Archive for the ‘kids & food’ Category

Grow Your Own Row

December 2, 2009

Meet my friends Leigh Raiford and Michael Cohen, typical nomadic academics who put down roots in Berkeley six years ago with their children Maya and Maceo. (Maya is in the same class as my son.)

These two transplants passed on their recipe for roasted kale and inspired me to start my own little backyard raised veg bed last summer.

I bet their story will get you excited about planting your own food too, whether or not you’re a budding urban farmer or suburban gardener.

What, a post on growing a row in December? Hey, we live in the balmy Bay Area. We pulled up the last of the tomato plants on Saturday, went to the beach on Sunday (glorious day, no fog, I swear), and picked up sweet strawberries from the farmers’ market today.

We’ve had a typically warm fall, but no need for folks in other parts of the country to turn green with envy; the relentless sunshine (honestly, it can be exhausting ensuring you enjoy the good weather all the time) will likely end soon. Indeed, rain is expected this weekend and that stuff makes us Left Coasters go running for cover.

Regardless, whether you’re keen to put in a winter crop or live somewhere where seed catalogs are the only thing sprouting until spring, these folks have learned a thing or two about growing their own grub and they’re willing to share the wealth.

When the Raiford-Cohen clan first moved out West they rented a home in North Berkeley with a massive backyard garden that was chock full of every kind of produce under the sun. “It wasn’t a vegetable garden, ” says Leigh, who grew up in Harlem, and had never seen the likes of figs, tomatillos, or white raspberries before. “It was a farm.”

The couple had dabbled in gardening at previous university pit stops around the country but once they landed in California they decided to get serious about growing greens.

When they bought a home of their own two years ago in sunny South Berkeley, a large concrete area out back begged to be torn up and turned into an edible oasis. So that’s just what they did. Michael dug out concrete, put up fences, and amended soil.  They solicited the help of professional gardening friend Andrea Hurd, who was keen to design a permaculture food forest but hadn’t yet convinced any clients to let her loose in their backyard. Leigh and Michael had no such reservations.

The result? More of an overgrown playground filled with edible finds and less of a traditional vegetable patch of tidy rows. Just my kind of food garden: A recent tour reveals enough pumpkins to carve for Halloween and plenty left over to make soup at Thanksgiving. We pick the last of the green zebra tomatoes; the kids promptly devour them. Snipped sprigs of lemon verbena will find their way into simple syrup for cocktail hour. We spot the first of the purple grapes, enthusiastically sampled.

Last summer the family harvested vegetables from their plot for every meal; fresh fruits for breakfast and veggies for lunch and dinner. Michael makes batches of tomato sauce that he freezes to preserve the surplus summer crop for the winter months, in a nod to urban homesteading. Leigh, who considers herself the primary harvester to Michael’s farmer, says her kids chow down on kale, collards, okra, and other homegrown veggies. (She’s also the family food photographer; the garden harvest images in this post are her own.)

Their advice for budding food gardeners:

Grow what you like to eat. The family tried to grow broccoli without much success; since Leigh’s not a huge fan of this cruciferous veggie, they moved on to other greens.

Stagger plantings & choose different tree types so everything doesn’t ripen at once. They chose two apple varieties that are ready to pick at either end of the season.

Pick up tips on companion planting. For instance, plant thyme next to cabbage, nasturtiums near pumpkins, or marigolds and basil by tomatoes to protect crops from pests.

Plant varieties you can’t easily (and more cheaply) find at the farmers’ market or grocery store. The couple skipped common apple choices like fuji and granny smith in favor of sierra beauty and carolina red june trees of antiquity. Check seed catalogs for heirloom varieties. The Lemon Lady provides a list of free seed catalogs.

Look for resources in your community. Here’s just a sampling of what’s on offer locally: Berkeley residents can pick up free compost courtesy of the city on the last Friday of every month from February-October, buy soil and soil amendments at American Soil, and get advice, plants, and seedlings at the Spiral Gardens Community Food Security Project. San Francisco dwellers can learn about growing food in classes and demos at Garden for the Environment. Low-income residents in West Oakland can get help tending their own backyard vegetable plot by contacting City Slicker Farms. And folks can also sign up for the uber-popular classes in gardening, beekeeping and more at the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland or BioFuel Oasis in Berkeley.

Don’t have anywhere to plant where you live? Click here to read about how one Oakland gardener traded labor for land and fed two families in the process. Find other ways to outsource establishing your own food plot in the East Bay in this recent Diablo magazine story. And if you’re already growing your own, find tips to get more food from your garden this winter or next spring in this Oregonian article.

