Family Meal

How the Michelin-starred minds behind The Restaurant at Meadowood get their kids to eat.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY SMEETA MAHANTI

One could be forgiven for thinking that they might have it easy. With a two-acre garden nestled between Highway 29 and the hills surrounding Napa Valley, and decades of combined training in culinary shamanism, Christopher Kostow and Nathaniel Dorn have a leg up on the average parent wondering what to put in their kid’s mouth when the clock strikes dinner.

Consider that Kostow and his wife, Martina, make weekly visits to the Meadowood culinary garden, where their daughter Daisy, 22 months, can pluck a juicy heirloom tomato off the vine and toddle towards the small herd of milking goats guarded by a vigilant llama named Christopher Columbus. Or that Dorn, married to dietitian Tawnya, is a meticulous architect of dining experiences who has devised a method by which his three-year-old son Kaiden can eat yogurt sans a single stray drop (it includes tape).

As a pair, Kostow and Dorn have earned three Michelin stars at The Restaurant at Meadowood every year since 2011 (it’s currently one of only 12 establishments in the country to have earned such recognition from the esteemed guide). The James Beard Foundation has also decorated their trophy cases—Kostow won Best Chef: West in 2013, and Dorn won Outstanding Service in 2014.

Nathaniel Dorn, left, and Christopher Kostow, right, in a kitchen side room at The Restaurant at Meadowood.

Behind the Scenes: Nathaniel Dorn, left, and Christopher Kostow, right, in a kitchen prep room at The Restaurant at Meadowood.

Yet the dedication that goes into becoming two of the most celebrated restaurateurs in the business translates into a workday that starts at 9 a.m. and ends 14 to 16 hours later. It’s an exhausting grind, and their wives take on the majority of meal planning and weekday executions, but each father is responsible for breakfast and weekend meals.

Ultimately, their most significant critics wield no paper, pen or sophisticated palate. Rather, they’re their own miniature flesh and blood.

So we couldn’t think of anyone better to ask for methods on how to get kids to try and love healthy food. Here, Kostow and Dorn families share the easy recipes and techniques that work for them. And for a showstopper of a family meal, check out Kostow’s recipe for poussin baked in bread, excerpted from his newly released cookbook, A New Napa Cuisine.

The Kostow Family (Christopher, Martina and Daisy)

For a kid that’s not even two years old, Daisy already has an impressive food resume. She’s broccoli-obsessed, eats chili-spiked Bolognese, and has foraged for porcinis in the woods surrounding Napa Valley. “When she was a year old, she got her first pasta sauce with chili flakes in it. The first taste was a little traumatic—she was panting, and asking for water. But now when I give her that sauce, it’s nothing,” says Martina.

“We’re really lucky—she eats everything. She’s not picky at all,” says Christopher, 38.

More likely, her adventurousness is down to the wide exposure to new foods that she gets from her parents. Martina, 33, does the marketing and communications for The Restaurant at Meadowood, and the entire family (including dog Charlie) makes weekly trips to the culinary garden where Christopher works closely with garden manager Christine Kim to grow exotic produce for the restaurant. He takes Daisy through the vegetables to talk about them and let her taste them. Here, the Kostows share what’s in their fridge, their recipes for both an easy breakfast staple and not-quite-so-easy holiday feast, plus ways they’ve found for getting their toddler to try more foods.

“We took her foraging for the first time last week. She’s basically just going for a walk—I don’t expect her to find anything and I don’t want her suddenly touching mushrooms, but for her, just getting out into the woods is important. It was really fun until she pooped her pants.”

What staples do you always have in the house?
Tofu, rice, broccoli, eggs, avocadoes, fruit, and olive oil. (They’re partial to Bariani olive oil for tastiness and affordability.) “We go through a ton of the stuff,” Christopher says.

What are your favorite kitchen tools?
A Béaba Babycook. “I have so much tupperware. So much. I’ll steam vegetables on the weekends and pack stacks of veggies into the fridge to use all week,” Martina says.

A large frying pan. “When I cook at home for our family, I make it really easy. I don’t want to dirty more than one pot. I’ll brown meat and then use the same pan to cook greens,” Christopher says.

What’s a quick, healthy recipe that Daisy is always excited to eat?
Avocado toast. Or ‘cado toast, as she calls it—find the recipe, below, with a transcription. “Especially for breakfast. It’s so nice when she can just eat what you eat, and it’s healthy and quick, and you can leave feeling guilt-free and feeling like you did something good for your kid,” Martina says.

