Picky Preschooler Approved: Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese

I have a picky daughter. Some days I can stick healthy vegetables in a sandwich or on her plate and she'll just eat it. Most of the time, it is war to get her to eat "the good stuff." For both our sanities, I enforce a one bite rule. She must try one bite of everything no matter how green and strange looking it is. If she is unwilling, she gets a five minute time out on her bed, enforced immediately. I've only had to give her a time out twice. And since enforcing the one bite rule, I have discovered that there are foods she truly can't stand the taste of and foods that she would prefer not to eat (but will eat). I haven't quite figured out if it's a control thing, like she wants to decide what she will eat, or if it's a "I like the taste of processed food better so I don't feel like eating healthy." I am thinking it's a little of both. After seeing the results from the one-bite-rule, I know which vegetables are worth battling over and which ones will cause a serious fight because she seriously can't stand them.

Sometimes, one doesn't want to have to fight over food. Food fights are not fun.

Well, not like this anyway.

So, one night I decided to try hiding vegetables in Addy's food. I needed something that was mild in flavor, similar in color to what I was hiding it in... Macaroni and Cheese with Butternut Squash.

Addy loved it.

She even helped me make it, so there was no secret about the squash throughout the dish.

Butternut squash when pureed and spread through pasta looks a lot like yellow cheese. It has a mild, sweet and nutty flavor that doesn't take mac and cheese in a strange direction. I use chicken apple sausage to compliment it's sweetness (and tell Addy it's chicken or hot dog, whichever one happens to work on a given evening to get her to eat it). I keep the cheese and the butter as low as possible (well, I probably could have gone a little lower on the butter... I guess I could only sacrifice so much butter ha!)... I was not going for decadent comfort food in this recipe. It does taste warm and comforting, but not heavy. It's good enough to make it on our dinner menu 2 times a month in the winter. It has the makings for a sophisticated flavor profile, but it stops a little short so my daughter's 3-year-old palate will not find a reason to dislike it.

Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese

 This recipe uses half of a butternut squash. I either save the other half for another meal later on in the week (wrap it up and it will totally keep for a few days in the fridge) or cook both halves and use all the extra pureed squash for baby food for my son. (Freeze in ice cube trays for easy storage).
Cutting this bad boy will require muscle and an good knife. Butternut squash is not the easiest thing to cut through. Scoop out the seeds and slimy stuff. Stick in a 400 degree oven for 30-40 minutes (until it is tender) or place on plate, cover with saran wrap, and microwave on high for about 6 minutes. Allow to cool (or at least its a good idea lest you burn yourself. Been there. Done that.)
(If you maintain a preschool-age-free or more sophisticated household, you could also cube and saute butternut squash, rather than puree it)
When squash is done, preheat oven to 350.
 When squash is almost done in oven or while squash is cooking in the oven, put on water for pasta on a burner and bring it to a boil. Slice 4 sausages lengthwise in fours and then cut into cubes. I usually use Aidell's chicken apple sausage. It wins my taste-test. I have also used mild Italian sausage (1 lb) and ground beef (1 lb). I like the chicken apple sausage the best, though the Italian sausage is a close second. Ground beef was bland but had potential with more seasonings added to it.
Chop 1 cup of onions. (chop more finely for the especially picky child. They are less likely to notice their presence). Spray a pan that's been heated on medium heat with canola oil. Throw onions and sausage into pan and saute. (Aidell's sausage is already cooked so if you are using this, your meat/onion mixture is done when the onion's tender and browned). 

