloupe in exchange for a chocolate chip cookie, then I am out.
It wasn’t always like this. Until he turned 2, Alec ate most things. Soup. Meats not in the shape of a tube or finger. Pasta with anything on it. Then the “approved” list began to diminish. Bye-bye roast chicken for the whole family. Hello chicken tenders and fruit juice as a form of currency. If he doesn’t like what’s in front of him, he’ll choose not to eat at all.
He started preschool this summer, meaning I started packing lunch every day. It’s a daily quest for (cold) foods for a kid who won’t eat sandwiches, salads, or any vegetable other than broccoli, or anything that has touched any other food. So, I decided to make a deal with Alec. I would include something new with each lunch and in return he could grade how I did at the end of each day for all the world to see (okay, he also got a juice box.)
I went for shock and awe and made a PB+J on whole wheat bread. (Made with sunflower seed butter, of course, to spare anyone with allergies). I worked at a bakery and deli in high school and I can wrap a sandwich like nobody else, so maybe I just felt like showing off. The subtlety of the perfectly pleated unbleached parchment paper was clearly lost on him. Alec wasn’t buying it. The juice box and banana disappeared, but the sandwich was literally untouched. His feedback was that he would be open to trying a sandwich if it had marshmallow fluff in it. Um, nice try kid.
After the sandwich debacle I needed an easy win. Alec loves pasta and bow-tie shapes best of all. (Apparently they look like fish to him, which is a good thing? Why is it that he won’t eat actual fish if it isn’t in stick form then?) I put a tiny bit of basil pesto on it in addition to Parmesan, his standby pasta topping. And lots of grapes in a separate container. The result? Big win. He wasn’t sure about the pesto, and did some textbook nose wrinkling when referencing the “green stuff” but if nothing else his hunger won out. I’ll take it.
I got a bit desperate. The fridge was strangely empty and it was only halfway through the week. I explained to Alec that I was making him a Ploughman’s lunch, which in England is essentially cheese and bread with a piece of fruit. He is usually okay with the cheddar we bought, Grafton 2-year, and I subbed his Kashi whole-grain crackers for the bread. And some apple slices. I also had some corn on the cob so I gave him half an ear. Probably will win a weird lunch award at some point for this. There wasn’t room in his lunchbox for his juice so I just left it out. That is what I am going to blame for the B he gave me. He said he doesn’t like cheese. (Lie.)
Developing recipes in the Test Kitchen means I have a lot of leftovers that are completely out of step with the current season. Which is why I sent a three year-old to school with leftover brown sugar-glazed turkey and potato gratin on a 90-degree day. Maybe it just made sense to me, because that was probably the eighth turkey I had cooked this summer. Lunch came back that day UNTOUCHED. Alec, not won over by the presence of skin on his turkey, said it looked “like poo poo.” I am surprised I didn’t get a note from the principal.
Again, not trying to make excuses here, but the smoked fish terrine that was leftover from holiday recipe testing did have a certain wow factor in my eyes as an inventive toddler’s lunch. But the real wow factor was on its return trip to my kitchen when it hadn’t been refrigerated for half the day. The other test that day was cantaloupe. Alec loves watermelon but wouldn’t try any other kind of melon. He tried it and really liked it! Full disclosure: I knew the school was serving pizza that day so this was really more of a snack.
Grade: F, if fish terrine is factored in, but Alec graciously revised this to a C, for cantaloupe.
You need to send flowers to anyone who ever packed your lunch for school. And I think rather than just putting totally new things in front of Alec, I should find things that are small extensions and expansions of things he already likes and make steps towards working in new foods. Preschool starts again in September, which means more lunches, and some more inevitable F’s. Worst case, I can always buy some Fluff.
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