Can television chefs make my 5-year-old a better eater?
Having spent too many meals watching my son skirt around the veggies on his plate - or during more pouty dinners simply shove them off - I wanted to see if the celebrity chefs from the Food Network could persuade him to embrace produce beyond fruit.
After all, when it comes to kids, the network knows its stuff. The Food Network doesn't talk numbers, but children make up a considerable chunk of its viewers. Could that make folks like Alton Brown and Rachael Ray experts at something that stymies most parents?
I called the network and laid it out. I'd give them a profile of my son's eating habits; they'd round up the celebrity chefs who would come up with vegetable-based recipes catered to his (sometimes frustrating) tastes. He'd try them all and declare a winner.
I shouldn't complain about him too much. Parker scarfs eel and shrimp tempura sushi, devours Mexican mole and Ethiopian doro wat, and doesn't know there is such a thing as white bread. He's never been to McDonald's and couldn't pick Cocoa Puffs out of a lineup.
Yet I can't get him to eat veggies. Mashed potatoes are fine, but that's the low-hanging fruit of the produce world.
Supposedly, this is normal. Supposedly, his tastes - especially if he's been exposed to a broad range of foods early on - will expand.
I decided not to take chances. And while the experiment isn't scientific, my son's immunity to the celebrity factor (we don't have television, so he doesn't know what the Food Network is, never mind who its stars are) means he'll only eat something if he really likes it.
Sorry, Jessica Seinfeld, no hidden vegetables allowed in this game.
The only other rule was that Parker had to take at least one bite of every dish. No matter what.
The recipes and celebrities
• Alton Brown, host of "The Next Iron Chef," took the easy road and offered parsnip muffins. I almost disqualified him because the veggies are tucked inside a baked good. I let it slide because it didn't feel as devious as putting purée in a brownie.
The recipe also was jammed with two cups of parsnips and, based on the recipe name alone, there's no mistaking what you're eating.
Parker eyed the sliced almonds on top of the muffin suspiciously, then plucked them off and piled them next to his plate. "Better than I thought it was going to be," he said. "I'd take it for lunch tomorrow. Without the almonds."
• Rachael Ray, of "30 Minute Meals" fame, offered up a béchamel-soaked white lasagna baked in a cast-iron skillet. It also was heavy on green stuff - nearly three pounds of chopped spinach and chard. It was savory and cheesy and totally delicious.
"What's in it?" Parker asked, poking his fork at the wilted greens.
"There's green cheese, white cheese and lasagna noodles," one of the AP's test kitchen cooks answered.
"I don't like the green cheese," Parker said as he put a greens-free bite of noodle in his mouth. "Yummy, but not the greatest. I'd like it without the green. Sort of." He never did taste any of the greens, but its proximity to the noodles was enough to sour the experience.
• Alexandra Guarnaschelli, host of "Alex's Day Off," suggested roasted butternut squash soup with popcorn croutons. I considered this a pretty inspired idea. So did Parker.
"Yum! Dad, your recipes are the best!" he said as he slurped it up. Hmm. Not only did she get him to eat squash, but I also got the credit for it. Sorry about that, Alexandra.
• Holly Smith, a contestant on "The Next Iron Chef," tried a recipe that was doomed before it was even made - pappa al pomodoro, a tomato and bread soup served at room temperature. Parker would rather eat wilted greens than touch a tomato.
"This is the wrong sort of recipe," he said without tasting it. After a minuscule bite, "This is not my favorite. No more of this! The muffins should be the winner."
• Melissa d'Arabian, host of "Ten Dollar Dinners," bravely offered a cheese-coated creamed spinach. We felt it best to cover this dish so he wouldn't see it until just before taking a bite. Didn't matter.
"I knew this was the baddest recipe," he said as he dunked the tip of one fork tine in the cheese sauce. "I'm not eating the green." He was true to his word. We asked him to at least hold a forkful up to his nose and smell, hoping the cheesiness might draw him in.
"No thank you because I might miss and put it in my mouth."
• Finally, there was a vegetable cake from Jehangir Mehta, another contestant on "The Next Iron Chef." Think zucchini bread, but add beets, broccoli, cauliflower and hot paprika. If Mehta could get my kid to eat this, he deserved way more than just being an Iron Chef. But he didn't.
