How I Got My Kids to Eat a “Disgusting” Dinner

I made dinner last night for the second night in a row. I hope you’re giving me a round of applause right now, or at least an inward, You go, girl!, because, you know, it’s an accomplishment — even if it was just leftovers.

Tuesday night’s slow cooker pulled pork turned into Wednesday night’s BBQ pulled pork pizza, and I thought it’d be a hit because, well… pizza.

My 8-year-old asked what we were having for dinner. “BBQ pulled pork pizza!” I said brightly.  His face dropped. I continued. “Do you want cheese on your piece?” I ask this because this is a kid who doesn’t eat cheese — unless it’s on regular pizza or quesadillas. But not on tacos or nachos, or a grilled cheese sandwich, or, God forbid, macaroni and cheese — because he also won’t eat pasta. But I digress.

He slinked away, unhappily, into the bedroom. My 3-year-old, wanting in on the action, walked into the kitchen and loudly proclaimed, “That’s DISGUSTING!” So as you can imagine, I was feeling pretty good about the whole family-dinner thing.

With the pizza, three quarters of it covered in shredded mozzarella, in the oven, my husband and I went looking for our oldest.  He was literally hiding behind the bed, face buried in his hands.  “Honey, what’s wrong?” I implored. “Is this really about the pizza?” He nodded.

And here’s where I happened upon some mom brilliance. (Feel free to borrow it the next time your kid starts wailing about what’s for dinner, by the way.) I said, “Sweetie, here’s the deal. If I only cooked dinners you like, I’d be depriving you of a key rite of childhood: the Disgusting Dinner. And when you’re grown up, you’ll be able to entertain your friends with tales of That Disgusting Dinner. And your friends will share their tales. You’ll get mileage out of this!”

He was out from behind the bed, paying attention now, so I continued, launching into my own Disgusting Dinner woe. When I was a kid, my dad concocted something called Hamburger Gravy, which I can only describe as a close cousin to chipped beef on toast, with hamburger replacing the chipped beef. It was gray-ish and onion-y and revolting. The thought of it still makes me shudder, but these days I admire the fact that a) my dad cooked on a pretty regular basis, and b) my parents, who both worked fulltime, managed to get a homemade dinner on the table nightly.

I asked my husband to share his Disgusting Dinner story and he started to make a crack about how “Nonnie” never made anything gross — until I shot him a look that said, in no uncertain terms, get with the program. He settled on pot roast.

We all came to the table for dinner that night — a homemade, use-up-the-leftovers dinner that my 3-year-old largely ignored, my 8-year-old picked at, and my husband and I declared delicious. It provided sustenance and amusement, which ultimately didn’t seem bad for a Wednesday night. And I just might make it again someday.

This is a guest post from Erika Rasmusson Janes, senior editor at and mother of two hungry (but choosy) boys. Follow her on Twitter.

Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better
Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better
Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better

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Does Fruit on the Menu Make Fast Food Healthful?

This month, McDonald’s USA introduced fresh fruit—Cuties California Clementines—as a side option for their Happy Meal and Mighty Kids Meal options.

The cuties, which provide an excellent source of Vitamin C, will be available during their peak season through March 2015.

According to a press release by the company, adding Cuties to the menu as a kids’ meal option or a la carte purchase “supports McDonald’s ongoing dedication to children’s nutrition and well-being.”

Other nutritious options currently offered as sides for McDonald’s kids’ meals include apple slices and Go-GURT low fat Strawberry Yogurt (though the latter option has six grams of sugar, some of it added; sugar is listed as the second ingredient).

I applaud the effort by the company to include Cuties on the menu. Even though each Cutie counts as only one quarter of cup of fruit, most kids fall short on recommendations for daily fruit intake. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recent national surveys reveal that although two- to five-year-olds met their recommended daily fruit intake goals (0.9 cup-equivalents* per 1,000 calories consumed), 60 percent of children don’t eat enough fruit.

I hope that efforts to provide more nutrient-rich options to kids and all consumers—especially fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—will continue to appear on fast food and restaurant menus. Such options can certainly provide alternatives to nutrient-poor, highly palatable fare that in excess can contribute to the development of unhealthy weight gain, obesity, and myriad diet-related diseases.

