HOME COOKING II: Okay, I’ll Cook! Now what?

So let’s say you’ve decided that home cooking is a sweet deal after all and you’re giving those clam shells and pizza boxes a quiet funeral out in the back yard. But now what? How to make the switch from someone else (or hundreds of someones) feeding you to your own efforts?

Start by making dinner for a week – or let’s say, six out of seven days. To achieve this, you need some food in the house and a plan. What happens if you’re invited out during this home-cooking week? This isn’t a problem: of course, go out! The goal here is to make home cooking a desirable habit not a condition of house arrest.

This is a 5 step plan.

  1. The Master List.
  2. A Week’s Menu.
  3. A Shopping List
  4. Shopping
  5. Cooking

The Master List (you only do this part once)

The Master List contains everything you always want to have on hand. Whether it’s diapers, bird seed or aspirin, what you need in the house should be on your list. When it’s time to shop, consulting the master list will remind you what you’re out of. It will also remind you what not to buy. For example, by consulting the Master List, you will recall that you already have 3 different kinds of cheese in your refrigerator and the Frugal You will determine to use those up before buying more. Tape the list to the inside of one of your cabinets.

Here’s a brief example. Your list can be as extensive as you wish – but remember it’s not really a shopping list. It’s an inventory.

Onions, garlic
Olive oil
Paper towels
Toilet paper
Cleaning supplies
Tuna fish
Peanut butter
Spices, salt, pepper










The Menu

The key here is keeping your menu very, very simple. Don’t stress over recipes, cookbooks or whether you think you’ll really want eggplant on Wednesday. Just write down some basic meals. In the following example, the menus may look slightly skeletal in their simplicity. This is on purpose.

If you find yourself toiling away composing menus, you won’t get to Tuesday in your home cooking plan. So just ponder briefly: Do I want fish twice this week? What about beets? Chicken? Okay. Plug some of these general choices into your menu. Just don’t repeat meals. A couple of salads are great but don’t count on eating the same vegetable every night. You’ll feel a lot more excited seeing a range of possibilities in the crisper than of 5 pounds of limp carrots.

A good tip: Keep a small notebook. Write the week’s menus on one page and the shopping list on the other.

Monday: Chicken, rice, salad

Tuesday: Turkey tacos, broccoli

Wednesday: Fish, red peppers, slaw

Thursday: Pasta with sausage, string beans

Friday: Pork chops, potatoes, spinach

Saturday: White pizza with artichokes, salad or… Something A Lot More Exciting

Sunday: Soup, grilled cheese sandwiches

Desserts for the week: Yogurt, fruit, ice cream, cookies

On to your Shopping List

Organize your shopping list by category following your Master List . This will save a lot of time in the grocery. Here’s a short sample list using the master list and the bare bones menu.

Dairy: Milk, yogurt, cheddar, Parmesan

Vegetables/Fruits: Onions, garlic, lettuce, cabbage, red peppers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes, pears, bananas

Meat: Turkey, chicken breasts, pork chops, fish, sausage

Staples: Salt, cereal, peppercorns

Household: Paper towels, soap

Misc: Bread, tortillas, canned artichokes (in water)

The Actual Shopping

Here’s where things get a bit more creative. You’re in the store with your list but friends, you don’t need to be a slave to the list. Choose what looks good to you: you’ll be much more likely to cook it. You might think you want salmon but if the halibut is more appealing, that’s what you should get.

In other words, the list serves to remind you that you need food in the house. What’s available at your store really determines your choice. And be choosy: don’t buy produce that doesn’t look fresh. Don’t hesitate to make the guy in produce your friend. He will be more than happy to open a new case of string beans or (those magic words) ‘look in the back’ for more spinach.

Where to shop? If you want to get a jump on the week and cross a lot off your list, by all means, do a ‘big’ shopping trip. But once the basics are covered, you might make short trips to stores with high quality vegetables and meats. Stores like Whole Foods have quality meat, produce and fish but the prices are unreasonable and unfortunately, they’re looking more like cafeterias these days with all the troughs of prepared foods. Still, there are fewer aisles than the supermarkets. Bottom line: wherever you shop, hug the perimeter.

