One of the most successful strategies for dealing with picky eaters is the one around which Missy Chase Lapine, also known as “The Sneaky Chef” has built an empire – hiding “healthy” foods in foods with more picky kid appeal. Her first book includes recipes for a number of make-ahead purees in colours that will hide easily in various foods. For example, her Purple Puree becomes an invisible part of her Brainy Brownies. It’s a brilliant idea, and I sure wish I’d thought of and cashed in on it first!!
The basic idea is just that – basic – though, so you don’t really need to buy her books in order to mix less “desirable” ingredients into recipes that will spark a more positive reaction (or at least less screeching) than those ingredients on their own. (One I’m really intrigued to try is a recipe I have for brownies with pureed black beans. Don’t tell Ian.)
This week’s success story was a ham and cheese pasta bake, one of Ian’s family’s favourites growing up. It’s a delicious casserole dish full of cheesy yumminess, but incorporates no fruits or veggies, so usually they would have to be served on the side.
For some reason, even though it is made entirely of stuff Ben LIKES (individually) pasta bake is guaranteed to provoke a dinnertime meltdown before he eats that crucial first bite…and a Ben dinnertime meltdown is guaranteed to provoke similar complaints from Molly even though she doesn’t actually mean them (“Yeah! I don’t like this too! *nom nom nom* It’s yucky! *nom nom nom*).
Ham and Cheese Pasta Bake
1lb cooked short pasta (ie. fusili, penne, rigatoni)
1/2L half&half or table cream
200g shaved ham, chopped
2 cups (at least) cheese (ie. cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella, gruyere – don’t use all orange cheddar or you’ll get that icky orange grease, and don’t use all mozzarella or it won’t have enough cheesy flavour)
Preheat oven to 375°F. Mix eggs and cream together. Mix in cheese (reserving ½ cup for top) and ham. Pour over pasta in a large casserole dish (or 2 smaller ones) and mix well. Top with remaining cheese. Bake in oven for 45-60 minutes or more if necessary to set filling. (The deeper the dish, the longer it will take.) Broil for a minute or so to brown top if desired. Top with fresh ground pepper for serving.
Delicious! Delicious hot from the oven, delicious reheated for lunch, delicious with a side salad…
Anyway, the other day I was inspired to try to make it a bit healthier, Sneaky Chef-style, as well as remove the need for the vegetable side, so I suggested that Ian (who was in charge of the cooking that day) replace part of the eggs and cream with a can of pure pumpkin puree. The result was:
The kids literally ate it up (and in this case, use of the word ‘literally’ will not make me figuratively insane!). I think I may have to bring it to market: Picky Pickles-Pleasing Pumpkin Puree Pasta – It’s so delicious I guarantee that the only thing melting down will be the cheese!
One thing that I do find important about the “sneaky” method is not actually being sneaky. Once the kids have tried and like it, I do the big reveal: “Do you know what the secret ingredient is that makes it so yummy? PUMPKIN!!”
I was hoping that the pumpkin would be neutral and not overpower the cheese, but it came out a touch sweetly pumpkinny for the grown-up palate. I think it might have been better with a stronger-flavoured cheese, like a Gruyere or goat cheese. As well the ham got a bit lost, so I would be tempted to replace it with either a mild Italian sausage to complement the pumpkin or a salami or Chorizo sausage to spice it up a bit.
What do you think? Appealing or yucky? How do you deal with dinnertime meldowns?