Let Me Introduce Me, My Family & Food

Father's Day BBQ - Beans, Salad, Couscous, Meats...They at it all!

     If you have been reading my Facebook page, or following this website, you probably know a lot about me already; my favorite foods, my favorite restaurants, my favorite holidays, and a little bit about my family.  You also may have noticed on my Welcome Page that I mentioned I have "special needs" children.  Normally, in fact, since the creation of this website, I have kept my family close and out of the pages here (Well, other than a few mom stories).  However, today was National Autism Awareness Day, and I thought it was about time I made a public and beneficial contribution to the Autism Community.  I'm not a teacher, psychologist, doctor or social worker.  I'm just an aging retired lawyer.  

     But most importantly, I am a mom of 4 children with varying degrees of special needs on the Autism Spectrum (otherwise known as ASD's), ranging from simple ADD to Aspergers to Autism w/PDD NOS & ADHD to Severe Disabling Non-Verbal and typically violent Autism w/ other medical conditions.  I am also quite a good cook.  I have combined those two talents (Yes, being an ASD mom is a talent) and discovered a way to help my children, regardless of their disability, eat or at least try any type of food.  Real food, like you and I eat; not chopped up or pureed meat or veggies hiding in a sauce or a pizza.  By now, I have become able to articulate this in a meaningful way and to help parents who have children with "food issues," whether they have ASD or not. 

     I know you are doubtful, but take a few minutes and read my story.  You should start young, but I started one at 15 years old and he lost 85lbs and now lives and eats a healthy lifestyle on his own living in a group home.  In the end it will make sense.  I promise.  I am so sure that this will help that I have for the first time actually posted a photo of my "crew" from about a year ago at the top of this page.  Here you will find another, with their Dad.  Yes, the will and did eat every single thing on that table.

     So I will begin this page with my "master plan" and, throughout April, Autism Awareness Month, I will post as many "Kid-Friendly Real Food" recipes as I can.  My gift to you.

HOW I GOT MY ASD KIDS TO EAT REAL FOOD

Sausage Stuffin' Muffins (Pillsbury puff pastry cut into squares in a muffin tin)

