With Mother’s Day almost upon us, I can’t help but muse over what a challenge it has become to feed children. I wasn’t aware of ordeals surrounding food when I was growing up. I ate the same food the rest of the family did and devoured it gratefully.
On the rare occasions when we ate in restaurants (I say rare because my father didn’t think most restaurant food could match up to my mother’s cooking and he was probably right), we ordered from the main menu, not the so-called children’s menu that offered nutritionally worthless items.
I won’t dignify most of the fare on these menus by calling it junk food because that implies it is food of some kind. According to the Oxford dictionary, food means “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth.” Simply put, we are feeding our kids substances that humans are not meant to eat.
Teaching kids what to eat
The kind of children’s food I’m talking about is standard in most restaurants, particularly those touted as family friendly. I was recently in such an establishment, and watched incredulously as a mother and grandmother ordered chicken and vegetable stir-fry for themselves, and a processed cheese melt on white bread, French fries on the side, for the toddler.
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I have to stop here and say that I believe parents simply must take matters in hand and teach their children what is good to eat and what isn’t. David Ludwig, the widely respected endocrinologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Boston Children’s Hospital — who I first met at a nutrition think-tank in Rome dubbed “Pasta Fights Back,” organized to debunk the low-carb phobia that took the nation by storm in 2004 — has gone so far as to say that kids can’t survive unless their parents teach them how to eat.
In a book titled “Ending the Food Fight,” considered by his peers to have brought together the best available scientific evidence on childhood obesity, he argues, “…no species of mammal in nature allows its young to eat whatever they want. What would happen if a bear mother didn’t teach its cub what and how to eat? The cub wouldn’t survive the winter. Our modern nutritional environment can be as dangerous to children as an arctic winter is to the bear cubs.”
Think of the adorable cartoon rabbit dreamed up by marketers to sell Trix, the psychedelic-colored cereal made of 46% sugar that debuted in 1955 and is still going strong. The rabbit has spent more than half a century trying to steal Trix away from kids for himself, only to be thwarted every time. The slogan is the stuff of American childhood: “Silly rabbit, Trix is for kids.” It is?
While I look back longingly on my own daughters’ early years when I would entice them to the breakfast table with the smell of baking bread and spend the days simmering ragù or stirring polenta, recipes usually destined not just for the dinner table but also for cookbooks I was writing, I know that few parents have the luxury to be able to stay at home and cook such meals the way I or my own mother did. Besides, the Mad Men entice children more than ever with clever commercials and the most well-intentioned parent faces an uphill battle trying to feed their kids decent food.
Kid food the Italian way
Having climbed onto my soapbox, and being painfully aware that my standpoint is not popular in certain circles, let me close with a suggestion for a wholesome and easy dish that can please anyone. These are the whimsical stars, alphabets, and other tiny pastas that Italian children eat as their first solid food, and which have a place in broths and light soups as well.
With it you can feed anyone from the age of, say 6 months, until at least 100 years old. I ate it from infancy. Not only did I feed it to my own tribe, I cooked it regularly for hundreds of fussy school children in an experimental lunch program that you may hear more about someday. No child I’ve ever known has ever said no to pastina.
Everyone knows that our first foods form our palate, and we forevermore crave them. My pastina habit continued into my adult life. I was so enthusiastic about this pablum that as a young mother sitting in baby-and-me support groups with other dazed young parents, I enthusiastically spread the word.
Realizing that most had never heard of it despite its presence in virtually any supermarket, I got into the habit of bringing a backpack filled with little boxes of pastina to pass out to the group. They would bring it home and make it for their babies, simply following the package directions and without fail, come back the following week, raving about the newfound simple and easy solution to otherwise stressful mealtimes.
This is so simple, in fact, that it didn’t occur to me until recently to write about it. Whether you are feeding kids or just yourself, and haven’t yet discovered its charms, this recipe is for you.
Pastina ‘Stars’ With Butter and Milk
Serves 4 children or 2 adults
Nothing is more emblematic of an Italian childhood than pastina (literally, “little pasta”) with butter and milk. It is baby’s first solid food, remembered in adulthood with great nostalgia. Stelline (“little stars”), acini di pepe (“peppercorns”), alfabetti (“alphabets”), tubettini (“little tubes”), orzo (“barley grains”), and farfalline (“little buttterflies”) are the most common. My favorites are the first two — and yes, somehow, different cuts do “taste” differently. Use tasty organic butter for the most wholesome and flavorful results.
1 cup “little stars” pastina or other tiny pasta shapes
3 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup warm milk, plus more if desired
Bring 3 quarts water to a boil. Stir in the pastina and salt. Cook according to package directions. Drain and transfer to a bowl. While it is still piping hot, add butter to the pasta, burying it in the pasta to melt. Stir in a little of the warm milk and serve at once. Add a little more warm milk for a looser texture if desired. Serve at once.
Variations: For added nutrition for babies, stir a teaspoon, or to taste, freshly puréed carrots, spinach, or other puréed cooked vegetable(s) or a touch of tomato sauce into a portion of hot buttered pastina before serving. A classic is to stir the yolk of a small fresh egg, butter, and grated parmigiano cheese into piping hot pastina. The heat will cook it through. You might try it if you have a trusted source for fresh eggs.
Main photo: Alphabet pastina soup. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce