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It was with a little hesitation that I launched into the next installment of Doctor Who (by our streaming timetable which lags behind the rest of the universe) introducing the Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith. Like many other lifelong Who fans, I bonded instantly with the previous Doctor (#10), David Tennant. For those of you who are not familiar with this BBC Sci-Fi Classic that has been on the air off and on, but mostly on, since 1963, Dr. Who, is an alien from the planet Gallifrey who has the telegenic ability to regenerate himself into an all new man if/when he is dealt a fatal blow. The most consistent time arc for tracking his time-travel adventures is broadcast seasons, not centuries. Tennant’s Doctor Who, at the end of his third season, did not go quietly, and we mourned with him when it was time for him to exit. I had to wonder when we turned on the telly to meet Matt Smith, would he be any good?

Regeneration is not walk in the park, especially when your TARDIS is melting down in someone’s backyard. First thing upon landing there, however, The Doctor relies upon the kindness of a stranger, 7-year old Amelia Pond (whose aunt is not at home in the middle of the night, bad aunt!) who takes him in upon meeting him for sci-fi story reasons that will become clearer later in the episode. The metabolically unstable Doctor starts raiding Pond’s aunt’s larder to figure out what food it is he is craving so strongly, since as part of the regeneration process he is a stranger to himself. Apple, yogurt, baked beans, bacon – all these things are tried with excitement and then hurled or spit away violently. He is getting hungry and increasingly distressed by his failure to like any food until he hits upon the very thing: fish sticks with custard (vanilla pudding) as a dipping sauce.

It was a great moment to me, and I knew I’d take this new doctor into my heart as I have the others that preceded him. First of all, I loved it that the episode took some time to show a sci-fi hero stopping for a meal. It seems like these guys never have time for food. Maybe that’s because all anyone is ever eating in space sagas are pretty terrible looking MRE sacks of gruel. But secondly, I thought the whole scene was a gleeful exploration of taste and toddlerdom, freedom and discovery. For the longest time my daughter was loath to combine any foods at all. For a while, cream cheese on a bagel was as close as we got to different foods commingling on her plate; and, with the exception of ketchup, she’s never been one for dipping things into sauces or salad dressings. It wasn’t until she was about seven years old when, at a grown up party plucking a canapé off a tray, she made the happy discovery that butter is a good thing to put on bread. Prior to that day, she would vehemently forbid me to add it.

Though at this age some slightly more complex dishes like fried rice and pierogies are starting to take hold, we are still fairly limited in what foods we may combine on her plate or in her lunch box. The mono-mania makes expanding the horizons of school lunches particularly difficult. When I made a turkey divan for dinner on the Sunday night after Thanksgiving, she asked me what we were having for dinner. When I told her, she responded that she didn’t like casserole. I explained that this casserole was different than a ground beef casserole she’d once had at a friend’s house. But to her, any casserole meant a bunch of different things smooshed together in a baking dish and therefore, regardless of the properties of the casserole, it would stink. I conceded that I would make her something else, but asked only that she eat the broccoli from the casserole as her veg that night. I knew the sauce for the divan was very similar to the sauce that goes into macaroni and cheese. And while she reluctantly put up with saucy broccoli on her plate, I reasoned that initial acceptance of picking things out of multi-faceted dishes was a needed step toward dealing with food-things-that-sit-on-top-of-or-next-to-other-things and could possibly lead to liking new dishes that combined ingredients. (Tonight she had a cheese quesadilla and Spanish rice and I couldn’t even get her to put the rice on her plate until she was finished eating the quesadilla.)

‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.’ I can’t think of a more apt use for that saying than the ongoing scenario of parent placing food in front of a child at dinner time, or sending a lunch off to school with her and hoping for the best. So many times the lunch box comes back with the sandwich or main entrée the least addressed item. “We just didn’t have time!” A line she’s been saying since kindergarten. But the crunchy sides are always the first to go. I’ve been trying to think of how to broaden the lunch box repertoire beyond our dull and very limited staples: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ham sandwiches (no condiments allowed!), peanut butter and cheerio sandwiches, spam sandwiches. She used to accept turkey sandwiches but put the official kabash on that over the summer. In all truth, it’s not good for kids to get more than a portion or two of processed lunch meat per week anyway, so she gets peanut butter much more often. And yes, you may note that cheerios sprinkled onto peanut butter does count as a food combo. We have celebrated this breakthrough and I continue to try to think of other ways to capitalize on this gain. The tricky part is how to come up with other food combos that are more healthy because of the added ingredient. She would gladly accept a fluffernutter sandwich after getting one once for dessert, but I will not go there.