Place 2 cups of pasta into boiling water. When grocery shopping, I pull out a couple different styles of pasta shapes that will work and let my daughter pick which ones she likes. If she feels like she picked it out, she is that much more likely to eat it. (Some shapes that work: small shells, elbow, ziti, cork screw, or we have even found ones that looked like flowers... can't remember the official name, but my girly-girl loved them.)
The key to cooking pasta that will go into the oven is AL DENTE. Over cook your pasta and you will assuredly have mush after it spends time in the oven. So, read the bag/box of pasta for al dente cook time, stand by that boiling pasta, turn on a timer... do whatever you have to do to not overcook it.
 Peel skin off of squash, cut it into chunks and place in food processor.
(If you have a baby, take out a baby sized portion, add water until its baby food consistency and feed him fresh baby food. I love doing this. I realize it isn't much different than the jar and this really is almost effortless, but it still makes me feel like THE WOMAN. I like feeling that way.)
 Place 1/4 cup of melted butter, 1/4 cup of milk, pasta, meat mixture in casserole dish. Add a "ch-ch-ch" of nutmeg (a "ch-ch-ch" is a little more than a dash and can be described as the seasoning bottle, while open to the sprinkle setting, rising and falling 3 times and each time the cook makes the sound effect "ch"... Okay I know I am weird. If you don't speak in sound effect measurements go with a dash or 1/8 a tsp. I totally make sound effects while cooking.) Also add a 1/4 tsp of cracked pepper and 1/2 tsp of garlic powder. Add 1 cup of cheese (I usually end up with an assortment based on whatever is in my fridge... Monterrey Jack, Cheddar, Romano, American, Parmesean. I find it smart to make sure some kind of yellow cheese like cheddar or American ends up in your mix just for the simple fact that it will hide the yellow squash better as well as about a 1/4 cup of a saltier cheese like parmesean or romano. Last night, I used all five of the aforementioned cheeses simply because I had all of them in my fridge). Add in your butternut squash. Stir. Remember cheese will have a chance to completely melt in oven. Sprinkle top with a little cheese for prettiness sake.
Place in 350 oven for 15-20 minutes.
 This is deliciousness your preschooler or toddler can appreciate. (And will hopefully save you the food drama for one night anyways). I know my preschooler loves it. And so does mom and dad! Disclaimer: My daughter likes this. She's the only preschooler I've tested this on. And while she is definitely picky and definitely likes it, it is not a sure thing that your child will like it as well. Please do not blame me if your child refuses to eat this. I wish I could guarantee that a handful of nutritious recipes could solve dinner time drama for good, but, alas, as each child is different and prone to being fickle, I fear that is not the case.
1/2 lb of Italian sausage and 2 chicken apple sausages mac and cheese combo pictured above. A very delicious combo too.

Without pictures and wordy explanations:
Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese

1/2 butternut squash
2 cups of dry pasta (small shells or elbow)
1 cup of chopped onion
4 chicken apple sausages, cubed
1 cup of shredded cheese, plus a little extra for topping (Suggested: About 3/4 cup of American, cheddar, and/or jack and 1/4 cup of Parmesan or Romano)
1/4 cup of milk
1/4 cup (1/2 cube) of unsalted butter, melted
Dash of nutmeg
1/4 tsp of cracked pepper
1/2 tsp of garlic powder

1. Bake butternut squash in 400 degree oven until tender (30-40 minutes) or microwave for 6 minutes.
2. Preheat oven to 350
3. Saute onions and sausage in pan until onions are tender and just browned. 
4. Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan. Place dry pasta in water. Cook until al dente and drain.
5. Peel skin off of butternut squash and puree it in a food processor.
6. Place melted butter, milk, pasta, 1 cup of cheese, sausage/onion mixture, butternut squash, and seasonings into casserole dish and stir until ingredients are evenly distributed. Top with a cheese and place in oven for 15-20 minutes or until cheese is melted.

Serves 4 large adult portions or 2 adults and 1 preschooler dinner, plus enough leftovers for all 3 at lunch.

Banana Blueberry Breakfast Muffin

I think it's important to set this muffin apart as a breakfast muffin. While I suppose all muffins are supposed to be for breakfast, as a former employee of Marie Callendar's, I'm sorry but a decadent lemon muffin topped with cream cheese frosting should better be classified as dessert (in fact, I think all their muffins should probably be considered dessert muffins... not that I am putting them down. Dessert muffins are good. Marie Callendar's are REALLY good). Point being, muffins are amazing, but not all muffins are packed with that wholesome nutrition (you know, high in fiber and packed with whole grains and vitamins) to start your day off right.

All muffins are not created equal.

I may have lost your attention at "high fiber" but let me tell you this muffin is tasty enough to eat for dessert (truly) but healthy enough to feel good about (and give to your muffin-loving kids for breakfast without worrying for their teacher's sanity during their Krusteaz Blueberry Muffin sugar high. As a former 5th/6th grade teacher, I feel very free to knock on the boxed muffin mixes... at least on schooldays).

Look at it. 

This BREAKFAST Muffin is BEAUTIFUL. Think Banana-nut bread married to a blueberry muffin. YUM!

