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October 2013

Leave Food Fights Off the Menu: Don't Waste Your Time Together

Belushi
My online friend Debbie Koenig (author of “Parents Need to Eat Too”) recently blogged for The New York Times about her picky eater, and it got me to thinking. I’m fortunate in that my kids probably fall in the middle of the pickiness range. One willingly eats odd things like mussels and clams, but steadfastly refuses fruit; the other will eat every fruit under the sun but she won’t touch shellfish. Their tastes don’t concern me all that much, with two important exceptions. One, I want to make sure they’re getting a balanced diet (I was recently relieved to learn that potatoes are a good source of Vitamin C).  Two, their reluctance to try things curtails my enthusiasm for making new dishes. They’re just kids, and I get it, but if I make a fancy new dinner and they don’t go for it, I feel like I’ve wasted my time. I don’t just cook to feed myself—I cook to feed everybody. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting stuck in a rut, but that’s another story.

Koenig sought expert help from a registered dietician Ellyn Satter, who had a few suggestions, including, “stop talking about food at the table.” Koenig, who is a food writer, said that that would be hard, but she’s trying it. The idea makes a lot of sense to me. When I think back about how I grew up, we never discussed food around the table, and just about all my siblings have sophisticated palates. I never had sushi until I was in my twenties, and I don’t think I tasted arugula until I was well out of college. Parents of our generation tend to make too big a deal about who is eating what, and when.

It will do everyone a heap of good to back off on the subject, and turn to other things that are happening with your kids.  We all live atomized lives, with work and fill-in-the-blank afterschool activities keeping us apart. Don’t waste the moments around the table together fighting over that last (or that first!) green bean.


The Cake in the Refrigerator: A Pumpkin Bread Recipe

Sunday morning, I was in the basement and the kids were upstairs, on their own for a few minutes. When I came back, I found Nina beaming. “Dad,” she said, “Pinta and I were having a really big fight, and I said ‘Remember, we have a cake in the refrigerator.’”

She was talking about a means of keeping the peace that Santa Maria and I picked up from Thich Nhat Hanh’s latest book, “The Art of Communicating.” In it, he has a passage that goes like this:

The Cake in the Refrigerator

One tool we can use to improve our communication is a cake. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a baker, don’t have a cake, or are gluten-free. This is a very special cake that is not made of four and sugar like a sponge cake. We can keep eating it, and it is never finished. It is called ‘the cake in the refrigerator.’

This practice was developed to help children deal with their parents’ arguing, but it can also be used by adults in a relationship. When the atmosphere becomes heavy and unpleasant, and it seems that one person is losing his or her temper, you can use the practice of the cake to restore harmony.

First of all, breathe in and out three times to give yourself courage. Then turn to the person or people who seem upset and let them know you just remembered something. When they ask you what, you can say, ‘I remember that we have a cake in the refrigerator.’

Saying, ‘there is a cake in the refrigerator’ really means: ‘Please, let’s not make each other suffer anymore.’ Hearing these words, the person will understand. Hopefully, he or she will look at you and say, ‘That’s right. I’ll go and get the cake.’ This is a nonjudgmental way out of a dangerous situation. The person who is upset now has an opportunity to withdraw from the fight without causing more tension.

The person goes into the kitchen, opens the refrigerator to take out the cake, and boils water to make the tea, all the while following their breathing. If there is no real cake in the refrigerator, something else can be substituted—a piece of fruit or toast or whatever you find. Preparing the snack and tea, that person may even remember to smile as a way to feel lighter in body and spirit.

Santa Maria taught this to the girls, and when they needed to resolve their difference, they tried it today. I was stunned. Usually when they need to resolve their differences, things—mostly insults, sometimes LEGOs—end up getting thrown.

Pinta said, “We went into the freezer to look for pumpkin bread, but we couldn’t find any so we made some toast.” They were at the table, munching on buttery bits of warm semolina-sesame bread as they told me this.

It nearly broke my heart to know that we’ve been able to teach them something so useful. I suggest you give this a try if you’re having a fight with someone you care about. And later that evening I found a bit of Santa Maria’s frozen pumpkin bread (which is delicious fresh and which freezes well and toasts up wonderfully), and I was reminded about how good it is. Here’s the recipe, as adapted from “Joy of Cooking” by the incomparable Santa Maria.

Santa Maria’s Peace-Making Pumpkin Bread

2 9x5-inch loaf pans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Sift together

            2  cups sifted all-purpose flour

            ¼ teaspoon double-acting baking powder

            1 teaspoon baking soda

            1 teaspoon salt

            1 teaspoon cinnamon

            ½  teaspoon ground cloves

            ¼ ground fresh nutmeg

In a large bowl, beat together:

1/3 cup sugar

¼ cup Canola Oil

3 eggs

Add and beat in:

            1 can cooked pumpkin (15 oz)

Now add the sifted dry ingredients in 3 additions alternately with:

1/3 cup milk

Pour batter into a greased pan and bake about 1 hour our until bread tests done (baked batter does not stick to inserted sharp knife).


An Apple Saves the Day: Giving a Tired Lunch a New Life

Coyote under anvil

The other morning I was knee-deep in making the kids’ lunches, when I suddenly realized that it was almost time to leave AND I hadn’t yet made my own lunch. It was as if the anvil of getting the kids to school on time was about to fall on my head. In that cartoon-like moment (imagine the seconds before the metal lands on Wile E. Coyote, and just guess who the super genius is in this case) I was struck by inspiration–If I’m cutting up an apple for Pinta’s lunch, why not cut one up for my own?

Apples

Typically, for my lunch I’ll throw together some grilled chicken breasts, some goat cheese, and some bread. And when I say “throw together,” I’m not kidding. I toss all those things in a bag and then assemble them at my desk at work. This leaves me with a decent, but less-than-inspired lunch.

  Work_Sandwich_In_Progress

The day of my Newtonian moment, I took the apple slices I’d cut and threw those in the bag, too. When I assembled that at my desk, I had a pretty smart looking sandwich.

  Work_Sandwich

All of this is to say: Don't give up. Just keep cooking and things will be fine. You might suprrise yourself. 


The Art of Setting the Table

Flower_Napkin

Pinta set the table the other night. She drew flowers and a butterfly on the napkins and put out place cards. It looked very nice, and when she said to me, “Dad, can I get a pitcher?” I heard the sentence,“Dad, can I get a picture,” a liability of being a food blogger. When I reached for my camera, she said, “No a water pitcher!”

So, if your kids are ever looking for something to do before dinner, have them set the table. Give them the knives and forks and napkins, but don’t forget the markers.