Eating Ethiopian with a 2 Year Old

As a kid, my idea of adventurous eating was that I went to a deli that served tongue. (I never ate tongue, but the mere presence of it on the menu was enough street cred for me.) Admittedly, I didn’t live somewhere with a whole lot of options – all we had in my town for years was a couple of average Italian restaurants, a pub, and a Friendly’s.

But now, living in the D.C. suburbs, we are absolutely spoiled for choice. D.C. itself has a thriving foodie culture and our suburb has a number of immigrants who have brought their delicious food with them. So I’m dedicated to ensuring Sprout is exposed to all sorts of cuisine. So far, we’ve had Indian, Thai, Lebanese, dim sum, and authentic Chinese dumplings. But last weekend, we went a step more adventurous than we ever had before – Ethiopian.

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Play with Your Food!

In high school, my husband was the slowest eater I had ever met. Although his future as a professional cook seems like a surprising turn of events, I often comment that they actually had something very important in common – Chris playing with his food. While that observation is half-joke, we both like to think of cooking as play instead of a chore. We want Sprout to enjoy cooking healthy, delicious, sustainable meals as he grows older rather than merely tolerating it. With this in mind, we gave him a toy kitchen and food for Christmas. What we didn’t realize is how many real-life skills we could teach him as a result.

I spent a lot of time researching and considering the options for toy kitchens before I made my final decision. I wanted one that was sturdy, gender-neutral (along with the pink drenched options, there are also ones designed to be acceptable to “manly” dads), had a lot of different play options and looked somewhat realistic.

What I like about the one I bought is that it functions in many ways like a real kitchen. There’s a “cutting board” and sufficient counter space (with “granite” countertops!) for preparation, which a surprising number of toy kitchens lack. It has a knife block with tiny chefs’ knives so we can discuss the proper storage of kitchen cutlery with him. It has a little sink that you can pretend to fill up a pasta pot or (ugh) wash dishes. It came with different types of pots and pans, allowing you to match the right kind of dishware with cooking techniques, whether that’s boiling water in a pot or searing a burger in a pan. To help Sprout learn good safety techniques, I cut apart an old dish-rag so he can use little towels to take items out of the oven. The kitchen even comes with little baskets that you to collect and empty “food waste” into the invisible compost bucket.

Our son's toy kitchen!

Unlike most toy kitchens, this one even has “food waste,” even though it’s non-compostable plastic. In addition to the hamburger and hot dog that came with the kitchen, I bought my little (sometimes) veggie-lover a basket of toy produce that requires preparation. You can peel and section the orange, cut the tomato, peel the banana, cut the cauliflower, and shuck the corn. All of the pieces are held together with Velcro, so they’re easy to put back together. What’s really neat about it is that you can introduce actual knife techniques with them. Pushing down on most play food with a play knife usually causes it to slip and cause what would be a nasty gouge in real life. In contrast, this set rewards good knife skills – cutting with the curved “sharp” side is much easier than the straight, “blunt” side. The toy food also allows us to teach him safety skills, like choking up on the knife to improve control and curling under the fingers on his holding hand so you don’t slice them. While he’s far from that level of comprehension, it’s absurdly cute for now to watch him “cut” through fake vegetables with his little plastic chef’s knife.

To further practice his skills, we recently allowed him to help us prepare a snack. A few months ago, we found a recipe for Chocolate Almond Date Energy Balls, which we found were both delicious and semi-healthy. We originally found the recipe on Sweet Happy Life, but because she’s taken down her blog archives to protect her kid’s privacy, I’m going to share our version (slightly modified from hers) here.
Chocolate date almond energy balls

Based on an original recipe from Sweet Happy Life (Ariela Pelaia)

1 cup whole, raw almonds
3 tablespoons chocolate chips
1 cup dates (can often get from the bulk section in natural foods stores)
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup almond butter
1 to 3 tablespoons water
4-5 tbs shredded coconut

Using a food processor, grind the almonds, chocolate chips, dates, vanilla and almond butter, until it the combination creates large chunks that separate out from each other. If needed, add water slowly until it reaches that consistency. Pinch off a good-size chunk and roll into a ball with your hands. Roll each of the balls in the shredded coconut. Eat immediately (although they’ll be a little sticky) or refrigerate.