I originally got this recipe from Chicita Banana (and made some changes) in an effort to find a place to put the bananas that my husband asked for but failed to eat. Pet Peeves: 1. brown bananas on my counter and 2. throwing uneaten fruit away. Sometimes I think he doesn't eat his bananas on purpose, just so I will bake something with them. That's okay, sweetheart, I do like baking.

Banana Blueberry Breakfast Muffins:


The Muffin:
2-3 whole Bananas (brown)  
1 large Egg, beaten
3/4 cup low-fat Buttermilk
1 cup Flour (or 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup of wheat germ***)
1 cup rolled Oats (old-fashioned or quick cooking will work too)
3/4 cup (packed) Brown sugar
1 tsp. Baking soda 
2 tsp. Baking powder
1/2 tsp. Salt
1/2 tsp. Ground Cinnamon
1 cup Fresh Blueberries (or fully thawed frozen blueberries)

The Topping:
1/4 cup Rolled Oats (old-fashioned or quick cooking work too)
1/4 tsp. Ground Cinnamon
1 Tbsp. (packed) Brown sugar 
 1Tbsp. Butter, melted

1. Preheat Oven to 400 degrees. Line muffin pan with foil liners

2. Combine all topping ingredients except butter in a small bowl. Add melted butter to oats mixture and toss with a fork till well coated. Set Aside.

3. Mash bananas in a medium bowl. For a quick mash, try using your potato masher. Add in egg and buttermilk. No buttermilk on hand, no problem. Make sour milk. 3/4 Tbs of vinegar into measuring cup and fill the rest with milk until 3/4 cup line.
4. In a large bowl, combine the rest of the muffin ingredients except for the blueberries.

5. Add banana mixture to large bowl. Stir until just combined. Don't overstir. Overstirring causes muffins to be tough.

6. Fold in Blueberries.

7. Spoon mixture into muffin tins. Add topping to the top. Place in middle rack of your preheated, 400 degree oven for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center of muffin comes out clean.

This tasty batter is ready to go into the oven and make my house smell yummy.

It's my picky preschooler approved!

A perfect pairing for preschoolers: Brainfood muffins and Laura Numeroff's If You Give a Moose a Muffin.

Why I Love Wheat Germ:
***I need to take a moment to tell you about the wonderfulness that is wheat germ. Sounds gross, like, hello, we try our best to keep our kids germ free! But seriously, name aside, this stuff is awesome.  Wheat germ is the reproductive part of wheat kernel (hence the germ in the name: think germinate, not bacteria). It has a subtle sweet and nutty flavor (even more pronounced and wonderful when toasted), and its packed full of protein, folates, vitamin E, potassium and iron. It is healthy that tastes better! Best part is, I can sneak in some nutrition on my green-food fearing daughter (nutrition that tastes like it belongs there... yep, I have so tried to hide green beans in her bites of mashed potatoes... fail!) I find wheat germ in the flour/baking section of my grocery store, but some carry it in the health foods section.  You can substitute 1/2 cup of wheat germ for 1/2 cup of flour in any bread recipe. Try it!!!

Chiquita Banana has tons of other delicious and healthy places to put your extra bananas on their website http://www.chiquitabananas.com/Banana-Recipes/index-best-healthy-recipes.aspx

Saturday Mornings...

I love to cook. I love to cook for people. It makes me happy making people happy. Fortunately for me, I married a man that loves to eat. He feels loved when I create in the kitchen. We are a winning combo if I do say so myself.

So, enter Saturday mornings... Husband worked hard all week, I had the kids to myself save but those few glorious moments of shower time when Mike read Addy her bedtime story and Jed slept. We had high moments--Addy learned to count a little higher, Jed made precious sleep smiles, Dad got an extra job put on his route and therefore made more money. We've had low moments-- Addy's potty training accidents, Jed's irregular feeding schedule, not getting a minute to myself, or Daddy working late. Saturday morning is REDEMPTION. The chance to do things as I wish I could always do them. The chance to not run out of patience, the chance to enjoy my kids with my parenting partner and best-support-a-girl-could-ask-for present, the chance to not set the food on fire because Addy had an accident on the carpet, Dad was working really late, and Jed needed to eat all at the same time (yes, i have so been there, but don't worry, if you are taking cooking tips from me I don't ALWAYS set the food on fire. haha) Had Adam and Eve not sinned, this is what I imagine every morning would look like.