If you are fortunate enough to live in an area with farmers’ markets, CSAs*, food co-ops, or other stores that carry local products, your shopping may involve a few trips in order to complete your list.

How much should you buy? Not much but a lot of variety. For meat and fish, plan on 4 to 6 ounces per person. That means for a family of four, buy about 1 1/4 pounds of boneless chicken or one 3 1/2 pound roasting chicken. Pork chops? One each (not huge ones). When it comes to vegetables: indulge. Your salads can have 2 or 3 kinds of lettuce, some sliced fennel, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. Buy lots of greens. One bunch of chard or kale will serve two generously.

What about your budget? If you cook at home for a week and limit your purchases to mostly fresh food, you’ll save money. And here’s an important part of the plan: spend more for your food but buy less of it. Anyone who has grown a tomato or eaten a fresh caught fish knows that quality counts.


Knuckle-cracking time! There’s food in the fridge but still, dinner seems hazy. If you’re really stuck for ideas, now is the time to get out a cookbook or go to a website like Epicurious. It’s amazing how quickly you can come up with something just by typing in an ingredient. If the recipe looks good, read a few of the reviews. Some are definitely wacky but you’ll get some ideas all the same. It’s 21st century back fence neighbor talk. If the dish turns out well, save a copy – it may become a favorite and of course, easier to make each time.

Say the idea of ground turkey tacos isn’t that thrilling. A few minutes of research later… Spicy turkey burgers! (See the recipe below) Sounds promising and the broccoli is good with that too.

But maybe, plain old broccoli is beginning to pall and this is where you pull out your stash of ‘accompaniments’. Toss it with some toasted pine nuts you keep in the freezer or make a little dressing with soy sauce, lemon juice and sesame oil. Even a generous squeeze of lemon juice, a small clove of chopped garlic and a spoonful of olive oil can make a big difference.

For our hypothetical week, I have purposely kept the menu, well, nearly generic. Depending on your time and how you feel, the ‘chicken-rice-salad’ might appear on the table as a zesty stir-fry or a cozy baked dish with salad on the side. Sundays are good nights for soup and a sandwich or – as they did in my family- breakfast for dinner: waffles or pancakes. After a long weekend and looking ahead to work and school, a simple homely supper is just right.

But hang on! What about Saturday night? Why not make things a little more exciting? If you have kids, feed them the pizza (see how below) and put them to bed. Shed the sweat pants and make yourselves oysters Rockefeller!

Did I mention dessert? It’s a good idea. If you’re eating meals with less meat and more vegetables and sticking to one helping, dessert makes a satisfying finish. If there are children in your house, the thought of dessert really does help that broccoli disappear. Plain yogurt with a spoonful of jam, honey, maple syrup or cinnamon sugar along with a couple of cookies (not huge) makes a good simple dessert. I’ve included a cookie recipe below. A dollop of ice cream on cooked or fresh fruit is another sweet idea.

Final Thoughts

Home cooking means real food, un-processed and cooked by you. Heating up the fancy deli’s lasagna doesn’t count. Neither does adding water to the Tandoori Rice Bowl.

Just to be clear: I’m not battling oatmeal, smoked salmon, olive oil or dried apricots. These are, of course, processed foods. What I’m talking about is what Michael Pollan, in an article in the Sunday New York Times magazine (January 28, 2007) “Unhappy Meals” describes:

“Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.”

Good luck with your cooking, I hope my suggestions help and that your week of home cooking turns into a second and then a third week. This is a challenging time of year to make a big change since we’re all beginning to get a little weary of winter. But take heart! Spring is just around the corner and in many areas, that means the farmers markets will be starting up and you may be planting your own garden. Soon there will be strawberries and asparagus and mushrooms… but for now, enjoy some soups and stews and the last of the season’s juicy grapefruits. Bon appetit!

*CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Customers buy a subscription or a ‘share’ of locally grown produce. Subscribers receive a weekly box of high quality, super fresh food directly from the farms which are, in turn, supported financially by the shareholders.

Here’s a good website to learn more:http://www.localharvest.org/csa/

Spicy Turkey Burgers

One kitchen gadget I have used constantly is the food processor. Grinding meat is one of the easiest things to do with this handy machine and you instantly have the best, freshest hamburger anywhere. Try this with turkey.

For 4

  • 1 1/4 pounds turkey filets or ground turkey
  • 2 plum (Roma) tomatoes
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 bunch cilantro, washed and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon hot sauce (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cooking oil

Chop up the tomatoes, onion, garlic and half the cilantro to make a salsa. Use a food processor for this step if you have one but don’t make the mixture too smooth. Add the olive oil and seasonings and taste, adding more seasoning if necessary. Set aside.

If you’re using fresh turkey, cut it in a few pieces, put it into the food processor and pulse until ground but not minced. Combine the turkey and the salsa and shape into 4 burgers.

Heat the oil in a skillet and saute the burgers for about 3 minutes per side. Serve with lettuce and the extra cilantro and pass the hot sauce.

String Beans with ‘Accompaniments’

It’s the middle of July. You’ve just come in from your garden, your hair flowing in the breeze, a slight flush on your cheeks. In your arms, there are green beans. Minutes later, you and your loved ones are swooning over these perfect beans which are unclothed save for a dab of butter and a little salt and pepper.

Wait a minute! Stop the cameras! It’s February: add some flavoring and texture to fully clothe your beans and help everyone have a good meal. Keep a stash of various nuts, spices, and exotic things like lime or lemon oil (a tiny bottle lasts for ages). Fresh ginger, by the way, keeps a long time in the fridge if you wrap it in paper towel and then in a small closeable plastic bag.

for 4

  • 1 pound green beans
  • 1/4 cup walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts, roughly chopped
  • 1 small piece of ginger, peeled and grated
  • A few drops of lemon oil
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Bring a big pot of water to a boil. In the meantime, wash the beans and snap off the ends. Cook the beans for 5 to 8 minutes or until just tender. (Check by fishing one out and tasting it) Drain the beans and put them back in the pot.

Toss with the remaining ingredients and taste for seasoning. Can be served hot or room temperature.

Super Fast Pizza for the Kids

Grown-ups like this too!

for 2 servings

  • 1 -2 small whole wheat pitas
  • 1 can artichokes (you’ll only need 1/2 can)
  • 1 slice ham or prosciutto, diced (optional)
  • 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan or shredded mozzarella
  • Olive oil

Heat the oven to 325. Split the pita into two halves, brush with a little olive oil and warm it up a few minutes on a cookie sheet. If you have trouble separating the pita or if it’s very thin, use two. Drain and chop up about half of artichokes. Divide them between the 2 pita halves, add the optional ham or prosciutto and top with the cheese. Bake about 5 minutes or until cheese is melted and bubbly. Serve with a few cherry tomatoes on the side.

p.s. the extra artichokes? Halve them and wrap in a slice of prosciutto, ham or cheese. This can be your hors d’oeuvre while you make the oysters….

Oysters Rockefeller

This Saturday night special serves two but you can easily double it or make a lot for a party. Buy your oysters the same day you cook them. My take on this classic involves a lot of spinach. Serve with champagne.

For 2

  • 6 to 8 large fresh oysters
  • 2 slices bacon
  • 1 bunch spinach
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 tablespoons Pernod or Herbsaint liqueur
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup panko or fresh bread crumbs

Fry the bacon until it is about halfway done. Drain on a paper towel.

