Let me just begin by saying that your kids, if you have any, will hate the food that follows. Of this, I am certain.
I'm certain because my single, absolute learning as a parent, feeding children, is this: any food touted as beloved by all children will, by at least one of mine, be despised. Guaranteed.
Corn? Uh huh.
Sweet potatoes? Baked potatoes? Mashed potatoes? No way.
Soup as a handy medium for introducing new foods? Are you kidding? A child of mine once wrote, in an essay, that the worst thing that had happened to him, ever, was chicken noodle soup. My homemade chicken noodle soup. My totally-kid-friendly, no-funny-bits soup, just chicken, carrots, pasta, homemade broth. Worst. Thing. Ever. You might counter his life's been pretty cushy. (I did.) You should also know he knows what it is to break a leg bone, completely and severely.
I mentioned this.
He stood by the soup.
Kids. Food. I've spent the last thirteen-plus years, contemplating how these two pieces go together. All this time later, I have considerable book knowledge. Ongoing questions. Enduring curiosity. Scattershot success. More failures than I can count. Few certainties, and no guarantees. Way, way more questions than answers. Many opinions, and a few thoughts. And, I guess, some experience.
I've dodged this subject for years, here, directly, because more than anything, it's one woolly can of worms. We all bring different ages and rhythyms to the table, not to mention distinct diets, temperaments and skills. Then there's the question of regions, and budgets, and schedules, all unique. And this, without even touching on the whole organic/GMO/carbon footprint/high-fructo-fizzied, partially-hydro-hippopotomi’d conundrum.
We’re talking a #10 worm can here, people
But maybe the constant is that we all eat, everyday, something. And if we have kids in our home, of any age, we are likely involved in that eating, somehow. And if we're involved, we can't help but care, if only about keeping the dishes to a minimum. But caring and coping are poles apart. Let’s not even get started on convincing.
Is this a conversation worth having?
I don't know. Maybe.
You tell me.
In the meantime, today, one entirely subjective adventure in sizing up and scrutinizing and implementing change. One tiny, immense, agonizing change. Namely, tasting—BETTER SIT DOWN—something new.
We hit a brick wall, several years back. Actually, we hit it regularly, and hard. Maybe you heard it? THWACK! CRASH!! BOOM!!! It was our dinner soundtrack. Plus tears. The wall was called Any New Food, and was tall and thick and unfathomably long. It stretched as far as the eye could see, and then well beyond. Not unlike the Great Wall of China. Were the Great Wall built of oranges and spinach and anything, really, beyond buttered noodles.
Foods were being rejected out of hand, unanimously, unilaterally. Without so much as a lick. On principle. Siblings were modeling siblings’ bad habits. Curiosity was being quelched. Any flicker of adventure, quashed. Dinner, increasingly, for them, anyway, came to look sliced bread and apples. Every. Single. Day.
A little background: Since my earliest parenting days, I’ve relied on some fundamental advice from Ellyn Satter, whose Child of Mine is a wonderfully solid, commonsense primer on feeding kids. Satter’s central tenet is this: our job, as parents, is to offer up a healthy selection of food, every day, making sure there's always one thing your kid likes. Their job, as children, is to choose from that line-up, how much and exactly what they eat. The beauty of this arrangement is that it frees us from niggling and nagging, from the politics and pressures that can swirl around mealtime. I believed in this, in theory and reality, for well over a decade.
A few years back, I unsubscribed.
The gap, the loophole, in Satter's approach, for my family, anyway, was the fair shot. The theory was that a child’s natural inquisitiveness would, in time, win out. That left to their own, kids would branch out, experiment, eventually expand their diets. Childish curiosity and all that. Probably, they mostly do. But not always. Not in our case. Not at all.
I gave it ten years, which, unless you're enrolled in a medieval art history Ph.D. program, counts, I think, as the old college try.
Autonomy, at least in our home, yielded children who ate, say, apples. Only apples. Or cucumbers. For all of dinner. Nothing, beyond that one favored thing. Wait until breakfast? Sure thing. Far better to go to bed hungry than risk a nibble of cooked carrot. Definitely no thank you, and may I be excused?