I wake up (usually when the munchkin has found her way into my bed and keeps asking "'Wake, Mom?" Seriously, Addy, if I answer you, I AM awake). I enter the kitchen and make breakfast, Addy watches her favorite movie or helps me stir stuff. My husband wakes up, usually to the smell of food. My Saturday mornings are very normal.

Sometimes normal is good. Very good.

Saturday mornings, I pour out my love for my family into blueberry pancake batter and crackling bacon... the LOVE that I wish I had shown that time that I yelled at my daughter, the FOCUS that I wish I could give my newborn even when his older sister needs a lot of attention, the WARMTH that I wish my husband got from me when he was trying to be romantic and I was too exhausted from pouring out to our kids to feel I had anything left to give. I cook away the week, make food we all like, all can take part in the making and definitely can take part in the eating. And, ah, as the gorgeous berry butter is melting on my lemon-zested pugliese french toast sprinkled with powdered sugar (I feel my waistline increasing just writing the description!), so I can feel the trials of the past week just melt away. I get a moment to savor life and thank God for my many blessings.

I LOVE Saturday mornings! (big sigh) So, dear family of mine, please know I love you with all my heart and am thankful for you EVERYday of the week (Sunday through Friday included).

My breakfast favorites:
  • Orange Juice: too expensive to buy for everyday consumption, but great for a once a week treat. 
  • Good ol' fashioned Bisquick pancakes with fresh or frozen blueberries added
  • BACON (Hey it's Saturday!)
  • French Toast as only the Pioneer Woman can do it... Had it for the first time and it is heaven here on earth http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/2011/07/french-toast-with-berry-butter/
  • Egg Scramble: I throw 4 eggs, some milk... like 1/4 cup, a tsp or so of Mediterranean seasoning blend from McCormick, and dice up whatever lunch meat my husband has left from his week of sandwiches (usually ham or turkey) into a bowl, wisk it a little and put into a medium heat pan. After the eggs are just about cooked through I add some shredded monterrey jack cheese and flip it all around to distribute the cheese and melt it. Yummy. Lots of room for yummy variations with scrambled eggs and a great place to put left-over meat.
  • Quiche: I like mine with Fresh Basil, portobello mushrooms, onions... I will have to pull out that recipe and post it. It is yummy!
  • Breakfast Burrito: I do scrambled eggs, a bag of frozen potatoes o'brien, bacon (or whatever I have on hand), monterey jack cheese, and taco sauce. 
So, since my camera apparently never works on Saturday mornings, here is a picture of breakfast from Addy's 3rd birthday. Nothing quite like Pancakes, bacon and eggs! (Notice the not-very-dinosauresque t-rex pancake. Addy loved it even though you probably can't tell what it is!)

    Make it FUN for your Picky Preschooler:
    • Dinosaur sandwich cut-out: It's just a sandwich-sized piece of plastic that cuts dinosaurs into my dinosaur-loving child's sandwiches. I found it in the grocery store and thought it could be the stupidest and most useless kitchen tool I ever buy or it could be one of the best. It was one of the best. Never under-estimate how much children love FUN looking food. It is how I get Addy to eat a healthy tuna on whole wheat during the week and how i get her to eat a very fancy-looking and tasting french toast.
    • Loosen up Momma and let your preschooler help you. And, usually, if they made it, they will at least try it. You may have a mess to clean up afterwards, but, hey, its saturday! Making messes is FUN!... even if cleaning them is not. (And if you are anything like me, you make a mess in the kitchen anyways)
    • Let your child tell you what shape pancake he/she wants. You may not be an artist especially with a large spoon and batter, but fortunately for you, your child has an imagination bigger than your lack of ability to make a t-rex shaped pancake. They will see it anyways.
    • Burrito Power: I have found that if I stick it in a burrito, Addy will eat it. She doesn't even look inside unless I get bold and stick something she really hates in it. (I apply this rule to fish taco night too, adults have tacos, while addy's soft taco is rolled like a burrito... Yep! She eats the fish!)
    • Um... and as for kid-ified quiche, I am not sure quiche can be made kid-friendly??? At least I haven't figured that one out. Bacon helps though, bacon always help make something good. Let me know if you know a way to make kids love quiche!

    Here's to Saturday, Friends! And here's to you having a blessed one!