Our A.V. Club Field Guide To Parenting is designed to guide you toward the best kids’ books, shows, movies, and music, just like we do with The A.V. Club for adults. Every month or so, we will feature a new subject with a few essential pop culture takes parents should know, saving you from the mountains of kids’ dreck out there.
Food, glorious food. This time of year there seems to be more of it than any other month on the calendar. But what if your kid only likes main meals that are beige? What if too much of the stuff they eat comes out of a box? What if the only thing they can prepare in the kitchen is a Pop-Tart in the toaster?
Fear not, as our AVC parents return to help induct your kid into pop culture that may help them see food as more than just mac and cheese in the blue box and stashed Halloween candy. And you know the stats on the importance of the family eating at least the dinner meal together, right? Trust us, it’s worth it. Even if the main course is still in the tan spectrum, or you end up at the same Mexican restaurant every single Friday night.
The Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs saga works for both page and screen
The original Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs is a perfect kids’ book: not too long; beautiful, detailed illustrations by Ron Barrett; and best of all, a whimsical story by Judi Barrett about a town where food falls from the sky. In the book, a man tells his two grandchildren about Chewandswallow, a magical town where meals arrive like weather, only instead of rain or snow, it’s eggs, toast, and orange juice in the morning, for instance. This perfect utopia is ruined, though, when the weather turns erratic, first with bizarre combinations (Brussels sprouts and peanut butter?) and then with giant-sized food (like enormous pancakes, including one that lands on the school). Eventually the residents flee to start new lives elsewhere.
The book spawned two sequels, 2000’s fun-but-not-as-good Pickles To Pittsburgh and 2013’s totally skippable Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 3: Planet Of The Pies. The former finds the grandkids visiting Chewandswallow, where a company is sending all of that surplus food to needy people. In the latter, the grandpa visits Mars and eats pies with martians or something. Like I said, it’s skippable.
The book series also spawned a pair of animated films, 2009’s great Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs—Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s debut film—and 2013’s Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2. As with the books, the first film is significantly better, but both are enjoyable. Aside from some familiar images that serve as Easter eggs, neither has much in common with the books, but the world they create stands on its own. [Kyle Ryan]
Chocolat features an alluring, magical kitchen
Yes, no kid needs any prodding into liking chocolate. But this charming 2000 movie might actually get them moving toward actually creating something in the kitchen. Like the inhabitants of this idyllic little French town, young viewers will likely be quickly won over by Juliette Binoche’s chocolatier, who adds a little magic to her recipes, spicing up marriages and livening up various lives. She chooses to do this right at the beginning of the Lent, which puts her in conflict with town proprietor Alfred Molina, who has given up sweets for the season. Not only does Binoche make spending time in the kitchen look like the loveliest activity in the world, but the movie also points out the dangers of denial, possibly helping to offset future dieters in your life. Here’s how good this movie is: Even Johnny Depp as a grimy gypsy doesn’t ruin it. [Gwen Ihnat]
Ratatouille uses an untraditional chef to prepare traditional meals
An even more unconventional chef is the rat in Ratatouille, but the movie is another welcome entryway into the wonders of the kitchen. Remy (wonderfully voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a culinary-minded rat who maneuvers hapless chef Linguini into making his illustrious meals. The Pixar animation has scarcely been better (down to the individual hairs on the many rodents), but like Chocolat, the movie is an inspirational love letter to creative process of preparing food. The culmination is when Remy makes the titular dish for famed food critic Anton Ego, preparing it in a primitive style that evokes childhood memories like only the best food can. Our family has prepared ratatouille the exact same way ever since. [Gwen Ihnat]
Baby’s first cookbook
When my twins were infants, I was mostly home with them (except for some part-time work), which gave me time to cook that I can only daydream about now (while I’m busy doing this!). I was also a member of a food co-op, which meant I was swimming in fruit and gourds. As the babies switched to solid food, I got sick of buying them Gerber (plus it was expensive), so I started roasting and pureeing the multitude of gourds and mixing them with various fruits, keeping their diet to only these forms of produce. I started alphabetically, like with acorn squash and apple, butternut squash and banana. Then I suspected there were more inspired combos out there, so I started searching online for a baby cookbook. In all the message boards, Annabel Karmel’s appeared to be the clear favorite, and after buying it myself, I could see why. She also started with purees (I remember the first recipe of hers I ever made combined apples and blackberries), before moving on to kid-friendly pastas and casseroles. The transferring over of metric measurements was a little cumbersome, but still worth it.
