Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Political Palate – Part II – Kid’s Menus

I never gave kid’s menus much thought.  That is until my son turned five or six years old and wanted his own meal.  Before that I either carried his food with me or just asked for an extra plate and shared my food.  Then he went and chose to have an opinion on what he wanted to eat and at times I would give in and order his fancy.  But that didn’t work for long and thus started the challenge of finding decent options in a sea of fried, high fat, rubbish options that are pretty much the same in all restaurants.  If you’ve ventured into a kid’s menu you know what I’m talking about.  The way in which every restaurant tries to spin some imaginative way of presenting chicken fingers, hamburger, hot dog, mac & cheese, mozzarella sticks, pasta w/ butter, and so on.  All of them of course are served with what else but fries and a choice of soda or juice.  If you ask for milk, it is not included in the kid’s meal price and you will be charged extra.  God forbid you ask to substitute the fries for a veggie!  After all we wouldn’t want to encourage even an ounce of healthy in there now would we?
In concept I think kid’s menus are a wonderful idea – smaller portions for a lower price to reduce waste of food and money (refer back to the section on portion size in part I).  Unfortunately we have taken this idea and turned it into an excuse to feed our children unhealthy, unbalanced meals.  I don’t know about you all but I certainly did not grow up eating this stuff as a child.  Now granted, I grew up on mainly Indian food, but my mother didn’t cook “kid friendly” Indian food for us.   I don’t remember my friends eating such garbage at their homes either.  So why did our generation and those that came after us start to feed our children in this way?  I can almost understand the restaurant offerings being looked at as once in a while “treats”, but why have we started to cook separate meals at home and cater to our children’s whims?  I suppose it all began with the generation that decided that children are the center of the family instead of a part of the family.  Guilt from having both parents working perhaps?  I’m not really sure.
I used to have a neighbor with three children – one child only ate pizza, one ate only macaroni & cheese, and the other ate only Tyson chicken nuggets.  And so each night she would make these separate, so called, meals for each child and then a dinner for her and her husband.  Stuff like this really gets to me.  I say let the brats starve for a few days and they’ll eat whatever you put in front of them.   But you know what this is NOT the children’s fault; it is the fault of the parent who indulges in this nonsense.  It’s the same parent who wants to know if a restaurant is “child friendly” so he/she can allow his/her precious ones to run around all over the place and make a complete mess.  What the heck happened to manners folks??  I, for one, steer clear of these “child friendly” places and raise my son to be “adult friendly”.  Just as I did not believe in child proofing my house but house proofed my child.  These are all part of one and the same problem.  We are letting our children run our lives in every way, shape and form.  We don’t discipline them, don’t give them boundaries or responsibilities, and tell them that they are winners even when they suck!  How about telling them they suck (gently of course) and helping them improve?  How in the world will they grow up to face reality otherwise?
But back to the topic at hand………
There is hope out there.  I have noticed a change in the kid’s menus at restaurants in the past several years and those of us that want better options or have children who are used to better food, have choices today.  Most small, non-chain restaurants will provide options such as grilled chicken or fish with vegetables and rice.  And those that don’t are immediately taken off my list to revisit.  Legal Sea Food always offers a kid size portion of their fish of the day which is served with rice, corn & grapes, and they are happy to substitute broccoli for the corn for my son if requested.   As for the more upscale restaurants, I have had mixed experiences.  The two most memorable were at the Blue Water Grill in NYC and Emeril’s at Universal Orlando.
About three years ago, I promised my son a dinner at a good seafood restaurant in Manhattan.  He loves going to NYC and loves seafood equally.  We spent the day walking around all over the city, met some friends for drinks and then made our way to the Blue Water Grill at Union Square.  I had been there several times before and I like to sit outside on their small terrace and had requested a table there.  When we perused through our menus, my son immediately remarked that there was no fish on the kid’s menu.  Not even fish & chips which he loves.  I couldn’t believe it!  The menu was full of the usual garbage food options.  I told him we could share a plate of fish from the regular menu, but at the age of seven he was already claiming his independence and wanted his own plate of food.  He also wanted to make a statement – gee I wonder where he gets that from.  So, he proceeded to flag the waiter down and demanded to know why there was no fish on the kid’s menu.  “Aren’t you known for your seafood?” he asked.  When the waiter replied “yes”, he followed up with a “then it doesn’t make any sense,  you should let the chef know that some kids actually like to eat fish at a seafood restaurant”.  The waiter apologized, wrote down my son’s reluctant order of pasta with butter & cheese (we add broccoli to it), and went inside.  About 3 minutes later he returned with the chef who wanted to speak to my son.  The happy ending to the story was that he got a smaller portion of salmon with green beans and rice cooked just for him.  He was also told that when he returned, he should just request the chef to make him whatever fish he wanted in a smaller size.  Kudos to the Blue Water Grill for their response to my seven year old’s complaint but really I would be happier if they actually added the option to their menu.  I have not been back so perhaps they have.  I do not know.
