Get your kids in the kitchen, and they will be better eaters.  Have them make something with you, and they’re more likely to try it.

How many times have we all heard those, and similar mantras, before?  I, for one, tired long ago of hearing the “experts” smugly say that EVERY CHILD they’ve EVER KNOWN will try ANY FOOD if they’re just allowed to put on a cute little Pottery Barn apron and make dinner with their parents.  I can’t deny that there’s some correlation, but here’s a news flash: there’s no magic bullet, and just because you say this will work, O Nutritionist Extraordinaire…It Ain’t Necessarily So.

L. has always been with me in the kitchen, or at least, from the time when I felt I could safely have him there with me.  I didn’t start doing this because I thought it would magically make him eat things I wanted him to eat; rather, it seemed like common sense to me that since I’d grown up watching my mom cook, and chatting with her and enjoying her company while I was at it, he ought to have the same experience.  And it’s a good thing that I wasn’t expecting the activity in the kitchen to make him into a good eater, because frankly, L. has never seemed swayed in any sense by logging kitchen hours with me.  He’s been no more likely to eat something that he made with me than he has been to eat anything else.  He’s the kind of kid who will taste it when he’s darned good and ready, thanks very much, and while he’s got a relatively willing palate, he will not be wooed by being invited to participate.

My intention has obviously been to get P. into the kitchen with me as well, but I’ve been waiting for several reasons.  He’s not quite 2 years old, to begin with, and while I don’t shoo him away if he’s interested in what’s happening, neither do I think that most high-energy toddlers like P. really benefit from concentrated, intentional kitchen time.  Secondly, the safety issue is even more crucial with him than it was with his brother.  I could be reasonably confident, quite early on, that L. would listen to my directions and would stay in one place, but with P. it’s a very different matter.  He’s more apt to run around, climb up and down, and try to figure out what all the buttons on the stove do — and while we’re working on those behaviors in small chunks, I haven’t felt comfortable that he was really ready to be a part of the cooking process with me beyond the occasional stirring of a batter or spreading of peanut butter, always with Daddy close at hand to remove him should an infraction occur.

Last night, however, he saw L. standing up at the counter with me, helping make the salad, and he immediately ran into the dining room and started pulling a chair away from the table.  My little spitfire, all 23 pounds of him, dragged a full-sized chair into the kitchen and muscled it up to the counter, then climbed up to see what the fuss was about.  J. tried to remove him, but P. was having none of it — he knew his brother was doing something fascinating, and he wanted in.  Before I quite knew what was going on, both boys had their hands in the raw spinach leaves.  They counted and sorted.  They talked about colors.  They decided that the salad need red bell pepper strips, and L. debated the merits of spinach vs. “other leaves” (i.e., mesclun greens) vs. raw peppers.  J. joined in the fun, and I kept sneaking peeks at him and P. — the little one popping bits of spinach into his father’s mouth, squealing, pointing: “Geen,” “Red,” “Mmmmm.”

Dinner took much longer to prepare than I’d planned, but it was so worth it — especially when, a few minutes after they’d left the kitchen to let Mommy handle all the hot pots and pans without small people underfoot, J. called my attention to the fact that P. was still clutching a handful of spinach.   More importantly, he was absently munching it while he and L. played with their trains and kept half an eye on their TV show.  P.’s never wanted anything to do with raw greens before, and I hadn’t thought much about it — but clearly, he may be one of those kids the experts have always talked about.  Whereas L. could help me in the kitchen all day long and still never try a single bite of anything unless he made up his mind to do so, his baby brother just needed to get his hands into the action to get the idea that salad may not be the enemy.

Why haven’t we done this before? I mused.  Time.  Energy.  Commitment.  Control.  And I know it won’t always go as well as it did last night — heck, with all the smiles and good will happening in our kitchen, we were practically a commercial for the Family Dinner.  But it was fun, and productive, and yielded surprising (and promising) results.

The dinner that followed, by the way, was also magically calm and delightful.  It also contained another small revelation along the lines of “Why haven’t we done this before?”  I’ll confess that ordinarily, we buy packaged gnocchi — they show up infrequently on our meal plan, and I’ve always thought of them as being sort of like pasta, in that they COULD be made at home, but are safely enough left to the experts.  But last night, I had intended to serve gnocchi, and hadn’t put them on the grocery list.  Realizing that they’re just potato, egg, and flour, basically, I thought I’d give it a shot — and produced these Sweet Potato Gnocchi with minimal effort.  They were delicious, hearty, and paired beautifully with a light marinara sauce.  Why haven’t I made gnocchi before?  I could offer up a million excuses, most of them relatively valid, but the fact remains that they’re nothing more than dumplings.  Now that I’ve realized how easy and inexpensive they are to make, I doubt I’ll rely on the package very much in the future — especially since these, with their orange hue and slightly sweet flavor, were more pleasing to my kids than the plain white variety.  As usual, I proved to myself that American home cooks of this era are no less capable than our counterparts of other lands or other times; we’ve just allowed ourselves to be outsmarted by clever marketing and pretty boxes.