I learned this summer just how satisfying it is to go out the back door and pick your dinner (or at least some of it). So I’m thinking it’s time to get some dinosaur kale (natch), collards, and fava beans in the ground.

How about you?

Food photos: Leigh Raiford

Family photo: Sarah Henry

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Stuck in a Dinner Rut? You’ve Got Lots of Company

November 17, 2009

Fascinated by a report out of the UK (thank you Food News Journal) that reveals the average mother rotates through just nine different meals to feed her family. (Ah, why weren’t the fathers polled as well?)

And one in four make the same meals on the same day of the week.

Wow. You’d think with all the variety of food available these days, the easy access to free and interesting recipes on the Internet and wildly popular TV cooking shows we’d mix it up a bit. But, no, it seems that hectic work/life schedules, choosy children, and partners who toil outside the home for long hours mean that mealtimes get overlooked and we fall back on favorite foods we know and love.

The poll of 4,000 Brits conducted by a food product company found that the nine most repeated meals are:

1. Spaghetti Bolognese

2. Roast Dinner

3. Shepherds Pie/Cottage Pie

4. Pasta

5. Meat and two veg (hello 1960s!)

6. Pizza

7. Casserole/Stew

8. Sausages and Chips/Mash

9. Indian/Curry

Truth be told, allowing for regional and dietary differences, I’m probably equally guilty of rotating through a limited menu list.  My family’s nine:

1. Tofu/Brown Rice/Couscous/Quinoa and veg

2. Pasta with Pesto or Pureed Veggie Sauce

3. Indian (Still tofu, rice, veg, tamarind sauce, naan & mango lassi)

4. Soup & Salad (granted, some variations on this theme)

5. Homemade Tortillas, Beans, Guacamole, Cheese

6. Japanese: (Um, tofu, rice, nori, pickled ginger, raw veg)

7. Pseudo Thai: (That would be, tofu, rice or noodles, & coconut milk)

8. Eggs (boiled, exactly seven minutes!) with toast & salad

9. Pizza (Weekend treat, Cheeseboard, she notes defensively)

Yikes! Like the mamas surveyed, when I cook for my vegetarian son I make simple meals I know he’ll eat. I don’t want to waste time or money on food he won’t try and I’m keen to make sure he gets the nutrients he needs in the small windows of time we have together. Sometimes we whip up butternut squash pot stickers or falafel and hummus but not as often as I’d like.

Since I think a lot about food, I do try to mix it up a bit, by adding different seasonings or sauces or substituting new ingredients for old standbys but I’m frankly a little embarrassed by my narrow range.

Should I be? Would you be hard pressed to come up with nine or more than nine meals you prepare for your family on a regular basis? Do you have your own standing list or do you make a point of experimenting each week and adding something new in the mix?  Do tell.

Flickr photo by helen.2006 used under the Creative Commons license.

Warning: Food News Harms Your Child’s Health

November 11, 2009

Anyone else wonder how to handle scary food news consumed by our kids?

I have an 11-year-old vegetarian, who loves tofu, dipping baguette into balsamic vinegar, and a few canned food products, such as coconut milk.

His teacher is encouraging the class to track current events by tuning into the news. To date, all that’s done is help my boy develop a fear of bridges that collapse or kill.

Oh, and put him off his food.  Consider:

  • On Monday, our local paper revealed that eating just one tablespoon a day of some brands of balsamic vinegar could raise a young child’s lead levels by more than 30 percent. Now my son worries that his fav appetizer, and its potential link to lead-induced lower IQ, will mess up his mind.  (Find a list of vinegars with lower lead levels here.)
  • In the news last week, a Consumer Reports investigation found canned foods, including soups, juice, and green beans, contain measurable levels of Bisphenol A (BPA), a toxic material linked to loads of horrible health abnormalities. My 5th grader has sworn off canned tomatoes and black beans. Help: Are there any BPA-free cans out there?
  • At least tofu, and its main ingredient soy protein, wasn’t touted as a potentially dangerous food in the last 10 days, though it has been in the recent past, with reports of males developing breast tissue and other nightmarish stuff no pre-pubescent boy wants to think about.

Beyond buying fresh, organic, locally sourced fruit & veg, checking labels for icky additives and unknown, questionable ingredients, and minimizing the amount of refined sugar, simple carbohydrates, and saturated fats our kids consume what’s a parent to do?