We renamed it "Confetti Cake" in an effort to get Parker to at least taste it. But when he saw what the "cake" was, he had a "You-mean-Santa-isn't-real?" expression on his face. He nibbled one vegetable-free crumb and fled the table with a polite, "Not the best."
The lessons learned
Is anyone surprised that Parker's favorite was the one recipe that least resembled a vegetable? That felt like a shallow victory (sorry, Alton). But I was pleased that the butternut squash soup was so warmly embraced. That was genuine progress.
And that sort of progress doesn't require this sort of celebrity lineup. Getting children to embrace new foods is just a matter of consideration, searching and repetition.
If children truly dislike something (greens and tomatoes, anyone?), they aren't likely to be won over by cheese sauces or condiments. Parents need to pick their battles and consider other healthy choices. In my case, I'll fight the spinach and tomato battles later.
That means searching for new ingredients and ways of preparing them. Grocers are jammed with numerous and unusual produce choices, making it easy to think beyond the usual suspects.
And don't assume the oft-repeated advice of offering children the same food many times means preparing it the same way over and over. If you offer carrots a different way each time, you're much more likely to hit a winner than repeatedly trying the same recipe.
Parker demonstrated this with Guarnaschelli's squash soup. I've offered him roasted squash plenty of times. I'd never bothered to offer it as a soup because, well, he supposedly doesn't like squash. Clearly, he and I were both wrong.
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Popcorn
Servings: 4 to 5
• 3 pounds butternut squash, washed
• 6 tablespoons butter, divided
• 1 tablespoon molasses
• 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
• Kosher salt, to taste
• Ground white pepper, to taste
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1 knob fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
• Zest and juice of 1 orange
• 1 tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
• 1/2 tablespoon garlic oil
• 1 cup skim milk
• 1/2 cup heavy cream
• 1 to 2 cups water, depending on consistency
• 2 cups popped popcorn
Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
Trim the ends of the squash, then halve them lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds and arrange the halves in a single layer, cut sides up, in a large roasting pan. Set aside.
In a small saucepan over medium, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. When the butter turns light brown, remove it from the heat and immediately divide the butter between the cavities of the squash halves. Drizzle the cut sides of the squash with the molasses.
In a small bowl, mix together the brown sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of white pepper, the ground ginger, fresh ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Sprinkle the cut sides of the squash with the seasoning mixture.
Add enough water to the roasting pan to come about 1 inch up the sides of the squash. Cover the pan with foil and seal the edges tightly. Bake for 2 hours. To check for doneness, pierce one of the halves with the tip of a small knife. The knife should slide in and out easily. Uncover and set aside to cool.
Using a large spoon, scoop the flesh (and any liquid in the cavities) from the squash, being careful not to take any skin with it.
In a large saucepan over low, combine the squash flesh, zest and juice of 1 orange, Worcestershire Sauce and the garlic oil. Stir to blend. Taste for seasoning, adding salt or additional molasses for sweetness.
Add the milk, cream and 1 cup of the water and stir to blend.
In a small saucepan, melt the remaining butter and heat until lightly browned. Stir the browned butter into the soup.
Transfer the soup to a blender, in batches if necessary, and purée until smooth. If a thinner soup is desired, an additional cup of water can be stirred in. Adjust seasonings. Serve topped with popcorn.
Makes: 12 muffins
• 1/2 cup sliced almonds
• Cooking spray
• 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
• 3 eggs
• 3/4 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
• 1/4 cup vegetable oil
• 1 cup sugar
• 2 cups (10 ounces) packed grated parsnips
Place the almonds in a single layer in a pie pan and set in oven. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake the nuts until lightly toasted, approximately 20 minutes while the oven heats.
Meanwhile, spray a standard 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg and salt.
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, yogurt, vegetable oil and sugar. Add the flour mixture and parsnips, and fold with a spatula until all of the flour is moistened. There will be some lumps.
Divide the mixture evenly among the muffin cups ( 1/3 cup per muffin). Sprinkle the top of each muffin with the toasted almonds. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, rotating halfway through baking. The muffins should reach an internal temperature of 210 degrees and be golden brown.
If needed, use a small knife or offset spatula to loosen the muffins and immediately remove them from the tin to a cooling rack. Cool for 15 minutes. Serve warm. Store completely cooled muffins in an airtight container for up to three days.