Bear in mind: we were all of us, at this point, past the picky toddler stage, past bibs and highchairs and broccoli in the chandelier. We could all hold a fork, and use cups without spouts, and were eating as a family of semi-articulate logical-ish humans. We were, in theory, old enough, all, to appreciate the great, wide world beyond our doorstep. Or at least, the idea of peas in our mac and cheese. I might as well have suggested frog guts.
Bear in mind, also: I wasn’t stewing tripe, or serving fish heads, or Goan shrimp curry. We’re talking spaghetti with tomato sauce. Plain baked potatoes. Buttered corn on the cob. And all the tears and rumbling bellies and bleak suppers that ensued.
Bear in mind, finally, I’ve never been into preparing two suppers: no short-order cooking; no stooping to conquer. There might be braised bok choy, and stir-fried chicken, plus white rice and red peppers and sliced cucumbers. Cucumbers, only. Night after night. Year after year.
This wasn’t right.
What I couldn’t, for the longest time, figure out was how to fix it.
As if my kids were broken.
What was broken, I finally decided (fast-forwarding through twelve months of misery and botched meal reforms) was what mattered to me, and my understanding of it.
And it turns out that what matters, to this particular me, is this: I want my children to own an open mind toward food, toward green beans and yogurt and plain buttered lentils, as toward god, politics and synthetic fibers. I want them to sample something one way, and another day, again, another way. To give themselves, and their taste buds, a fair shake. To not give up. To not not even try.
That was it.
I wanted, at least, that they try.
(Much like I am trying to steer us away from flowering fruit trees. All worthwhile change takes time.)
I realized I don’t care if my kids adore pesto, or baba ghanoush, or palak paneer. Even though I adore all three. I don’t care whether they love Thai food, or clean their plate, or eat a full helping. I don't care that they prefer their carrots raw, or their chicken plain, or their salsa smooth. In the end, I don't even truly care whether they only, eventually, like twelve foods. So long as there’s a vegetable in the mix. And no more than two of the twelve are Pringles. I might cry a little over all they’re missing, and wish (a lot) they’d expand to, say, twenty. But I’d be fine with twelve.
So long as they try.
I want them to understand that to say you hate something untried is untrue, and moreover, impossible. I want them to know that four unchewed swallows does not really a fair shot make. That carrots, like people, have good days and bad, and endless preparations, all new opportunities. I want them to know from whence they speak, so that they can advocate against an ingredient with the case-building skills of a Yale lawyer. To be able to look me in the eye, and argue soundly: "Mom, I’ve tried carrots steamed and buttered, and glazed, and roasted, and shredded into salads, and puréed into soups, and dunked in ranch dressing, and cooked into that weird off-orange-ish soufflé thing, and still, I DO NOT LIKE CARROTS. Case closed, and no thank you."
I’d be fine with that.
I want them to know that food can and should mostly be good, if done right. It will sometimes be bad, and can be truly wretched, but often, with the tiniest amount of effort and attention, it can be downright wonderful. Even just bread and butter. Especially just bread and butter.
I want them to feel, if not fearless, then at least prepared to eat elsewhere. That eating's not just my schtick, but a life skill. I want them to not turn down an invitation to eat out, or with friends, or from the school lunch line, for fear of what might turn up. To know they can navigate an unfamiliar meal with confidence, finding something they can eat. Ice cubes don’t count.
I want them to know different doesn’t automatically equal awful. To entertain the possibility, at least, that unfamiliar might even include awesome To know that a comfort zone is indeed cozy, but also, a tiny, cramped, stifling place. I don’t want new to equal bad, always, unthinkingly. That’s no way to eat a meal. And no way to live a life.
I want them to feel welcome at the table. To approach meals with joy, not dread. Okay, fine. Joy’s a pretty high bar, especially after a one-mile run in PE. At least without tears, then. At least five days a week. I failed on this front for far, far too long. Cooked carrots, it seems, can be scary business.
Turns out, we all needed to try.
I want, best case scenario, for them to expect good things of courage. To be bold, and to be rewarded. Not always. (Not even.) But also, not never. (My people, as you’ve probably by now guessed, are what one might call risk averse.) To try and fail and try again and not only not die, but discover, say, that homemade apple pie is non-toxic. (We're still working on that one.) To maybe, just maybe, every now and again, even be pleasantly surprised.