The problem is, even if nutrient-rich foods like Cuties are purchased by parents and their children, that’s no guarantee that they’ll be consumed in place of French fries or milkshakes—some of the very items most go to fast food for in the first place. And if parents and their kids don’t buy such items when offered at fast food outlets, it’s likely the companies will be less willing to offer similar items in the future.

As I’ve written about in a previous Scoop on Food post, I’m not sure fast food will ever truly be health food. Don’t get me wrong—I welcome any effort by McDonald’s or other chains/restaurants to enhance their nutritious offerings. But unless more dramatic changes are made e.g. offering smaller portions, and cutting added fats and sugars in entrees and sides, adding a piece of fruit to the menu isn’t going to have a dramatic impact when it comes to consumers’ health and nutrient intake. That’s because most fast food options including kids’ meals are packed with more calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium than kids need.

Fortunately, providing calorie counts on menus and more comprehensive nutrition information upon request (and on company websites) potentially can help kids and parents make more mindful choices when eating out.

However, it’s prudent for all of us to limit the frequency of visits to fast food restaurants. And to make having a fast food meal or snack an occasional treat rather than a regular part of your routine. Studies suggest that children who eat more fast food tend to take in more calories and fewer nutrients than those who consume less or no fast food. Including fast food in the diet can also be a marker for less healthful habits overall. So, if you choose to go to fast food restaurants, I say do it infrequently and eat what you like (even if it’s a burger and fries). Such a strategy is likely better than eating fast food meals often.

If you and your kids find yourself eating fast food for whatever reason—you’re stranded at the airport, you’re on a road trip, you’re in a rush—choosing smaller portions and opting for the more nutrient-rich picks, like a Cutie, or something green and colorful (like a side salad with a small amount of oil-based salad dressing) and eating those first can help you eat better. They may even fill you up enough to leave over a few bites of that burger or a few French fries!

*One cup-equivalent of fruit is approximately one small apple, one cup applesauce or 100% juice.

What are your thoughts about adding fruit/produce to a fast food menu? Will it really make a difference in what kids and their parents choose/eat?

Image of Cuties via Elisa Zied.


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Marketing Junk Food to Kids

In an effort to stop marketing unhealthy foods to children and curb childhood obesity in America, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently asked five candy companies including Tootsie Roll Industries, American Licorice Company, Haribo of America, Perfetti Van Melle, and The Topps Company to join the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).

According to CSPI, letters to the five candy companies were also signed by prominent organizations including the American Heart Association, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, The Yale Rudd Center, Prevention Institute, as well as other physicians and public health experts.

On the plus side, CSPI reports that three of the nation’s largest candy companies—Hershey, Mars, and Nestle—already belong to the CFBAI, a voluntary self-regulation program founded in 2006 and administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus (BBB).

As described on the BBB website, the CFBAI “is designed to shift the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.” Currently, the three biggest candy companies in the United States—The Hershey Company, Mars, Incorporated, and Nestle USA—currently participate in the initiative. More than a dozen companies including The Coca-Cola Company and Burger King Corporation have also signed on.

According to Maureen Enright, Deputy Director, CFBAI, as part of the initiative, candy and other companies voluntarily agree to use CFBAI’s uniform nutrition criteria to govern what foods are in child-directed advertising (CFBAI covers advertising on TV, radio, print, on the internet, and in mobile ads and apps) or do no child-directed advertising. Currently, CFBAI participants that make candy, including Hershey, Mars, Nestlé and Ferrero, don’t advertise directly to children.

In a press release, CSPI notes that according to both the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine and the American Psychological Association, children under age eight aren’t mature enough to understand the persuasive intent of advertising. The press release states that, according to the Institute of Medicine, television food advertising affects children’s food choices, food purchase requests, diets, and overall health.

I fully support this initiative as well as the encouragement of CSPI to have candy companies (and all food companies, for that matter) to do more to protect the health and well being of children. I’m all for anything we can do to better the environment to encourage kids to eat more healthfully and moderately, especially since kids fall short on many foods including fruits and vegetables and whole grains and tend to over consume foods made with solid fats and added sugars (collectively, these are called SoFAS according to current dietary guidelines).

