It seems like the cruelest trick of fate for a food writer and cookbook author to have a picky eater, but it happens to the best of them. Debbie Koenig, Williamsburg mom to six-year-old Harry and author of Parents Need to Eat Too: Nap-Friendly Recipes, One-Handed Meals, and Time-Saving Kitchen Tricks for New Parents (Morrow, 2012), has a plain(ish)-pasta eater on her hands, and below she shares her tricks to expanding his palatte, and a ton of recipes that keep the grown-up dinners up to snuff. If you'd like a hands-on lesson, she's teaching a class at the Institute for Culinary Education titled "Parents Need to Eat Too" on Friday, October 12 from 10am to 2pm, where she'll cover great meals you can make during naptime or after bedtime so you can enjoy your dinner, too.
Just how picky an eater is your son? Have you developed any helpful tricks over the years?
Let's put it this way: My husband is omnivorous--he'll try anything. I'm mostly-nivorous--I've got a handful of things I just can't abide (cilantro, ugh). But Harry's so stubborn, we like to call him non-nivorous. Not only is his Will-Eat list short enough to fit on an index card, it changes from day to day. Cream cheese sandwiches, which used to be a gimme, are currently off-limits, though I imagine he'll be asking for one again soon enough. As for tricks, the thing that's saved my sanity is to make meals with elements that can be pulled out and left plain--so if I'm serving pasta with a quick puttanesca sauce, he'll have pasta with just olive oil, and olives and capers on the side. We do a lot of homemade pizza, and Harry gets his own ball of dough to top with a hint of sauce, tons of cheese, and black olives. He'll eat corn on the cob but not off, so when I do my favorite super-quick summertime supper, I'll strip the kernels from most of the corn, but leave half an ear untouched just for him.
What kinds of foods did you give him from the start? Do you feel like you influenced the way he eats now?
I'm a big proponent of feeding your baby the same foods you're eating from day one--every recipe in my cookbook ends with instructions for turning it into baby food. That's what I did with Harry--and he looooved it. He was a fantastic eater in the early days. His favorite food was pesto! Things went downhill when he got a little older. My husband was working late a lot so I'd feed Harry our leftovers and wait to have a grownup meal when my husband came home, after Harry was asleep. So Harry never saw us eating and enjoying the foods I was serving him. If I had that to do over, I'd definitely find a way to eat with him, so he could have that good example.
What's a typical breakfast like for him?
Breakfast is probably our easiest meal. During the week it's often yogurt, fruit, and toast with butter and jam or Cheerios. Smoothies with avocado and flaxmeal thrown in for some heft. Frozen waffles and turkey bacon. On the weekends I'll make pancakes or french toast and freeze the leftovers to use on weekdays. No matter what, there's always fruit, some source of healthy fat, and some kind of whole grain.
A typical lunch?
Lunch drives me crazy. Four days out of five, the carefully-packed meal I send with him--which he'll usually have a say in choosing--comes home uneaten. Last year he told me he was eating the school's peanut butter sandwiches and I was ok with that. I stopped sending him with a "main course," though I always found it odd that he refused to eat my pb&j. And then I chaperoned a class trip and learned at lunchtime that he'd been lying to me all year! He started crying when I handed him the school's brown-bag lunch, and one of his friends announced, "Harry hates peanut butter!" It was as close as I've come to strangling him.
Now that I know he doesn't eat the school lunch, I'm back to sending him with mine. He likes to graze so I'll fill little silicone cupcake cups with a variety of healthy nibbles like cashews, shredded mozzarella, olives, and whole-grain crackers. He loves my matzo ball soup, so I try to keep a stash in the freezer to send in a thermos. I'll also do pancakes or waffles with a little container of syrup, Annie's mac & cheese, or leftover macaroni with Trader Joe's mini-meatballs (he'll gobble those down, even though he won't touch my homemade ones). But like I said, much of the time even this stuff comes back uneaten, so I always include fruit, sometimes yogurt, and often a homemade baked good (he loves these Triple Chocolate Zucchini Muffins, even though he knows they've got an actual vegetable in them).
What are your go-to dinners?
We have pasta at least once a week--he'll eat his plain, with olive oil, and I'll make what I call "Hail Mary" sauce--quickly roasted tomatoes and vegetables--or pull some Little Gram's Sauce from the freezer. Homemade pizza's weekly, too. I like to play with the toppings for the grownup version, like with this corn, zucchini & spicy pesto version. Sometimes "breakfast for dinner," maybe pancakes with grated carrots or just scrambled eggs with turkey bacon and toast. And soup, we're big on soup.
Do you try to eat together or feed him first? If you eat together, how do you manage that?
