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Cooking for all kids

Playdates don’t need to be a dull affair for kids with special diets

Anthony Bourdain once ridiculously — and to many, offensively — called vegans “the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.” While the infamous
celebrity chef’s salty delivery is outsized and intended to shock, the kernel of frustration is akin to a refrain many home-cooking parents voice today: entertaining other people’s children is a total minefield.

Vegan, vegetarian. Gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free. Paleo, GAPS diet, organic, non-GMO, kosher, and halal — it is enough to ditch the skillet, shutter the kitchen, and send the kiddos foraging in the woods on their own. (That’s a thing too — wildcrafting, we call it now.)

While food allergies and specialized diets are as old as time, the number and variety seem to have grown — and they’ve morphed into new play-date practices as well. We now also have raw foodies, as well as folks with food sensitivities, on green smoothie regimens, or into assorted other fads that rise and fall faster than Bourdain’s flop show “The Taste” did.

Hosting children with allergies can be challenging, but enlightening for everyone. Selecting courses that are not only safe but something kids will actually eat has become so complicated, even comedian Jimmy Kimmell got in on the conversation as a provocateur, challenging gluten-free adherents on the street to define gluten. They could not.

Gluten-Free Guests

According to Food Allergy Research and Education, just 1 percent of the US population actually has the cereal-grain immune response known as Celiac disease, but the projected gluten-free foods market is $4.2 billion. Folks with Celiac and their gluten-free allies do not eat wheat, barley, rye or oats, and they are many. If the kids you’re hosting like noodles (don’t they all?) and you do not want anyone to feel
left out, you still have plenty of

Whether for Mac ‘n cheese or pasta with red sauce, all sorts of analogs are on the market, among the best being Jovial brown rice pasta, Andean Dream quinoa pasta, and the full range of Bionaturae products. Same with breads, pizza crusts, and many of the other staples of kids’ favorite foods. The key, as with all allergen-conscious cooking, is to avoid cross-contaminating from one pot of noodles to the other.

Care with Tree Nuts

The allergy to peanuts and other tree nuts, along with fish and dairy allergies, carry higher potential risks, life-threatening ones for some. This is in part because the reaction can occur not just through ingestion but by mere inhalation or topically (by touch) as well. The most important step here is to check in with the child’s parent in advance—if they say she has an allergy, she has it. No questions asked.

As a compassionate playdate host, you put all related products away for the day—this means not just nuts, for example, but nut butters and anything with nuts in it. (It’s important to check labels and shelve even those items that were made in a facility that processes nuts.) You also need to take care to wipe down all surfaces on which food is regularly prepared, eaten, or served. If you regularly host friends who have serious allergies, you may also want to set aside utensils just for them. Colorful nylon or silicone grips are readily identifiable and can make it easy to keep these tools separate and safe.

Sustainable Snacks: Cooking with a Conscience

Beyond families with allergies, many parents raise their children on diets governed by their values, religious restrictions, health goals, or a mix of all three. One way to make it easy on yourself is to always keep recipes accessible for your guests. In the event a playmate visits who has a particular need you did not anticipate, your guest’s guardian can review it to decide whether his child can share your meal. It’s also wise to let very concerned friends know they should feel comfortable to pack their own snacks or meals, if they prefer, or to ask if there’s something, within reason, they’d like you to prepare.

That said, some children visiting may have distinctly poor dietary habits that you may feel disinclined to support. In these instances, you may actually be doing a service not just to their bodies but their states of mind by offering organic, whole foods. Researchers at Spain’s University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and University of Granada determined that those who eat fast food were 37 percent more prone to depression over a six-year period versus people who had lower consumption. And according to the Pew research center, over 50 million people in the U.S. eat at fast-food establishments daily.

This makes conscientious cooking for your child’s friend a genuine gift. “I call mindfulness the first ingredient,” says Anni Daulter, author of the “Organic Family Cookbook and Organically Raised.”

“Really conscious cooking is creating a sacred practice in the kitchen where we are present with our experience, for whom we are cooking, taking time to honor the ingredients and respect our connection to the earth and really pour our loving intentions into the food. The secret ingredient to all of my recipes is love — pure and simple.”

Kids, on the other hand, may not love everything on offer. But Jessica Prentice, cofounder of Three Stone Hearth Kitchen, suggests that as the adults in the room, we need to be okay with this. Prentice says, “With my 5-year-old son, I pretend to be his cells as they receive a needed nutrient to inspire him to eat something he may not love but is very good for him.” She reports that her son is now in the habit of talking about foods he “almost” loves.