According to national survey data, kids’ between the ages of two and eighteen consume an average of 646 calories from SoFAS—or about one third of their total calorie intake. Current guidelines suggest up to five to 15 percent of daily calories from SoFAS. For a child or adolescent who consumes anywhere from 1,000 to 1,800 calories daily, that’s about 137 to 161 calories, the amount you’d find in 5 to 6 Hershey kisses.

Besides focusing on advertising of unhealthy foods to kids, I strongly believe that we have to rethink our ubiquitous access to such nutrient-poor foods. Why is it that so many checkout counters at places ranging from gas stations to electronic stores are decorated with shelves of candy wrapped in colorful wrappers? And what about all those coolers, many also at checkout counters, packed with sugary beverages? And vending machines…they’re everywhere, and they’re usually packed with a range of snack foods, many of which fare more like dessert (fortunately, those with 20 or more locations are now required to follow new federal calorie labeling guidelines).

It’s hard to resist the urge to buy impulse items, and what parent hasn’t given in to their kids’ demand for something at a checkout counter or vending machine at least on occasion? It seems to me that besides limiting or altogether obliterating candy and other nutrient-poor food advertisements, especially those that are geared to impressionable children, we also need to have rules about what and how stores sell food.

You might argue that businesses of all kinds have a right to sell what they want and to position such items where they want. But isn’t it wrong on some level to sell candy and other such items at a store that’s not really in the business of selling food? Or to sell food on low shelves, at eye level, where it entices kids? If we are going to make any progress in helping to teach our children to eat well, we need to create an environment—not just at home, but outside the home—that doesn’t sabotage practicing healthy eating and lifestyle habits and teaching them to our kids.

CSPI has been extremely successful in many of their initiatives, and I hope this latest attempt to get candy companies to step up to the plate to limit potentially harmful advertising of less than healthy foods to children catches on. I’m not sure the rules will ever become mandatory, but achieving this would at very least be a big step in helping our kids eat and live more healthfully.

What’s your opinion?

Image of chocolate bar with caramel via shutterstock.

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Why You Should Eat Dessert Today

This is a guest post from Jenna Helwig, Parents’ food editor and brownie fanatic. 

Disclaimer: Today we will be taking a break from our regularly scheduled, healthy eating programming on this blog to discuss… dessert. Now, of course, dessert should only be an occasional treat, especially for kids. So don’t consider this post license to run wild. Understood? Good.

Okay, now on to the sweet stuff:

As food editor at Parents, I get a lot of emails reminding me that it’s National This Day or National That Day. Truthfully, I’ve never been moved to post until now; when I learned today is National Brownie Day I couldn’t help myself. If it were magically decreed that I could only eat one type of sweet for the rest of my life I would choose brownies, no question.

While history doesn’t record definitively who made the first brownie (and come on, people, isn’t this something that should be in textbooks?), it seems like the chocolate-y treat was invented either in Chicago in 1893 or Boston in 1906.

The beauty of living more than a century later is that we have so many brownie options to choose from, from store-bought to homemade, gluten-free to all-out decadent. (I am going to ignore those folks that prefer cake-y brownies. If you want a cake-y brownie, just have a piece of cake!) Here are my favorites:

If you like your brownie with a crunch open a bag of Brownie Brittle. This crispy, chocolate-y treat is available in four yummy flavors, including my favorite, Mint Chocolate Chip. Even better, you can now get Brownie Brittle in single-serving bags to make portion control more likely (although I can’t guarantee it). You will probably see Brownie Brittle a lot more in the coming weeks—or your kids will—since the brand is partnering with the new Paddington movie out in January.

If you are craving an ooey-gooey, indulgent brownie check out Beverly Hills Brownie Company, which ships across the country. Look for the S’Mores, Movie Mix, and Cream Cheese varieties. They make a great holiday gift!

If you want a gluten-free brownie buy a mix from Cup4Cup, the gluten-free baking line. I love these brownies so much that this is my go-to mix, even though I eat gluten with wild abandon. Available online, at Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table, or select Kroger stores.

If you love a classic DIY brownie check out our recipe. With only eight pantry ingredients, you can have these beauties on the table in under an hour.

If you want a knock-your-socks-off homemade brownie, look no further than this recipe from Dorie Greenspan, author of the recently released Baking Chez Moi and my all-time favorite baking book Baking: From My Home to Yours. I don’t really know Dorie, but I feel like we’re on a first-name basis. Her voice is so chatty, her directions are so clear, and her recipes are so darn good. These brownies are no exception.

