Ever tried to serve your kids something new? I write a blog about cooking for kids — about cooking one dinner, about raising kids who appreciate real food, about trying again when it doesn’t work out — so we eat a lot of new stuff around here. And when our group of four little ones (all under the age of 6) are skeptical about my latest culinary experiment, I try to bridge the gap with familiar, and beloved, flavors. No, the kids don’t all like the same things, but there are a few universally loved flavors. These are my heavy hitters, the MVPs of the kitchen and our best flavor ambassadors.
Fresh Lemon: Squeezing lemon on anything instantly makes my kids intrigued. Does it work for fish? Yes, of course, but there’s also roasted potato wedges and steak. Even greens like sauteed spinach, Swiss chard and kale are wonderful with a splash of juicy citrus. Plus, squeezing the juice is fun for the kids to do themselves.
Parmesan Cheese: Three of our four kids were born in Rome, and many of their earliest meals included a freshly grated chunk of cheese. Now that we’re in the United States, we still try to get the good stuff, a block of real Parmigiano-Reggiano, when we can. The preshredded stuff works, too (and it’s certainly less expensive), but the benefit of the good stuff is that you use less. It takes only a scant layer of this creamy, nutty, salty cheese to totally transform anything, from basic pasta to roasted broccoli to any casserole, any night.
Cinnamon: We bake a lot of good-for-you-muffins and quick breads, always looking for ways to pack in more nutrition while limiting sugar. That’s where cinnamon comes in. Whenever I reduce sugar, I add cinnamon for tons of flavor. It also works beautifully over applesauce, in chili (just a pinch), and of course over any kind of toast or bagel (right over a schmear of butter).
Dill Pickles: Most kids love crunchy and salty dill pickles. That’s why I put them in all kinds of dishes from egg salad to grilled cheese sandwiches (pictured above from Food Network Magazine) to turkey roll-ups.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Here’s another Italian favorite. I’ll drizzle olive oil over anything that’ll stand still — and then I’ll stand back while the kids devour it. Sometimes I just tell them that I used olive oil in a recipe and — sold! Our current summertime favorite is zucchini sauteed in olive oil with a little salt. But like Parmesan cheese, it also works wonders when poured over any rice or noodle dish, and don’t forget how easy it is to round out dinner with a bowl of cherry tomatoes drizzled in extra virgin olive oil, plus freshly torn basil and salt.
Charity Curley Mathews is a former executive at HGTV.com and MarthaStewart.com turned family food blogger, an editorial strategy consultant and a mother of four. She’s a contributor to The Huffington Post and the founder of Foodlets.com: Mini Foodies in the Making…Maybe.