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Modular Cooking: How to Be a Gourmet (for Pennies) and Still Have Your Kids Enjoy Dinner

Shel Horowitz's Monthly Frugal Fun Tip -- Vol. 4 # 11, March 2001

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When my first child was old enough to eat table food, we found that most of the interesting, healthy meals we'd been making--meals laden with fresh vegetables, whole grains, an exotic spices--weren't very appealing to a toddler's taste buds. (Now, she's 13, eats anything we do, and has become a gourmet baker). My eight-year-old son is still a picky eater who mostly prefers bland food based on white flour. He won't eat beans, most vegetables, or a lot of flavors we enjoy.

I'd have gone nuts if we'd had to eat kid-style for the last 13 years. So after a few months of macaroni and cheese, we developed some strategies to meet everyone's needs. I call it "modular cooking."

The idea is to cook a nutritious main course (pasta, rice, and tofu are the most common at our house) that's kid-friendly. We leave enough out for lovers of bland food, then mix the curried vegetables or beans and salsa into the rest (or serve them as two separate dishes).

Keeping it frugal, we buy small amounts of gourmet ingredients--for instance, one portobello mushroom or a handful of snowpeas--that can really spark up a meal, but only add pennies to the cost. We also keep various flavor bases on hand, so that for $2 or so, we can make a hundred meals taste authentically Indian, Thai, Mexican or Chinese--just by adding a spoonful.

Oh, yes--my son will eat certain raw vegetables (with dressing) and some whole grains (with soy sauce or parmesan cheese). And since he loves dessert, our rule is that he has to eat a decent quantity of the main dish and some salad veggies before dessert. Both of our kids eat more heathfully than many of their peers, and both of them know their way around the kitchen to prepare their own favorite foods. Once in a while, they even cook dinner for the whole house.

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