I was googling around on the web to look for children’s lunch ideas and many of them involved cutesy, gimmicky stuff that would be an insult to my daughter’s intelligence. Still, she needs to have things shaken up a bit more than they are. She is definitely not interested in the getting a cafeteria lunch, and while a lot of parents like having the control of sending lunch because it’s supposed that cafeteria lunches are not so healthy as what you would send, Ellyn Satter, author of How to Get Your Kid to Eat…But not Too Much argues that it is important to get your kids used to accepting institutional food now and then: “Children can be exposed to new foods at school lunch, and the more foods they learn to handle, the more comfortable they will be in the world. Even learning to live with less-than-delicious food has something to offer. She won’t always be home with your good cooking.” (p. 232.) Satter also notes that most home packed meals are less nutritious and less varied that institutional meals. In this same googling session, I was shocked by an article I came across regarding a Chicago school’s controversial decision to outlawed home-brought lunches for all children other than those with food allergies. I know the parents at our school would balk at this, but they might be the type of parent-body to push through a much healthier school lunch plan than the one that is currently on offer.

The school cafeteria also has the advantage of being able to serving hot dishes. I just think it’s a shame that the generic staples of the “kids menu” that you see in most restaurants, and in rotation at the school cafeteria, are such carb-heavy, diner favorites like mac’n’cheese, cheese pizza, chicken strips and burger ‘n’ burrito type of selections. (I have my own theory as to why this very limited universal kid menu has come to be so, but I’ll have to save that subject for another post.) Not since she was in preschool have I been able to send along ‘warm ups’ in my daughter’s lunch, that is, food that the pre-school teachers would be willing to microwave. So, she got more pasta and rice at lunch time through this extra service, but that doesn’t mean she was readily accepting leftover pasta alla carbonara or spanikopita triangles or what the adults ate the night before for dinner in warm up containers in her lunch.

Very early in the school year this year my daughter lost her thermos and we never found it in the lost and found. So far, we haven’t replaced it and that’s been more of a hardship to me than to her. I think I will have to get a thermos onto our holiday gift list so I can start sending rice or soup in her lunch once a week. I know that I had a friend from high school who had the same yogurt and orange or yogurt and banana for lunch every day for six years and my daughter says there is a girl in her class who also has the same exact lunch every day of peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an orange. This level of monotony can leave scars, I tell you. But even when I do replace her thermos, can I commingle cous cous and veggies? Meat and potato? I’ve got my work cut out for me if I’m going to get lunch out of the doldrums. I’ll have to start with some combinations that she hasn’t faced down before and that come from a healthier place than the standard kid menu fare.

What are some strategies for doing this?

  1. Notice when your child is getting bored with their usual suspects. This is a great time to try slipping something new into their repertoire. (Pierogies!?)
  2. If they like it at dinner but say they won’t eat it in their school lunch, try sending it along to school another time and seeing what happens. Without your scrutiny, it may get eaten and requested another time. (Chicken drumsticks were our case-in-point for that.)
  3. Follow natural new likes to more complex conclusions. My daughter is eating more Brussells sprouts and broccoli – crunchy green stuff. I’ve now introduced broccoli slaw at dinner as something that is for her too and she accepts it readily. (A dish with a combination of ingredients AND salad dressing. Heady progress indeed!)  Keep urging that s/he taste new things if s/he is not an adventurous eater. We tell her that it can take as many as ten tries to get used to the taste of a new food.
  4. Take them out of their comfort zone and out to eat with you at a a place without a kid’s menu now and then. We don’t eat out much, but if it weren’t for food we will try in restaurants on the way back from day trips or other adventures, I don’t know if she would ever have tried Caesar salad or Spanish rice – both things she now likes fairly well. It helps a kid’s confidence to know that they can find things on the regular  menu that will suit them.
  5. Limit the junk that goes in the lunchbox. Though this seems too obvious to mention, sometimes I get carried away with the selection of chips or fruit leathers that I will offer her. When I see that the best stuff is coming home untouched, I know I need to pull back on the variety. For a while I was sending a cookie or a chocolate kiss but she would still want a sweet after school snack anyway so I stopped putting any sweets in her lunch. With 30 kids in her classroom, sweet birthday surprises turn up every other week it seems.

As of this writing I am happy to report that a new thermos has been ordered online (my editor took pity on me) and I won’t have to wait for the holidays to employ it for sending hot lunch options with my daughter to school. Have I mentioned that I am bored with lunch as well? I’ll have to spin this topic off for another adult based entry into the future. Meanwhile, I know some wiseguy out there is going to suggest I give fish sticks and custard a go. Well, believe it or not, when I googled “Dr. Who fish sticks and custard” I was taken to the blog of a foodie Whovian who decided to try it, and she claims it wasn’t bad at all.