I had been to Emeril’s before, the one in Vegas and also the one at Universal Orlando.  Each time had been a wonderful experience with various individuals as company.  So when we were at Universal Orlando two years ago and waiting for the Blue Man Group show to begin, we decided to try and get into Emeril’s for dinner.  I knew that if nothing else we might be able to sit at the bar by the kitchen since we had not made reservations.  Sure enough, that is exactly where we sat and my son was in heaven at the thought of watching the chefs at work.  He immediately made friends with the two sous chefs that were stationed behind the counter and chatted them up.  When the menus were handed to us (kid’s menu for my son), he did a double take and wore a big smile on his face.  Every item on the menu was a smaller portion of real food including a petit filet which is what he ordered with a side of Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes.  He can never pass on a filet if it’s on the menu.  They brought us special appetizers and a complimentary dessert for the little guy just for his personality.  Everyone was terrific and we had a very memorable experience.  It was the perfect precursor to a fantastic show by the Blue Man Group.  If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend a visit to Emeril’s.  The Cajun red fish is out of this world!
Around the time my son was born, someone gave me a copy of Jacques Pepin’s Table.   I’m a huge fan of his and was thrilled to have the book.  I was reading the introduction one day and what he had written in one of the margins truly inspired me in the way I chose to approach food with my son.  He wrote “I’m often invited to dinner at the homes of people who have children, and my hosts will say, ‘well, the kids are going to eat first.’  I’m served a roast of veal with artichokes, and the kids have pizza or a hot dog.  That’s absolutely wrong.  You cannot condition a child around four dishes – pizza, hot dogs, fried chicken, hamburgers – for twelve to fourteen years and then, at age fourteen, say, ‘Oh! Now the whole thing changes.  Now you’ve got to sit at the table and eat our food.’  They don’t like it.  Of course they don’t like it!”  He goes on to say that when his daughters were babies, he & his wife would puree whatever food was for dinner and serve that to them to condition their palates.  And that’s exactly what I did for my son and it really did work.  There are still things he doesn’t like, but for the most part he’ll eat anything and try everything once.  It really was as simple as that.  Oh and the words “don’t like” were banned from our dinner table.  They can’t learn to express them if they never hear them!!
Luckily my son no longer orders off kids menus since he is able to handle a regular sized meal.  This makes life so much simpler.  Sometimes we go back to our old ways and order an appetizer, a salad and an entrée and share them all but I’m really glad to have the days of bad food choices behind us.

The Political Palate – Part I

It’s early Saturday morning and I have a long list of chores to do and errands to run, but I heard an ad on the radio on my way home from the gym that brought out the blogger in me.  The commercial starts off as a son calls his mother and tells her that he’s having eggs, bacon, sausage & griddle cakes for breakfast.  The mother asks “Wait a minute, how do you have time for all that?” to which the son replies “I went to McDonald’s!”   Mother’s reply:  “I raised you right!”  As a mother I was downright offended.  Really!  Are we now a society that accepts and, in fact, praises the McDonald’s mom?  The thought sickens me.
Wake up folks!  Mayor Bloomberg banning super sized drinks is not going to cure the obesity problem in this country.  The only way our children won’t become obese is if we are better parents and set a better example.  It is not the government’s job to dictate what we eat; it is our responsibility to choose wisely and then dictate what is provided to us as food in restaurants, schools, supermarkets, etc.  We live in the land of capitalism and we can control the markets with our consumer buying power.  Instead we allow the advertisers to control that buying power and choose poorly.  So let’s talk about a few of the most controversial topics when it comes to food:  fast food, school lunches, and portion size. 
I will warn you ahead of time that if this is a sensitive subject for you, you may want to consider not reading the remainder of this post.  It is not my intention to offend anyone or make anyone feel singled out.  It is simply my opinion whether you agree or not.