The first time we made the Energy Balls with Sprout, he was very engaged and enjoyed sprinkling coconut over the balls. This time, he was a little more distracted. He didn’t really want to form the balls and seemed more interested in pushing the coconut off of the plate than anything else. Oh well. We’ll keep trying to teach him to play with his food.

Food is our common ground – James Beard.

As a parent, I’m very aware of the messages my behavior sends to Sprout, intentionally or not. With Sprout getting more observant every day, I’ve become particularly conscientious about our eating habits, as I know how and what we eat will shape his eating habits for life.

This has become particularly important now that he thinks everything the “big people” eat is fair game. As I understand it must feel unfair to see your family members eating something you can’t, I try not to eat anything in front of him he can’t have. (Except my tea – they’ll have to take that from my cold, dead hands.) This became exceptionally obvious at my company’s annual picnic. One second, there was a chocolate-chip cookie on my plate, the next it was in my son’s mouth with a big bite out of it. Not what I had planned.

This awareness came to a head last week, with a spiritual element added to the practical one. Leading up to Food Day, my church is focusing on eating as a spiritual practice. As with most spiritual practices, the first step is increasing awareness of your current habits. As such, my pastor challenged everyone to keep a food journal – a list of the food consumed as well as the circumstances in which we ate it. Personally, I also wrote down whether the food was processed, local and/or organic.

While I normally try to be aware of my eating, it was amazing how many decisions the food journal influenced. I chose to have an apple instead of crackers. I didn’t drink the fake cappachino that’s 90% sugar water and 10% preservatives. I had a little thrill when I wrote down “locally made whole wheat toast with locally made jam,” even though it wasn’t exactly healthy. It didn’t stop me from having three desserts at the picnic (including the stolen cookie), but I did have a greater appreciation for sharing that lunch with my husband, son and co-workers.

While I’m no longer writing everything down, I’m still thinking the best way to model good eating habits for Sprout. I think the best way to do this is keep him as involved as possible in growing, choosing, and cooking his food.

Before this weekend, I hadn’t been able to get him involved in gardening, as he was always too destructive. But with the fall season winding down, I’ve started pulling out my plants in preparation for winter. As I’m usually telling him not to hurt plants, he looked very confused. He tried to help at first, but just picked off a few spare leaves. He also didn’t know what to do when the plants were too thick for him to walk through without tripping. Once I had cleared a space for him, he was much more content, sitting there and whacking at the soil with a spade. In the end, he was a dirty, happy kid, with soil everywhere from his hair to the soles of his sneakers.

While he can’t identify different vegetables yet, we’ve been bringing him to the Farmers’ Market since he was a newborn. The vendors are so used to seeing us that the one girl recognizes Sprout and asks about him. As he grows older, we’ll teach him about the different fruits and vegetables and why they’re available some times of the year and not others. Unfortunately, we’ll never be able to buy his beloved bananas (the only food he has a word for yet) there.

Obviously, we’re going to teach him how to cook. Sprout already shows great interest when anyone cooks, whining if you don’t keep him informed of what you’re doing. Chris will often pick him up to show him what’s in the pan and explain the steps he’s taking.

While it’ll be quite a while before he can touch the knives, we did get him involved in food preparation for the first time a few weeks ago. We made these date-almond-chocolate energy bites, but swapped out the wheat germ for shredded coconut. After we blended most of the ingredients in the food processor and formed balls, we let him roll the balls in the coconut. Or more accurately, throw coconut on/at/over them. He seemed to have a good time and the bites turned out to be surprisingly tasty.

Eating good food that has been thoughtfully, sustainably grown and prepared with people I love is one of my great joys in life. I hope it’s one of his too.