Wash the spinach thoroughly, cut off the stems and chop roughly. Saute the shallot in the butter until soft and add the spinach stirring until it is wilted. In a strainer, drain and squeeze out the water with the back of a spoon. Put the spinach back in the pan, warm it, stirring and add the Pernod, cooking a minute or two to evaporate the alcohol. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Turn the oven on to broil. Arrange the oysters, rounded side down, on a baking sheet. Broil just until the shells ‘pop’ or look open. Remove from the oven, loosen the oysters with a knife, taking care not to spill the juice and discard the upper flat shell.

Place a mound of spinach on each oyster, a spoonful of the crumbs and top with a square of bacon. Broil the oysters (not too close to the heat) just until the bacon is crisp. Watch it like a hawk!!

Pop the champagne cork, tuck a white napkin into your pearls and dive in!

My friend Valerie’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Valerie Hill was the pastry chef at the Morrison Clark Inn in Washington, DC when I worked there. This is her incredibly good recipe, and you’ll find it makes several rolls which store well in the freezer. These are buttery but not overly sweet little cookies that melt in your mouth.

  • 1 1/2 pounds butter, unsalted, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • 5 cups (1 1/4 lbs) cake flour, sifted
  • 4 3/4 (15 oz) cups oats
  • 2 1/4 cups (12 oz) golden raisins

Cream butter and sugar. Sift baking soda over mixture and blend thorougly. Mix in the remaining ingredients. I use a mixer for this. Shape into long rolls and wrap in plastic wrap or waxed paper and refrigerate until firm. Slice into about 1/4 inch rounds and bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. I bake cookies on parchment paper so I don’t have to grease the cookie sheet.

The rolls can be frozen and baked as needed.

Cheers and xoxo, Mary

HOME COOKING I: A Hard Sell or a Sweet Deal?

Much as I like to cook, I’ve got to admit home cooking today is a hard sell.  With so many restaurants and take-out options, rattling those pots and pans in your own kitchen is way down on the list of options.  And did I mention clean up?  Despite all kinds of gloomy news about diet, health, and mass-produced foods, home cooking will not seem like a sweet deal unless it feels convenient and easy. 

So here are some Persuasive Tips:

  • Enjoy being the Boss of your table.  Cooking at home means you control the taste, the portions and the ingredients.  Even if you aren’t in love with your own cooking now, you know what you like to eat and with a little practice, that will translate into tasty meals.

Overheard: “I love pear, spinach and gorgonzola salad but I hate the candied pecans and cranberries”.   The Home Cook thinks: “Hmmm, make it at home with salty pecans, no cranberries and save about 6 bucks.”

  •  Avoid huge weekly shopping trips.  Buy less and you’ll have less to haul in the house, put away and feel guilty about when you throw it away 10 days later.  A young professional woman I know told me this: 

 “Almost by accident, I started picking up a few things for dinner on my way home from work.  It has become a habit because I found that I could put a meal together quickly and everything was so fresh.  And here’s a bonus: I do very little impulse shopping when I’m in a hurry to get home!” 

  • Keep some ingredients on hand and have a couple of ‘pantry’ recipes so you’re never stuck without something for a meal.  What should be ‘on hand’? One or two types of pasta, some rice, canned beans, tomatoes, tuna fish, some frozen vegetables – those are staples.  Also have a small stash of  the slightly exotic (you know what you like) such as: hearts of palm, olives, capers, pine nuts and Parmesan (these last two can be frozen).

  • Instead of no time … more time.  While you’re stirring the pot, the kids can do homework, set the table or take the dog for a walk.  The thirty minutes your meal is in the oven is time for you to read the mail, call a friend or watch the news.  All of which beats sitting at a table, waiting for the pizza to arrive.

“Alex hates eating out!” my daughter-in-law told me about her 12 year old.  Not all children feel that way but for many people, regular meals at restaurants are time-consuming, stressful and so, public. 

  • Save $…. for a really nice restaurant (or a vacation or lots of other stuff)  rather than twenty trips to the ‘family friendly’ joint down the street.  Bottom line: it’s cheaper to eat at home.