We’re not there. Although, two years later, we’re not where we were, either.
And that’s huge.
Maybe we’ll continue this conversation, another time, talk particulars, if we want to go there. Tricky business, this hungry kid stuff. But if you believe in the power of wrestling life’s more unwieldy bits into words, and community, and conversation, and kvetching—and I do—by all means, let me know.
In the meantime: fish sticks. One particular, along a long and checkered path. If fish sticks—deep-fried, nonetheless, and so crimson with ketchup they scream Lady MacBeth—seem like a slam-dunk to you, well. Congratulations. I bow down. Two years ago, two of my three wouldn’t go in for so much as a lick. Times have changed. These fish sticks helped.
Fish sticks, like any breaded, fried food, follow a fairly standard formula: cut, dredge, fry, devour. Because breaded, fried food, done well, is grand. It’s the ‘done well’ part that took me a few years to nail, as much the process as the end product.
The biggest deterrent, for me, anyway, in the dredging (flour-egg-crumb) routine is the mess. It is, or can be, god-awful. There’s the bowl of flour, and the bowl of beaten egg, and the bowl of bread crumbs, all three of which see every last stick. The first two bowls were not a problem. So the crumbs spill; so the eggs slosh. No big deal. Tables wipe quickly. It was, for me, always the crumbs, and the way they would bread and batter my fingers, and the way that by fish stick #3, I was tempted to just deep fry myself, and be done with the whole gummy bit. Then, David Tanis saved the day.
A few years ago, he was writing about deep frying something—pork? lamb cutlets? something not-fish—in his The New York Times "City Kitchen" column, and changed my world. At least, this small crumb-covered corner. Specifically, when he got to the last step, the crumb step, he described it this way: set out a small shallow pan of crumbs, lay your floured and egged whatevers in a row, then shake more crumbs over all. Repeat.
This, people, is a dredging revolution. The breaded fingers? The crumb clods in the egg? The unfortunate end by hot boiling oil? Crumbing en masse fixes all that.
Beyond that, for me, it was all tweakage. Settling on panko as the best crumb, because it fries up light and un-oily and impossibly crisp. Adding seasoning to the flour—BIG STEP! We use garlic and onion powders, a dash of paprika, some salt. Play around.—which only improved things. Celebrating the regular seasoning of my wok, a serious deep-frying side benefit.
Oh, yes. The frying bit. If you are not a regular fryer—I’m certainly not; this is about it—know that it isn’t remotely difficult. (Neither, I should add, is the dredging, which, clearly, is child's play.) I use my wok, loving the way it requires less oil, holds a fair load, and gains in the process a stronger, tougher topcoat. A deep saucepan or stockpot would work, also. No special equipment required. I’ve yet to even measure oil temperature.
As long as you stay near the stove (and keep kids at arm’s length, for ten minutes), you cannot cook anything but golden, sweet, tender, smartly seasoned, ethereally crisp fish sticks. Which, chances are, your kids will loathe, because: see above. If, by some quirk of fate, they eat one: I'm so sorry. Fewer for you. Though, by way of consolation, at least they were bold, and they are trying.*
Fish Sticks, For Kids and Their Grown-Ups
with thanks to David Tanis, for technique
A few notes: Generally, the ratio of fish to dredging, below, pencils out. That said, I've aimed for slight excess, as running out of seasoned flour, say, mid-process, stinks. As you figure out how much fish your family likes, or how big or small you like your fish cut, you will similarly sort out whether two eggs or three suit your prep station, and so on. You'll get a feel. Also, although I specify narrow fish fingers, below, I typically cut a few broader "fish 'n chips" sized pieces, also, something like 3" x 5", usually from the flatter tail end. By some combination of surface area and alchemy, these, too, are always cooked perfectly through by the time (usually 1-2 minutes longer than the fingers) the crust is golden and crisp.
I've made these with both fresh and frozen cod, and had excellent luck with both. Be sure frozen fish is fully de-frosted, and let it rest 5 minutes on a paper towel, after slicing. Those giant jugs of canola oil at Costco? The ones that look like they're meant for food service establishments? Yup. I buy those. Costco also stocks, off and on, big boxes of panko; grab them, if yours carries them. Asian grocers stock panko for 1/3 the price of standard supermarkets. Also, Amazon.