I subscribe to nutritionist Marion Nestle‘s simple premise: Variety, balance, and moderation and Michael Pollan‘s poetic: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. But I’m not sure such messages are much comfort to confused kids scanning the morning paper over a bowl of porridge.

What do you tell your children about the potential dangers of canned goods, seafood, tofu, balsamic vinegar, or any other foods that wind up in alarming headlines? And how do these stories influence your own choices at the grocery checkout? I’m all ears.

Flickr photo by Mykl Roventine, used under the Creative Commons license.

What’s for Dinner? Find Answers on the Web

November 4, 2009

How many of you have found those email chain letters in your inbox asking you to share a recipe with a dozen or so others? How many of you actually respond?

I’m not entirely sure why, but I never seem to reply to these recipe requests (sorry Anne, Katherine, Ellen, et al.) and wind up feeling a bit guilty about it.

Maybe they’re too much pressure — you feel the need to cast around for the perfect dish to share with the masses. Maybe it feels too time consuming and thus goes into the to-do list, and then too much time passes or you forget…Who knows.

I suspect many of them are generated by busy working parents (mostly moms), who want help with that perennial post-work-school-pick- up-race-to-martial arts/dance class/soccer-hustle and the inevitable, ravenous question: “What’s for dinner?'” as soon as you walk in the door.

It’s hard to resist the urge to say something snippy like “What are you cooking?” or even “Who the hell knows?” but that won’t get dinner on the table. And when time is short, you’re hardly about to start browsing through your library of cookbooks for inspiration.

But what if you took a few minutes out of your day to check out a couple of online recipe resources. That sounds doable, right?

So in the spirit of sharing recipes via the ‘net (if not email) I offer web links to click to find nutritious & delicious dishes you can fix for your family in a timely fashion.

There are a zillion food sites and blogs out there. Many look gorgeous, some are very funny, lots are beautifully written. For this post I want to highlight a few that consistently offer recipes that could work on a school night when everyone is tired, time-starved, and very hungry. (Which doesn’t means these aren’t pretty, witty, and wise as well.)

No doubt you’ll have your own bookmarked recipe links you’ll want to share. Feel free.

As for those recipe exchange emails…okay, alright, already, I’ll reply…maybe there’s a blog post in what happens after I hit send.

Five Online Food Resources

Simply Recipes Elise Bauer’s six-year-old, award-winning web blog is chock full of easy-to-fix, healthy suggestions for family meals. The site is easy to navigate, the recipes easy to follow, and it’s easy on the eyes as well, with lots of lovely photos. Browse categories that meet your family’s needs, whether budget, vegetarian, or gluten free.

Try Spinach Frittata, Enchiladas, or Sauteed Swiss Chard Ribs with Cream and Pasta.

101 Cookbooks Heidi Swanson, author of Super Natural Cooking, serves up evocative images of wholesome vegetarian offerings on this much-lauded site, started as a way to work through recipes in the vast number of cookbooks Swanson had amassed at home. This blog is a snap to get around too.

Consider Lemony Chickpea Stir-fry, Broccoli Cheddar Soup, or Carrot, Dill and White Bean Salad.

Tasty Kitchen The brainchild of the hilarious blogger Ree Drummond, aka as The Pioneer Woman, a self-described spoiled city gal who left the urban life to marry a cattle man and homeschool four children, Tasty Kitchen is a recently launched site for home cooks to share their favorite recipes. Good place to park those email recipe exchanges, maybe?

Check out Pumpkin and Pear Soup, Ratatouille, and California Style Sushi Rolls.

super.cook.logoSupercook is a cool newish web tool equipped with a search engine that helps you prepare meals with the ingredients you have on hand. Just plug in what you have in your pantry, say rice and lentils, and within seconds you’ll get a recipe or maybe several from its database of 300,000 and growing. You can comment on whether you like or dislike a dish and even add your own to the mix. Another potential home for those avid recipe exchangers! Named by Time.com as one of the 50 best websites for 2009.

Will Write for Food Speaking of bests, several “best food blogs” lists are worth perusing when you’ve got a little more time to surf around to find a recipe resource that appeals. My pal Dianne Jacob over at WW4F has gathered links to five of these best ofs in one place.  The website delish also keeps a comprehensive list.

Check back for a future post when I finally put together my very own favorite foodie bloggas blogroll.

Flickr photo by dcdan used under the Creative Commons license.