We eat together as much as possible--I know that even if he won't eat what I'm making, at some point that's going to change. The more often he sees us eating good, healthy, homemade food, the sooner it'll happen. My husband's now home for dinner most nights, so it's pretty easy. On the occasional evenings when he doesn't make it home, I'll help Harry make himself a pita pizza or heat up some leftover pasta for him. And even if I'm not having a full meal with him, I always make sure I'm eating something when he eats.
What do you keep on hand always (in the freezer or pantry) for last-minute meals?
The freezer always has Little Gram's Sauce, chicken broth (whenever I have chicken bones I make Overnight Chicken Soup in the slow cooker), cooked brown rice, and leftover Big Batch meals. The pantry has pasta, bulgur (cooks in 12 minutes!), whole wheat couscous, canned beans, Tetra Paks of tomatoes, olives and capers, polenta rolls--I devoted a section of my blog and a chapter of my book to pantry cooking, and I'll be talking about last-minute options a lot in my class at ICE.
How often do you eat out or order in? What are your favorite places for take out or dinners out as a family, and what do you get for him?
I don't cook roughly once a week. Lately it's been Chinese, since noodle soups are always good for Harry--we'll either order in or drive to Flushing to this amazing hand-pulled noodles joint, Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House. (My husband gets the dumplings & Harry and I split noodle soup. He loves watching the noodle man slap the dough against the counter, stretching & folding & slapping again.) Going to Crif Dogs is always a hit, as much for the display of Star Wars toys as for the food. Forcella on Lorimer makes everyone happy, and La Superior on Berry.
What's your policy on sweets and junk food?
Harry gets one treat a day. Now that school's started it's often an ice or ice cream in the playground afterwards, and occasionally I'll let him get candy (he's obsessed with anything Wonka since reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). I bake a lot, so there's generally something homemade around, too. As for junk food, we love it--but it's got to be good junk food, and it's relatively rare. We'll road trip for hot dogs, but Harry's never had McDonald's. He's had tons of cookies in his life, but very few Oreos. We've got a Saturday-morning ritual of going to Peter Pan for egg sandwiches and donuts, but Dunkin? Almost never.
What's your policy on introducing new food or encouraging your son to eat things he's not interested in?
I try not to push--it's hard for me since it's my nature to obsess about food. I love the books by an R.D. named Ellyn Satter, which are all about raising good and healthy eaters without stressing too much. I've spoken to her a few times, actually, and her advice is to just keep serving what I'm serving, do it family style so Harry can serve himself, and don't make a peep about what he's eating (or not). I find that incredibly hard to do, not talking about it, but I'm trying. Lately he's been watching the old Popeye cartoons, and actually asked me to buy spinach! He's been eating a small spinach salad a few times a week, just to show off his muscles afterwards. I'm delighted, but I'm keeping that to myself.
Are there any cookbooks you refer to often (aside from yours!)?
Of course! I have a pretty huge cookbook collection, more than 200 of them. I don't often follow recipes as written, but I do look to them for inspiration several times a week. I love almost anything by Mark Bittman, Ina Garten, and Melissa Clark. And Pam Anderson's How to Cook Without a Book series is amazing.
Below, Koenig shares a favorite recipe from Parents Need to Eat Too:
Hail Mary Pasta
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
This was born out of desperation, a last-minute realization that Stephen and Harry were on their way home from the playground and would be expecting dinner, pronto. You can substitute almost any vegetable for the zucchini—whatever’s in the fridge, threatening to spoil—but do use small tomatoes. When roasted, they burst and form a sweet, juicy sauce I find irresistible.
2 pints grape or cherry tomatoes
2 medium zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 box (12 to 14.5 ounces) whole-wheat or whole-grain pasta of your choice (I like Barilla Plus penne)
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
1. Turn the oven on to 500°F. Put a big pot of salted water over high heat; cover it to make it boil faster.
2. Toss everything but the pasta and the cheese into a rectangular baking dish and stir. Put it in the oven before the water boils, if you can manage it.
3. When the water boils, add the pasta and cook according to package directions, reserving 1/2 cup of cooking water.
4. While the pasta is cooking, give the baking dish a hearty shake every few minutes. If you’re lucky, the tomatoes will burst before the pasta’s done. If not, drain the pasta and put the colander over the pasta pot, then put the pot’s lid on top of the pasta to keep it warm.
5. When the tomatoes burst and look lusciously goopy, the sauce is done. Pour a few tablespoons of the reserved cooking water into the baking dish and stir it around, to get all the good stuff off the bottom and sides. Put the pasta back into the pot, dump in the sauce, and stir. If it seems too dry, add the rest of the reserved cooking water.
6. Serve topped with grated Parmesan cheese. Hail Mary.
MAKE BABY FOOD: If your baby’s eaten cooked tomatoes, it’s all good. If not, reserve some of the pasta and toss with olive oil and cheese. You can also pick out some of the zucchini—the texture will be perfect.