Charity Mathew’s decision to cook and eat well isn’t just a personal goal; it’s a mission that she has for her entire family. After serving as Vice President of Digital Programming at MarthaStewart.com, she now lives with her three-year-old, one-and-a-half-year-old and newborn in Rome, Italy. She dreams for her children to eat real, natural, “often organic, rarely processed, sometimes ethnic, food,” and her cooking is fresh and honest as a result. Her blog, Foodlets, documents that dream as she posts her favorite kid-friendly recipes and family anecdotes.
How did Foodlets come to be?
It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time; I’d meet people with remarkable kids who seemed to be fearless little eaters. Something about that seemed amazing to me, even before I had kids of my own. Now that I do, eating together, with an emphasis on healthy, whole food has become the priority I always hoped it would be. But it’s a lot of work and not always easy. Some dishes are met with cheers while others get crossed arms and a frown. Usually someone spills their milk and the floor is always peppered with peas but the moment you hear a 3-year-old say “Mmm. This is a good meal,” “Thanks for dinner!” or my new favorite, “This is magical,” it’s all worth it again.
I know I’m not alone, so I wanted to start a website where I offered my greatest hits but also honest (and hopefully funny) accounts of crashing and burning big. Eventually I’d like to have much more interaction with other parents, amassing a great collection of user-generated recipes and tips, all tried-and-true family favorites from around the world.
How has having kids changed the way you and your husband eat?
We sit together as a family every night for dinner. Before they were old enough to eat with us, Paul and I would often sit in front of the TV after we put the kids to bed, simply too exhausted to even attempt eating at the table. Now we’re more civilized (though still very tired) and there is never a TV or video on. Just music. We’re only at the beginning though. Our kids are 3, 1 and newborn so conversation, jokes and the fun family experiences are still well ahead of us but we’re headed in the right direction, I think.
How has living in Italy shaped the way you eat in terms of ingredients or cooking style?
I cook from scratch a lot. There aren’t as many packaged foods available here and those that are don’t really appeal to our tastes. (For example, one of the frozen food items I see often is octopus.) Of course I cook a fair amount of pasta but it’s always whole wheat or vegetable-based. Plus we eat out as a family much more than we would if we lived in the US. Italians love and expect kids to be at restaurants, sitting right at the big table with everyone, eating, talking . . . and doing it for hours. No one is ever put off when we arrive at a restaurant with kids in tow. It’s just the culture here, and something we love about Italy.
Do you see your kids embracing this natural-foods lifestyle? What would they choose if mom wasn’t around?
It’s hard to say. Gelato? They go to nursery school every morning where they’re served a freshly-made 3-course lunch including pasta, meat and vegetables. They each eat everything every time. Both girls are actually pretty good at eating whatever is available but I know they like their sweets. Phoebe (3 years) in particular talks a good game and gets really excited when we make things like cake or pie, but never ends up eating more than a bite or two when the moment of truth finally arrives. Fine with me!
Are there any ingredients or foods your kids just won’t eat? What’s your strategy for dealing with foods they don’t like?
For Phoebe it’s basil and onions. But if she doesn’t know they’re there, she’ll eat them. (I shred onions so you still get the flavor, with out the chunks.) There used to be quite a few though and at 18 months; Estelle is at that stage. Phoebe didn’t eat rice or salad but now likes both, and I think it’s because they serve it at school. There’s an interesting stat that I’ve heard several times: kids have to try something at least 7 times before they’re accustomed to the new flavor. Plus, there are so many ways to cook so many things. Raw tomatoes are nothing like a tomato-based ragu, so I try to make things in a variety of ways. Carrots, for example, were a battle for a while, but I’ve put them in so many things from muffins to quesadillas to stir-fry that the kids just eat them now. Usually.
Our rule at mealtime is pretty simple: you don’t have to eat everything but you do have to try everything. And if you don’t, you’re not eligible for fruit, our usual dessert. We don’t make a big deal out of it and more often than not, everyone participates in the end.
Last, I try to remember that everything is a phase. What’s impossible now might never be a favorite but will probably be absolutely acceptable later on.
Do your kids know their mom is documenting each of their meals? What do they think about it?
No, they’re too little (3 years, 1 ½ years and newborn) so the secret is safe for now! They do love to look at pictures though, so occasionally I show them photos from Foodlets but the whole concept isn’t really clear to them. Phoebe helps cook a lot though and sometimes insists on scampering off to get her pink camera so she can take food pictures too.
Can you share a couple of your favorite recipes from Foodlets?
These are both recipe makeovers based on Food Network cooks I know and love . . . and they’re a couple of the most popular things on Foodlets! In fact, I have a whole section devoted to Ina Garten recipe makeovers for reasons of kid-friendly health and happiness, called Barefoot for Babies. Paula Deen’s Pumpkin Bars become Pumpkin Spice Mini Muffins and Ina Garten’s Plum Crunch becomes Plum and Blackberry Crisp. Both include wheat germ, both are delicious!
Visit Charity on Foodlets for more kid-friendly recipes and family anecdotes from her Italy-based kitchen.