Cookbook Giveaway: The Gastrokid Cookbook

October 29, 2009

This month’s book giveaway, The Gastrokid Cookbook: Feeding a Foodie Family in a Fast-Food World, comes to us from two dedicated foodie fathers who are determined to keep things interesting in the kitchen after children enter the dining picture.

Hugh Garvey, features editor at Bon Appetit, and Matthew Yeomans, who writes about eating for a slew of major magazines, have kids who eat blue cheese, grilled octopus, bibimbap, and anchovy-stuffed olives.

But don’t let that scare you away, Garvey’s son is a choosy chowhound and the recipes in these pages are simple, wholesome fare you could imagine getting on the table after a day’s work. Check out this Chicago Tribune review for more details.

I can vouch for Roasted Chickpea Bruschetta, Ravioli with Brown Butter, Sage & Parmesan, Green Beans & Cherry Tomatoes, and Violet’s Crumble. And the line notes will put you at ease, like this one accompanying the Parsley and Pine Nut Pasta Sauce recipe: “Here’s a quick sauce that came, as many of our recipes do, from necessity and an understocked pantry.” Can you relate?

The book includes 10 rules for reclaiming the family dinner table, including this one: Never call a kid a picky eater. If I had a quibble, it’s the name of the book that’s a tad off-putting to me, but that may be cultural. The dads coined the expression, which also graces their Web site, as a way to describe a child with gastronomy (the study of food) awareness, who is sometimes the offspring of foodie parents.

Where I grew up, “gastro” describes a stomach ailment (short for gastroenteritis), so a Gastrokid sounds to me like a child who has diarrhea. Sorry, guys, I don’t think I’m alone in this association.

But that’s a minor point. To win a copy of this otherwise appealing book submit your favorite, quick, easy-to-prepare, kid-approved, adult-friendly, delicious dinner dish by 10 p.m. PST on Thursday November 5 and I’ll choose an inspiring example as the prize winner. So start sifting through your best recipes.

Update: Thanks to all for sharing their go-to recipes for simple, satisfying suppers. Some great suggestions to add to your repertoire. The copy of Gastrokid goes to Cee for her Chickpea Curry (scroll the comment section for details), which sounds like a one-pot wonder. Cee: Send me your contact details and I’ll ship the book off to you.

Thanks to everyone for entering this contest and check back later this month to win a copy of the beautiful new cookbook My Nepenthe.

Reassurance for Parents of Picky Eaters

September 25, 2009

Time to debunk a few myths for those of us raising choosy chowhounds.  It’s not your fault. Except when it is. I’ll explain below.  Also, it’s not a problem. Unless, of course, you decide it is. More on that later too.

I don’t mean to be cryptic or glib about something that many parents — including moi — have grappled with over the years. If you’re concerned that your kid’s food fussiness is affecting his growth and development, then of course consult his pediatrician.

And believe me, I do understand just how challenging it is to feed a child who has, ah, definite ideas about what he’s going to eat. And, yes, those stories about smug celebrity chefs whose offspring eat oysters and offal make me want to tear my hair out too.

It’s just my boy is 11 now, I can see the light at the end of the “plain tofu please, Mummy” tunnel, and he’s a healthy, strapping lad who loves wholesome food, even though he is still particular about what and how he eats. (Strictly veg. Mostly raw. Preferably not touching. About five regular protein sources.) So be it.

But don’t just take my word for it. What follows, sound advice about raising a fussy eater  — all gleaned from foodie fathers. I don’t know what to make of that, if anything, other than to say: Thanks, Dads.

Ethical epicurean Michael Pollan‘s teenage son Isaac is mostly over the selective slurping stage — which tends to peak in the toddler and preschool period — but he would only eat white food for many years, according to an intriguing recent interview with writer David Beers.

We’re talking bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes. (Interestingly, Isaac would only wear black clothes back then as well, his dad reports.) That’s right: Ate white, and dressed black. Pollan, puzzled by his son’s behavior, finally figured out that in both cases his boy was trying to reduce sensory input. The kid clearly had some trouble processing stuff, including the sight, taste, feel, and smell of food, so he tried to make it as bland and inoffensive as possible.

I could prattle on about my own experience with a son who has super sensitive sensory receptors but let me just add: This makes total sense to me. Trying to manage sensory stimulation when you’re an overly sensitive soul is simply a survival skill.

Pollan’s son seems to have found a way to handle sensory input and enjoys cooking. He’s even a bit of  of a food snob (those sensitive sensory organs at work, no doubt). My son’s the same: He’ll taste a sauce and is usually spot on in his assessment of whether it needs a drizzle of lemon juice, a splash of sesame oil, or a tad more garlic.

