06/16/2012 05:26 pm ET Updated Aug 16, 2012

When Chefs Become Dads

Their kids are their most valuable diners. But having a little one can upend the good eating intentions of even these food pros

Before they became parents, Quinn and Karen Hatfield had opened two iterations of their celebrated Los Angeles restaurant Hatfield's, one bigger than the last. His French-influenced menu and her inventive desserts earned critics' praise and fed countless thousands. Then, a few years ago, their most important customer showed up. Wordless, toothless, she came to eat. When their daughter was ready for solids, Quinn was as prepared to meet the challenge as a restaurateur tipped off to a top critic in his dining room. "He made all her baby food, sourcing amazing stuff from farms, all organic," says Karen. "Red quinoa, different squashes -- fabulous."

Yes, the children of chef dads eat well -- they have some of the country's best cooks whipping up meals on demand. But as they grow, kids exert a strong influence over how everyone else in the family eats, and that shift rarely results in more Brussels sprouts and less mac n' cheese. For those trying to eat healthfully or lose weight, dining with children can be a challenge -- even for top food pros. For instance, now that the Hatfields' daughter is a bit older, there is (organic) kiddie cereal in the home pantry. And Quinn, who previously overcame what he calls his "issue with sugar," to lose about 35 lbs. isn't so happy with that development. Now he says, "If I wake up and eat my daughter's Gorilla Munch, then it's a sugar day and I eat sugar all day." To make up for it, "The next day I won't eat any sugar."

Other creative solutions are called for. PBS's Simply Ming host, Ming Tsai, prefers to eat brown rice for its nutrients, fiber and flavor. But his two boys like white rice. He's discovered they don't notice when he stealthily uses a 50-50 brown/white blend in his fried rice, which he cooks with them on weekends. And James Beard-award winner Nate Appleman, who was inspired to start running and drop 90 lbs. when he became a dad to son Oliver, makes sure to stock only snacks that he too can eat. "We always have nuts or dried fruit, cheese or almond butter," he told me. "I've actually grown to love graham crackers. They are a not-too-indulgent sweet."

In a best-case scenario, having a child helps you eat better than you did before. "It makes you think about the four food groups, so we'll have more fruit salads, more vegetables," says Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, chef-owner of Boulder's Frasca Food and Wine. If you aren't much of a home cook, it might please you to know that many chefs weren't either until they started families. Today Mackinnon-Patterson, a Top Chef Masters alum, is usually the one to pack his young daughter's lunch box, which might contain leftovers from his restaurant's staff meal or pasta salad, tiny meatballs and fresh raspberries that "she sticks on her fingers." But, always a restaurant man, he admits to checking the lunch box at the end of the day, just as he does with plates returning to his work kitchen: Did diners lick them clean, or leave something behind? Did she love it or hate it? "If she didn't eat it I wonder why and I call her teacher."

Few things bother a chef more than food left untouched on the plate -- actually that irks me too, and I am not at all a chef. Many pros think the problem we lay folk have is serving kids bland food, on the assumption that more spice or sauce will put children off. "The one thing people don't do is season," says Chopped's Marc Murphy, chef-owner of Landmarc in New York. "The babysitter will make my kids broccoli and I'll say, 'What did you do to this?' And it's 'Oh, I just put a little olive oil.' No salt and pepper? Kids aren't allowed to have flavor?" He's another weekend home-cook, who serves up vegetables even at breakfast. Family favorites are his broccoli and Parmesan frittata, which they dive into like pizza, or "green eggs" with pesto. And when he doesn't feel like cooking, they head to Chinatown for breakfast congee with dried scallops, and steamed Chinese vegetables with oyster sauce.

"When I sautéed vegetables for my kids I always used oyster sauce or clam juice," says Susur Lee, chef of Zentan in Washington D.C., and a father to three grown sons. "That umami sweetness is attractive to kids." When you can get your children to eat the foods you want to eat yourself, everyone can sit down to the same meal, and no one's diet needs to go off the rails.

But even when they are eating differently from their kids, smart chefs don't make too much about it. "There's enough advertising to make kids self-conscious" about food and diet and weight, says Murphy. "If my kids want an ice-cream cone, even if I'm not hungry I'll get an ice-cream cone, because I don't want to be the parent who's like, 'Oh, I can't eat that.' We'll all have ice cream together. You want to teach them to live and enjoy life."

Allison Adato is the author of "Smart Chefs Stay Slim: Lessons in Eating and Living from America's Best Chefs" (Penguin/NAL, 2012) from which this story was adapted. Follow her on Twitter at @editgirlnyc