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Meatless Monday: Detouring From The McNugget Route

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You're fried from work, your child is cranky, you're both starved and looking at imminent meal meltdown. You take the path of least resistance, and go for quick and kid-pleasing or what author and blogger Matthew Amster-Burton calls "the McNugget route."

"We assume the worst about kids," says Susan Levin of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "We say, my kid won't eat anything but chicken fingers, French fries and pizza. We aren't giving them a chance to taste healthy foods."

Amster-Burton doesn't demand his daughter eat anything, healthful or otherwise, but he exposes her to new and varied foods, foods from every culture. "As a parent, it's my responsibility to make sure Iris gets food. Any amount of it that goes down her is up to her," says the author of "Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater."

Iris Amster-Burton, now 6, has eaten chili enchiladas, mushroom frittatas and pad thai. She helps make blueberry buckwheat pancakes and homemade pretzels. Her favorite dishes, she explains, are fried rice, gyoza (Japanese dumplings), pizza, ice cream and cake. Her father is not interested in raising a vegetarian, he is raising his daughter to have an informed palate.

"Hungry Monkey" shows how giving your child a whole range of foods offers opportunities for great eats and for what the parenting blogs call bonding. Amster-Burton is a big proponent of the shared family meal. "The whole family eating the same dinner, that makes me happy as a cook and as an eater," he says. Caving and going the McNugget route may keep the peace at dinnertime, but there's a difference, Amster-Burton notes, between a peaceful meal and a pleasurable one.

Sometimes the path of least resistance turns out to take you where you don't want to go. Going the McNugget route also means you're helping to keep the industrial food system -- the same system behind the recent egg and beef recalls -- run smoother than ever. Industrial food is about churning out maximum product at minimal cost. It's good business. It is not, however, good -- or safe -- food policy.

Salmonella and its toxic bro E. coli existed before industrial food. But now, with food both centralized and mass-produced, by the time we determine the source of contamination, whoops, it's too late, it's national, it's everywhere. It can be fatal for us and it's never good for the animals. The chickens that go into those McNuggets are raised in ways that might make your child cry. It might make you cry, too. This is not the most ethical food out there. Nor is it the only food.

You have parent creds, use 'em. "It's up to you to give your child the best possible options," says Levin.

Amster-Burton prefers doing that in the most hedonistic way, by taking Iris on food safaris as close as their local farmers market and as far-flung as Japan -- that's where she developed her gyoza weakness and her growing interest in spicy food. Amster-Burton's new book "Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo" shows being a (groan) responsible parent can be a good time, too. Not every food will be a winner. Iris is, at the moment, anti-carrot and anti-egg salad. That still leaves a world of flavors and foods to discover without going the McNugget route.

"We eat more vegetables now than before Iris was born," says Amster-Burton. "She's helped me reacquaint with food as an adventure."


Vegetable Donburi

From my book, "Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner," New World Library, 2013.

In Japan, donburi basically means something served over rice -- usually eggs. It's easy, popular, made at home and sold as street food. It's Japanese comfort food and kids grow up on it. I've enriched it by adding vegetables (and losing the egg. It's still excellent).

1 cup rice -- white is traditionally Japanese, brown is whole grain and healthier
1 cup vegetable broth
1/4 cup sake or sherry
1 tablespoon white miso paste
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil (optional)
2 carrots, chopped
2 cups broccoli (about half a head), broken into florets
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
4 scallions, chopped
2 to 3 eggs

Bring 2 cups of water to boil in a medium saucepan. Add rice. Cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until rice is tender and has absorbed liquid -- about 30 minutes for white rice, 40 for brown.

Remove from heat but keep covered and warm.

Bring broth to boil in a medium saucepan. Add sake or sherry, miso, soy sauce and optional sesame oil. Stir until smooth. Add broccoli, carrots, ginger and garlic and cook for 2 minutes, or until vegetables start to soften. Add scallions and mushrooms and continue cooking another few minutes or .

Divide rice into two bowls. Gently spoon vegetables and sauce on top.

Serves 2.

This post originally appeared on Sept. 20, 2010.