Chances are then, if your wee one seems sensory sensitive, he may actually outgrow his food finickiness as he becomes more adept at managing sensory input.

What to do in the meantime? As nutritionist Ellyn Satter has wisely advised for years: A parent’s job is to put the food on the table — period. It’s the kid’s job whether and how much to eat. End of story. Now, if we parents could all just follow that sage advice…

Pollan isn’t the only papa with a particular eater. Seattle food writer Matthew Amster-Burton devotes an entire chapter to the phenomenon in his recent book Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater.  Early on his daughter Iris packed away pad Thai and spicy enchiladas, spinach and Brussels sprouts and Amster-Burton amusingly figured it was because of his impeccable culinary skills and no-compromise approach to child feeding.

Well, every seasoned parent knows how that one turned out. Iris developed strong opinions about what she’d eat, her dad’s preference for spicy food, be damned.

Amster-Burton didn’t freak out about his daughter’s about face. But he was curious to find out what it might mean for her health. Not much, it turns out.

Here’s what he discovered in the course of working on his book: Researchers at the University of Tennessee reviewed the eating habits of 70 kids from ages two to seven, who were divided into two groups: picky and non-picky.  They found, as their parents indicated, that finicky eaters ate a smaller variety of food and were afraid to try new foods (called food neophobia in the scientific lingo) than the children who’d chow down on anything. No surprises so far.

But here’s the kicker: A nutritional analysis revealed that the selective slurpers got just as many nutrients as the kids who gobbled everything put in front of them and there was no difference in height and weight between the two groups, according to the study findings reported in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.

So, then, picky eating may be frustrating but it’s not a medical problem, in the vast majority of cases. Amster-Burton checked with another source — his mom — and discovered that for, oh, about seven years all he’d eat was Cheerios, mac & cheese, pizza, white chicken meat if it didn’t touch anything else, and PB&Js.

Amster-Burton isn’t the first parent to pass on his picky palate. Yes, folks, that’s right: Your child may well inherit his food fussiness and fear of new food from you. A 2007 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a child’s aversion to unfamiliar foods has a compelling genetic component. Investigators analyzed the eating habits of 5, 390 pairs of twins between 8 and 11 years old and found that in 78 percent of cases the picky palates were inherited. Guilty as charged in this corner. My son’s selective ways are probably some cosmic payback for all those Sundays when I boiled an egg while the rest of my clan tucked into burgers.

Amster-Burton acknowledges that having a finicky eater on board can be tiresome when you’re trying to put a meal on the table that everyone in the family wants to eat. Rather than “hide” unfavorite foods (a controversial practice that’s received a lot of attention of late), make two meals, or sign up for a nightly food fight, he looks for way to satisfy his taste buds and his kid’s. Hot sauce helps.

I learned with my raw food aficionado to simply, duh, set aside some uncooked veggies I was chopping up anyway for a stir-fry or pasta dish. In addition, the adults of a picky eater need to become more adventurous themselves, Amster-Burton suggests, and in doing so may stumble on something new their child likes to eat.  He discovered his daughter loves sukiyaki, a Japanese beef-noodle-and vegetable dish, so that’s now part of his family’s dinner-time repertoire.

Hugh Garvey, an editor at Bon Appetit magazine, has a son Desmond, 5, who is primarily a brownivore and nearly a full-time greenophobe, says the co-author of the just published Gastrokid: Feeding a Foodie Family in a Fast-Food World. Garvey’s family serves as something of a petri dish: His daughter Violet, 8, eats it all, thus debunking the myth that “bad” parenting produces picky eaters. In fairness to Garvey’s little guy, he currently consumes anchovies, octopus, and bison; in many circles that would earn him adventurous eater cred right there.

Not surprisingly, Garvey’s all for doing away with the picky eater label. And he’s pretty philosophical about the situation with his son. “We don’t cater to his druthers as much as we used to and we keep trying,” he writes.  Seasoning can work wonders — Garvey’s book features several recipes with smoked Spanish paprika — and he recommends that an ingredient shouldn’t be placed on the no-go list (and then only temporarily) until it’s been offered in a variety of ways, whether steamed, pureed, roasted, sauteed, or julienned — or, might I suggest, completely raw and unadorned.

Garvey offers this succinct assessment of eating with kids: “The only inevitable at the family table is surprise.” That strikes me as a pretty healthy attitude to this whole predicament. What say you?

