Tyler Florence's kids are lucky.
It's not just because they live in sunny Mill Valley, Calif., with their celebrity-chef dad and his wife and business partner, Tolan, whose good-for-you-foods empire has grown to include a 14-year stint on the Food Network (including the shows Tyler's Ultimate and The Great Food Truck Race), plus four restaurants, several gourmet-cooking stores, six cookbooks and a line of organic baby foods.
All that is very nice. But it's their lasagna I envy.
That cheesy one-pan dish is part of Florence's latest book, Start Fresh (Rodale, $19.99), which sprouted from his experience developing his Sprout baby foods and, as the cover says, aims to give infants, babies and toddlers a "jump-start to lifelong healthy eating."
Florence honed his cooking-for-kids skills with his children, starting 14 years ago with his older son, Miles. More recently, he has fed his culinary concoctions to son Hayden, 4, and daughter Dorothy, who's almost 3.
"Everything in the book is tested on my own kids," Florence says.
I talked with Florence, 40, by phone as he was gearing up for his book-promotion tour. Here's an edited excerpt from our conversation about cooking for kids.
Question: What were meals like for you when you were a kid?
Answer: My parents both worked full time. I remember a lot of simple meals. Everything I know about cooking is self-schooled.
Q.: Your younger kids are 4 and almost 3. What's your go-to meal when everyone's starving and crabby at the end of a busy day?
A.: It's not one thing specifically, not like "I'm pulling out this thing" for dinner. It's about the season. It might be butternut squash or tomato. It's really about simple techniques you can use over and over. Like roasting. It works with everything: broccoli, green beans, Brussels sprouts. Cut the vegetable into small, consistent pieces, drizzle on some olive oil, and season with a touch of salt. Spread it on a rimmed baking sheet and put it in a 350-degree oven until it's caramelized. The natural starches turn into sugars.
Q.: You make getting kids to eat healthfully seem simple. But not all parents find it so easy. Any tips for getting started?
A.: It's important that the very first spoon of food you put in your child's mouth is the most densely nutritious, most delicious thing.
Q.: What if our kids are well past that first spoon of food?
A.: Load 'em up with fruit. Fruit has good carbs, and it's delicious. Leave fruit out where they can take a look at it; they'll pick it up.
Fruit often ends up rotting in the crisper drawer. Well, that's the wrong place to put it. Out of sight, out of mind. The kids all know where the junk-food shelf is. Make the fruit that easy to get to. Put a big huge bowl of fruit on the counter.
Q.: So I assume your kids are excellent eaters?
A.: Well, they're 4 and almost 3.
Dr. Alan Greene — who wrote the book's foreword — gave me a piece of advice one time when we had dinner. He said that up to a certain point, kids will pretty much eat anything. But they hit a wall when they're like 3 years old. They have a natural defense mechanism that's embedded in their DNA: They shut themselves off from anything they haven't been taught is safe. It's like if you were a kid living in the Serengeti, if your mother hadn't shown you a food by the time you were 3, you wouldn't know if it was okay to eat.
So a 3-year-old kid will look at a new food on a plate and literally be afraid of it as if it will hurt them. It has nothing to do with the parents or how the food is prepared.
Our kids, from 6 months till now, tried a lot of things. They resist things right now, but we're just going to ride through it.
Q.: I notice there are no nutrition facts or calorie counts listed for the recipes in Start Fresh.
A.: I don't know if counting calories is necessarily something to look at in feeding a child, unless a doctor has put specific health brackets around your child to help him stay at a healthy weight.
Q.: You're big on whole, organic foods. But one of your recipes includes some Goldfish crackers, I noticed. How do you feel about packaged, processed foods?
A.: I don't think there's anything wrong with a hot dog or other convenience foods, as long as they're balanced with fresh vegetables. It's hard to ignore 95 percent of the grocery store.
But a lot of parents kind of wing it in the grocery store. They let children dictate what they want, so the fridge is completely filled with what most people would consider junk food.
Q.: What's your at-home cooking routine?
A.: We treat Sunday as cooking day. We're very busy in our house; my wife and I own four restaurants. So on Sunday we try to get ahead of everything. We spend the whole day in the kitchen; it's fun! We'll make two soups and put them in individual bags in the freezer; make cookies. We make sauce for pasta, with ground turkey as a base.
Q.: Do the kids get involved, too?
A.: Well, yes and no. They're little. They're in the kitchen and back out. So, yes — for a nanosecond.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound lean ground grass-fed beef
1 can (28 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes
4 baby carrots, scrubbed
1 small yellow onion, cut into wedges
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 cup organic chicken stock
½ cup part-skim ricotta cheese
3 ounces fresh spinach leaves, stems removed and coarsely chopped
4 lasagna noodles, broken into 1½ -inch pieces
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, cubed
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large, ovenproof skillet, heat oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the beef and cook, breaking up with a wooden spatula, until the meat has browned (five to seven minutes).
Meanwhile, combine the tomatoes, carrots, onion and garlic in a food processor and chop until coarsely ground — but not completely smooth. When the meat is browned, pour off any accumulated fat.
Add the tomato mixture, stock, ricotta and spinach, and combine thoroughly. Bury the lasagna noodles in the sauce, and sprinkle the mozzarella evenly over all. Bake the lasagna uncovered until the cheese is melted and bubbling, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let stand uncovered for 10 minutes. Serve warm.
Makes enough for four to six adults, or eight kids.