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Raising an Adventurous Eater

Give foods a little kick

Don't dumb down the food. True, kids have delicate taste buds, but that doesn't mean they should be served a steady diet of pasta with butter. In fact, it's all the more reason to give them flavorful food; with their naturally sensitive palates, children really notice when something tastes good.

I expected my kids to shun garlic when they were babies, for instance. And surely, I thought, they'd hate olives. But a little garlic makes so many things taste better that even a 1-year-old can enjoy the difference. And olives can be wonderful if they're the mild, fragrant kind marinated in oil and herbs. I do go out of my way to avoid very spicy foods and funky, stinky things like blue cheese. But other than that, I cook the same kinds of meals for my family that I used to cook for friends.

Champion vegetables. This food group is traditionally a mom's biggest hurdle, and it's easy to understand why. Boiled and salted, vegetables are typically nothing more than the good-for-you side dish, dumped by the ladleful alongside things that actually taste good. No wonder getting kids to eat them requires begging and threats, tactics that quickly backfire. Because once your kids realize that you really, really want them to eat vegetables, refusing to do so becomes a power struggle that they can easily win.

So I learned to go about the vegetable challenge differently, by using recipes that integrate them into delicious main dishes, such as eggplant layered with spiced ground lamb, and saut¿¿ed zucchini with tomato and basil. And I made lots of vegetable-based sauces for pasta. Here's one recipe our kids like:

Smashed peas with rice
This dish can be made in about 20 minutes and serves four people. The mashed peas are also good as a dip with toasted pita bread or crackers  -- a great way to sneak in veggies.

1 cup rice
2 Tbs butter
½ small onion, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
1 clove garlic, minced
10-oz package frozen peas
Pinch salt
¼ cup chicken broth or prepared bouillon
30 basil leaves (about 1 cup loosely packed)
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese

1. Prepare rice according to package directions.
2. Meanwhile, melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and cook, stirring frequently, until quite soft but not brown, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes more. Add the peas and a pinch of salt, stir thoroughly with the garlic and onion mixture, then add the chicken broth. Cover pan and bring to a boil; boil 2 minutes (not more, or the peas will be overdone).
3. Remove from heat and transfer contents to the bowl of a food processor. Add the basil leaves. Process for about 15 seconds, until the peas are beginning to be mashed and the basil is chopped but there are still many whole pieces of pea in the mixture. Combine thoroughly with the cooked rice and parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

On the nights that I do serve vegetables as a side dish, I'll often place them on the table first, when my kids are hungriest. They've wolfed them down by the time the rest of the meal arrives.