     This is the story about how my kids learned to eat anything!!
     If your kids are typical or not, you know how it is often difficult to get them to eat a balanced diet. I’ve been a mom to 4 children with ASD’s for about 12 years now.  When I met their Father, a widower, the youngest was 4, the eldest was 15, and they ate little else but pizza, chicken nuggets or fried food.  They ate sugary breakfasts with whole milk or sugary fruit juice.  Seriously?  They were quite overweight and this was a problem that I needed to fix... fast.  I understand overweight.  I come from a large Italian family where we grew up eating all sorts of meat, fish, shellfish and vegetables prepared in so many different ways and I admit to my own issues with self-control.  But I had to make sure my children ate something healthy.  We didn’t drink soda or juice as kids.  If we were thirsty we drank water, and milk was for breakfast.  If we didn’t like what was served, we didn’t eat.  Pizza & Fast Food was only for special candle-light dinners when Daddy was not home!!!   
     In my new family I was stunned at the calories in one meal!  The first thing to go was whole milk and organic fruit juice.  Just because its organic doesn’t mean its good for you.  Organic sugar is just as calorie-laden as processed sugar.  We switched to 2% milk for the morning and snack time, and Crystal Light at meal times.  Yes, I know, artificial sweeteners and all that.  But guess what, they already have autism.  Was it really going to make them worse?  I was sure that the sugar would kill them before the Splenda.
     Next, I tried to find healthy things they liked and, in a desperate attempt to satisfy everyone, I was making 2 or 3 different meals for dinner - after working a full-time job.  That didn’t last long.  Then I tried the art of disguising vegetables or lean meats, like pureeing cauliflower and adding it to gravy (red sauce), or finely chopping up meat and putting it under the cheese on pizza.  That didn’t last long either.  Who has the time for that?  So I waited, and I observed while Dad fed them.  I looked carefully at their favorite junk foods, pizza toppings, chicken nugget dipping sauces and I discovered the following:  My new family loved: pepperoni & mozzarella cheese, hot dogs, Buffalo Wing sauce, hot pepper, cheese sauce and salsa, ranch dressing as a dip and other strong flavors.  Ok, I thought, something to work with….
     So, one night (the very next night) after we had pepperoni pizza (yuk, I hate pepperoni), I got some cauliflower and steamed it just a bit (kids really don’t like mush), heated it in a pan with some diced pepperoni, then melted some low-fat mozzarella cheese over it.  Then I held my breath…ah ha, it worked. 1 slice of plain cheese pizza and a side of "pepperoni-flower."  I came up with a new name for a dish and a balanced meal.  You can do this with most of your vegetables - use your child’s favorite topping - bbq sauce? ranch dressing? honey mustard? Yes, even those plain Cheerios & a drizzle of honey over roasted salted Brussles sprouts!  It may sound odd to you, but sweet and salty is a favorite combination for most people and my youngest is one of the few people in our family who asks for Brussles Sprouts or Spinach at the supermarket.  In the same vein, there is ketchup.  Some kids love ketchup. On anything and everything.  I'm convinced that this is how the awful meatloaf recipe topped with ketchup was invented.  Some mother probably had a kid who liked hamburgers with ketchup, so she told her kid it was a hamburger loaf and put ketchup on top.  Who really cares if your child puts ketchup on everything?  ...as long as they eat it and as long as everything is not french fries all the time.  See, i.e., Meatloaf Muffins recipe below.  No ketchup, but ketchup-ready if necessary!
     Now, take it a bit further.  Another favorite food was those Buffalo Chicken Tenders you can buy at the fast food restaurants or at Costco.  Really?  How on earth can you eat that stuff all the time?  I thought they were just for Superbowl Sunday!!  Time for the transformation. One night we had Buffalo Chicken Tenders.  The next night I got a Very Fresh Salmon Fillet, rubbed it lightly with olive oil, and covered it liberally with Paul Prudhomme’s Redfish Magic (a very spicy but flavorful cajun spice mix with a taste [and more importantly, color] similar to Buffalo Sauce.  I popped it under a hot Broiler for 3 minutes, flipped it and gave it another 3 minutes, then served it as “Buffalo Salmon", along with some rolls, or couscous, or even frozen fries BAKED in the oven. (Now I grill fish whenever possible) This was an immediate success.  I couldn’t believe it.  In a matter of weeks they were eating Salmon, Tuna, Cod, Flounder.  As long as it looked the right color, they would try it.  Now, lemons seem to be doing the trick - as long as there are some quartered lemons in the mix for them to eat at the end.  (I don’t know why, they’re ASD kids!!!)  For me, I toss it with a tablespoon of honey to keep the tang factor to a minimum.  Now we still eat Buffalo (or Red) Ribs, Buffalo Steak, Buffalo Sausage.. you name it, if its hot and spicy, its “Buffalo.”  
What about those kids who only eat hot dogs but won’t touch a burger or chicken sandwich?  I went through this one more than once.  How do they eat their hot dog? On a bun or not?  If its on a bun, start slicing it and putting it on a burger bun.  What did they put on top of that hot dog?  Ketchup, Mustard, Mayo?  Don't forget the salsa or chips, depending on your child's preference.  This goes a long way as incentive - not on the side, on the bun!  Remember that when its time for the burger.  Do they like cheese?  Start your next step with a veggie burger and top it just like their hot dog, tell them its a veggie dog.  You already got them used to a hot dog on a burger bun - and I recall even that took a little convincing. It won’t be long before burgers or chicken replace that hot dog.  Its all in the toppings, the color and the name.  Who cares if you serve burger dogs?
As for those chicken tenders - its too easy for words.  Buy the chicken breasts at the market, slice them and marinate them in a Ziploc bag with mayo (or yogurt), a bit of lemon and a splash of hot sauce & honey.  Then dip them in panko crumbs and BAKE on a rack over a sheet pan (don’t fry).  They will never know the difference - especially if you use their favorite taste.  Its ok to season the crumbs, and drizzle with olive oil.  
     Now, don't panic.  I hear a lot of parents tell me, “my kid doesn’t like spicy food, only plain.”  That’s not true.  Although many kids don’t like spicy, no kid likes food that tastes like cardboard.  Think Cheerios (crunchy & lightly sweet), Waffles (maple & brown sugar), French Fries (to-go, easy, crunchy & salty), Bananas (soft, not too sweet, creamy) or Popcorn (that one is for Autism Daddy).  Is their pasta boiled and put in a bowl with nothing, with sauce, or is it the butter or olive oil they like?  Go beyond the food and think about the flavor.  Is it sweet? Very sugary? Salty?  Peppery?  What about french fries…is it the salt or the frying?  You can duplicate either, but I’m betting on the salt and the crunch.  The popcorn?  Its the crunch, the easy to-go fun, and either the butter or the salt.  
     Oh, speaking of popcorn, I have a secret trick you won’t even want to believe: Have you ever seen those sprinkle-on flavors they have at the movie theaters now? Butter, Caramel, Kettle Corn, Ranch or BBQ. They sell them at the supermarket also, and they make an incredible seasoning or rub.  I kid you not.  You can rub it on meat with olive oil as a glaze before grilling or a stir-fry.  Or make it your own way, then sprinkle it on your kid's …whatever…as "magic dust" for a personalized dish.  I love the ranch or the kettle corn flavors on vegetables.
  • Meatloaf Muffins Stuffed w/ Cheddar & Oven Baked Fries