So, strap on an apron and try these fast ‘n easy menus.

The Roast Chicken Meal

The Pantry Pasta Meal

The Cozy Casserole Meal

The Roast Chicken Meal

Roasting a cut-up chicken takes half the time of a whole chicken and is just as juicy and crisp. Omit the mustard to make things even simpler.  Serve this with French bread (you can keep some in the freezer), a green salad or the following green bean salad.  A simple dessert: baked bananas.

Roasted Chicken

Serves 4, generously

4 chicken leg quarters or 1 cut-up chicken

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat the over to 450 degrees.

Place the chicken in a  baking dish or roasting pan and smear each piece with a little mustard. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil.

Roast for 30 minutes. The chicken skin will be well browned and crackly. Lightly salt the chicken, remove from the oven and let sit for 5 minutes.

Green Bean salad with Walnuts and Red Onion

When I cook vegetables like green beans or broccoli, I think it’s very important to test them as they cook rather than rely on specific timing.  I like beans well cooked but a lot of people like them crunchy.  Suit yourself!

1 pound green beans, fresh or frozen

2 tablespoons walnuts, broken up

1/4 red onion, thinly sliced  (or 2 Tablespoons minced shallot or regular onion)


1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper

If using fresh green beans, wash them and snip off the tips.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the beans for about 6 minutes.  Fish one out and check for doneness.  When done, drain the beans in a colander and run cold water over them.  If using frozen beans, follow package instructions cooking for the least recommended time and let cool a few minutes.

Toast the walnuts quickly  in the microwave for about 40 seconds.

In a bowl large enough for the beans, make the vinaigrette by stirring the olive oil into the vinegar in a thin stream.  Add a couple of good sized pinches of salt and pepper.  Add the beans, walnuts and onion and toss to coat.  Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary.

Baked Bananas

for each serving: (children and light eaters will eat 1/2 a banana)

1 banana

Brown sugar


Preheat oven to 375. Slice the bananas lengthwise and then cut each half crossways into one inch sections without going through the peel.  Arrange in a baking dish, sprinkle a little brown sugar (about 1 teaspoon) on each half and dot with a little butter.  Bake about 15 minutes or until the surfaces are bubbling.  The peel will turn black.   Serve the bananas in their peel with a spoon, pouring over any of the accumulated syrup.

The Pasta Pantry Meal

The challenge? A meal in 30 minutes with what you’ve got on hand.  Guess what?  It’s no sweat!  The menu: Pasta with tomato sauce, spinach and dried fruit compote.

Pasta with Tomato Herb Sauce

This is about as simple as it gets but you end up with a tasty sauce.  Adding the extra olive oil at the end is very important for the flavor.   If you have an onion, sauté it for a few minutes before adding the tomatoes.  If you can unearth some Parmesan cheese, by all means, pass that around.

1 pound pasta (whatever you’ve got but spaghetti or linguine is a good choice)

Olive oil

1 garlic clove, crushed or ½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)

1 can tomatoes

1 teaspoon dried herbs: oregano, basil, rosemary or marjoram (or a few pinches of each)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  In the meantime, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and if using fresh garlic, sauté it for a minute and then add the tomatoes and their juice, breaking them up with a spoon.  Add the dried herbs of your choice and garlic powder if desired. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Cook the pasta according to package directions but be sure to taste it for doneness rather than rely slavishly on the instruction time.  Drain and put in a large bowl or on individual plates.

Add 2 additional tablespoons of olive oil to the sauce, stir and pour over the pasta.


For a pantry meal, I always try to have some kind of frozen vegetable on hand and spinach is a favorite.  I cook it as little as possible, drain it and serve with a drizzle of olive oil, a dash of vinegar and a pinch of dry red pepper flakes.

Dried Fruit Compote

This can simmer alongside your tomato sauce and be ready in time for dessert.

