Chef on Call

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; Page F01

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.

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