The Drevitches, Week 28: Can We Make Home Cooking as Appealing as Take-Out?

Filed under: Healthy Families Challenge

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The kids and their favorite dinner ingredients. Credit: Gary Drevitch

Our kids are funny eaters.

They refuse to eat most home-cooked vegetables (and nearly all fruits), but they will happily scarf down Vietnamese vegetable dumplings, broccoli in Chinese brown sauce and Indian samosas filled with veggies. Their philosophy is: If it's ordered in, it's got to be good.

We have a trio of Manhattan kids -- Benjamin, 10; Natalie, 8; and Adam, 4 -- for whom take-out is not a privilege. It's a right.

And their favorite order is Indian. They love chicken tikka masala and lamb saag -- made with, respectively, tomatoes and spinach, two things the kids would never touch if they found them sitting by themselves on the edge of a dinner plate. And, of course, they love rice, heaping piles of rice, preferably drenched with lots of tikka masala sauce, and nan bread, preferably served the same way.

My wife, Lynn, and I also love Indian food. It's a go-to choice for us when we're making dinner reservations for an evening out. But we're aware that, in the restaurant or arriving via bike delivery, it's not always the lightest fare.

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As part of our Healthy Families Challenge goals, we want the kids to start eating healthier. One approach embraced by nutritionists and other experts is to make more home-cooked meals, eat together as a family, and get children more involved in preparing food themselves. Our progress in this direction has been a bit hit-or-miss -- the kids do mostly eat home-prepared meals, but their parents' schedules make evenings with all five of us at the table at the same time an unusual occurrence.

That said, we have been doing more cooking with the kids. Benjamin and Natalie make their own eggs on the weekends, and some of their own sandwiches. They help me make pancakes and pasta dishes, and assist Lynn in making banana bread and other treats.

To push the envelope, Lynn recently took a full-afternoon Indian cooking class at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan to gain insight both into making Indian food that is healthier than what restaurants offer, and getting the kids involved in the process.

Here's her report:

"Our instructor, chef Linda Lantos, taught us how to cook a veritable feast of Indian dishes, including chana masala -- chickpeas in a tomato masala sauce -- which I hope to adapt at home as a chicken recipe, to imitate the tikka masala the kids like so much, with less fat than the takeout version. (The other core ingredients are onion, garlic and ginger.)

"We started our afternoon by crafting our own spice blend. When he tried the samples I brought home, Gary was a big fan of a rice dish called kichari, which can include mung beans (or red lentils), mustard seeds, cumin, coriander, cardamom and, Linda said, whatever vegetables you happen to have at home.

"I also liked meen molee, a fish curry in a fragrant coconut sauce. We made it with haddock in class, but at home, I'll probably try it with tilapia, the kids' favorite. And we made mattar paneer, or peas with traditional Indian cheese cubes, as well as kadduki sabji, a fantastic pumpkin curry.

"At home later in the week, I attempted to replicate the chana masala. And I could! It was easy, quick and delicious, and -- I could not get the kids to try it. We did, however, serve it to some visiting vegetarian relatives who said it was fabulous.

"But I remain hopeful. Next time I make the dish, I plan to serve it to the kids with chicken breast and rice. If they won't eat my homemade chicken tikka masala, I don't know what I will do."

I'll just add that our kids are a stubborn lot. I know that they will see Lynn's homemade Indian dishes as a plot to deny them their God-given right to take-out. They also have an annoying habit of praising other people's homemade food while ignoring the truly delicious meals they are offered at home. We know that, in some ways, it has always been thus with children.

But it seems time they got with the program, don't you think?

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.