Fast Food
 I won’t claim that I have never eaten fast food because it would be a lie.  There are some chains I have never visited such as Taco Bell, KFC, Arby’s and quite a few others.  Not because I have anything against them, but I would rather make my own Mexican food and fried chicken.  I’ve heard Arby’s is actually not too bad, but I’m not a big fan of roast beef.  I have, on occasion gone to Wendy’s, McDonalds, Five Guys, etc.  And let’s face it there is nothing better than landing at LAX, picking up your rental car and picking up an In & Out Burger to eat on your way to Rancho Cucamonga.  Your destination may be different but the satisfaction is the same.  What I’m saying is there is nothing wrong with fast food if you eat it once in a while.  By once in a while I mean no more than twice a year.  Unfortunately for most families, fast food is the meal of choice multiple times per week.  The chains aren’t forcing it on us, we are choosing to eat the food.  This is not only unhealthy but so very sad.  In some cities like El Paso, TX the only food you can find on the main road through town are fast food chains.  Thank goodness for the little Mexican places that serve some delicious and authentic food on the side roads.
So, is fast food really faster or cheaper?  Or is it just an excuse for laziness?  I think you know where I stand.  In the time that it takes to get in the car, drive to the nearest chain, wait on line, order, pickup and return, I can easily put together a quick, healthy meal that is not laden with a thousand calories.  For example it takes exactly 20 minutes to make a meal of Cajun salmon, steamed broccoli and cous cous for a total cost of $8.00 which I’m sure is less than cost of two burgers, fries and sodas.  That’s less time & money than pizza or Chinese delivery.  I save the time-consuming preparations for the weekends or make them ahead of time.  And there is no supersizing in my house.  In fact the only choices for drinks are water or milk which is ok to supersize.  Soda and juice are treats to be had at parties and not everyday beverages.  The one thing we adjust is our dinner time.  I don’t understand why so many of us think we HAVE to eat at 6pm.  This only serves as an excuse for not having a healthy dinner.  There is no way I could provide a meal by 6pm.  Between work and my son’s activities, there is just not enough time to cook for that deadline.  So I give him a small snack and a glass of milk when he comes home from school and we eat anywhere between 7 – 8pm on most days.
Now I’m not telling anyone what to do because that would make me no different than Mayor Bloomberg.  But if someone chooses to live on fast food and junk food and become obese, please don’t expect me to contribute towards your rising health care costs, or to provide special treatment for airline seating, or give you a special advantage in any kind of competitive situation because of those choices.  Suck it up and deal with it!
Note:  Along with fast food, we try to limit going out to eat in general.  Especially at chain restaurants such as Chili’s, Houlihan’s, or my son’s favorite – Cheesecake Factory.  The food at these restaurants is very high in fat and calories.  While some places are trying to introduce lighter, healthier menus the number of calories in these options is still ridiculously high.  And that slice of cheese cake for dessert becomes tempting and negates any progress you made with the meal.  But I’m happy to see a start and they too are a fun treat once in a while.
School Lunches
A couple of years ago my son’s teacher called me up to specifically ask that I send a healthy snack with him at school instead of chocolate chip cookies or chips as I usually do.  I told her that when the school started offering an actual healthy meal for lunch I’d be glad to oblige.  That snack is the only treat my son gets in a day of otherwise healthy food.  He eats a very healthy breakfast which includes milk and some fruit, eats a lunch packed from home, generally a sandwich on multigrain bread or chicken w/ broccoli & pasta, and dinner is almost always a well balanced meal.  So I took offense to a teacher trying to control what I gave him for snack. 
Have you seen a school lunch menu lately?  Hamburgers made from mystery meat, hot dogs full of sodium and preservatives, fake chicken nuggets, ketchup considered as a veggie serving, and other crap that they pass for food.  If anyone watched the few shows that Jamie Oliver did recently trying to change the food quality in a school district, you understand how difficult an undertaking this is.  And yet they have the nerve to tell me that my two chocolate chip cookies are harmful to my child.  I say mind your own damn business!   But that is the difference between checking off a list versus actually understanding nutrition and that is where schools fail our kids today.  No common sense is used, just a set of arbitrary rules to accommodate the politicians and fulfill statistics.  Needless to say my son doesn’t buy lunch at school very often except for pizza on Fridays.  At least this is ordered from the local pizzeria and not the lousy stuff that was offered when I was in school with the plastic cheese on top.  So why is the garbage they pass off as lunch more affordable in a school budget than a real meal?  We pay $2.25 for our subsidized lunch program.  Are you telling me that this is not enough along with the money from our taxes to get some real food?  Well, it is the basic economic principle of supply and demand.   We, the parents, don’t demand and thus the schools have no need to supply.  And the parents that care simply send their kids with lunch from home.
Portion Size
We are a land obsessed with the concept “Bigger is better”.  We live in big houses, drive big cars, and eat big portions of food.  There is so much food wasted in this country on a daily basis while so many people go hungry all over the world.  One plate of food at some restaurants is enough to feed a family of five in many countries.  Heck, there are many people in the US who don’t have enough food from what I hear.  I must admit that I have a hard time believing that since we spend over $60 Billion of our tax dollars on the food stamps program each year.  Where is all that money going?  But I’m sure it’s true.
