Jenifer Lang has written a cookbook for parents who make daily attempts to feed their children.
In it, she:
*Says she is not above using "sneaky tricks" like pureeing the vegetables so they can be hidden in a white sauce that goes on macaroni and cheese.
*Admits feeding her 4-year-old son, Simon, a pizza for breakfast. isn't really pizza, it is a muffin, cheese, scrambled egg and ketchup. But it looks like pizza. Her son calls it a pizza, and when it comes to getting you kids to eat, truth in labeling sometimes suffers.
*Suggests seasonal ways to clean off a highchair. In the summer, hose it off. In the winter, put it in the shower.
A few years ago when the nutrition police had the nation's eaters in a headlock, such comments would have been considered shocking, or worse yet, outdated.
That was when every father was supposed to be telling his children to "Eat your fiber, Ferdinand" and "Count your cholesterol, Clarissa." And the kids and their parents were, in theory, happily digging into dishes designed for overweight, heart-attack prone golfers.
But now the siege of the nutrition police is being broken. Stories about how kids actually eat and parents really cook are emerging. It is OK for parents and children to be seen in the company of fish sticks.
To this I say, "Hallelujah." And when I read "Jenifer Lang Cooks for Kids" (Crown $22.50), I found its "get-real" approach refreshing.
And I was surprised. When I thought of Jenifer Lang I got an image of an elegant New Yorker. I thought of Cafe Des Artiste, the swank Upper East Side restaurant run by her husband George, an establishment with murals on the wall where well-dressed, in-the-know grown-ups dine. I thought of a woman who in one previous book, "Tastings," had rated various types of caviar -- she preferred the Iranian over the Russian -- and in another, an updated American version of "Larousse Gastronomique" that she edited, had marveled at the French for their ability to codify the 295 ways to prepare eggs.
But when kids arrive on the scene, they change the way their parents behave. And when Simon arrived in August of 1987, Ms. Lang and her husband found the task of feeding a child nourishing food to be as daunting as turning out celebrated cuisine at the cafe.
So she turned her attention to finding nourishing dishes that parents and kids would like to eat. She relied on experience with her son, and she got advice and recipes from her friends. Some of the friends are chefs who went to school with her at the Culinary Institute of America, some are fellow food writers. But all are parents.
And as I read through the book I found a few ideas I plan to try out in my household.
*Encouraging the kids to write out a list of their favorite foods and post it on the fridge. This reminds harried parents of possible options for supper.
*Giving kids a fortified milkshake -- milk, banana, peanut butter and honey -- for breakfast on mornings the family caravan is running late. The shake is nourishing and can be finished on the way to school.
*Setting aside a spot in the fridge as the kids' shelf. Here they can forage for food, and store half-finished drinks and snacks.
I thought some of her suggestions were wrong. For instance, she advocated feeding kids a version of Rice Krispies squares that substituted brown rice for the cereal of Snap Crackle and Pop.
When I saw Ms. Lang recently I asked her why she wanted to tamper with a classic like Rice Krispies Treat.
She shrugged and said brown rice was an old friend from her college days, a friend she couldn't say goodbye to. And in addition to having some nourishment in them, the brown rice version of the snacks is sold in health food stores, meaning you don't have to fix them.
Similarly, I gave her trouble about her suggestion to let the kids pick the "house" brand of ketchup by conducting family "tasting" sessions around the kitchen table.
In a two-kid household, I said, such a tasting would invariably result with two brands of ketchup. One kid would want one brand. The other child would want another brand, just to be different.
Ms. Lang responded by asking me what was so terrible about having two bottles of ketchup, one for each kid, on the table.
I didn't have much of an answer other than it bothered me.
What impressed me about my exchanges with Ms. Lang was her attitude. She was flexible. She didn't seem to think that there were rigid rules that right-thinking parents were required to follow, under pain of social ostracism.
Instead she seemed to believe that the best approach was to give the kids a variety of dishes prepared from fresh foods, to serve them in a reasonably pleasant environment, and then to hope for the best.
And so she said she makes fish sticks on Friday night because she has hit upon a recipe using fresh fish that replicates the taste of the frozen ones she grew up eating.
And because her son likes them, at least for now.
Another thing she has learned about young eaters, she said, is that tastes can change.
Her son, for example, was once a major avocado eater. This pleased her. Both because avocados were high in potassium and because she had a terrific recipe for avocado blocks, made to resemble the blocks of Jell-O. For a time Simon feasted on these blocks, she said.
But now, at the age of 4, not only won't he eat an avocado, he denies ever liking it.