Recipe Guide Giveaway: My Lunch Box

September 21, 2009

my.lunch.boxIf you’re like many parents, a few weeks into the new school year you’re probably desperate to come up with some different lunch ideas that your kid will eat, don’t take too long to make, and cover the nutritional bases.

Help is on its way. Check out my recent blog post which includes suggestions and links for spicing things up on the school lunch front. Since I penned that post, I’ve discovered a couple of other resources you may want to look at. Eating Well put together a big back-to-school recipe guide, including creative ways to add brain-fueling foods such as oatmeal, yogurt, and beans. And in partnership with Whole Foods, school lunch reform advocate Ann Cooper launched thelunchbox.org, an online toolbox for improving lunches served up by school districts across the country.

If you’re after more lunch box recipes then this contest is for you. Share your most successful school lunch idea in the comment space below and you’ll be in the running to win a free My Lunch Box: 50 Recipes for Kids to Take to School by Hilary Shevlin Karmilowicz, a former chef, and current cooking teacher and mom, with illustrations by Rebecca Bradley.

Like a lot of products marketed by Chronicle Books, My Lunch Box comes in a clever (or gimmicky, depending on your perspective) package.  (Full disclosure here: I’m the author of City Walks: Sydney, one of Chronicle’s guides in the popular travel deck series.) In this instance, the material is presented in the form of a recipe card box, not a traditional cookbook. It’s the sort of thing that could easily fit on a kitchen counter for when you or your child need a little lunchtime inspiration.

Inside you’ll find new spins on old standbys like Swirlin’ Twirlin’ Pinwheels (think PB&Js in easy-to-eat shapes) and Fruity Cheese Kabobs, along with some unexpected offerings such as Fill-‘Er-Up Frittata, which calls for asparagus,  and Zucchini Cupcakes (with avocado, which apparently keeps these wholesome treats ultra-moist).

One quibble: There’s an emphasis on short-cuts — canned beans, store-bought salad dressings, hummus, and salsa — but there’s nothing to stop you or your kid from making these items from scratch, if you have the time and desire.  The kit also comes with 15 blank recipe cards for family favorites and a bunch of stickers that say things like “Delish” and “I made this on ______,” which may help keep kids engaged in the lunch-packing process. Read a review on Epicurious.

Feeling lucky? Submit your lunch tip below by 10 p.m. PST on Monday September 28 and I’ll choose an innovative offering as the prize winner. Just think, only nine more months of making school lunches to go!

Update: Thanks everyone for chiming in with lunch box tips — including notes, cutting food into appealing shapes, and finding ways to keep lunch food cool dominated the suggestions, see below for details. The My Lunch Box guide goes to Karen, who weighed in with the idea of packing couscous in her kid’s lunch. I’m curious if Karen’s daughter eats it unadorned or if she has a recipe for this wholesome grain she’d like to share with us.

Karen, send your contact details to me at: sarahhenry0509 [at] gmail.com so I can ship out the lunch guide to you.

Thanks again to everyone for entering this contest and check back during October for another cookbook giveaway.

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

September 18, 2009

riverdog.farm.farmerPhoto of farmer Ramon Mojica taken by Brian Lee, courtesy of Riverdog Farm

Finally, a government policy I can dig. And based on such a simple premise: Know where your food comes from and who produces it.

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, a new federal initiative which culminated in Michelle Obama shopping for greens at a farmers’ market right outside the White House yesterday. (Critics sniff that there are already three farmers’ markets within walking distance of the Obamas.)

It’s easy to be skeptical. The U.S.D.A. supporting small farmers, sustainable practices, and local food? The same agency that has traditionally backed Big Ag? But the folks behind the government’s campaign say it is intended to inspire a national conversation on where food comes from and how it ends up on the plate. Bring it on.

An integral part of the initiative is a farm-school program that would make it easier for schools to use federal funding to buy fresh fruit and veg from local farms.  The agency even has its own farm-to-school tactical teams, set up to scope out school cafeterias and find ways to get more local food into students’ mouths, according to an announcement this week by Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

alhambra.valley.farm.pearsI’ve decided to take the campaign to heart and make a concerted effort to get to know the folks who bring us our food.  Yesterday, at a farmers’ market in Concord, an outer East Bay suburb, I quizzed vendors who grow divinely delicious dry-farmed Bartlett pears about their farming techniques.

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area: This Saturday Pie Ranch in Pescadero, on the relatively undeveloped coast south of San Francisco, hosts its work day and barn dance. (If you can’t make it tomorrow, these events are scheduled every third Saturday of the month and folks are welcome at other times as well.) Tomorrow volunteers will help harvest potatoes, dry beans, tomatoes, and berries.

