Growing up, I lived a pretty sheltered life regarding food. We were the suburban family who always sat down to dinner together (great!) and had that home-cooked meal (also great!) or the occasional frozen food reheat (not so great!).
Dining out was rare, but usually involved the local Sizzler. Take out was pizza, pizza, pizza. The lengths to which I was exposed to ethnic cuisine begin and end with the name La Choy.
So, when it came time to play Auntie Mame to my rural North Dakotan niece for a week, there was no doubt I needed to step up my game.
I live in the heart of Chicago, where every possible type of food is within a few minutes’ walk or drive. From Ethiopian Diamond to Cohiba Cuban, Jin Ju’s Korean cuisine to the Chicago Diner’s acclaimed vegan menu — you name it, we got it. Heck, that’s part of the reason we have our niece visit us rather than the other way around, isn’t it? It’s the big city. She, too, should take advantage of it.
Problem #1: Eight-year-olds are taught to not like stuff.
Conventional wisdom is that kids are picky eaters. The reality is that kids will like almost anything (adults generally like) given the right set of circumstances.
How many times have you heard parents say, “You won’t like that,” or attempt to cajole a child into liking something preemptively if they believe resistance is coming? Well, kids are smart little buggers. They know when they’re being played.
So if you say to an eight-year-old that she really needs to give something a chance, you’re asking for a fight. And if your mother-in-law has already rattled off all the things your niece probably won’t like within earshot of the little one, it’s going to be a serious, uphill battle. Prime among these listed items was Thai food.
This was my dilemma. Thanks, Mom.
Problem #2: Eight-year-olds REALLY like what they already like. A lot.
Nothing an adult foodie loves to eat will ever bring him as much unadulterated pleasure as his favorite meal did when he was a kid. Mine was hot dog crescents — hot dogs with American cheese slices stuffed into slits cut down their length that are wrapped in crescent dough and baked. I could never get enough. I’m not sure I could now, either.
So, when you ask a little boy or girl, “What would you like to eat?” you will invariably get only one or two different answers. And maybe also pizza.
Part one of fixing this is to not ask. Dinner planning is not a democracy, people — even with other adults. If you don’t like what I’m serving, there’s a Pizza Hut on your ride home. Get acquainted.
Part two is navigating what I like to call the mac and cheese conundrum.
Every kid I know loves KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese. Every one of those kids unilaterally despises any other expression of macaroni and cheese that isn’t day-glo orange and made with powder. There is no transfer of good feelings from one to the other. It doesn’t matter if you spend 5 hours grating four different types of cheese you made from the milk of cows that were hand-fed magic beans. If you call it mac and cheese, and it isn’t KRAFT, you’ve blown it.
I make macaroni and cheese with about 20 ingredients, two pounds of cheese, and two cups of mayonnaise (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone, but it freaking rules.). The only thing there isn’t all that much of in it is macaroni. And I knew my niece wouldn’t eat it. I knew it in my foodie soul.
So, I called it something else: Cheesy Pasta Supreme.
And she ate two bowlfuls. Lest you believe I had the exception to my own rule in my midst, I’ll happily share that she had already refused two attempts at eating restaurant versions of macaroni and cheese in the previous week, and it wasn’t because they weren’t delicious. I should know, I ended up eating them myself. They were great.
Do I feel bad about resorting to trickery (or perhaps, more accurately, semantics)? Nope. Everybody came away happy. Minds were blown. Stomachs were filled. Smiles were had.
Problem #3: Eight-year-olds need to be entertained, constantly.
This is not so much a food-related problem as an “everything, every minute, all day long”-related problem.
I’m not a parent. I don’t have it in me to be entertaining for an 18-hour stretch. I’m lucky if I can manage 18 minutes before I need a break to go sob in the bathroom. Managing to keep a kid (even the best-behaved kid) engaged for a week is an insane task if you’re not properly trained.
But getting my niece to love Thai food did teach me a valuable lesson: make everything as fun as possible.
See, my focus going in was to intellectually dissect the dish for my niece in the hope that pure logic would win her over to the magic that is pad Thai. I was mistaken.
“You like noodles, right?”
“You like carrots?”
“How would you like a dish that has all of these things put together?”
“I’d love it!”
Yet, two seconds after putting the amazingly sumptuous plate from Thai Lagoon in front of my niece, sans even a bite, she said, “I don’t like it.” I reminded her about the talk we’d had during the car ride to my house, about how this week was all about trying new things and being open to new experiences. That she’d promised she’d at least TRY something before deciding whether she liked it.
With that, she picked up her fork, slid the tiniest sliver of carrot between two tines, and brought just the very tip of the morsel to her tongue.
“I don’t like it.”
Before I could even start the argument all over again, I picked up my chopsticks and took a bite of my own pad Thai. And that’s when it all changed.
With eyes widened, my niece immediately burst out, “Can I use chopsticks?”
I hastily retrieved another pair from the take-out bag, split them apart, checked for splinters, and handed them over.
Wouldn’t you know it — the kid was better with them than most adults I know, without ever having used them before. An entire bowl of pad Thai later, and my niece was not only in love with a dish she had moments before refused to even try, she also was proud of herself for being so good at something she never knew she could do.
Suffice it to say, if you’ve never seen a child consume a bologna sandwich, rice crispy treat, or meatloaf and mashed potatoes with chopsticks, you really should set that up. It’s pretty hilarious. Every meal for the rest of the week, the chopsticks came out. And every meal was consumed with gusto.
Nothing beats chopsticks if you’re a kid visiting the big city, except being given permission to eat with your hands. And one quick visit to our favorite Ethiopian restaurant checked that box as well. This little girl — never even led to believe food like this existed — ate those (carefully chosen) culinary delights without complaint, as well.
Sure, knowing she had permission to break Nana’s rule about never eating with your hands got us there, but what my niece went home with was a week long experience that will hopefully leave her open to a lifetime of enjoying and exploring food.
Well, that, and 50 pairs of chopsticks.
Want to find that amazing experience for your own kid?