As father to three children under the age of 15, chef Tyler Florence knows a thing or two about catering to developing palates.
The Food Network star, who recently opened three Bay Area restaurants and wrapped his ninth cookbook, has his own line of gourmet baby food, and just joined forces with Alexia Foods to stress the importance of balanced meals.
We recently sat down with the 40-year-old — dad to Dorothy, 2 (left), Hayden, 3, and Miles, 14 — to garner his advice on cooking with your family.
Does being a dad influence your cooking?
It really does. Nobody cooks anymore. To me, to watch your parents cook, and to have a house that smells warm and delicious, is a very vital memory that I think kids don’t really have anymore. I think it’s important to recall … what you remember your grandmother making, where you’re from and the foods you enjoyed as a child yourself, and pass that information off to your kids.
Do your kids seem interested in the kitchen?
Without a doubt! We’ve actually taken the kitchen itself and turned it into a play area. I take the pots off my pot rack, make a little drum kit. We want them to see the kitchen as a place of play, because that’s what it really is, a place of imagination, a place of joy. As an adult, during parties, everyone hangs out in the kitchen, because it’s a place where everything seems to be OK. I think it’s very important that kids see that from their parents from the very beginning.
My son and daughter also have a play stove, which is right by mine, so they have little wooden fruit connected with Velcro, and they cut it, and they put it into a sauté pan, put it in the oven, put it on a plate and say, ‘Daddy, I made dinner!’ It’s adorable. And it’s one of those things that they’ll have a memory of for the rest of their lives — what great food, great cooking is all about. It’s a craft; something you do with your hands that gives you a brighter outlook on life.
Do you believe in picky eaters?
A good friend of mine, pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene, told me the most fascinating thing — that in our DNA there’s a primordial response to be afraid of food beginning at age 3. If you think about it from a prehistoric point of view, if you were out in the wild and your mother hadn’t shown you what was edible by the time you were 3 years old, wouldn’t you think at some point that it could hurt you?
Children, if they haven’t been introduced to foods by the time they’re 3 years old, are afraid of it, as if it would hurt them. They don’t really get out of that until they’re 6 or 7 — it’s a safety mechanism, and you’re not going to win.
What are parents doing wrong in the kitchen?
I think they give up too quickly. It’s about having the courage to cook — I think everyone’s terrified. Everything’s sort of a fast-food situation, where we go get it, or get it delivered, instead of heating up the stove, getting the sauté pans going, cooking something and roasting a chicken. These kinds of things children get very excited about. If parents could just stick with it a little bit longer, and say, ‘OK, two or three nights a week we’re going to cook at the house,’ that’s going to make a difference.
So I’d encourage parents to do it more — and cook with things that are as close to the source as possible. Cook potatoes that look like potatoes, cook chicken that looks like chicken — not a nugget stamped in the shape of a dinosaur. If parents can adopt that mantra — ‘I am in charge of my child’s nutritional well-being, I am responsible for this’ — I think they would have a clearer idea of what the right side of the road is, nutritionally.
I also get frustrated when parents say, ‘I hope my children make smart decisions.’ In our house, the only decision is a smart decision. There’s no high-fructose corn syrup, no soda. Keep fresh, natural ingredients and fresh things to drink on hand, and you won’t have to worry about that so much.