Letter From the Lunch Lady: How to Avoid Cooking Down to Kids

It was the handful of chopped cilantro that made me hesitate.

Not the sweet potatoes, the ginger, the scallions, or the Makrut lime leaves bobbing in the coconut curry sauce. It definitely wasn’t the tofu, a substance so beloved by the children that they’ll eat it cold, straight from the package. It was the cilantro I feared would repulse my audience: the 260 children, ages 3 to 12, for whom I prepare school lunch.

I spend a disproportionate amount of my waking hours preparing meals for children. I start with breakfast for my own boys, 6 and 4: Many mornings I resemble a short-order cook, stirring oatmeal, slathering toast with peanut butter, reheating pancakes in the microwave, blending smoothies, scrambling eggs. From there, I head to school, where I immediately begin making lunch for the aforementioned school children. A few hours later, I start planning the night’s family dinner.

We cook down to them, when we should be cooking up.

It wasn’t always this way. I got my start writing about food and restaurants, sitting through hours-long tasting menus, ready to offer my opinion on the latest hot thing. I’ve developed recipes for magazines and coaxed them out of chefs (I’ve coauthored six cookbooks), taming their complicated creations into something a regular cook could make. Once my own kids were born, I dug deep into home cooking, writing a bi-weekly column for The San Francisco Chronicle and a forthcoming cookbook, Repertoire: All the Recipes You Need, which distills decades-worth of cooking and eating into a capsule collection of real recipes from real life, food for every occasion.

But when the opportunity arose to cook at my kids’ school, I couldn’t resist. Tasting menus are nice, and food trends can be interesting, but I probably don’t need to tell you how good it feels to receive a handwritten note from a first grader, the varying sizes of the letters making it look like a ransom note, that reads, “Thank you for cooking us lunch. I’ve noticed I luve [sic] the food.”

So what has all this cooking for children, personal and professional, taught me about cooking for kids? That we underestimate them all the time. We cook down to them, when we should be cooking up.

Somewhere down the line, most of us bought into the idea that American children are best fed with bland food. Wary of a negative response, eager to please our beloved babes, our repertoire narrows; the number of foods that we assume our kids will eat shrinking with it. And caregivers aren’t the only ones responsible—look at the kids’ menu at almost any restaurant and you’ll undoubtedly see the ubiquitous macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and chicken fingers with French fries.

Back at school, when I ask the kids what they’d like to see on the lunch menu, their answers are reliably similar: They want pizza and burritos. I’ll make them both, starting with homemade yeasted dough or dried beans, and the kids always gobble them down. They’d eat pizza and burritos every day if that was all I made. At home, left to their own devices, my boys would probably eat buttered noodles for a week straight without complaint. Do they eat roasted sweet potatoes, shepherd’s pie and split pea soup with the same gusto? No, they don’t. But they do eat all of those things. Trained to try new foods, most will eat—or at least try—dishes that are a little bit spicy, like that curry, or a little bitter, like wedges of grapefruit. I steered a narrow course in the beginning, but now I’m bolder, because I had a revelation: I was handicapping kids—my own and those I prepare lunch for—by assuming they wouldn’t like something unfamiliar.

So I started to branch out. I glazed carrots with honey, slipping them alongside chicken teriyaki. I added zucchini and mushrooms to the turkey tetrazzini. I cooked cauliflower tossed with spices and sent it to the classrooms—where the kids eat family-style—expecting a lot of it to return uneaten to the kitchen. It disappeared. A couple weeks later, I popped into the fifth-grade classroom to talk to the kids about nutrition and, unbidden and to my surprise, they fondly remembered the cauliflower. I couldn’t hide my pleasure.

Here’s my advice to anyone feeding children: Don’t give in, and don’t cook down to them. Don’t enter the macaroni and cheese death spiral. Children aren’t born knowing about chicken nuggets or predisposed to hate spices or flavorful foods (just watch a Japanese child eat a breakfast of rice, miso soup, and oily fish and my point is proven). Convincing kids to try new foods requires the same sort of commitment we make to, say, avoiding plunking them in front of the television for hours every day, even though it’d make life—at least in the short-term—a hell of a lot easier. Cook for your kids assuming they’ll like it, while simultaneously knowing it won’t always be the case. Don’t try to trick them. Don’t hide the squash in the brownies. Just believe in them, or at least in their possibility.

In the end, I added the cilantro. When the serving bowls came back to the kitchen, there wasn’t a spoonful of curry left.

Click Here for Jessica’s recipe for Curried Sloppy Joes with Coconut-Green Onion Biscuits!

Jessica Battilana writes the Repertoire column in the San Francisco Chronicle and is the author of Repertoire: All the Recipes You Need. A Vermont native, she lives in San Francisco with her wife and children. 

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