by Larissa Phillips
Forget factories, nations and NASA. There is no greater need for efficiency and efficacy than during the dinner hour in a home with small children on a school night. At the same time, there is probably never a greater impossibility.
I'm sure there's a family or two out there whose members share identical taste buds, but most families with kids possess wildly disparate appetites. In my family of four, we all like one thing: steak. Regarding every other dish in the universe, at least one of us differs.
Desperate to make sure everyone gets fed, I have, on many occasions, cooked more than one meal: one for the kids and one for the grown-ups. They are simple meals for the kids - like cheese tortellini, which I boil, drain, then splash with olive oil and serve with a side of carrot coins or snow peas - while my husband and I eat the exotic or spicy meals that we love. No problem, right? A small concession?
But there are problems. There are always problems. Sometimes I don't have tortellini. Or one child is striking against the tortellini because I got the wrong kind last time (bought it fresh and homemade from a famous Italian deli, which is not as good, in their view, as the frozen tri-color supermarket stuff I've been getting for years). And so before I even realize what I am doing, I am fixing pb&j for one child and scrambling an egg for the other. It's ridiculous! It's in opposition to everything I believe! So, recently, I promised myself that I would never do it again.
The Deconstructed Meal
Enter the deconstructed meal - taking a cue from a widespread Asian style of eating, in which the different elements of the meal are laid out on the table, and everyone assembles his or her own dish. In a typical Chinese meal, for example, each person gets a bowl of rice, and then chooses from several bowls of condiments and sides to make up his or her own dish. One child can have rice and bits of chicken and a splash of soy sauce. Another can add snow peas and broccoli florets, or those in the dreaded beige-food-only stage can just have plain rice. Meanwhile, the parents can have all the vegetables and spicy condiments they prefer.
Ever since I started serving meals like this, I've realized they work with more than just Asian meals. Most meals can be deconstructed and assembled at the table, usually with a minimum of ensuing fuss. Letting children add their own sauce or choose from vegetables and sides can give them a feeling a power that is often absent from mealtimes.
I have seen my son systematically take from every bowl when assembling his own taco, dinner salad or noodle wrap. (If it's a meal that can be wrapped and eaten by hand, even better.) But even when he chooses only chicken, and my daughter chooses only noodles, I can assemble my own spicy, complicated meal and enjoy it, without nagging at my children.
A Final Tip: The best seasoning of all is a hungry appetite. Make sure children arrive at the table hungry!
Serve these quick-prep noodles with several sides - like cooked chicken breast, cucumber salad and raw vegetables - and let your children assemble their own bowls. To make the meal even more healthful, use Japanese soba (made of buckwheat) or thin whole-wheat noodles. The sauce is so delicious, most kids won't even notice a sturdier grade of noodle.
- 1/4 cup tahini, almond butter or peanut butter
- 2 Tbs. sesame oil
- 2 Tbs. soy sauce
- 1 Tbs. rice vinegar
- 2 Tbs. honey
- 1 tsp. ginger, grated
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 package thin noodles, cooked according to package directions
- 2 scallions, chopped finely
- 1 cucumber, peeled and chopped
- Other vegetables as desired: snow peas, small broccoli florets, thinly sliced red peppers, etc.
- Mix the first seven ingredients until smooth.
- Add to the cooked noodles, and toss gently and thoroughly.
- Serve cold, warm, or at room temperature, with garnish on the side.
This Vietnamese-style dish lets kids assemble and wrap their own meal. Fish sauce, as common as salt in places like Vietnam and Thailand (and available in most large supermarkets), has a strong smell on its own, but makes a sublime condiment when mixed with lime juice and sugar.
- 1 lb. medium shrimp, cleaned and shelled (or 2 chicken breasts, cut into cubes; or a cup of extra-firm tofu, cubed)
- 1 Tbsp. minced ginger
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 tsp. sesame oil
- 1 head Boston lettuce, washed and dried, leaves left whole
- Basil and/or mint leaves, washed and dried
- 1/3 cup lime juice (about 2 to 3 limes)
- 1/3 cup sugar (palm sugar or raw sugar, if possible)
- 1/3 cup fish sauce
- Rice or bean thread noodles, cooked according to package directions, rinsed and drained
- 1 Tbsp. oil
- Tiny chili peppers, chopped
- Shredded carrots
- Snap peas
- Marinate the shrimp (or chicken or tofu) in the ginger, garlic and sesame oil for about 15 minutes.
- Mix the lime juice, sugar and fish sauce. Toss with the noodles.
- Grill the shrimp on high heat, or heat the oil in a medium frying pan over high heat, and sauté. (Sauté the chicken or tofu, if using.)
- Set the table: lay out, in separate bowls or plates, the noodles, the shrimp (or chicken or tofu), the lettuce leaves, and the shredded carrots, or snap peas, if using.
- To eat, take a lettuce leaf, and add noodles, shrimp and vegetables. Be sure to put on a basil or mint leaf. Roll up lettuce leaf tightly. Keep lots of napkins on hand!
Spicing It Up: To make a spicy condiment for parents, mix finely chopped chili peppers with equal parts fish sauce and lime juice. Grown-ups can spoon a small amount into their noodle wraps. Stored in a jar in the refrigerator, this spicy condiment will keep for months, and will mellow as it ages.
Larissa Phillips is the contributing food editor for United Parenting Publications.