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Cooking for Kids (and Other Crazy Ideas)

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This is how it started. Back when I was a twenty-something, earning twenty-something, in New York City (this was the late 90s mind you), I moonlighted as a babysitter for a family in Manhattan. There were two adorable kids who were always doing cool art projects and telling hilarious stories. But for all their language lessons, karate classes and music workshops for the truly well-rounded toddler, they only ate two things: chicken nuggets or baked ziti. That's it.

I've been terrified of falling into the same fate ever since.

Now I have two children of my own and I get it. They don't like everything. You can put time, effort and expense into making a nice dinner only to have it pushed aside at best, and on the floor at worst. Plus, cooking from scratch is hard. You have to figure out what to make, buy the ingredients, probably peel something, definitely chop something and all that takes time. Time a lot of parents just don't have. No wonder nuggets prevail.

Now here's where I sound old: This isn't how I remember eating as a kid. My mom cooked and my husband's mom cooked too, but neither of them worked full time and that makes a big difference. I don't work full time either, which cannot be emphasized enough. I don't work full time. I don't. Also, my kids are very young. One eats pureed food. The other is a toddler with such hit or miss tastes that I have an on-going list of What Works Now and What Doesn't Work Now on Foodlets. With that said, I'm not going the nuggets route. Even if it works every time. I'm just not.

Why is this such an area of emphasis for me? Some parents focus on emotional parenting, others on sports or art or music. For me it's food. Maybe it's my hippy upbringing or my undying devotion to Ina Garten. (Note: I've never seen an episode where a little person wanders on to the set demanding a snack just as the Barefoot Contessa puts a flame to her perfect crème brulee.) But I also think Mother Nature had something to do with it. We're hardwired to feed our young so that they will grow and flourish.

And here's the rub. It's worth it. Almost every part of parenting is hard; often rewarding, sometimes amazing and definitely full of sweet moments, but it's not for sissies. The last thing most parents need is an extra to-do list (Just peel some turnips! Make your own stock, it's so easy!). But I am going down on this side of the debate: when it comes to feeding kids healthy food and eating it together, the stakes are simply too high to not try. This isn't a new idea. Many studies and articles have focused on benefits of families who eat together and one of my favorites is from Time magazine a few years ago.

"Studies show that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and know which fork to use. 'If it were just about food, we would squirt it into their mouths with a tube,' says Robin Fox, an anthropologist who teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey, about the mysterious way that family dinner engraves our souls. 'A meal is about civilizing children. It's about teaching them to be a member of their culture.'"

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a gourmet and I'm not Amish. I believe in taking a little help where you can. Bisquick makes tasty pancakes but why not throw in a little yogurt and wheatgerm just to up the nutritional ante. I'm not above ordering takeout, but I like to add more steamed vegetables to my garlic chicken. It's not about being a fanatic, just introducing healthy habits and I do it as much for myself and as the miniature members of the household.

Unfortunately I don't have all the answers. I make tons of meals. Some of them are appreciated, many of them are not and some nights I settle for a toddler who sits at the table with a glass of milk because she doesn't like the look of what's on her plate. More likely, she had too many snacks after her nap but either way the result is the same: no eating. Sometimes my husband isn't home in time for our early bird dinner so it's a party of three, but we're doing it. We set the table, clear the table and eat our food together. Not every night but pretty close. We're only two years into this parenting thing so we'll see how it goes from here.

In the meantime I do know this: Obesity rates are astronomical. Kids don't get enough fresh fruit and vegetables and quite a few don't even know what they are. Children who eat together as a family have lower rates of everything from drug use to depression. And after eating a lot of sugar, mine in particular go berserk. So I'll carry on. Even if it ends up on the floor, at least I'll know what part of the chicken that dang drumstick came from. Wish me luck.