2 cups dried fruits: apricots, apples, pears, prunes

1 fresh apple or pear (optional), peeled, cored and chopped

2 tablespoons chopped almonds, walnuts or pecans

A piece of cinnamon stick, orange peel or vanilla bean

Juice, wine or water

Put the fruits (a mix of your choice), the optional fresh fruit and flavorings in a saucepan.  Cover barely with water, juice (diluted by half with water) or wine.  Simmer gently until softened.  Serve warm or cold.  A dollop of ice cream or yogurt is good on top.

The Cozy Casserole Meal

It takes several minutes of sauteeing to put this together, but it’s still a speedy dinner.  Serve with a green salad and chocolate pudding.

Sausage Gratin*

A cozy winter or autumn meal.  This is another recipe can be adapted for what you have on hand. The mushrooms, leeks and apples give the dish a very smooth texture and good taste but you can substitute 2 onions for the leeks and omit the mushrooms if you wish.

Serves 4 

1 pound Italian sausages (pork or turkey)

¼ pound mushrooms, quartered

4 medium leeks

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped roughly

½ cup grated cheese (Gruyère or Swiss are good choices) 

In a skillet, brown the sausages briefly and set aside.  Sauté mushrooms lightly in the same pan, adding a little olive oil if necessary. Set aside.

Wash off the leeks, cut off the green ends and slice the white and pale green parts into thin rounds.  Put the sliced leeks in a big bowl of water and stir them around with your hands. Let soak a minute or two so that any remaining sand will fall to the bottom of the bowl.  Scoop the leeks up and out of the water.

Using the same pan as for the mushrooms and sausages,  heat the olive oil and cook the leeks covered on low/medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.

In a baking or gratin dish, place a layer of cooked leeks followed by the sautéed mushrooms, the chopped apple, the sausages and the cheese. Bake at 350 for 20 to 30 minutes or until lightly browned and bubbling.  

* French Lesson! ‘Gratin’ in French means crust.  A dish that is ‘au gratin’ often has melted cheese or breadcrumbs on top.  In English, we have an expression ‘the upper crust’ for rich people.  In French, it is similar: high society folks are referred to as the ‘gratin’. 

 Chocolate Pudding: Homemade and Speedy The famous chef, Michel Richard, has a recipe called ‘Happy Kid Pudding’ in his recent book Happy in the Kitchen and my recipe closely follows his.  It is simple and delicious.Serves 4 

2 cups milk

4 egg yolks

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 cup honey

4 ounces dark chocolate, cut in small pieces

In a big bowl (microwaveable), mix the milk, egg yolks, cornstarch and honey together, stirring with a whisk until well-blended.  Add the chocolate and microwave on high for 2 minutes.  Whisk up the mixture and microwave again for 2 minutes.  Stir again well and by now, the chocolate should be melted.  Microwave again for 2 minutes.

At this point, the mixture should be boiling and thick but if not, microwave again for about a minute.  Cool for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Enjoy your home-cooking and write with any questions!

Cheers, and xoxo, Mary

Feeding Our Young

Close encounters with my children and grandchildren have  gotten me thinking about how we humans feed our young.  From the helpless newborn (except for their amazing lung power) to the gobbling toddler to the picky nursery schooler, children need feeding.

Just how and what we feed our children is a hot topic. Here’s how I see it:

Cook fresh food for yourself. Extend this effort to your babies and children.

Recently, an acquaintance spoke of her sister who made her own baby food.   This, she felt, was a dreadful act of drudgery and a waste of time.  Hmm. That seemed odd. I called my dear friend, Katy Bayless, the next day. We were new mothers together some 35 years ago.

“Was making baby food all that hard?”

“No”, she said firmly.  “They just ate what we ate and we used the Happy Baby food mill.”

The Happy Baby food mill is still made and is a great little gadget small enough to fit in a purse or diaper bag.  The food is pureed and comes out the top so that you can feed the baby right from the mill at the table.  Of course, Katy was not suggesting that babies eat exactly what adults do but rather that when you cook, small portions, plainly cooked, are set aside for the baby.

