eats before the treats

Before the trick-or-treating begins, give kids a nutritious dinner that's full of spooky fun

October 29, 2008|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,Special to The Baltimore Sun

To get good and scared on Halloween night, a parent doesn't have to look far.

There's the fear of a wayward Jujube getting lodged in your preteen's braces, the terror of running out of candy and leaving your neighbors on the front stoop to survey your messy house through the storm door and the horror of your kids hauling home pounds of cavity-inducing confections that everyone at home finds impossible to resist.

But what really scares many parents on Halloween is something entirely prosaic and yet altogether necessary: dinner. Figuring out a healthful, fast meal that kids will actually eat and preparing it and serving it in the tiny window of time between school, homework, getting costumed and hitting the streets to forage for candy can seem like an impossible task.

"The central problem of Halloween dinner is complete lack of focus," says Stacia Linz, who lives in Westminster and has two children, Otto, 2, and Ava, 5. "Kids can't focus on your dinner because how can that possibly compete with the exciting desserts to follow?"

Yet Linz has managed to come up with a winning formula for getting her children to concentrate on dinner before the start of trick-or-treating: She gets them involved in the cooking, and together they craft a Halloween meal that's nutritious, fun and "kind of like an art project," she says.

This year's Halloween dinner menu at the Linz home includes turkey meatloaf "spiders," individual meatloaves made with seasoned ground turkey, shredded zucchini, oatmeal and 12-grain bread and baked in muffin tins.

The children will "frost" the cooked spiders with mashed sweet potatoes and add carrot- and celery-stick legs and sliced olives, scallions or black-eyed peas for eyes. She'll serve the spiders on a web of hoisin sauce the kids will help draw on their plates using plastic squeeze bottles.

To round out the meal, Linz is making berry smoothies garnished with a green slime of kiwi puree.

"I'll consider this meal a success if I involve the kids in something that distracts them from the candy and gets them to eat some real food," she says. "My primary goal is to get some protein and long-acting carbs in them to stave off the inevitable sugar crash. Then I'll feel less guilt over the fact that I'll probably let them eat whatever candy they want that night."

Anglecia Brewton, associate prepared-foods team leader at Whole Foods Market in Mount Washington, suggests serving kid favorites like macaroni and cheese, pizza and chicken fingers. Just giving the dish a new name can link it to Halloween. "It's not so much what you put in it," she says. "It's what you call it."

Some of Brewton's ideas include serving chicken fingers or fish sticks in a hollowed-out pumpkin, drizzling them with ketchup and calling it "Dead Man's Fingers," or adding yellow food coloring or pureed butternut squash to macaroni and cheese and calling the dish "Earwax Casserole." What to serve on the side? Steamed cauliflower "brains."

"Don't ignore the season, embrace it," says Cricket Azima, author of the children's cookbook Everybody Eats Lunch and the food editor of Kiwi magazine. Azima suggests playing up the holiday with a seasonal soup made from fresh pumpkin that comes together in less than an hour.

For the soup, she starts with diced celery, onion and carrot, adds chicken stock and fresh pumpkin and simmers the mixture until the vegetables are tender. Then she purees the soup with an immersion blender and seasons it with salt and pepper, ground ginger and a touch of cinnamon.

The soup can be served with the addition of shredded chicken or simple flour-and-water dumplings, and paired with salad and bread, and fresh blueberries for dessert.

"Or you could do an all-black-and-orange meal," says Azima, the mother of a preschooler. Ideas for that menu could include squid-ink pasta and cantaloupe. "The key is keeping it to a theme and making it fun, fun, fun," Azima says.

Themes may be fine for Halloween parties, but for Halloween dinner, Ellen Briggs of Towson is looking for something "a little less Martha." Instead of dinner along a theme, she prepares a straightforward entree like grilled Beer-Can Chicken or chicken kebabs that can be served hot as dinner to her in-laws and then cold in a gyro sandwich or on a salad later in the evening when the trick-or-treating is over.

You see, Briggs is one of those parents who would rather embody Halloween than serve it for dinner. She and her husband, Todd, and their 9-year-old daughter, Samantha, usually wear theme costumes for Halloween. One year, they were the Cheetah Girls. This year they are going as Hannah Montana, Billy Ray Cyrus and an "over-the-hill" Hannah Montana.

"Before we had Sam, I thought it would be fun to cut up pumpkin shapes for sandwiches for dinner on Halloween," Briggs says. "But it's different now that I'm a mom. Now on Halloween night, I have places to go and candy to get."

turkey meatloaf and sweet potato spiders

(makes 6 servings)

3 large sweet potatoes, scrubbed

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