On October 3, Full Belly Farm holds its annual celebration of rural life at its Hoes Down Harvest Festival in the abundant Capay Valley. And on October 18, about a mile away from Full Belly, Riverdog Farm hosts a pumpkin patch picking and meal sharing under walnut trees. Or check out the Family Farm Days at Slide Ranch, which boasts an organic garden with dramatic ocean views and farm animals too, near Muir Beach.

These events are hands-on, kid-friendly, and encourage eating.  Feel free to chime in with your own favorite get-to-know-a-farmer event. To learn more about the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, check out Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s YouTube video or submit your own food-related videos or comments about the campaign via email: KnowYourFarmer@usda.gov.

Photo: Darryl and Judy Pereira, Alhambra Valley Farms, courtesy of Contra Costa Certified Farmers’ Markets

Beating the Brown Bag Blues a.k.a. Taking the Stress Out of School Lunch

September 10, 2009

laptop.lunch

The new school year brings earlier mornings for some, the transition to different teachers, curriculum, or kids for most, and — the bane of many parents’ existence — packing a lunch every day.

For those of you whose child’s school cranks out edible fare — and your kid willingly eats it — good luck to you. For the rest of us, September rolls around and a collective groan can be heard across the country. One wag, 5 second rule food blogger Cheryl Sternman Rule, tweeted recently that she’d rather stick a hot poker in her eye than think about making school lunch.

Sing it sister. Do you need help figuring out what to pack for your precious offspring so he has the fuel he needs to fire on all cylinders during the school day? Looking for some fresh options to add to the old standbys? Does your child routinely trash, trade, or trek home the school lunch you spent time and money putting together?

Have no fear, help is on the way. What follows, ten tips to take the tedium out of school lunch.  If you have your own tricks, do share, we can all use novel ideas to spice things up on the school food front. Here’s to a lunch beyond soggy PB&J sammies.

1.  Keep it simple No need to whip yourself into a foodie frenzy first thing in the morning — or late at night. Wholegrain bread or crackers, chunks of cheddar, grapes, and celery strips make a perfectly respectable lunch. Ditto hummus, pita wedges, and carrot and cuc sticks. Sliced apples (tossed in lime juice to retain their color) and a scoop of peanut or other nut butter is another easy option, as are lettuce wraps (baby gem or romaine lettuce leaves filled with a favorite filling such as cottage cheese or guacamole). Nothing wrong with wholegrain bagels, cream cheese, and tomato wedges either. Nori (dried seaweed) squares, tofu cubes, and rice balls can also do the job.

2. Think it through Some foods, no matter how much your kid loves ’em, don’t survive until lunchtime. Few kids fancy limp salad (but keeping the dressing in a separate container can eliminate this problem). Boiled eggs may work well for some, others may be overpowered by their odor, but a slice of frittata could suffice. Cheese that starts to melt when it isn’t meant to isn’t too appetizing either. If a food is supposed to be cold, include an ice pack. If you’re sending a dish that needs to be heated, such as bean soup or a veggie stew, invest in a thermos that holds the heat.

3. Make it visually appealing Appearances do matter when it comes to food, and some kids (and adults) simply won’t eat stuff that isn’t presented in an attractive manner. The bento box is a big hit with the junior set. My child loves his Laptop Lunchbox, in part, because the food comes in neat little packages in portions that whet, rather than overwhelm, the appetite. I’m no fan of fashioning food into fun shapes or cutesy animal characters, but it can help if lunch looks easy on the eye. A fruit kebab may be more enticing than a plain, whole apple.

4. Look to leftovers Your child chowed down last night’s pesto pasta, dug into the Asian noodle salad, or slurped up lots of tomato soup. Chances are that delicious dish can do double duty for lunch the next day. Bonus points if the meal includes protein, whole grains, and veg. That’s not much of an ask: It’s simple to slip, say, some grated carrot or frozen peas into that mac & cheese.

5. Mix it up The same sandwiches every day can get old, even for the most rigid eaters. Likewise, a week’s worth of leftovers. Try something new — or a different spin on an old standard — to keep everyone interested in eating. Make breakfast for lunch every once in a while for fun. Pack separate containers with granola, yogurt, and berries and let your kid stir the trio together at lunchtime. If your child usually has cold cuts for lunch, send a thermos of soup or noodles on a chilly day for a change. Or just skip the sandwich bread and substitute a wholewheat wrap or tortilla for a twist.

