I know I'm opening myself up for a fair amount of judgment. That's fine, just try to be respectful in the comments, OK? I might as well say a few things up front, so that I don't have to say them in the comments: (1) I realize we could be eating better, but I think we could be eating worse, too, particularly when you factor in the fact that the main chef and her oldest child are both picky eaters; (2) I don't think it is as easy to "cure" a picky eater as a lot of the advice implies; and (3) Even with my recent layoff, we're living a fairly comfortable life. I am aware of that, and grateful for it.
OK, without further ado, here is a list of the processed foods that we use heavily, along with a note about any "extra" ingredients that are included that wouldn't be there if I made the food item myself. Where possible, I've linked to a web page with the actual ingredients list/nutritional information.
- Classico Tomato and Basil sauce. Extra ingredients: None, unless the cans of diced tomatoes I buy don't have calcium chloride in them (it is listed as an ingredient in the diced tomatoes in the sauce). I'd certainly add some sodium chloride (table salt), though, and I don't mind a little extra calcium.
- Buitoni Chicken and Prosciutto Tortellini. Extra ingredients: Quite a few, but these are one of the few sources of meat in Pumpkin's diet, so they stay. The extra ingredients are some gums in the ricotta (probably for texture), something called "ham base" and "chicken flavoring"- I'd probably use chicken stock, but probably wouldn't go out of my way to add chicken fat!
- Various dried pastas and vacuum-packed gnocchi. Sorry, no way I'm making these myself!
- Sargento Mexican Mix Preshredded Cheese. Extra ingredients: potato starch, powdered cellulose, and natamycin. The first two are to keep it from clumping together, the last is a mold inhibitor, which makes sense given the large increase in surface area you get by preshredding the cheese. I use this to make quesadillas. I like the preshredded cheese for convenience and because the mix of cheeses in it melt nicely in a quesadilla without making a mess all over my quesadilla maker. We usually have some Italian mix preshredded cheese on hand, too, for Pumpkin to sprinkle over her pasta, since she won't eat sauce. I occasionally use the preshredded cheeses in recipes, but generally, if a recipe calls for shredded cheese I'll just shred the type it calls for.
- Alexia Sweet Potato Fries. Extra ingredients: rice flour, tapioca starch, dextrin, dextrose, and xanthum gum (although I discovered today that I could buy this at the store if I wanted it... so who knows?) Also, If I were making these from scratch, they'd probably not have any oil, because I'd just bake them. But then they probably wouldn't taste as nice.
- Annie's Peace Pasta and Parmesan. Extra ingredients: whey, sodium phosphate, and yeast extract. All organic, of course! I originally tried this because I thought the shape of the pasta would be easy for little fingers to pick up, and I was going crazy trying to find finger food that Pumpkin would eat. I was right- she liked these, still likes them, and so does Petunia.
- DiGiorno Pepperoni Pizza. Extra ingredients: sodium stearoyl lactylate, sodium aluminum phosphate, DATEM. I have a B.S. in chemistry and I had to look that last one up. DATEM is an emulsifier. It stands for Diacetyl Tartaric (Acid) Ester of Monoglyceride. I've never made my own pepperoni, so I can't say whether or not there is anything "extra" there. But I fully recognize that this is not a particularly healthy item. It is a treat, and a sanity saver for Friday night dinners.
- Casbah felafel mix. Extra ingredients: I don't think there are any, but I've never made felafel from scratch, so I can't be sure. The mix has garbanzo bean flour, wheat flour, spices, canola oil, baking soda, granulated onion, and sea salt. This is a relatively recent addition to our pantry. We thought that since Petunia likes pancakes so much, she might try these. She did, and even ate a little. Pumpkin, on the other hand, wouldn't try them.
- Natural Directions unsweetened applesauce. Extra ingredients: None. This has apples and water in it. Pumpkin won't eat actual apples, but she loves applesauce.
- Campbell's Chicken Alphabet soup. Extra ingredients: More than I care to count. It looks like they are mostly preservatives, and they're pretty far down the ingredient list. The only way we got Pumpkin to try soup was to offer ABC soup, and we've yet to find an organic/more natural version of this. Maybe if I could be bothered driving to Whole Foods....
- Campbell's Cheddar Cheese soup. Extra ingredients: Even more than in the Chicken Alphabet soup! But this is the easiest way to make cheese sauce for my broccoli (1 can + 1/3 cup milk + 1/2 cup grated cheese with actual flavor), and I need easy and fast to be able to include broccoli with cheese sauce in weekday meals.