So join me celebrating National Brownie Day today. I will enjoy a square of Dorie’s brownies, and maybe a bite or two of some of my other faves. After all, National Brownie Day only comes once a year.

How will you observe National Brownie Day?


Chocolate-Cherry Brownies
Makes 25 squares

This is a one-bowl recipe: Everything is mixed in the bowl you use to melt the chocolate and butter. It’s a simple recipe, but even simple recipes have rules. For the brownies to be the best they can be: Melt the butter and chocolate together in a large bowl set over simmering water and stay close (remove the bowl when the chocolate is just melted or even only almost melted). Leave your eggs in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use them (cold eggs give you a smoother batter). And don’t overbake the brownies—it’s better to remove the pan from the oven a minute too early than a minute too late. Because of the chopped chocolate in the batter, the brownies won’t set until they cool, so a tester needn’t come out completely clean and dry.

2 tablespoons fruity red wine or cranberry juice

2 tablespoons water

1 cup moist dried cherries or dried cranberries

10 ounces) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

¾ cup sugar

2 large cold eggs

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Line an 8-inch square pan with parchment or foil and butter it.

Pour the red wine (or cranberry juice) and water into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the cherries or cranberries and cook over low heat until the fruit is plump and the liquid has been absorbed, about 3 minutes. Turn the fruit into a bowl and set aside to cool.

Measure out 6 ounces of the chocolate and coarsely chop it. Finely chop the remaining 4 ounces.

Put the butter in a large heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water and scatter over the coarsely chopped chocolate. Heat the mixture until the chocolate is just on the verge of melting completely; you don’t want to heat the chocolate and butter so much that they separate. Remove the bowl from the saucepan and stir; you’ll have a thick, shiny mixture.

Working with a flexible spatula, beat in the sugar. Don’t be discouraged when the batter goes grainy; it ends up fine. When the sugar is incorporated, beat in the eggs one at a time—give the eggs a little elbow grease and you’ll have a heavy batter that will have regained some of its glossiness. Mix in the salt and pepper, then gently stir in the flour, mixing only until it disappears into the batter. Stir in the cherries or cranberries and any liquid that has accumulated, then add the finely chopped chocolate. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top as best as you can.

Bake the brownies for 27 to 29 minutes, or until the top is uniformly dull; a knife inserted into the center will come out almost clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool until the brownies are just warm or until they reach room temperature.

To unmold, invert the brownies onto a cutting board and peel away the parchment or foil. Turn the brownies over and cut into 25 small squares.

Excerpted from BAKING CHEZ MOI, © 2014 by Dorie Greenspan. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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Will Calorie Counts on Menus Help Kids Eat Better?

To help kids and their families make more informed choices when eating out, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just finalized two rules for restaurant-type foods (foods usually eaten on the premises, while walking away, or soon after arriving at another location) and foods purchased from vending machines.

According to the new rules, chain restaurants, and similar retail food establishments such as pizza places, salad bars in grocery stores and delis, ice cream shops and movie theaters with 20 or more locations—are now required to post calorie information on menus and menu boards. Operators who own or operate 20 or more vending machines also are required to share calorie information with consumers.

In an effort to reduce the incidence of obesity and improve nutritional intake—and offerings—to Americans, menu labeling was originally spearheaded by the consumer advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, in 2003. But it wasn’t until 2008 that menu labeling was mandated for the first time in the U.S. in New York City. Supported by dozens of consumer and professional groups including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, several cities have since adopted similar measures. And in 2010, the national health care reform bill that included a menu labeling provision was passed. Although final menu labeling regulations were expected within a year, they weren’t finalized until recently, at the end of 2014. (Better late than never, I guess!)

Chain restaurants and other retail establishments have one year, and vending machines have two years, to comply with the new federal rules that, incidentally, trump local laws. Although many chain restaurants have already implemented menu labeling laws, following the new rules will be costly for grocery stores and other establishments that before now weren’t required by law to post calorie information.

It’s unclear at this time how menu labeling will impact kids’ overall calorie and nutrient intake. Still, it’s important to pay attention to calories and other nutrients such as fat and sodium derived from foods purchased away from home since they make up a large part of the daily diet. In the press release announcing the new rules, FDA commissioner, Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. says, “Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home.” The question is, will knowing how many calories are in different foods help consumers—including kids—purchase and subsequently consume fewer calories?