The introduction of solid food to my babies was an exciting milestone, filled with new communication and a lot of comedy.  I followed the La Leche League advice on holding off on solids until 5 or 6 months to avoid allergies and then slowly added fruits and vegetables.

This advice has completely changed. Feed babies anything, the experts urge. As it turns out, the long drawn out introduction of foods exacerbates allergies rather than the reverse.

This makes things a lot easier.

How about a 21st century opinion?  At the eye doctor’s office a few weeks ago, I recalled that Dr. Jennifer Ballantine has a 6-month-old baby (as well as two school age children).

“Say, Dr. Ballantine”, I asked, “Do you make your own baby food?”

“Absolutely”, she replied. “And I do not have one extra minute in my day so if I can do it, anyone can.”

She went on to explain that growing up in the South, she had three choices at her school cafeteria: hot dog, hamburger, or chili Frito pie. “I had one of these choices every day with a soda from the vending machine.  My kids aren’t going to eat that way.”

So how does she do it?  Much the way Katy and I did.  She makes a little extra of what the family is eating and then grinds it up.

“I use a food processor and small Tupperware cups which I can freeze.  If the baby doesn’t eat it all, it’s literally a few pennies I’ve wasted.  I introduce each new food slowly – one over three days.”

Making Simple Baby Food

Finally, I asked Melissa Voorhees, mother of four,  a recent grandmother and in my book, a champion in feeding children. (My son, at age 6, used to go to her house to eat Brussels sprouts!)

Her warm words are better than recipes:

I always preferred kitchen duties to other household chores.  So cooking for my children was easy and I learned by doing as I went.  One thing is that they begin eating food so gradually that there is plenty of time to figure it out!  A food mill, a blender and fork to mash and the dailyness of it.

My mother raised us all in Brazil which in those days was decades behind the US in convenience foods so by necessity ,all of our food was made at home.  Her idea was to make a “little soup” of some bit of meat, potato, carrot and a green vegetable in broth and then whir it up in the blender.  There there was mashed banana, mashed avocado with lime, stewed fruit mashed with a fork or blended.  Then there was a morning oatmeal, milk mash, and that was pretty much it.  Not a lot of variety.

I, on the other hand, was on a mission to introduce lots of different foods so I went week by week adding something new.  I remember answering Dr. McDowell when he asked what foods I had given the baby up to that point.  He was dumbfounded by my long list and I felt like a star!  I used to make porridge out of different grains: oatmeal, or brown rice or millet and run it through the food mill.  also, all kinds of vegetables, fish tofu, lentils, beans.  Chicken or meat had to be a part of the little soup because by themselves, they were too grainy.  Legumes had to be run through the food mill with brown rice or they were too rough.

Babies love sweet potato, applesauce and banana. It is so natural to just give them a chunk of this or that to gum while you are preparing, although you have to be near because they can choke!  I always tasted what I gave them.  Homemade soupy brown rice run through a food mill is pleasant and sweet.

I think the whole feeding thing is a great place to interact with a baby, playing with them, experimenting…. You get the picture!

As Babies Grow Up

There are two goals for feeding babies:

  1. They eat enough good food to thrive
  2. They join the family at meals

The second goal may not seem obvious but I think it’s extremely important.  From a parent’s arms to the high chair to a place at the table is an important early journey.

To prepare the path, involve the baby in the feeding right from the start.  When you’re spoon-feeding, give the baby a spoon of his or her own to practice with.  (Incidentally, wear a raincoat).  Introduce finger foods early on that the baby can chase around the high chair tray.  It’s all pretty messy but worth it.

By age 3 or 4, children can use forks and spoons correctly, by 6 or so, they can cut their food (it’s easier if you provide them with a small steak knife) and by 12, they can be taught to carve the Thanksgiving turkey.