- Various brands of pesto sauce. I keep trying new brands in hopes of finding one that tastes remotely as good as homemade. Extra ingredients: it varies by brand. My current one has potato flakes in it and uses sunflower oil instead of olive oil. Really the problem is more what is missing- i.e., a strong taste. So I use more of the store bough kind than I have to when I have homemade on hand. Once basil is back in season, I'll probably make a big batch of my own pesto and freeze it.
- Stubb's Smoky Mesquite BBQ Sauce. Extra ingredients: as small amount of gums and corn syrup, but then, I've never really tried to make my own. I use this for making sloppy joes. Pumpkin won't touch them, but Hubby and I like them and it gives me a chance to make some ground meat for Petunia (she'll eat lightly seasoned ground meats- Pumpkin won't).
- Lundberg Risotto mixes. I'll fall back on these occasionally on weeks when I know I won't be home in time/have the energy to make one of my homemade rice dishes. Extra ingredients: I don't add sugar, and the mixes usually do.
- Breakfast cereals. Pumpkin and Petunia can currently choose between Quaker Oatmeal Squares, Cheerios, and Crispex. Extra ingredients: a variety of preservatives, flavorings, and colorings, but nothing too scary. Sugar is the third of fourth ingredient in each. The Oatmeal Squares definitely have the most sugar of the three.
- Various crackers. Favorites are graham crackers, Ritz crackers, and Goldfish. Extra ingredients: the graham crackers and Ritz crackers have soy lecithin as an emlusifier and HFCS. The Goldfish are "clean", but pretty high in sodium.
- Snack Salad Snapea Crisps. Extra ingredients: none, but I can't imagine making something like this on my own. We have these in place of crackers sometimes. They are the only way Pumpkin will eat peas. Or, for that matter, that I'll eat green peas. Still, I consider them more of a snack and/or a starch than a vegetable.
- Various dried fruits. This was Hubby's idea back when Pumpkin wouldn't eat much of any finger foods. It actually worked- she eats a lot of dried fruits. (I'm not a huge fan, myself.) We try to buy the kind that are really just freeze-dried X or dehydrated Y, but some of them have some sugar added, too. Pumpkin also loves fruit leather, which she calls "smooshed fruit". I am deeply ambivalent about those, since they are mostly apple puree with other juices and purees added as flavoring, but have decided that it isn't worth worrying about too much.
- Trader Joes strawberry bars. These are like Nutri-Grain bars, but a little less loaded with preservatives and other random junk. Still way more sugar than really necessary. I think of these like a cookie.
- Bagels (for me), multi-grain bread (for Hubby). The girls mostly eat bread we make in our bread maker. We slice it up, freeze, and then toast it to offer with dinner as part of the Ellyn Satter "you don't have to eat what we made, but we're not making you anything else" strategy. See my Confessions of a Picky Eater post for more on how we implement that.
- Chicken nuggets. Gasp! I know, these get vilified. But they are one of the few meat products Pumpkin will eat, so I keep them on hand to offer as an alternative meal component sometimes (again, see the picky eater post for details on why we do that). She usually has them at most once a week, and sometimes goes for weeks without having any. I've yet to get her to eat chicken any other way (she won't even try the breaded chicken breast bits I've tried making "from scratch"). Extra ingredients: the chicken parts, I suppose. The actual ingredients list isn't so bad, but I know that I'm supposed to be horrified by the fact that they reconstitute the "nuggets" from less than ideal bits of chicken.
- Various baby food purees. Extra ingredients: some of them have ascorbic acid (vitamin C) added to help preserve color/flavor. We don't buy any that have any sugar added.
- Gerber Yogurt Melts. Extra ingredients: hard to say, since these aren't a food anyone would make at home. I wish they had less sugar. They are one of the compromises we make because we need to send finger foods to day care and Petunia, like Pumpkin, is only slowly warming up to more standard things like fruit (she'll eat strawberries, but no other fruit). She won't eat actual yogurt yet, or slices of cheese.
- Gerber Sweet Potato Puffs. Extra ingredients: again, hard to say, since I have no idea how I'd make something like this at home. Again, I wish they had less sugar. I wasn't going to use these with Petunia, but for awhile, she wouldn't eat Cheerios. Who ever heard of a toddler who won't eat Cheerios? They are getting phased out now that Petunia eats other starchy finger foods without trouble.
What do we actually eat in an average week? Well, I'll tell you about this week as an example.