So why do we need to eat mounds of food?  Why are there TV shows like Man vs Food where most challenges involve consuming large quantities of food?  Why do so many people, when asked about a restaurant, immediately tell you “their portions are nice and big”?  Quantity overrides quality.  Why is it that when I order a chicken marsala, for example, I am served three breasts of chicken instead of one along with a one pound side of pasta with generally no vegetables unless ordered separately?  I could never finish that!!  And if I am not going home that evening I am forced to throw the leftover food away.  It breaks my heart.  One thing my parents taught us as kids was to always finish everything on our plates.  This is always doable as long as I can control what I put on my plate.  I have now gotten into the habit of asking restaurants how much food they will serve and ask them to serve less to which the immediate comeback is “I still have to charge you for the whole thing and extra for the vegetable you want to substitute for the mashed potatoes”.  Are you kidding me?  But I say nothing and pay the extra money because at least it’s better than wasting the food.  Why can’t restaurants offer three sizes of a meal at three different prices?  That would make everyone happy and perhaps waste less food.
My son and I were recently in Florida on vacation and on the last day we went for brunch at a hotel restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.  My son ordered the banana pancakes and I got my usual order of two eggs over easy with whole wheat toast.  When his pancakes came out we could not believe the enormity of the plate.  There were three pancakes each about 10 inches in diameter covering the entire plate.  And this is my one and only photo for this blog post because you have to see it to believe it.  My poor child worked very hard to make a dent in it – you see I have the same rule as my parents on finishing everything on a plate.  Since we usually go to smaller restaurants, this is not an issue particularly when we share the meal.  But in this case I told him that he was absolutely not expected to finish.  But he felt guilty and tried to eat as much as possible.  Unfortunately the sheer volume of food overwhelmed him so much that he became ill and vomited on the way to the bathroom all over his clothes and shoes and got very upset.  Luckily I had a change of clothes and shoes in the car and all was ok but the experience really upset him.  I think it will be quite some time before he orders pancakes again.  What a shame because they are his favorite breakfast food.  I would love to know who can finish that plate of food.
So what does this all mean?  I don’t really have a solution for the obesity problem any more than Mayor Bloomberg or anyone else.  I do believe that it cannot be solved through government control or nutrition education for our kids in schools.  I believe that good eating habits begin at home with the parents.   If parents teach their children to eat crap, then the children will not eat healthy foods even when offered.  I also believe the higher cases of ADHD and allergies are directly related to our poor diets which also factors into our lack of immunity for illnesses.  It is time for us to take responsibility and stop blaming the fast food chains, and other organizations for our lack of parenting skills.  They are only providing what we are demanding and consuming.  I suggest we take back control of our consumer buying power!!!
Stay tuned for part two all about kid’s menus……..

Four Fun Days in Florida!!

It had been a while since my son and I went on a vacation just the two of us.  We usually try to do three or four trips a year.  In fact it had been nearly a year since our last adventure to Letchworth State Park, Rochester & Niagara Falls last summer.  Most of our trips since have been with family or friends which is fun too, but I miss the time we get together when it’s just the two of us because my ten year old is truly fun to hang out with.  So a couple of weeks ago we took a short, post school, pre camp trip to Florida.
We flew into Ft. Myers with initial plans to go to Sanibel Island.  Upon doing further research into the area, my son wasn’t thrilled with the lack of nightlife and restaurant options within walking distance.  So we opted to make the 2 hour drive to Ft. Lauderdale and stay there instead.  I figured it would be a great opportunity to go through the Everglades and a fun adventure for my reptile loving child.
Despite a tire change delay at Newark, we drove into Ft Lauderdale at a fairly decent time and just in time for a late dinner.  I had exchanged emails with the hotel concierge a few days earlier to get some recommendations on restaurants.  I hate getting to a place without options for food and then wind up at some chain restaurant for the sake of killing the hunger pangs.  So we checked in, without bothering to park the car, and headed straight for 15th St Fisheries.  We were told that they have great seafood including Stone crab claws, and that one can watch them feed the tarpon right off the dock.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to experience either since the kitchen closed at 9pm and we were 20 minutes too late.  Seriously?  Who shuts down at 9pm?  This is when I miss the food scene in NYC & Europe.  It’s much more friendly toward those of us who like to eat on the later side.
