Hot dogs aren't nutritious, I'm told

My kids weren't difficult to feed, but times have changed

Sondra Gotlieb

National Post

The National Post asked eight "seasoned" parents to write about an aspect of parenthood they'd wrestled with or felt strongly about, or something that just seemed to work for them. This is the sixth in our series, which will run weekdays in this section until May 14.

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A writer in his forties, short of money, got a job as a cook to a wealthy WASP family who had a place in the Hamptons on Long Island in New York. Not being social, they wanted only "plain cooking" for two months for the extended family, including children, grandchildren and a few family friends. The grandmother, who hired him, explained that her demands were simple. As long as he could grill fish or chops, roast a chicken and prepare salads, no more would be required of him.

The cook-writer was rather proud of his repertoire and knew he could do more than that. So he gave the family boiled lobster and steamed clams as well. In his two months of cooking for the undemanding group, he discovered that no child under eight would eat anything except hot dogs and french fries. Anything else, the children left on their plates.

My three children, whose earliest years were spent in Geneva, were more discriminating in their tastes. I had a Spanish nanny who fed them steamed mussels and paella. She'd never heard of hot dogs. They liked the mussels and Spanish dishes and, of course, like all children, they loved frites.

When my children returned with us to Canada and lost their nanny, their tastes narrowed. Still, they were not difficult to feed, except for smelts. A nutritionist writing in a newspaper recommended fried fresh smelts for children, "a cheap and nourishing dish." I was particularly enthusiastic when I read that the smelts came directly from Lake Ontario. A healthy local product, I thought. It was the only time I attempted to force my children to sit at the table until they had eaten everything on their plate; i.e., the smelts. They ate around the smelts and above the smelts and my son actually put a flake on his tongue. He gagged. My daughters wept. To this day, in my family the word smelt means nasty witch-mother.

I don't have to worry about what my children eat now, as they are all in their late thirties worrying about their weight. But I'm a lucky grandmother. All five of my grandchildren live within a mile of my house. Their ages range from nine years to one week. Thankfully, I don't have to worry about what the youngest one eats. The mean witch-mother tries to be a kinder grandmother by inviting all her grandchildren over for dinner with their parents and giving them what they actually like to eat.

The writer who cooked for the family in the Hamptons was right. I know I'll never go wrong if I give my grandchildren hot dogs and french fries. But I don't. Their mothers tell me that hot dogs are not nutritious -- although they liked them well enough when they were young. Rachel, my youngest, ate whole bratwurst in Geneva when she was nine months old. That's because she had to copy her siblings. Now I have to cut one thin hot dog in two for a three-year-old, in case of choking.

Nobody choked on bratwurst in Geneva in 1963. Now it seems that every child chokes on non-split-apart hot dogs in 2002. All my kids have the same pediatrician who warned them about their little ones choking on skinny hot dogs. As for french fries, I don't deep-fry, although I am not averse to using the McCain's frozen variety.

The problem is that the grandchildren come with their parents, who want adult food. I will only go so far in making something for the grandchildren that is different from what I serve their parents, all of them now gourmets, having reverted to their Genevan roots.

I have discovered that my grandchildren will eat frozen fish sticks (so deep-fried you can't taste the fish), chicken nuggets (deep-fried, of course) and crunchy sweet Chinese spareribs. If the meat, fish, or potato is crispy crunchy, my grandchildren will eat it. But my children, like me, are wary of deep-fried foods -- too fattening. I asked my grandchildren what else they would like to eat. They all said in unison "pasta" (a term I never heard of when I was young -- we called it spaghetti then).

They don't mean pasta, of course -- they mean Kraft Dinner. But I hate making Kraft Dinner and my children, who loved it once, now loathe it, but of course love pasta, in the Italian sense. Given the mixed-up meanings of the word pasta, I rarely serve it when the family comes over.

One grandson, Joe, is unusual in that he likes vegetables -- i.e., little tomatoes or a carrot or two. My older grandson David will not, however, eat anything with a fleck of green in it. God help me if he spies a parsley stem in the mashed potatoes. One granddaughter, Fanny, the one who barely eats at all, loves roast beef, but only if it is very rare, and then she might eat two forkfuls. Sweets are not a problem. If they don't like the pie they'll eat the chocolate ice cream.

So is there anything I can serve that will please every single person in the family, regardless of age? Indeed there is. And it is very expensive. As grandson Joe said when he was told that he was going to Grandma's for dinner, "Oh good, the smoked salmon house." It's a strange thing indeed that all my grandchildren adore smoked salmon -- and in quantity. Not any smoked salmon, however. Once, I tried to pass off frozen supermarket smoked salmon and they said, "Grandma, we like the other kind better." They mean the $29.95 a pound variety.

Aside from the cost, there is nothing, nutritionally speaking, against smoked salmon. The granddaughter who eats only rare roast beef satisfies her anxious mother by getting even more protein from smoked salmon. When I recently set out a plate of a dozen smoked-salmon hors d'oeuvres served on English water biscuits, my then-youngest granddaughter, Sally, swiped all the smoked salmon slices off the plate, gobbled them up and left the water biscuits for her cousins. So whatever I cook, I know my grandchildren will never grow hungry in my house, as long as I am willing to indulge their taste for high-quality smoked salmon.

I have this nightmare. Some kind Rockefeller-type person gives my husband or me two pounds of fresh Beluga Malossol caviar worth $100 an ounce. My husband loves caviar, I love caviar, my children love caviar and their spouses love caviar. In the dream, I'm feeling generous. I set out the caviar in its original can with a couple of spoons. My grandchildren get there first. They discover a new food they all adore, even more than smoked salmon. In my dream I see Rose, my youngest grandchild, miraculously standing up, scooping the dregs out of the tin with her finger. None left for anyone else.

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