- Pumpkin has cereal with milk, some dried mango bits and dried banana slices on the side.
- Petunia has half a tub of fruit puree, some dry cereal or, if she asks for them, Goldfish. She sometimes has yogurt melts or dried banana slices, too. She's been offered "real" banana many times, but has yet to do anything other than mash it up then cry for her hands to be cleaned.
- I have oatmeal with (too much) brown sugar. Downside of adding your own sugar: you can add too much.
- Hubby has his preferred mix of cereals, some raisin bran thing and some mango museli thing from Trader Joes, with a half banana sliced on top.
- Pumpkin has whatever they offer at day care. On the weekends, she usually has a fruit leather and some crackers. Sometimes, she has a strawberry bar or some applesauce instead. Sometimes she'll have some cashews or cheese with her snack, too.
- Petunia has strawberries most days at day care, since I can't get her to eat any other suitable "wet snack" food. When I can't get good strawberries, I send yogurt melts and dried banana slices. One the weekends, we'll give her some more fruit puree and crackers or yogurt melts.
- I have the half banana Hubby didn't eat for breakfast, and maybe a handful of cashews. Once I'm back at work, this will have to change, since a half banana doesn't travel well.
- I have no idea what Hubby has for snack, or if he even has a snack. He's a grown up, so he's on his own.
- Pumpkin has whatever they're serving at day care. Their menu is OK, not great, but fine with me. She'll eat refried beans and rice at day care, and won't touch either at home yet, so the peer pressure thing works on her a bit. On the weekends, we have quesadillas or sometimes applesauce-oatmeal pancakes (a recent addition to Pumpkin's list of approved foods). This is when we're trying felafel, too. I'd like to start trying more new things at lunch, because I've noticed that Pumpkin is more likely to try something new at lunch time than at dinner time.
- During the week, Petunia has leftovers for lunch. I send some mix of: carrot cake pancakes (she loves these), sneaky good corn muffins, lightly seasoned ground turkey, Spanish rice (I should post my recipe!), Annie's peace pasta, leftover veggies if we have them (not that she'll eat them), and sometimes some sliced cheese or snap pea crisps. On the weekends, she has whatever we're having, plus sometimes some pureed veggies or fruit.
- On weekdays, I have a bagel with cream cheese, maybe some yogurt or hummus with crackers, and maybe some cashews. I've been eating out a lot more lately due to the need for networking. I'll also eat leftovers if we have a single serving of something left over.
- Hubby has 1.5 ham and salami sandwiches, made on multi-grain bread, with a New Zealand cheddar cheese from Trader Joes. Every freakin' weekday, unless he goes out (which is rare).
- Pumpkin has whatever they are serving at day care. On weekends, she has yogurt or applesauce, maybe some cashews, definitely some crackers.
- Petunia has whatever "dry snack" they're serving at day care- usually some sort of cracker. On weekends, she has crackers and throws a wide range of fruits on the floor.
- This is my danger zone. If I'm going to break down and eat a bunch of cookies, this is the time I'll do it. At my last job, this was when I'd roam the offices looking for the little candy bars they left out all over the place. I definitely need a better strategy for this time period, but I haven't come up with one yet.
- I think Hubby has a cookie and coffee at this time, but I don't really know. Maybe this is when he eats the apple he takes every day.
We prioritize family dinners. I didn't realize that this was unusual until I said something about it at a day care gathering, and half of the other parents looked at me as if I'd just said that aliens came down from Mars and joined us at the dinner table most nights. Anyway, I write a menu plan every week. I cook on the weekdays, Hubby cooks most weekends. Even during the layoff, I've been keeping to pretty short recipes- I'm using the time to experiment a bit and try to find new things to add to our rotation, though. We always have leftovers in the freezer, and on busy weeks, there are more "leftovers" dinners in the plan.
Anyway, here's this week's dinner plan. The bread that shows up just about every day for the girls is home made using our bread machine. As I mentioned above, we slice it, freeze it, and then pull it out and toast it.
- Saturday: Sweet and Sour Pork with rice (I checked a stir fry cookbook out of the library. The recipes sound great, but most are too involved for weekdays.) Neither girl was interested in any part of this. Pumpkin had a chicken nugget and bread. Petunia had pureed veggies and bread.
- Sunday: Hubby's special mac-n-cheese. It has spinach and a homemade Gouda sauce. It is yummy, but neither girl will eat it. Yet. Pumpkin had plain pasta that Hubby reserved for her, with cheese, and bread. Petunia had pureed veggies and bread, and threw some pasta (plain and from our mac-n-cheese) on the ground.
