At our house the first "cuisine" decision of the day is what to put in the kids' lunch boxes.
The kids lobby for their favorite items, basically anything "frosted." I pretty much hold to the parental party line that lunches should be oppressively nutritional. But after several instances of packing carrot sticks in the kids' lunches, only to have the carrots returned home unharmed, I have broadened my definition of what constitutes a good lunch.
First of all, it has to be eaten. You can load those lunch boxes down all you want with beta carotenes, but if the kids won't eat them, the only health benefit they get is the muscular one of carrying around a heavy lunch box.
So I have learned to compromise. The other morning, for instance, as I made a peanut butter and marshmallow sandwich for one of my kids' lunches, I consoled myself with the thoughts that the peanut butter had some protein and the bread had some fiber.
Recently I felt the need to get a little professional lunch-making advice. And so during a noon hour I visited Debbie Ellis, whose business depends on getting kids to eat lunch. She owns the Lunch Company, a one-year-old enterprise that feeds kids in day-care and school settings. Operating out of the squeaky clean kitchen of the Downtown Baltimore Child Care Center near the University of Maryland medical school, she makes daily lunches and snacks and breakfasts for 150 kids, 5 years old and younger, who eat in the center's university and Park Avenue locations. Although Ellis is not a dietitian, she follows the U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional requirements, and in addition has rules of her own. For instance, no chocolate chip cookies are served to the kids, only oatmeal; chocolate chips TC have too much sugar, she said.
She serves a hot lunch; I make cold lunches. But I wasn't going to let a little matter like temperature of the food stop me from stealing ideas on how to get kids to eat.
Moreover, unlike myself, who regards feeding kids as a high-stress activity, Ellis seemed to enjoy it. She didn't whistle while she worked. But she did smile a lot as I watched her and her assistant, Debbie Legg, fix lunch for a mob of kids. And rather than being exhausted, she said she was anxious to expand her business.
Two things she has learned about feeding lunch to kids, she said, are keep it simple and keep clear of tuna casserole.
She tried two disguises for tuna casserole. In one ploy the noodles were shaped like bows and in the other she garnished the dish with crackers shaped like goldfish. Both failed.
And when the under-2 set doesn't like a dish, Ellis reminded me, they throw it. Lunch is up against the wall, literally. Tuna casserole is no longer on the menu.
Kids can be suspicious eaters and that is one reason to keep their food simple, she said. As she spoke she fixed some buttered pasta, which along with string beans, fruit salad, and chicken nuggets -- baked, not fried -- were being served for lunch to the day care crowd that day.
Pasta, known to health eaters as complex carbohydrates and known to the kids as "noodles," is popular because the dish is straightforward, she said. Kids can see what they are eating, without having to worry about the ingredients lurking in mysterious sauces.
Noodles are such trusted lunchtime companions, she said, that the kids are even willing to eat them when they are accompanied by newcomers, like zucchini and broccoli.
Another key to popularity is to make the pasta personal, she said, if not in those exact words. When the kids are 2 and younger, they get the small "elbows" of macaroni. When they are older and bigger, they graduate to a bigger noodle.
I was comforted to learn that Ellis, who cooks for her husband, Joseph, and their two daughters, Lindsey, 10, and Amanda, 3, as well as her lunchtime school and day care customers, subscribed to the "let 'em eat fruit" philosophy.
My attempts at getting kids to eat have taught me that, when all else fails, fall back on bananas. Ellis said she serves up about 25 pounds of bananas, a case of apples and a case of oranges each week.
She also said the size of kids' appetites surprised her. They eat more than the USDA guidelines of 1 1/2 ounces of protein, 1/2 cup of vegetables, 1/2 slice of whole grain bread or the equivalent serving of pasta or rice, and 6 ounces of milk. She structured her business to make sure that kids get their fill, and she still makes a profit. The institution pays for the food. She is paid for cooking it.
Ellis acknowledged that the appetites of children are difficult to predict precisely. One of her daughters, for instance, once went through a "steak-eating phase," and is now tending toward vegetarianism. One of her clients, Katie, an 18-month-old, could eat an entire cucumber any day of the week. Whereas another, 5-year-old Danny, could seemingly go days without eating if allowed to.
Being inconsistent about what we eat is not, of course, a behavior that only kids engage in. For instance, while I can lecture my kids about the nutritional benefits of chopping carrots, I rarely cozy up to them when I have a snack attack.
And after Ellis told me that she prefers to feed the kids only oatmeal cookies, I spotted a bag of chocolate-filled cookies in the kitchen. I spotted them, in part, because these cookies are among my favorite high-sugar snacks. These cookies however, weren't for the kids. The kids were eating fruit salad in natural syrup for dessert. The cookies were for the adults working at the center.
Proving, I guess, that lunch, like life, can be unfair. My kids tell me that every day.