“This is not a restaurant!”
That’s what my mother used to say when either I or my brother dared to complain, question or even take too long to go through our dinner plate.
Don’t get me wrong — food in my house has always been good if not excellent, farm to table and as clean as it gets; but there are always a few food items in the life of a child that are able to make him or her shiver and possibly hate whoever dared to cook and serve them.
For me it was mushrooms and artichokes, and I’ve got stories for both.
I was around 7 or 8 years old and I remember that moment as if it was yesterday: It was about 3 p.m., I was on a school trip to the River Po region in northern Italy, and we had been walking all day and could not find a place to eat, as everybody was already home for their siesta. Our teacher finally found an open restaurant, or better, a restaurant that was closing down but not just yet. She convinced the chef to prepare “whatever he wanted” for a class of 25 hungry kids: “All right then,” he replied, “but the only thing I can make you is a risotto!”
A few minutes later I was presented with a mushroom risotto that just smelled like heaven, garnished with a touch of fresh shaved Parmesan cheese and a sprinkle of parsley. I don’t remember thinking twice about it, but I sure remember how it made me feel … kind of dumb! The incredible pleasure I was experiencing was equal to the amount of disbelief that was filling my head: “For how long have I been denying myself such a treat, claiming I did not like it?”
And that was the end of it. Since that day mushrooms became an integral part of my diet, and as an adult they are one of my favorite ingredients.
I have a similar story for artichokes; it involves my father forcing me to remain at the table after lunch until I finished what was on my plate, threatening me not to bring me to the movies. I finished those artichokes after 4 p.m., just in time to jump in the car and make it to the theater. That afternoon was unforgettable for different reasons, the wrong reasons: I did not enjoy the movie and I deeply resented my father. And by the way, it’s not as if that day, all of a sudden, I started eating artichokes; if anything, I was given one more reason to be kind of scared of them. Now I love them and cook them in many different ways. I just had to discover their exceptional qualities on my own, rather than being forced to eat them.
Now that I have two young daughters I try to expose them to as many ingredients as I can, and I usually do it in a straightforward way: I bring the food to the table and I try to stimulate their curiosity. I also present them with an alternative, to make life easier for everybody.
I realize that, with the exception of adult food like fish roe, octopus, beef tartare and other ingredients that might simply spook kids because of their shape or origins, when I think about feeding my kids, the items I care for them to eat are mainly vegetables, since our Italian diet has plenty of carbs and proteins for my growing cubs.
My daughters would look at me sideways if I served them a baby-spinach salad — “Come on, girls, it’s good for you; it’s healthy!” — but if brunch consisted of a spinach frittata they would ask for seconds.
My youngest one has a thing for shakes; it’s her snack when she comes back from school, usually along with a small piece of chocolate. Her favorite shake is strawberry and ice, with a dash of lemon. She has never complained about a difference in flavor the times I tossed a half beet from the night before in it. My oldest daughter still hates mushrooms, but she loves salad and has a portion of it whenever it is served at the table; one day she will be either very hungry or just curious enough, and then we shall see what happens.
Ultimately, when I feed my girls, wife included, I strive for a balance between a healthy meal and a pleasurable experience at the table. Every parent knows how terribly annoying is to spend dinner trying to convince, bribe or force young kids to eat whatever they decide they do not like. They are stubborn creatures that don’t like imposition, so play with their curiosity and help them find a way toward foods that are good for them. It will be a much easier task and a much more rewarding process.
Tune in to Extra Virgin tonight at 8pm ET to watch how Gabriele and Debi spend quality time with their daughters.