  • Breakfast in Bed (or by the TV) for Dinner

  • Make Their Own Pizza on a pre-made Boboli crust

TIME & DEDICATION - DO NOT BE AFRAID TO EXPERIMENT

Wilbur the Thanksgiving Pig

     I’ll admit, this took time and patience - especially with 4 kids & 6 different personalities in the house.  You can’t do it all at once.  One change at a time.  It took me a good couple or 3 years to undo the the closed minds.  
     We do have two hard and fast rules though:  1.  You have to try it and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it, but you won’t get a special meal.  One missed meal won’t starve your kid, and its a rare child that will starve himself to death.  Mine certainly don’t.  2.  Dessert is not a given, and when we do have dessert, it is contingent on dinner.  You must at least eat some of your dinner and veggies before you get dessert.  If they don’t eat dinner, no problem, but no dessert.  And one extra for my Autism Parent Friends, Rule 3: Yes, there may be a tantrum or a few.  I’ve been there.  They will adjust.  Stop listening to all those teachers who tell you to stick to a routine all the time. They say it because its easier for them.  Our children have special needs, yes.  Because of that, they need warning and advance planning.  They need to know what is going to happen and when.  But with the right attitude and a solid foundation they will adjust to small changes, one at a time, easily enough.  They need to experience some change because they won't be children forever and when they become teens and young adults you will not be able to handle an ASD son or daughter who has never experienced any difficult change.  I have closed the door on some nasty kicking and screaming at times, and often it broke my heart.  As my mom used to say: "this hurts me more than it hurts you."  But considering their health is one of the few things in our control when they're young, we can endure it.
     A couple of years ago, I was getting bored with turkey on thanksgiving.  We were having a lot of family over and, as I said, we'll eat anything.  So, I made a pig.  Yep, a whole pig, slow roasted on the grill, apple in its mouth, cranberry eyes and all. He flew in frozen from Wyoming about a week before.  We named him Wilbur.  Yeah, I know, all you PETA people are going to come down hard on us keeping a frozen pet for a week then eating it.  But man, did we have the best time that year, talking about him, planning for his bath (brine), dressing him up, watching him turn golden.  And, dear Lord, can you ever imagine your kids looking forward to what the meat of a whole roasted pig tastes like?  In fact, the whole family was delighted.  We saved the head and the next day my eldest wanted to try the ear because he had heard it was good.  He did and he said, "hmm, tastes like bacon!"  I tried not to laugh, and I managed to keep it in until my littlest decided he wanted to eat the cheeks.  This is a delicacy in an Italian household.  I wanted to say no.  I won't even eat them.  But, how could I tell him he couldn't try something?  My husband had to leave the room while my 14 going on 5 year old ate pig cheeks.  He didn't love them, and wanted more stuffing instead.  Who says ASD kids don't like change?!?!?!   [For you purists, we did have a turkey also. Tom.  Tom & Wilbur got along famously that week and all day on Thanksgiving...at least until they reached about 175F....
     Well, that’s a starter course for you.  If you want a specific recipe or idea, you can always drop me a line, or take a look through the pages here, where you will find dozens of child friendly recipes, hints and even restaurant reviews. Keep checking back on this page for more specific recipies and hints. Good luck to all you Autism Parents, and Happy Autism Awareness Day!!