- Monday: Carrot cake pancakes, pork breakfast sausages (my umpteenth attempt to get Pumpkin to try them- no dice- and my first attempt to get Petunia to try them- she had a little), and smoothies. Pumpkin had the smoothie and some bread. Petunia ate 1.5 pancakes, about a quarter of a sausage, and some smoothie.
- Tuesday: Leftover soup and Pumpkin-Parmesan scones. Hubby and I had leftover homemade Cream of Zucchini soup- it may have been even better reheated than fresh. Pumpkin had leftover Campbell's ABC soup. Petunia had half a jar of veggie puree. Both girls ate half a scone.
- Wednesday: Gnocchi with (store bought) pesto, steamed carrots, and leftover Pumpkin-Parmesan scones. Pumpkin ate plain gnocchi with cheese. Petunia threw her gnocchi on the floor, but ate some veggie puree. Pumpkin won't try carrots anymore (this is one veggie she has actually tried, and decided she doesn't like), and Petunia threw hers on the ground. Both girls had half a scone.
- Thursday: Pizza. I have a frozen pizza in the freezer, but I think I will try making my own dough this time, since I don't have much planned tomorrow. I'll just top it with jarred sauce, shredded mozzarella and parmesan, and pepperoni, though. I can't think of any other topping that has any chance whatsoever of being eaten by Pumpkin, who has recently decided to only eat the crust off her pizza most times. Petunia likes pizza, so she'll probably eat some. I'll make a spinach salad to go with this, and maybe put some mandarin orange slices in, since Pumpkin will eat those. Petunia will throw them on the floor.
- Friday: Home made New Zealand-style meat pies, with frozen sweet potato fries and a salad. This is a treat for Hubby (and one of his friends, who comes over whenever I make these). I've been working on perfecting the recipe as a project while I'm out of work. Once I go back to work, these won't get made often, because they're quite an undertaking. I make a regular pie crust and a steak filling (in a gravy). I slice some cheese to go on top of the steak filling, then top with store bought puff pastry and bake. Pumpkin and Petunia will both eat the sweet potato fries. Pumpkin usually declines the chance to try the pies, so I may get some leftover Annie's Peace pasta down for the girls.
- Pumpkin has some mix of: fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts (cashews or pistachios), cheese, crackers, and, if she's eaten her dinner, she sometimes gets a cookie or some candy if she has some hanging around (like after Halloween, or after a birthday party with a pinata). If she's had a particularly poor dinner, I might add some applesauce.
- Petunia has breast milk. Some nights, she'll join Pumpkin for some strawberries and crackers, too.
- Hubby usually has some fruit with Pumpkin; I sometimes do. We might have some candy (he's prone to buying pistachio coated chocolate covered toffee at Trader Joes, and sometimes we'll each have a piece after the kids are in bed) or cookies if we have any on hand.
- Pumpkin has water and milk at home. They sometimes give her juice at day care. At home, she gets juice if she tries something new (which doesn't happen that often). I sometimes give her a little bit of my juice in the morning, too.
- Petunia has water, milk, and breast milk.
- I am addicted to something I call my "cranberry-fizzy", which is a splash of 100% (unsweetened) cranberry juice in a tall glass of lime fizzy water. When I'm working, I have one glass a day, with dinner. Since I've been home... um, I have several. I have a glass of orange-tangerine juice every morning, too, and sometimes a glass of milk at some point in the evening. I occasionally have a beer after the girls are in bed. We try to have beers and hang out and talk on the sofa most Friday nights, but if Petunia isn't sleeping well, we skip it.
- Hubby has water with most meals and also a glass of wine or a beer with dinner sometimes, particularly if we have company. He has grapefruit juice in the morning. He almost always has a beer after he's done with his part of the bedtime routine, sometimes two.
I obviously think we need more veggies, but other than continuing to offer them, I am not sure what else to try. We've tried the "go to the Farmer's Market" idea, and Pumpkin has fun, but doesn't want to try anything new. We may try the "plant a garden" idea as Petunia gets older and we can make the time for it. I doubt it will help, though. We also need to add more fish into our diet- right now, we all take fish oil to compensate for its lack, which is suboptimal. The problem there is me- I don't like fish, so it takes a lot of willpower to put it on the menu plan.
If you've made it to the end of this post, you are probably as food obsessed as I am right now. So... any suggestions for new things to try?