Crunch Time
Won't try this, shouldn't have that: A mom learns to maneuver around family meal challenges.

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Dianne Donovan recently accomplished something extraordinary. In a presentation to his third-grade class, her 8-year-old son, Jack, included a vegetable in a listing of his five favorite foods.

Too bad Jack's brother, 6-year-old Sam, does not demonstrate a similar enthusiasm for broccoli florets topped with melting cheddar, known in the Donovans' Fairfax household as cheese trees. In fact, he does not care for any vegetables except carrots, if they're dipped in hummus, and tomatoes, which technically are not even vegetables.

"They can be very difficult to please," Donovan said. "If it's not mac 'n' cheese or a bagel, it is a constant fight at mealtimes."

Sound familiar?

If e-mails to Chef on Call are any indication, the problem is a common one. But for Donovan, the stakes are especially high. Sam has elevated cholesterol levels, which troubles her because the condition runs in her family, as does heart disease.

Her brother, a firefighter who regularly played sports, died suddenly of a massive heart attack at 34. Her uncle suffered the same fate at 54 and her grandfather at 60. She has brought her cholesterol under control with the help of medication, but she doesn't want her children to have to resort to that when they grow up.

"This is going to be a lifelong struggle for all of us," Donovan, 43, wrote in her request for help to Chef on Call. "I am desperate to learn how to cook so that my children eat healthy, like what I cook and do not feel deprived."

We enlisted the help of chef Todd Gray and his wife, Ellen, who understand the maneuvering it takes to get children to eat what's good for them. They have no problem pleasing Washington power brokers at Equinox, their white-tablecloth restaurant near the White House, but at home, things aren't so easy. Harrison Gray, 9, resists change and holds fast to his comfort foods, just as the Donovan boys do.

"Ice cream, mac 'n' cheese and french fries," Ellen Gray said, sighing. "The three parts of childhood you just can't get around."

Donovan, a former career counselor and now a stay-at-home mom, has tried her best. Among myriad efforts to get the boys to eat healthful food, she even bought one of those cookbooks touting recipes that sneak vegetables into dishes. But her kids didn't fall for that; they detected and deleted the icky interlopers. Besides, Donovan wants them to appreciate vegetables, not just consume them.

It doesn't help that her husband, who works for a Tysons Corner consulting firm, doesn't set the best example. Matt, 43, likes few vegetables other than broccoli and carrots, and the boys have acquired his preference for meat, potatoes and spaghetti.

"I overheard them saying that Daddy's favorite food was ice cream and Mommy's was salad," Dianne said.

That's not far off; if she thought her family would go along with it, Donovan would turn them into vegetarians, but for now she'd be satisfied to get a fish meal on the table once a week.

To see if they could make that dream come true, the Grays showed up at the Donovan house not as award-winning restaurateurs but as commiserating parents.

"We've gotten Harrison to like salmon and scallops, and he likes soft-shell crab, but it's not like he's asking to go to Sushi-Ko," Todd Gray said, referring to the Glover Park restaurant known for its raw fish delicacies.

His wife mainly takes the "work with it, don't fight it" approach, with some success.

Rather than do battle over mac 'n' cheese, she uses the Velveeta version made with shells and adds a pound of peas to it. "The peas fit perfectly into the pocket of the shell and create a really yummy bite of cheesy pea goodness," she said.

Tired of commercial products with trans fats, corn syrup and other additives, Ellen bought an ice cream maker, a bread machine and a home fryer to make her own french fries. She got Harrison off peanut butter and onto cashew and almond butter, which she finds "infinitely more healthy," and tries to get him to snack on nuts instead of Ritz bits and Combos. Raised on soy products, he now likes veggie hot dogs better than beef.

But it hasn't all been a hit. The Grays have gotten Harrison to eat more vegetables through the liberal use of a teriyaki sauce made by Soy Vay, but they still can't get any fruit in him.

"I see where Dianne is coming from," Todd said.

He also gets that moms don't have a kitchen staff at their disposal or all day to prepare meals, so his was not a day-long session; the Grays were in and out of the Donovan kitchen in less than an hour and a half.

The chef chose menu items that reflected his idea that children respond most to two taste sensations: sweet and salty. He took familiar dishes with kid appeal and reworked them to avoid trans and saturated fats and to promote the use of legumes, fish, grains, fruit, vegetables, poultry and soy products over red meat and whole-milk dairy items.

He started with fish and chips. Substituting Egg Beaters for whole eggs and cornflakes for bread crumbs, Gray used them to coat seasoned tilapia fillets, sprayed the fillets liberally with olive oil cooking spray and crisp-cooked them on top of the stove in a nonstick saute pan. He served them in a brown paper lunch bag with its top rolled back, along with oven fries and sides of ketchup and mustard.

For tacos, shredded poached chicken tenderloins stood in for fatty ground beef cooked in taco sauce (usually enhanced with too much corn syrup). Gray set up a bar for the kids with taco shells, lettuce, nonfat sour cream (mixed with lime zest and juice), salsa, low-fat cheese and black beans.

Donovan doubted that Jack or Sam would go for the beans, but it was worth a shot to get the added protein in. She was also dubious about the Soy Vay teriyaki glaze and sesame seeds, both meant to make broccoli more enticing.

Microwaved low-fat popcorn spruced up with maple sugar made a quick after-school snack. For dessert, Gray constructed banana splits with low-fat vanilla frozen yogurt, whipped cream from a spray can, canned cherries and sauce made from 60-calorie dark chocolate snack sticks and water.

Nothing was a big deal, nor was it meant to be. The idea was to adjust cooking methods, introduce new foods slowly, and make them enticing and fun to eat. To Donovan, turning her kids on to healthful food choices in their early years is the best gift she can give them, even though she understands that, as her doctor told her, you can eat cardboard and still have high cholesterol.

"I know that 95 percent of it is genetics, but there's this stigma," she said. "If you say you have high cholesterol, people automatically assume that you eat fast food and sit in front of the TV all the time, and that's not true."

For the record, neither Sam's pediatrician nor a cardiologist Donovan consulted was seriously concerned about the boy's cholesterol. They recommended he be retested in a year but said that until then, there is nothing to do except watch his diet and make sure he gets plenty of exercise. Given that the boys are already active, Donovan considered the diet advice urgent.

The Grays had left by the time Jack and Sam came home from school. Jack is a taller, brown-haired version of his redheaded younger brother; both are thin, liberally freckled and undoubtedly of Irish descent.

Their mother encouraged them to try the taco bar Gray had left behind, then awaited their reactions. They could not have been more perfect gentlemen. When they got to the black beans, Jack fibbed diplomatically, "We'll just save those for later." Sam, even more diplomatic, put a single bean on top of his cheese-covered taco.

Later that evening, Donovan re-created the entire meal and invited three neighborhood children over. She reported that the tacos went over well, even the nonfat sour cream with lime, which surprised her. Fish and chips will be a recurring feature, the popcorn and banana splits were hits -- and none of the kids would touch the broccoli.

You win some, you lose some.

David Hagedorn, chef and former restaurateur, can be reached Chef on Call column appears monthly.

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