The skills learned early on extend to helping with meals and then to learning to cook.  Two year olds can help set a table and tear up lettuce for a salad; three year old can beat up an egg, sift flour and much more.  My friend, Molly Layton’s children could make wonderful quesadillas at age 7.

“It took patience and holding my breath as they learned to use the stove but it was really worth it.” said Molly.  “It’s easier and faster just to do it yourself but whenever I took the time to teach my kids a skill, I never regretted it.”

Picky Eaters

Past the toddler stage, children can get set in their ways when it comes to eating.  I learned recently that children need to taste a new food between 15 and 20 times before they will accept it willingly.  No wonder mac ‘n cheese is the route most tired parents take!

Expanding their repertoire is the role of parents but how to achieve it?

Bring the kids to the dinner table and have them eat what you eat.  Not 5-alarm chili and raw onions but what my sister Claudia calls the ‘brown-green-white thing’ or protein/vegetable/carbohydrate.  Don’t give them too much and do ask them to have at least one bite.  Twenty times later, they may actually ask for more spinach.  Prepare to hear howls of “Oh, no! Not squash!” but don’t put up with a lot of complaints.  Dinner should have some semblance of civility.

School and beyond

The now celebrated Chef Ann Cooper, the ‘Rengade Lunch Lady’ is a former chef who took on the school lunch program. Her aim, in fact, what she calls her ‘life’s work’  is to feed kids well in an institutional setting.  Lack of money, public policy that ignores school food and children’s health, and the commodity based food service providers are some of the issues she has tackled.   As a startling counterpoint, the French school system is often cited in terms of their budget (much larger) and the food itself (healthier and fresher).

I decided to see for myself.

A part-timer in Paris,  I am just across the street from an elementary school. As it turned out, my visit coincided with ‘La Semaine du Gout’ (The Week of Taste).  Every year in France, a week is devoted to teaching children about food and how it’s produced.  Some years, chefs go to the schools and give cooking and tasting lessons. Last year, the kids visited a chocolate factory.  This time, a cow named Marguerite was brought in from Normandy and installed right in the school grounds.

“This is to teach our city youngsters how the milk gets into bottles!” one of the teachers explained.  La Semaine du Gout is about more than that, however.  The program promotes good eating habits, the development of taste and appreciation of food and of course, the preservation of a very important aspect of French culture.

My American friend, Lee Hubert, who has lived over 30 years in France, added this:

“The French have seen the rise of obesity in the States and now in England.  They don’t want to wait 30 years before addressing the problem.  Fast food and processed food is popular in France so it’s a real concern.”

The diverting sight of Marguerite peacefully chewing her cud temporarily stalled my plan to see what French kids eat for lunch.  But it was easy enough to find out: the weekly menu is posted online and at the school door.  No surprise: dairy products were in the spotlight.  The children sampled French cheese, yogurt, milk and custard.  For each day’s menu, the specific food group (dairy, meats, raw and cooked vegetables, cereals, beans, and sugared products) is printed in a particular color, making it easy to see how the meal is balanced.  Each lunch has a starter, main dish and dessert.

My favorite was Friday’s meal:

  • Hearts of Palm
  • Cod in Lemon Sauce with Steamed Parsley Potatoes
  • Yogurt with a ‘fruit of the season’

Sounds healthy to me!  But back at home…

“The reason we don’t cook is because we don’t need to.” was the honest and realistic assessment I got from a young adult friend a few years back.  And it’s hard to argue that we need to cook in a country where prepared food whether it’s for babies, children, adults, dieters, or the elderly is cheap and available. An intelligent, attentive young mother told me recently that organic processed baby foods were ‘better’ for babies than home prepared food. Really?

The flip side of not cooking for ourselves is that we’re bombarded with alarming news about processed and prepared foods. We have marvelous resources: bountiful food supplies and tremendous choice for modest cost.  Feeding ourselves and feeding our young is basic, healthy, sensible…

And fun!  Well, not always fun but worth the effort? Definitely!

xoxo, Mary