We serve these as each batch emerges, but if you wish to wait until all batches are done, hold the finished fish in a 200° oven.
2 pounds cod, or other firm, white fish
1 cup all-purpose, unbleached flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt + more to taste
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon paprika
freshly ground pepper
4-6 cups panko
3-4 cups vegetable oil
Cut fish into sticks, roughly 1" x 3". (In practice, I cut deeply, diagonally across the filet, aiming for a roughly equal 1" width, so that they cook evenly, together.) As you cut, set raw sticks aside on a plate, seasoning well on each side with salt, roughly a generous teaspoon, in total.
Collect two shallow bowls (soup bowls are lovely) and one shallow tray (a 9 x 13" casserole works well; a smaller, 6 x 9", even better). In the first bowl, add flour, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, pepper, and 1 teaspoon salt. Stir to incorporate seasonings. Set aside. Crack eggs into the second bowl, and whisk well with a fork, to loosen. Pour 1 cup panko into the tray/casserole, and shake loosely, to thinly coat the bottom. Set up your dredging station (I am right-handed, and so set this up, left to right): first seasoned flour, then egg, then panko, with fish readily at hand, and a plate (or cooling rack set over a baking sheet) nearby, to collect the dredged fish.
To dredge: Toss a fish piece in the seasoned flour, coating all sides, shaking off excess. Next, using two forks, coat floured fish in the beaten egg, allowing excess to drip off. Finally, set fish at one end of the panko-coated casserole. Don't roll it; just set it down, and return to step 1. Continue, until the casserole is filled with a single layer of fish fingers. When full, shake another cup of panko over all. Noodge fish around gently with a fork, until well-coated with panko on all sides, and move fully dredged fish to waiting plate/rack. Add more panko to bottom of casserole, as needed, and continue, until all fish fingers are dredged and ready.
To cook: Set dredged fish sticks, a paper-towel-lined tray, kosher salt, and tongs, near your stove. Place your frying vessel of choice on a rear burner, handle turned towards the back, and fill with 4" of neutral vegetable oil (we use a wok, and bulk canola, and something like 3-4 cups of oil). Heat over medium high, until oil is shimmery and a bit wiggly at the edges, and a drop of breading sizzles on impact, 2-3 minutes. (I'm told the oil temperature should be between 350°-360° degrees. I have never measured.) When oil is to temp, using tongs, carefully lower one fish sticks into pot. If the oil is to temp, it should sizzle on impact, and bubbles will form all around the edges. Once you see this, continue to add fish sticks, one at a time, being careful not to crowd. (My wok accomodates 4-5 fingers, or 2 larger filets, per batch.) Allow fish to fry undisturbed 2-3 minutes, or until undersides are golden and crisp, then using tongs, carefully flip pieces, and fry another 2 minutes, or until both sides are amber and shattery crisp. When breading is golden, fish will be cooked through.
Using tongs, remove fish to paper-towel-lined plate as it finishes, and give a final sprinkling of salt. (I usually taste the first one for seasoning, and adjust final salt, heavier or lighter, accordingly.) Repeat, until all fish is fried. These are best eaten fresh from the pot (though note that fish will be very hot when it first comes out of the oil; in practice, eat almost immediately, say 2-3 minutes, post-pot, and cracked open to release steam, for younger eaters), hot, golden, savory, salty, sweet, and impossibly crisp. With ketchup, if you are my children. With malt vinegar and/or a cornichon- and dill-heavy tartar sauce**, if you're me.
*With thanks to Erin Stead's And Then It's Spring, who first wrote these words. The book is about a winter that won't end, and a boy waiting for seeds to sprout, and how their progress is painfully slow and for far too long, invisible. It has also struck me, since the first reading, as a book about parents and kids and dinner and, probably, all of life.
**A Quick Tartar Sauce: Mix 1/4 cup crème fraîche + 1/4 cup Greek yogurt, plus 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons dried dill, 1 teaspoon capers + 5 cornichons, well-chopped. Taste, adjust, mmmmm....