My Dad Is Mark Bittman and My Son Is a Picky Eater. What Now?

I just needed a teacher, and it's not who you'd think.

Editor’s note: Tomorrow from 3 to 5 p.m. EST, we'll have a discussion open to all subscribers on feeding kids: What are you struggling with? What are your pandemic-era (or general) wins, etc.? Where do you turn for inspiration? Are you part of a cooking-for-kids online community that has worked for you? And how have their tastes grown up as they've gotten older? Looking forward to seeing you there. — Melissa


I grew up with two parents who cooked, though my father did more often: incredible pastas, good fish, burgers with smoked cheese. When he made something that we really didn’t want to eat (looking at you, squid sitting in the sink on ice), he’d happily make hot dogs for my sister Emma and me. 

Turns out having a parent who is a larger-than-life figure in the food world adds a unique amount of pressure to a person with a new child. I thought for sure I’d be the maniac who freezes pureed veggies into little ice cube trays (it happened once) and whose child just loves quinoa and broccoli rabe — and I would, of course, have a bunch of containers of various cooked items that the kid loves in the refrigerator at all times. 

When my son, Holden, started on solid foods, I did some of those things, but — such is life — being as productive, as inspired, as I'd hoped to be felt really overwhelming. And, naturally, I felt super crappy about it. We were lucky, though, to have an incredible woman who was cooking meals for Holden daily: Earlene, who runs his school.

We met Earlene when Holden was — two months old? Three? We brought him to her apartment daycare for a visit, and pretty much immediately knew it was the place for us. It's clear from the moment you walk in just how much she loves the kids she cares for.

Earlene is as short as I am, with gorgeous, long red hair; I don’t think I’ve ever seen her wear a hint of makeup or a long sleeve shirt, but much of the time she has an apron on because she’s an incredibly accomplished cook. Originally from Maryland, Earlene lives and works in a giant rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side; she raised her five kids there and now lives by herself, with her sister living downstairs. She’s worked in childcare for 22 years.

“Warm” isn’t the right way to describe her, because she’s not quick to give it all away (She also is like my husband, Nick, in that she doesn’t really grin very often, but when she does, it could light up Yankee Stadium.); however, she has become, in the last almost five years, one of my favorite people. She knows so much about so much: She patiently has listened to me cry and complain, but mostly, we just text back and forth about cooking and the kids and politics. She has become a real friend — over the winter, she had us and another family up to her house near Cooperstown, where she was riding out the worst of Covid, for a weekend — and an irreplaceable force in Holden’s life.

It used to be that every morning, we’d drop Holden off at Earlene’s to the amazing smell of a “real” breakfast: pancakes or waffles or molasses bread, curried scrambled eggs, bananas or clementines or berries, yogurt. With Covid, we drop him off downstairs and I miss getting to witness those cozy breakfasts, even for just the couple minutes it would take to get him situated. These days, Earlene sends texts to the parent group. “Today’s menu: Breakfast: banana bread, Greek yogurt with three-berry compote, milk. Lunch: chicken, corn, and carrot ramen with homemade stock, whole-wheat cornbread, Persian cucumbers, and milk. WELL RECEIVED. Snack: popcorn with nutritional yeast, ‘hot’ chocolate with marshmallows.”

Earlene’s rule is that there are no seconds of “white food”— the carb: rice, pasta, bread, even milk — if the rest of the meal is untouched. They don’t have to eat the whole thing, but they need to eat more than a taste.

(I want to take one second here to say that I know how incredibly lucky we are, and I know that every single child without exception should have access to food like this every single day. We’ll be writing plenty about that, too.)

Despite eating Earlene’s cooking since, well, he could eat, Holden has turned out to be somewhat picky, and before you judge — he just is. It happens. Despite his hive-mind mentality at Earlene’s, where he tries things more readily, and having his Gumps (what he calls my dad) around — with his daily fresh bread, incredible stews and smoothies, homemade nut milks — Holden likes what he likes. Notably: grilled cheese, pizza, pasta with red sauce, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, bagels, pancakes, waffles (and tons of fruit, so, yay).

When our world was upended by the pandemic, school, of course, closed, and not being able to rely on the comforts of Earlene added another dimension of misery. Nick and I were both as emotionally drained as every other person in the world, and as a result, it was so much harder to keep “help Holden eat well” on our to-do lists. 

