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Meatless Monday: Getting Kids Off McNuggets

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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 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. Thechickens 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 the the only food.

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

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. It's a happy instance when being a (groan) responsible parent is 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."


Sicilian Pasta With Broccoli, Currants and Pinenuts


Here's a 15-minute pasta my niece likes to make and eat because she's currant-crazy. The sweetness tempers any broccoli resistance.

1 head broccoli, chopped
1/3 cup currants or raisins
12 ounces whole wheat fusilli or other short pasta
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (2 good pinches)
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 lemons, juice and zest
sea salt to taste
Parmesan and/or additional olive oil for drizzling

Steam broccoli until just tender and still vivid green, about 8 minutes. Set aside.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, plump raisins or currants in 6 tablespoons warm water.

Prepare pasta according to package directions. Cook fusilli cook until just al dente, not al mushy. Drain and set aside.

Using the same pot you used to cook the fusilli, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the red pepper flakes and the garlic. Cook, stirring, until the mixture sizzles and turns fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the pine nuts and continue stirring for another minute as the nuts toast -- be careful, they cook quickly.

Reduce heat to medium, add pasta, broccoli and bowl of currants plus the water they've been sitting in. Toss together. Grate in lemon zest, squeeze in lemon juice.

Season with sea salt.

Serve with Parmesan or additional olive oil, if desired.

Serves 4.

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