As I was convinced that my kids were going to be the first ones in history ever to choke on a Cheerio, I remember this as a stressful time. But there are recipes from that period that I still pull out occasionally, like a two-sauce pasta, a red-sauced penne topped with a wonderful mix of mushrooms and cheese. Now it makes me crazy how nuts the twins are for sugar when I made such a concerted effort to keep them away from it for the first years of their lives—but maybe I should pay closer attention to the lesson of Chocolat above. [Gwen Ihnat]
Going to “the restaurant”
Nearly every Friday night for the last decade, our little family of four has had dinner at the same Mexican restaurant. It’s not that we love the food there. It’s fine—and on some days even delicious—but generally speaking, it’s nothing special. My wife and I do like the margaritas, but that’s mainly because the staff knows our order so well that they often have our drinks on the table before we’re even seated. No, the main reason we end every week at La Huerta is that we’re creatures of continuity. Seasons and circumstances change, but whether it’s a sweltering summer evening or a dark, chilly winter night, we’re always at the same place on Friday, eating the same enchiladas and chimichangas, sharing sections of the newspaper and swapping stories about our days.
Our son is 16 now, and our daughter 13. They’ve lived in the same house in the same Arkansas college town since they were born, which means there’s a regular rotation of restaurants, stores, and civic rituals that they’ve been experiencing—and, we hope, enjoying—since they’ve been old enough to notice such things. I suspect that all families have a similar set of “go-to”s, whether they live in a smallish city like ours or in a neighborhood in a major metropolitan area. But as our kids edge perilously closer to leaving home, I think more and more about what they’re going to take away from their time with us. If they’re anything like I was after I moved away, it’ll be the simple routines and the otherwise nondescript places that they’ll remember fondly, and even pine for. We’ve been filling boxes upon boxes of Proustian madeleines for our offspring, with all the places that we’ve taken them over and over.
If one day they take a bite of a cheese quesadilla in some hole-in-the-wall and they break down in tears, I think we’ll have done our jobs as parents. [Noel Murray]
Before Bon Appétit
We are lucky to work alongside a knowledgeable food editor like Kevin Pang, who steered us toward this amazing cooking magazine (and website) for kids. Magazines are an ideal addition to your child’s reading time that don’t involve an infernal screen, and the brightly colored Chop Chop should entrance your kids straightaway. There’s a cooking club with online challenges, a kids advisory board, and best of all, a slew of recipes, many of which feature inspiring ways to fix vegetables, like pesto pasta with green vegetables, crispy kale, and sesame spinach. Barely a beige entry in the bunch. Start the kids off with a side dish before they attempt to take over your entire dinner, but that day may not be far off. [Gwen Ihnat]
Even Gordon Ramsay is nice when kids cook
Continuing the move from fictional kitchens to real ones, there’s nothing like competitive cooking shows to bring out the latent chef in anyone—even kids. A great place to start is the deservedly popular Great British Baking Show, available on Netflix. It’s the kindest, gentlest form of reality competition, as all the competitors are polite and supportive, and even the judges go for positive reinforcement over negative (this is why we’re starting here over Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, say). Plus, the desserts are creatively incredible confections. Start with season one on Netflix, where the kids will undoubtedly root for teenaged Martha, who made time for GBBS appearances in between her upper-level exams.
Just as enticing, then, will be MasterChef Junior, which wrapped up its fifth season earlier this year; all the previous seasons are available on Hulu. Yes, Ramsay is scary with adults, but he and his fellow judges are surprisingly kind to the children who enter a similar cooking competition. Your kids will be quick to pick out their favorites and then get inspired themselves as they see kids around their own age sautéeing and searing and smashing. Soon your dinner hour might involve some family time in the kitchen before the evening meal instead of just in the dining room after. Mission accomplished. [Gwen Ihnat]