A recommendation from the valet took us back to the A1A toward Las Olas Boulevard, the now popular strip in Ft. Lauderdale.  I had been to this city about 12 years ago and as I drove along the shore, memories came flooding back as they often do when we get older.  Memories of learning to roller blade on the A1A in heavy traffic (not sure how I got talked into that one), skinny dipping at midnight after way too many Manhattans (or that one), the hangover the next day, etc.  But I digress…..
We wound up at Rocco’s Tacos – a lively, happening place with great margaritas.  We were seated at a high table near the center of the restaurant which gave us a great view of the whole place – larger than it looked from the outside.  My son had eaten a small sandwich upon landing and wasn’t nearly as hungry as I so we ordered some guacamole (they are known for the tableside preparation in a molcajete) , a few a la carte tacos (fish, pork & steak) and a margarita for me of course.  Personally I don’t get the whole fascination with the guacamole made tableside aside from it being an excuse to charge high prices for something for no reason.  I can whip up a great guacamole in exactly five minutes (ripe avocado, lime juice, cilantro, chopped jalapeno, salt & pepper – some like to add chopped tomato).  And let’s face it in the end it’s really all about the quality and ripeness of the avocado.  Oh and don’t EVER serve me a guacamole made from one of those packet mixes that totally kill the flavor of this amazing fruit.  So is a $15 price tag for guacamole too much?  Absolutely!!  But it was good, and I was hungry and on vacation so didn’t care too much.  The tacos were very good too.  Being a bit tired from our travels we skipped dessert and returned to our hotel where I spent an hour sipping some single malt by a fire pit, while listening to the ocean after putting my son to bed.  Now it felt like vacation!!
My son and I are not breakfast eaters so we tend to skip the hotel’s overpriced buffets and go to the local supermarket for bagels, fruit, yogurt and granola bars.  All you need is a mini bar to store a few things.  Our lunches were largely eaten poolside from the hotel bar menu.   Nothing to write home about but far too convenient to pass up.  And so we worked extra hard to make the dinners count.

On our first night we walked up and down the strip several times checking out all the menus before settling on H20 Café.  We loved this place.  The service was friendly and the food fabulous.  They brought us warm bread with some really good olive oil with balsamic and parmigiano reggiano for dipping.  We shared a Caprese salad and it was so good that I had to fight my son to give me a few bites.  The tomatoes were perfectly ripe and the mozzarella very fresh & creamy.  He has an affinity towards leaves so I got to have the basil all to myself.  For our entrees we ordered Penne Carbonara and a Blackened Grouper.  I accompanied my fish with a fantastic German Riesling.  By now we were fully relaxed and entrenched in our vacation and looking forward to the next day.
Unfortunately the remainder of our days were not as sunny as the first when tropical storm Debbie decided to pay us a visit.  This did not hinder our plans to have a great trip and luckily Floridians are used to such weather and plan for it. 
One such day, we decided to borrow umbrellas from the hotel and walk to town in search of a place for lunch.  The pool was closed and there was not much else to do.  We wound up at Spazio, a restaurant that a friend had recommended to us.  Four hours later, we had had an enjoyable lunch with some great Vermentino while watching the Euro Cup quarter final match between Germany and Greece.   Our waiter, Damian, engaged us into their inner bets on the game and we had a fun afternoon in the rain.  We shared a flatbread with soppresata (much better than plain old pepperoni), a Panini Caprese (tomatoes not as good as H20), and some perfectly cooked broccolini.  If you’ve ever attempted to cook this vegetable, you know that it is not that easy.  So when I tasted this, I had to have the recipe which Damian was glad to share.  I have since made it at home and had great success.  The key is to splurge and use butter instead of olive oil and only cover and cook for two minutes.

Another memorable meal took us to True Luck Steakhouse.  I really wanted to head back to 15th St Fisheries on our last day, but my little man wanted steak and who was I to refuse.  The concierge recommended True Luck after finding out that the boutique steakhouse, Steak 954, was booked till 9:30pm.  This was a fun experience.  Again, we dined outside on a covered patio with rain pouring down and an awesome live band playing.  I never realized how magical that atmosphere can be.  Our meal was excellent with the exception of slightly too much salt on mine.  Filet for the little man, more Grouper for me, topped off with a Key Lime pie (couldn’t leave Florida without at least one).  The waiter suggested an excellent Sancerre and I treated myself to a glass of port at the end while we waited for the rain to stop.
After saying goodbye to Ft. Lauderdale the next morning, we set out for our adventure in the Everglades where we took an airboat ride to pet the gators.  I’m not a big fan of reptiles but my son is obsessed with them.  He wanted to bring one home and of course I asked him if we could cook it for dinner.   Have you ever had alligator tail?  It’s quite delicious!!!
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