Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Foodie and Her Principles: or, how long can you keep your kids away from McDonalds?

A couple of days ago, I called my son's babysitter to tell her I'd be a bit late dropping him off because I had some errands to run and he had asked to come with me. She said, "Oh, okay, we'll hold lunch until you get here, as my husband is bringing us lunch today."

As G and I walked through the grocery store, buying fresh fruit, vegetables, yogurt, and a re-usable container so that I could start mixing homemade 'yogurt drinks' for D in his school lunches, I reflected on what 'bringing lunch' might mean. 

I was pretty sure it would mean McDonalds. I opted not to ask, because I didn't want to know. While I briefly considered taking G for lunch before I delivered him to the sitter, I decided against it.

You see, my husband and I tend to think we're pretty flexible about parenting and don't subscribe to many hard-and-fast rules about food, TV, etc. While we do have our boundaries, if they get crossed accidentally when our kids are with other people, it's not the end of the world. 

McDonalds and other fast food restaurants are so far outside the realm of possibility in our world, that I don't even think about them. We manage to go on road trips without having to use them; instead, we'll stop at a grocery store, pick up some snacks or makings for sandwiches, and have a picnic at a park. It has worked for us so far. I don't really consider those places to serve 'real food', and since I only eat real food, they are just not an option. Occasionally, if we need restaurant food, we will opt for pizza or Chinese food, but never a fast food burger.

It isn't a point of pride that we don't go to McDonalds (at least, I didn't think so until now), it just isn't part of our reality. Since our sitter had told me that she only cooks homemade food, that she might occasionally bring in McDonalds for lunch hadn't even crossed my mind.

At the end of the day, G came bounding up to me, saying, "I got a toy! I got a toy!" and I knew then without a doubt where his lunch had come from. I was unprepared for the heavy, sick feeling I got in my stomach, thinking about it. I looked at D, and thought, wow, he's almost six, and he still doesn't even know what McDonalds is (he said to me, "I've been to McDonalds. Isn't it a farm?"), and poor little three year old G has already been exposed. The sitter was shocked to hear that it was his first experience with McDonalds.

I guess we're really not normal, are we? But to be honest, I don't want to be normal.

I had always said that while I wouldn't take my kids to McDonalds, because I'm not interested in eating it or participating in the fast food culture in general, I also wasn't about to forbid them going there. Extremism doesn't breed moderation, and moderation is the overall lesson I'm hoping to instill in my children.

I'm also pretty sure that they'll be able to tell the difference between fast food and 'real' food, because as  a kid, I certainly could. I always looked forward to going to McDonalds because I was supposed to like it, but the food always disappointed. As an adult, it was never a place I wanted to go. I did eat other kinds of fast food until I slowly realized they just didn't taste good or feel good in my body when I ate them.

I tell my husband regularly that it's not so much what we say as what we do that will get through to the kids. If we told them fast food was bad for them but they saw us eating it, they'd want to eat it. If we told them too much TV is bad for them, but watched it a lot anyway, and talked about it all the time, they'd get a different sense. In reality, TV is not part of our lives, and neither is fast food, and that is what will register with our kids.

I never under-estimate the power of emotional ties to food, and the importance of childhood memories and comfort food. In my case, and that of my kids', I'm hoping that those emotions are tied to feelings of togetherness around the table, of home-cooked meals, family gatherings, and fresh cookies out of the oven.

It was gratifying to watch D and G eat Trout Provencale, roasted sweet potatoes, steamed beans and carrots and coleslaw that night for dinner. They each asked for seconds. I'll rest assured that in spite of my urges to be extremist and impose my will about fast food, it's a better tack to offer healthy, flavourful, real food and let them make their own decisions.

Deconstructed Beef Barley Soup

Sometimes life throws you curveballs, and when those curveballs happen in the kitchen—just like in any other area of life—you can either throw up your hands and give up, or adjust your swing and hit a home run.

This happened to me earlier in the week. I was sure that last year's garden potatoes would see me through one more meal, so I put a beef blade roast in the slow cooker with some homemade beef stock, salt and pepper, and decided I'd throw together mashed potatoes and some veggies later in the day.

The day was packed, and it turned out there was a 5pm appointment I had forgotten about, so my meal prep was limited to one hour, between 3:30 and 4:30pm. When I pulled out those potatoes, I realized I had been over-optimistic about their state. They were unusable. So then the question was: do I run to the store and buy some, or do I change my plan?

I decided to go with barley instead, and then a plan formed involving a composed dish that would contain everything in a beef barley soup, but dished up like a meal. I threw together a pilaf with ingredients I had on hand, prepped some broccolette for a vegetable, brought the pilaf to a boil, and set it to simmer while I was at my appointment.

The results were exactly as I had imagined. I got home at 6:15 to a silent household of kids and husband hunched over their plates. They hadn't dished it the way I had imagined it (pilaf in a bowl, topped with sliced beef with broth dished around it), but they were still enjoying it. I dished mine that way, and it was exactly as I'd hoped. So here's the recipe!

Deconstructed Beef Barley Soup

1 3 lb. beef blade roast
4 c. beef stock (preferably homemade)
Salt and pepper to taste

The morning before you plan to serve the meal: Salt and pepper roast generously. Place in slow cooker, pour stock around it. Cook 7 or 8 hours on low.

1 c. pot barley
1/4 c. butter
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 parsnip, peeled and sliced
1/2 c. sliced sun-dried tomatoes
1 Parmesan rind
3 c. water
1 T. salted herbs (or salt, pepper, and your favourite fresh herbs, or 1 t. dried herbs)

Melt butter in a medium pot over medium heat. When it is melted, add the vegetables and sauté for five minutes. Stir in the barley and continue to sauté for a few more minutes. Toss in the Parmesan rind and salted herbs and add the water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for an hour. Add more water if barley is still tough when the water evaporates. Remove Parmesan rind before serving.

To serve, taste stock for seasoning, slice meat. Dish barley pilaf into a bowl, top with slices of meat, spoon broth around the pilaf. 

I also spread Dijon mustard on the beef. SO good!

As an added bonus, I used some leftover pizza dough and supper fixings to make steak and cheese turnovers for lunch yesterday:

2 T. butter
One sliced onion
Leftover beef, cut in small cubes
Chopped, cooked broccolette
1/2 c. beef stock
1 c. grated old Cheddar cheese

Cook onion in butter until it is caramelized. Add in beef and broccolette, and heat. Pour 1/2 c. stock over, and simmer until stock is almost completely reduced. Let cool.

Spoon onto your favourite pastry dough (pizza crust, turnover dough, puff pastry), top with grated cheese, seal, and bake at 375F.