As summer is fast approaching and the kids are released from school soon, it makes me think of all that time I remember as a kid myself, loose in front of the family fridge…what, I wondered, do most kids eat through the summer in today’s world?
I read an article recently in the New York Times that maligned the ubiquitous children’s menus you see in most restaurants today, with the same old chicken fingers, fries and pizza listed whether you are at Earl’s or a much more independent establishment. The part that struck a chord with me was that menus like that condition children’s palates to those industrial flavours that have few identifying characteristics, since the items taste the same everywhere you go. They also encourage the idea that kids should eat different foods than adults, which of course for many of us who are adults now was not how we remember it. When I was a kid there was a joke about chickens having fingers, but we didn't even know they could be a food until McDonald's opened its doors.
One of the great things about summer when I was a kid was that you did prepare some of your own food. That might have just meant making your own sandwich, but wow, what fun that could be! The creations we managed were sometimes meals that even Dagwood would have envied. (Other times they were not so fantastic, but how else were you to know that sardines and pickles was perhaps not the best combination, unless you tried it?) I developed my palate like an artist develops his palette of colours by sampling and adventuring into the world of flavours, and my parents helped me along by making the daily menu with choices that had to at least be tasted (house rules).
Don’t get me wrong – fries or chicken fingers are not the root of all culinary evil. But couldn’t we at the very least encourage the kids to taste a new sauce with those fingers instead of honey mustard? We tell them that they should not be lazy and just watch TV or play video games; they need to keep up with activities and hobbies if they are to enjoy life to its fullest. Should we then not be lazy either and ensure they keep up with developing their palates? I know that today is not the world of yesteryear with simple homemade meals as the norm, but shouldn’t the availability of more kinds of food make it even more fun? If we can eat avocados or wild greens or lamb or basa fish, then why can’t our children? And, if we are getting lazy, then maybe the kids can help us snap out of our rut!
So, what do you say we let the chickens keep their fingers and we encourage the children to try some new things over the summer? Consider it not as homework, but rather as something exciting adventure that may lead to new adventures...
SOME ADVENTUROUS AND EASY IDEAS
Pita Chips – cut up pita pockets into wedge shapes (they can even be a bit less fresh!) Put them in a bowl and drizzle them with olive oil. Sprinkle with your choice of herbs and/or spices and toss (chili powder and sumac, thyme and oregano with sea salt, cumin and oregano…) Bake on a baking sheet for 3-5 minutes at 400F or until just golden brown. Serve with hommous or other dips. They can even substitute for fries! NOTE: if you go gluten-free, you can do the same thing with gluten-free tortillas - brush them with olive oil, sprinkle spices on top, and then cut them in pieces.
Quesadillas – take tortillas and a whole selection of fillings (sauté veggies first for added flavour, use leftover meat if you like!) You can include cheese in the filling to help it stick together if you like but they can be made without cheese too. – heat a skillet pan and place one tortilla in the bottom, then sprinkle fillings over top and after 30 seconds add second tortilla to create a “sandwich”. Flip carefully to toast the other side and then slide out of pan. Serve cut in wedges with salsa, guacamole, sour cream… (You can also just use one tortilla on the bottom, and roll it once out of the pan, creating a burrito – this is easier to manage if there is no cheese).
Dagwood Sandwiches (kids would call these something else – there is no Sunday funnypapers anymore to explain who Dagwood was…) – check out what is in the fridge for leftovers – start with a main ingredient that has substance (meat, cheese, fish, even a tomato can inspire you!). Add what you think would be interesting combining flavours and stop when the pile of ingredients between the two slices of bread is as wide as you can spread your mouth! Some of my favourites are below:
- Sandwich meat (anything leftover will do, or salami, corned beef, etc.) with thinly sliced onions, lettuce, Havarti cheese, mustard and mayo, and a pickle on the side
- Canned tuna mixed with mayo or yogurt and lemon zest and thyme, on toasted bread with arugula and tomatoes
- Pita pocket or tortilla stuffed with avocado, mushrooms, radish, alfalfa or other sprouts, maybe a bit of grated cheese or chopped egg, and a drizzle of your favourite salad vinaigrette
Remember, if you don’t buy crappy ingredients your kids won’t learn to eat them as much. If you fill your fridge and cupboards with fresh and chemical free foods/ingredients, your children will benefit and so will you. Take ketchup for example: some parents see this as poison for their kids, but really the only thing negative in it is the high sugar content. Many parents won’t give ketchup to their children, but canned soup and/or ravioli is fine even if it has MSG in it. The number one thing for parents is to read the label and teach your kids to read them too. Buy only chemical free products and your kids may stop getting so many colds. Teach your kids that in order to eat well, you need to use fresh ingredients so that when they move out of the house, they will be set for a healthy life.
About the restaurant menus, it is up to the parents to ask for change. The restaurateur will have to adjust if no one wants to eat fast fried food as a kid’s meal. Most decent restaurants would grill a chicken breast served with some kind of rice if you asked them, which makes a great menu choice for your children. For years now even MacDonald’s has had to adjust with salads and other types of healthier options.
Create a rule at home where kids have to taste something new every week, whether it is a fruit, a spice or a whole new dish. Your kids need to discover food just like math, English and geography. Quiz your children at dinner time about the meal you just prepared. Ask them if they know what’s in it and how it is made. Be a responsible parent and make their food education a priority.