6. Get your kid involved Newsflash, folks, I made my own lunch starting in kindergarten and still bear the scars — from kids laughing at my inexpertly cut sandwiches —  to prove it (cue violin). Honestly, though, those of us with picky eaters in particular really need to bring ’em on board at every step of the lunch-making process, we’re talking planning, prepping, and packing.  My boy and I do this and it’s a bonding experience (don’t gag), gives me insights into what he’s into eating at any given time, and helps take some of the angst out of the whole exercise. Ups your chances of the chow actually getting eaten as well. I’d have never known that quinoa salad would be such a hit at lunch if my son hadn’t suggested it one morning.

7. Choose familiar foods School lunch is not the time to introduce new foods, bring back previously rejected produce, or make the case for your kid to expand his palate. You just want him to get the nutrients he needs to succeed at school. That means some protein to keep the brain sharp, complex carbs for energy, and fruit & veg for all the health benefits vitamin-, mineral-, and fiber-loaded produce offers.  Maybe you’ll learn, say, that salad is more likely to get consumed if you mix some walnuts, cranberries, and mandarin segments with those greens.

8. Cut yourself some slack Let’s face it, we’ve all packed a loser lunch at one time or another. Don’t beat yourself up about it if your child brings it back or complains. Or — perhaps worse — loves that a treat filled in for some real food. No matter. As in other areas of life, there’s always tomorrow to make amends. Onward. (And, yes, yes, the occasional treat is cool but cookies every day is certainly not.)

9. Find ideas among friends Plagiarism is allowed on the playground. Ask parents what they pack for their kid. Check out what you child’s friends have in their lunchbox. Scope out snack options in popular rotation. You’re bound to uncover a few new items to add to your repertoire. I picked up popcorn from one peer, trail mix from another.

10. Search for school lunch resources There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, clip and save ideas and leave them in a handy place, when you — or your finicky foodie — need some inspiration.

Here’s a few to get you started:

my.lunch.boxCheck back later this month for a contest giveaway for My Lunch Box: 50 Recipes For Kids to Take to School

School’s in Session, Time for Lunch Lessons

September 8, 2009

Yesterday while loads of folks fronted for backyard barbecues, Slow Food USA sponsored more than 300 Eat-Ins around the country as part of their Labor Day potlucks with a purpose.

The cause: Getting real food into schools. The organization’s Time for Lunch Campaign seeks to bring attention to the Child Nutrition Act, the bill that governs the National School Lunch Program, which is up for reauthorization this fall. The goal: More local, nutritious food, particularly fresh fruit & veg, in a program that feeds more than 30 million children every day.

With a trio of 5th grade boys in tow, I swung by the Berkeley event at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. The boys were curious about the goat milk ice cream (still hard as hockey pucks when we stopped by) and pleased to see a substitute teacher performing on stage. The food, according to Ameer, looked better than what’s served at Malcolm X Elementary, where the boys are students. The gathered group, Griffin noted, seemed to include many homeless folks in search of a decent feed. Gabe just wanted to get to the pool pronto.

griffin.gabe.ameer

So we missed the speeches and the spirit of the event, which felt a little like preaching to the converted in our town anyway. Alice WatersEdible Schoolyard anyone? Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper has only recently left town, after a major makeover of school food. And every public elementary in Berkeley has a much-loved cooking and gardening program. En route to the pool, the three kid critics complained that school food is unappetizing; they’re all still lunchbox lovers, despite parental efforts to convert them to the good food fight.

In fairness, many families in our school district are absolutely delighted with the fare on offer at lunchtime (snack, supplied by parents, is another matter). As I drove the boys to Strawberry Canyon to swim, I started mulling over something I read in the literature from the Center for Ecoliteracy booth at the Eat-In that made sense to me.

The brochure notes that food quality and taste aren’t the only criteria for kids’ decisions to eat — or not — at school. An inviting atmosphere or ambience is also key. I know many urban public school administrators will likely roll their eyes at this, but when I see school kids eating at benches outdoors I feel a pang of envy. My sensory sensitive son has a tough time eating in a cafeteria which, despite folks best efforts, is full of sights, smells, and sounds that aren’t always conducive to a positive eating environment.

Even the much-anticipated Dining Commons over at MLK Middle School in this city has awful acoustics. I’m surprised much eating gets done in that din at all, despite the building’s physical appeal.

That said, I want to know, as we all navigate the back-to-school transition, does your child eat lunch at school and, if not, why not?