Monday, March 2, 2009

"The Kitchen Is Closed!" And Other Tales Of Feeding Four-Year-Olds

They're still too small to get their own cereal, milk, or juice, let alone reheat yesterday's pancakes. So breakfast means "Service, please!" for Late Blooming Mom, and so do the other meals.

Whatever I put in front of them, they invariably ask for something else. Despite my attempt to enforce the "You get what you get, and you don't get upset" rule, there is often much whining around the dining room table. I try not to give in, but sometimes, you just can't get 'em to eat, and if you refuse to put anything in front of them they want, then later, they're going to whine that they're hungry. Then there's another chance to stand fast, but I often wind up crumbling because by then, the whining has worn me down.

So I've taken to informing my kids, after I've gotten them food and perhaps acceded to a few requests WITHIN REASON, that "The Kitchen Is Closed."
They know I mean business, and sometimes they come up to me later, and ask in soft voices, with sweet eyes and upturned chins, "Is da kitchen closed?"And could they "please, mommy, please, I said please," have a pear, or a peanut butter n' jelly sandwich?

I try hard to put food in front of them that has a likely chance of being eaten, but sometimes there's no escaping the feeling that I'm a short-order cook in a restaurant with demanding, rude, and sloppy clientele.

Aside from closing down the kitchen, my other trick is to provide acceptable alternatives that don't take too much effort on my part. There are chicken nuggets from Whole Foods, which may still be fried and frozen, but are organic and are lacking in hydrogenated oils (you do what you can, people; sometimes they will only eat the Dinosaur-shaped ones from the regular market, and only God or the FDA know what's inside them). There are mini-pizzas (again, the Whole Foods brand, because the pizzas taste more like real pizza than the cheapie Trader Joe's mini pizzas -- those are about on a par with the dreadful Ronzoni toaster pizzas of my childhood). There's yogurt, often in the form of smoothies or tubes (AKA squeezers). There are eggs for Thing 2 (she eats 'em scrambled, hard-boiled, or over-easy so she can dip toast into the runny yolks), and aforementioned PB & J for him.

There's one thing I hate about feeding four-year-olds about as much as I hate being their short-order cook: it's that I can't get them to eat more than a few things. They have an aversion to pasta in meat sauce, so if I want them to eat pasta with meat, I've gotta make meatballs (labor-intensive, even though I bake them instead of browning them stove-top). They won't eat my chili, and only one of them deigns to eat my lasagna (these were my pre-kid weeknight mainstays). I can get them to take a few bites of mild fish -- sole, or salmon. But anything else is far too exotic.

So it's more packaged mac 'n cheese , though the day seems to have finally arrived when my son, Thing 1, has tired of it (I thought he never would, as I wrote here). The home-made variety gets a worse reception, and the only version he eats with gusto is taken out from the Koo Koo Roo restaurant chain. Quesadillas used to be their thing, but frequent serving of this entree has dampened their enthusiasm for it. Since pizza always works, if we have time and it's not bath night, I'll set the kids up at a small table in the kitchen at their height, and we'll get busy rolling out the store-bought pizza dough. (I've been known to sneak white bean puree into the tomato sauce, courtesy the SNEAKY CHEF, but they sometimes get wise to it and don't like the taste). Or I buy that silly Pillbury dough and we make pigs in blankets, mostly because when they help make what they eat, they tend to be more interested in consuming it. Once every couple of weeks, we grill small steaks and they'll eat some corn on the cob or roast potatoes. And of course, the mainstay meat is chicken, the preparation of which I'm always trying to vary.

Sometimes all they want is the same damn thing, again and again and again. So I come to count on it (as I did with quesadillas), only for the kids to suddenly balk at it. I go to the cookbooks, the web, FOOD TV, anywhere I can find a recipe for something they just might latch onto, something that can join my stable of staples.

More often than not, the more effort I put in, the less it seems to be appreciated by my children. I once made home-made fried fish sticks with sole, Panko Japanese breadcrumbs, a Nigella Lawson comfort-food special. They were the best damn fish sticks my husband and I have ever eaten in our entire lives to date. Thing 1 declared them "too crunchy." Thing 2 deigned to eat a few, but spurned the dill/lemon/mayo dipping sauce.

The nights I get most frustrated are when I've made that kind of big effort, the result is something Jamie Oliver or Giada DiLaurentis or even the exacting Gordon Ramsey would find truly delicious, and they take one look at it and reject it.

I have been known to lose it so bad on those nights, Daddy has had to take over dinner operations, and I have left the house.

I think perhaps one of the biggest and least-talked about grinds of daily motherhood is the shopping, the cooking for, and the cleaning up after, the children. Planning is perhaps the worst of all; the question "What's for dinner, mom?," uttered on continuous loop -- as it often seems to be -- by small but insistent preschoolers, could be used to break prisoners.

Though part of me wants them to know and love my cooking, to be exposed to dishes my mom made for me, and to teach them to be bold and brave enough to try eating new things, part of me just wants to be relieved of the whole exhausting enterprise.

Today I made two meals in advance, and I already feel behind. Take-out, anyone?

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