The bad feelings connected to what and how I fed my kid edged further in. (Every day, I’m hard on myself for not doing more for him, for phoning it in because I knew Earlene was doing the real work.) So around September, once we were back to some semblance of routine after the initial half-year of the virus, I started introducing new things into the repertoire. It was nothing groundbreaking, mind you, but things that were low-effort for me yet still “a good homemade meal” for him: spaghetti and meatballs, “junior pizzas” (his term), roasted chicken thighs with broccoli and oven fries, tons of broccoli, tons of cucumbers. (In what feels like a giant win, he now loves both, and string beans, too.)

Even these small additions made me feel about a million times better — because they were new things and I was using a little elbow grease. (Let’s ignore the junior pizzas, which consist of a tortilla, tomato paste, and shredded cheese, melted together in the toaster oven. But I highly recommend.) 

Seeing a dinner plate that looks full and is mostly made by me that my kid finishes and really enjoys brings me more joy than is probably within the normal range. It turns out it’s not about elaborately cooked food items; it’s about cooking for him thoughtfully, with love and not too much pressure on myself. (The other day, he even asked Earlene to make “Mama’s meatballs.”) Since I’ve started cooking this way, the nagging crappy feelings are virtually gone. Earlene, as usual, says it perfectly: “Cooking doesn’t need to be elaborate: To get a child where you want him to go, the food that wins is the food that has been prepared thoughtfully. The focus should be on a child’s enjoyment. The rest will follow.”

One last thing: It’s April 29 and Holden is five today. I’ve agonized over writing this for months — it’s more personal than I’m used to — but today is his birthday and I want to celebrate him as much as I can because he is a jovial, loving, and beautiful person, my favorite in the world. 


Funfetti Vanilla Cake

This cake was loved by everyone who ate it. It's Odette Williams' Funfetti Vanilla Cake with Silky Marshmallow Icing, from her wonderful book, Simple Cake.

Ingredients

  • 2 teaspoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice

  • 1/2 cup whole milk

  • 2 eggs at room temperature

  • 1/2 cup rainbow sprinkles

  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature

  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

  • 3 tablespoons grapeseed oil or any mild-flavored oil

Instructions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 6 by 3-inch springform pan with butter, line the bottom and the sides with parchment paper, and grease the paper.

2. Add the lemon juice to the milk to sour it. Set aside for 5 to 10 minutes or until curdled.

3. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs together. Set aside.

4. Place a large sifter or a sieve in a large mixing bowl. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sift.

5. Using an electric mixer with beaters or a paddle attachment, beat the butter for 30 seconds on medium speed and then gradually add the sugar. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Continue beating on medium speed for another 4 minutes or until light in color and fluffy.

6. Add the vanilla extract and beat until combined.

7. With the mixer still on medium speed, gradually add the eggs. If the batter curdles, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of the flour and bind it back together. On a low speed, add the flour mixture and then the oil and milk; mix until just combined. Don’t overbeat. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.

8. Gently fold the sprinkles into the finished batter. If the batter thickens, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of milk.

10. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in the center of the oven for 50 to 55 minutes. Cover the top of the cake with tinfoil after 30 minutes so the cake doesn’t take on too much color. When a wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, and the cake bounces back when lightly pressed, remove the cake from the oven and let it stand for 10 minutes. Run a butter knife around the cake to gently release. Peel off the parchment paper from the sides. Invert the cake, peel off the bottom piece of parchment, and cool on a wire rack.

Silky Marshmallow Icing

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons water

  • 2 large egg whites, at room temperature

  • 1 cup granulated sugar

  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions

1. Fill a medium saucepan with about 1 1/2 inches of water, bring to a boil, then lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.

2. Place the water, egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, salt, and vanilla in the metal mixing bowl. (Use the mixing bowl of a stand mixer if you have one.) Place the bowl on top of the saucepan. Make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water.

3. Whisk the mixture constantly for 4 minutes or until it reaches a temperature between 160 and 165 degrees if using a candy thermometer. The sugar will have dissolved, and the mixture will be opaque, bubbly, and very warm to the touch.

4. Carefully transfer the hot bowl to the electric mixer. using a whisk attachment, beat the mixture on high speed for 4 minutes or until it’s white and fluffy with stand-up peaks.

5. Top of the cake with the marshmallow and sprinkle with rainbow sprinkles, if you’d like.

—From Simple Cake: All You Need to Keep Your Friends and Family in Cake by Odette Williams. Ten Speed Press.