Although we need a lot more data before drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of menu labeling (the few studies on its impact on adults and teenagers have thus far yielded mixed results), a recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concludes that “menu labeling will likely cause small, but meaningful, reductions in calories purchased at chain restaurants and cafeterias overall, and particularly for patrons who see and use the labels.” It also suggests that the full impact of menu labeling won’t be apparent until chains throughout the country comply with federal menu labeling regulations.

Many experts support the new rules requiring calorie information for fast food and other restaurants and food sold at movie theaters and other venues and in vending machines. Registered and licensed dietitian Joan Salge Blake, a Clinical Associate Professor at Boston University, says, “The new, and long overdue, labeling guidelines will allow families to better understand the amount of calories in their choices at restaurants, and then, balance those decisions among the other family meal options for the week.”

Lisa Young, R.D., PhD., author of The Portion Teller Plan, says, “It’s good that people will now know how many calories are in the foods they eat. They may even see some surprises that may help them make better choices.” David Katz, M.D., Editor in Chief of the journal Childhood Obesity, agrees. He says, “I support the measures because more informed decisions are better than uninformed decisions.” But he also says we have to be very careful not to conflate calories with nutritional quality. “Being cognizant of calories is important and potentially useful to both adults and children, but only if it is in the context of also thinking about the importance of food quality,” Katz says.

Although I would never recommend that parents teach kids to obsess over or focus solely on calories in each and every item that passes their lips, it’s important for parents to model healthier eating by making mindful choices themselves and offering small portions to their children when eating out. Having calorie counts available provides parents and kids with an opportunity to have a conversation about how a favorite fast food meal, slice of pizza, scoop of ice cream or muffin or cookie measures up compared to different foods or portion sizes of those foods. Choosing more healthful (or at least, less caloric) options in appropriate portions for young kids when dining out can be a first step. But as kids age, it’s important to empower them so that when they’re older, they can make their own healthful choices when eating away from home (e.g. at school, or at a friend’s house). Also, showing kids how the foods they eat fit into their total daily calorie and nutrient needs can really be eye opening. Modeling healthier eating habits and showing kids how they can fit in treats (e.g. high calorie, nutrient poor foods like French fries and cookies) as occasional indulgences rather than staple items can also be a valuable lesson.

Although higher calorie foods like nuts can pack in nutrients, many of the items kids grab when they’re on the go are often loaded not only with calories but with added sugar, fat, and sodium—things that should be limited in kids’ diets. Showing kids how the choices they make and the portions they choose when they’re eating out fit into the rest of the day can be a good lesson, especially when kids need to try to make room for many of the nutritious foods they tend to skimp on like fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

According to the new rules, the statement, “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary” will appear on menus and menu boards to show consumers how the calories in different foods fit into their daily needs and in the context of their entire diet. Although some older kids calorie needs may be on par with that of some adults, younger kids typically require less. According to the new rules, the following may also be used on menus and menu boards targeted to children:

“1,200 to 1,400 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice for children ages 4 to 8 years, but calorie needs vary.”


“1,200 to 1,400 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice for children ages 4 to 8 years and 1,400 to 2,000 calories a day for children 9 to 13 years, but calorie needs vary.”

I hope that menu labeling will be an empowering wake-up call to kids and parents alike about what’s really in their food. With obesity and diet-related diseases at high levels, it’s critical that we find solutions to help create a more healthful environment that supports making better food choices. This one federal effort may not be THE solution, but it can certainly be part of the solution, especially if it leads restaurants and any venues that serve food to offer smaller portions and/or more nutrient-rich foods. Hopefully, future studies will show that menu labeling can make a dent in our collective calorie intake to help all of us maintain healthy body weights and avert diet-related health problems down the road.

To learn more about the new calorie labeling rules, check out the FDA website.

Also, check my previous Scoop on Food blogs: How Kids Can Eat Better When They Eat Out and New Nutrition Guidance for 2 to 11-Year-Olds.

Do you think providing calorie counts will help kids eat better?

How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids

Image of pizza nutrition facts via shutterstock.

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