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

"Here’s my advice to anyone feeding children: Don’t give in, and don’t cook down to them."

Battilana
Photo by Betsy Kershner for The Pride & Joy Project, 2015. www.prideandjoyproject.com

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.

Scroll down 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, which will be published by Little, Brown in April 2018. A Vermont native, she lives in San Francisco with her wife and children. 

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Curried Sloppy Joes with Coconut-Green Onion Biscuits

This is the sort of basic-with-a-twist recipe I love, especially because you can make it—including the homemade biscuits—in about 30 minutes. The biscuits are actually a perfect project for kids, who can mix and drop the dough while you prepare the filling. If you prefer, you can substitute ground, dark-meat turkey for the beef.

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

sloppy joe
  • Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients:

For the biscuits:
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • cup unsweetened coconut, toasted
  • 3 green onions, finely chopped
  • 1 ¼ buttermilk
For the filling:
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons red curry paste
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 ¼ cups coconut milk (not lite)
  • 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
  • ½ cup chopped cilantro, divided
  • 2 cups shredded cabbage
  • ¼ cup finely chopped mint
  • Juice of 1 lime

Steps:

  1. Step 1

    Make the biscuits: Arrange a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 450°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

  2. Step 2

    In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, sugar, baking soda, and salt to combine. Cut the butter into the flour mixture (using two butter knives, a pastry cutter, or your fingertips) until the butter is in pea-sized pieces. Stir in the coconut and green onions, then pour in the buttermilk and mix until just combined.

  3. Step 3

    Spoon 8 large mounds of dough onto the prepared pan, spacing them evenly. Transfer to the oven and bake until deep golden brown, about 16 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool.

  4. Step 4

    While the biscuits bake, make the filling: Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the shallot and garlic and cook, stirring, until shallot begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Stir in red curry paste and cook, stirring, 45 seconds. Add the beef and salt, using a wooden spoon to break up the beef. Cook, stirring occasionally, until beef is just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add the coconut milk and the sugar, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until some of the liquid is absorbed but the mixture is still saucy, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and stir in ¼ cup of the cilantro. Season to taste with additional salt.

  5. Step 5

    In a small bowl, combine the cabbage, mint, and the remaining ¼ cup cilantro with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and the lime juice. Season to taste with salt.

  6. Step 6

    To serve, split four biscuits crosswise. Spoon some of the beef mixture onto the bottom half of each biscuit. Top with some of the slaw and the top of the bun to form a sandwich. Use the remaining biscuits, beef, and slaw for another round of Sloppy Joes or for lunch the next day.