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This chicken stroganoff had the author's children crying out for more mushrooms — a food that does not normally pass their lips.

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This week I am preparing to go on my first girls’ trip since … well, I can’t actually remember. It’s been that long. Even in the wake of the dreadful Hurricane Ian, we are set to arrive in Miami and drive to Key West, where, in spite of spending many of my formative years in Vermont, I was born.

Even my planning brings me back to the tastes of my childhood. Fried chicken and mashed potatoes from the wanna-be KFC called “Chicken Unlimited,” pizza and salad bar from Pizza Hut, and my all-time favorite way to cool down — chocolate malted milkshakes made with Breyer’s ice cream.

Our childhoods sponsor our formative experiences, which are often associated with flavors, restaurants, preferences, foods that define who we are and the habits that go along with them. As parents, we try to balance the fine line of teaching our kids what to eat and how to do it without trying to control every little decision they make or morsel that goes into their mouths.

It’s no secret that I weighed the same amount on my wedding day that I did when I was in Mr. Meeks’ fourth grade class at Newfane Elementary. As parents, it’s easy to project our experiences on our kids, as we try to prevent them from having the same ones that left negative imprints on us. We walk a fine line being parents and it’s harder than I imagined it would be. We feel what they feel.

As adults, we respond the same way to deprivation that our kids do. Take it away and we’re toddlers again, wanting, yearning and throwing a fit just to get some of what we tell ourselves we can’t have. (Perhaps it’s our brains throwing the fit, creating cravings rather than tears nowadays). Kids are the same way. Try as I might, taking processed foods off the table, so to speak, seems to do more harm than good. Inevitably, the forbidden food (Goldfish for example) shows up at a party and suddenly, it’s more coveted than even the cake would be.

I can see saliva well up in the corners of Madeleine’s mouth as she tunes everything and everyone else out, including the party entertainment, focusing only on the bright colored package that has been effectively designed to beckon to her. She looks at me pleadingly and I give her a nod, thinking I might be doing more harm than good should I say no as I normally do.

She bounds over to the pile of individually wrapped Goldfish packages, carefully choosing a plain pouch, knowing the rainbow variety might be too much for her old mum to handle. (She’s right.) She opens the bag, expectantly breathing in, dips her hand into the sack and brings a few to her mouth, crunching down eagerly. Once she’s chewed and swallowed, she looks at me, disappointed. “It tastes like nothing.” She shrugs in disappointment, but as if programmed to keep eating (well done, Big Food), she reaches her hand in again and escorts more fish food into her mouth.

I realized, then, that I had done it! I had abetted Big Food in programming her to WANT. Getting us to want something is a large part of the processed food industry’s warfare. Their food is “highly palatable,” thanks to additives like maltodextrin, which physically keep us coming back for more. They’re convenient and tasty, but we also WANT them. Saying “no” to Goldfish made her want them even more: the forbidden fruit, or in this case, cracker.

Nourishing the child

Pediatric dietitian, Jill Castle, MS, RDN, is the founder of The Nourished Child, a website hosting an arsenal of resources for parents learning to have healthy kids. Jill discusses ways in which to lead our kids to make good food choices, without being too controlling along the way. She notes that parents can sponsor emotional eating disorders in their kids simply by being overly regulatory about what they eat or by focusing too much on the number on the scale.

It’s not just about the food, Jill says. There’s a wider range of things we can focus on, like helping our children manage their stress and emotions. Eating behavior is often tied to emotions for all of us. For stability, Jill suggests shooting for a balance of 90 percent healthy food and 10 percent “fun” foods. (She notes that those percentages can change depending on the family.)

“When we focus simply on what to feed our kids and the amount to feed them,” Jill explains, “we lose focus on other contributors to kids’ physical health and their emotional well-being.” Jill hones in on the importance of sleep for kids in their overall health. She underscores the significance of not only getting the right number of hours, but also in sponsoring good-quality sleep for our kiddos.

Trying new nibbles

Most of us often find ourselves in barter mode as parents. Whether it’s the request to eat an extra bite of peas at dinner or to choose the chocolate frosted cupcake over the one with green icing (me), we often find ourselves in negotiations with our kids regarding their eating choices.

One study found that children whose parents used food as a reward when they were younger were more likely to become emotional eaters by the age of 5 to 7. When we use food to incentivize our children to try new foods, the outcome isn’t usually what we want it to be. They may try the new foods at first, but the reward soon becomes more important than the act of trying something new. The new foods they’ve been coerced into trying may be quickly neglected. The foods used as rewards, however, are all but forgotten.

Another study showed that using non-food rewards to get children to try new foods inhibited the development of their innate drive and motivation to experiment with new foods on their own. I used to barter with my daughter, telling her that she could spit out whatever it was she was trying if she didn’t like it. The moment of joy came when she nominated my hand as the receptacle in this proposal. I think she actually pretended to dislike some of the foods she tried just so she could deposit its remnants in my palm.

My mom’s negotiation at the aforementioned Pizza Hut was for me to belly up (pun intended) to the salad bar. I filled my plate with a conglomeration of cheese, sunflower seeds and bacon bits. She would sometimes demand a lettuce leaf under all of it for good measure, but often, I did not comply with this mandate I found to be unreasonable. My mom thought it would prompt good salad eating habits (35 pounds later, she turned out to be right).

Family nibbles

Many of us have gotten away from family meal time or even specific meal times, for that matter. Research has shown that sitting together as a family during mealtime has been associated with improved literacy and vocabulary, as well as decreased depression and drug use among the younger participants. Eating as a family has also been linked to better grades and even better physical health. In this day and age, with sports practices and work schedules, it may seem impossible to dine together, but sitting with even one family member during a meal has been shown to be effective in these capacities.

Chicken stroganoff

(This dish had everyone crying out for more mushrooms — a food that does not normally pass my children’s lips.)

Ingredients

1 pound chicken thighs

Salt (to taste)

Pepper (to taste)

½ teaspoon garlic powder

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1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon avocado oil

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 ½ tablespoons white flour

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 ½ cup chicken stock

2 tablespoons butter

6 oz Crimini mushrooms (about 8)

Method

Season chicken with salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprika. Allow to rest at room temperature for 20 minutes.

In a large pot or Dutch oven, add avocado oil.

Brown chicken, cooking 4 minutes each side.

Transfer chicken to bowl, set aside.

In the same pot, melt 1½ tablespoons butter and add onion.

Sauté for about 3 minutes before adding garlic. Cook five more minutes.

Add flour, tossing to coat mixture. Cook for about a minute.

Add mustard, sauté another minute.

Add ½ cup chicken stock, stirring well.

Stir in remaining chicken stock and add chicken back in.

Simmer for an hour with top on.

Just before ready to serve, melt butter in a sauté pan.

Sauté mushrooms with salt and pepper, add to pot.

Remove top, simmer another 15 minutes or until sauce thickens.

Serving suggestion — serve over quinoa and enjoy!

Katharine A. Jameson, a certified nutrition counselor who grew up in Williamsville and Townshend, writes about food and health for Vermont News & Media. For more tricks, tips and hacks, find her on Instagram: @foodforthoughtwithkat