Casson Trenor, seafood campaign manager for Greenpeace, takes this a step further, advocating that one should not shy away from “stories that focus on the reality of our relationship to other living beings. Kids respond well to high-level themes that revolve around values and the appreciation for life.”

Making these adjustments, having the conversations about where food comes from and why it matters—none of it is necessarily easy. Daulter says, “I wish I could say that home-cooking is always quick and convenient, but we know it’s not the case. Slow food is well worth it in the end, though,” she says. “When we practice conscious cooking and really put thought into what we are offering with love and attention to our youngest guests’ needs, it helps shape their culinary pallets for a lifetime.”

Mackenzie’s Superstar Sweet Potato Cakes with Sour Cream 
from Anni Daulter’s “Organically Raised: Conscious Cooking for Babies and Toddlers”
Makes 8 servings

1 medium sweet potato
4 Yukon Gold potatoes or 2 large russet
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
¼ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. wheat germ
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 eggs
2 Tbsp. heavy whipping cream
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup grated Romano cheese
3 Tbsp. unbleached or all-purpose

Peel and dice the potatoes and place them in a pot of cold water. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, or until thoroughly cooked. Drain the potatoes and let them cool. Peel and dice the sweet potato into 1-inch pieces. Steam for 20 minutes, or until soft. Place the sweet potatoes and potatoes in a large bowl. Mash until well mixed and only a little lumpiness remains. Set aside. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over low heat. Add the onion, salt, pepper, and wheat germ. Cook until the onion is soft and begins to brown. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more. Remove from the heat. Add to the potato mixture. Beat the eggs and cream together in a mixing bowl. Stir them into the potato mixture along with the cheeses and flour. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat or set a nonstick electric skillet to 375˚F. Flatten 1 heaping tablespoon of batter into a round cake and place in the skillet. Repeat with the remaining batter. Cook the cakes for 5 minutes per side, or until a brown crust forms on each side. Serve warm with a dollop of sour cream as a dipping sauce.

Coconut-date Energy Balls
Makes about 20

These little balls are sweet without being too sweet, and are rich with coconut meat and coconut oil. They are great for kids to both roll and eat! They need to be kept cool or they will soften or melt.


1 cup date paste or 1-½ cups pitted dates
½ cup coconut spread (available from Wilderness Family Naturals)
Zest of 1 lemon or small orange (optional)
3 Tbsp. coconut oil
¼ cup finely shredded dried coconut, plus more for rolling the balls in


In a food processor, process the date paste or dates for a few seconds or a minute or so. If you’re using dates, they should be processed into a chunky paste. Add the coconut spread (and the optional zest, if using) and pulse a few times until the ingredients are mixed. Melt 1 Tbsp. of the coconut oil in a very small pan, and then start the processor and pour the melted oil in through the top while the processor is running. Add the dried coconut and process for 5 or 10 seconds more. Then turn off the processor. Remove the blade and then the processor bowl from the processor. You can either leave your mixture in there and work from that, or transfer the paste to another bowl to work from. Put on some good music or a book on tape, or get your kids to help you, or call up a friend so that you can chat on the phone while you roll the balls. This is a repetitive and mindless task, and though it shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes, it’s nice to have a distraction. To roll the balls, pick up a very small handful of paste and press it in your hand. It should stick together. Then take the paste and press and roll it into a little ball, about 1 inch in diameter—a little smaller than a walnut. Put the balls on a plate as you roll them. When you have finished rolling all the balls, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of coconut oil and remove from the heat. Now take each ball and put it in the little pan with the melted coconut oil. Shake the little pan so that the ball gets covered with coconut oil. Take the warm oiled ball and immerse it in the dried coconut flakes so that it gets covered with coconut. You can put the ball into the bag of dried coconut and rolling it around. Put the ball back onto a clean plate or straight into a cookie tin. Repeat with all the balls until they are all covered with coconut. Store in a cool place and eat as desired!


Mastering Modifications

Unfortunately, no one cookbook will address the needs of all your pint-sized guests. But just to take one of Daulter’s recipes as a starting point, you’ll see modifications are relatively easy. Vegan friends coming over and you want to make these surefire, go-to treats? The Post Punk Kitchen is a wonderful resource for substituting for all dairy and animal products. Gluten-free guest? Scrap the wheat germ. The more you adapt, the easier it gets. You’ll quickly develop the versatility to substitute or remove to keep everyone happy, healthy, and safe.


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