Christopher Kostow's Recipe for 'Cado Toast

‘Cado Toast prep time: 5 min; serves: baby and one adult. Ingredients: 2 slices multigrain bread, 1 ripe avocado, sea salt, nice olive oil, lemon. Directions: Toast the bread to your desired crispiness (or your childs’ gumming ability). Halve an avocado and remove the pit. Scoop the “cado” into a bowl, add your favorite olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and mash with a fork. Smear onto toasted bread and drizzle with some more olive oil. Put a few grains of salt on top. Slice and serve. Can also be served with fresh fruit and/or a side of scrambles eggs.

For a more advanced attempt at a Kostow favorite, try this recipe for the poussin baked in bread from A New Napa Cuisine.

Any secrets for making sure she eats what you give her? 
“Really all she wants to eat in the morning is berries. So this morning when I wanted her to eat some bread and peanut butter, I just decorated a slice with with berries and then closed it on itself, so she couldn’t even open it. Then she had to eat the whole thing,” Christopher says.

What’s your best advice for getting your kid to try more foods?

  1. Try tofu as a gateway meat. “It’s easy to prepare, super healthy, and easy to eat without teeth,” says Christopher. Daisy was eating tofu by the age of one, and now she loves ground meat as well. “We eat meat almost every day,” Martina says.
  1. Steam vegetables ahead. “She’s always loved steamed vegetables. We have different steamed vegetables every night, and they go so easily into mac and cheese or anything else I’m making.”
  1. Mix up favorites to avoid palate fatigue. “Kids get tired of foods in the same way that we do, so when they start pushing it away, it’s not necessarily because they don’t like the food, it’s because you’ve incorporated that food too many times into their diet over the course of a certain time,” Martina says. “I used to think, if the kid’s asking for broccoli, give her broccoli, but then she would eat around it. So now I try to vary what I give her a little more.”
  1. Experiment with seasonings. Varying the flavors of favorite foods can also help avoid palate fatigue. Martina will start with garlic, then a little pepper. “Daisy will go ‘oh spicy,’ and then a little while later, things that seemed spicy before don’t seem spicy anymore,” she says. Christopher can be a purist, and finds it helpful to recalibrate the palate by serving fresh, unseasoned salmon, for example, or plain rice.
  1. Forage—by looking, not touching. “We took her foraging for the first time last week. She’s basically just going for a walk. I don’t expect her to find anything and I don’t want her suddenly touching mushrooms, but for her, just getting out into the woods is fun. It was really fun until she pooped her pants,” says Christopher. “She was a trooper, though, and now she knows what a mushroom is. We were looking for porcinis. We found a couple that day, but Cameron (the restaurant larder manager) went back the next day to where we were, and found just tons of them. Pristine porcinis, which is pretty rare.”

The Dorn Family (Nathaniel, Tawnya, and Kaiden)

Dad Nathaniel, 35, is an award-winning restaurant director and mom Tawnya, 35, is a dietitian, so three-year-old Kaiden gets serious food expertise from both directions. He also basically eats what his parents eat. “When we had him, our lives around food became so much more balanced,” says Tawnya. “He likes to mimic us, so it became really necessary to be good food role models.” They cook simple meals (a grilled fish, a vegetable, plus sticky brown rice) from scratch with little to no salt. “There’s nothing he doesn’t eat,” Nathaniel says. The trick to getting him excited about new foods is making him part of the choice, they say—they give him a few good options to pick from, and don’t disguise foods.

“We’ll put everything in front of him at one time, including dessert (which is usually fruit) so that we’re never rewarding him with dessert. That way we’re also never forcing him to eat,” Nathaniel says. “If he’s hungry, he’ll eat.”

The couple, expecting their second child in April, also involve Kaiden in the activity and conversation of dinnertime. “He gets excited when all three of us sit down, and we cheers with our spoons,” says Nathaniel. Because Kaiden suffered a stroke shortly after his birth, he has hemiplegia—weakness and mild paralysis—on the right side of his body. So Nathaniel and Tawnya work hard to emphasize motor skills on his right side, and utensil practice is part of the process. “Breakfast and lunch tend to be finger foods, so dinner is a great opportunity for that,” Nathaniel says. Below, they share their favorite pantry staples, recipes, and a few more techniques that have worked for them.

What staples do you always have in your house?
Raisins, bananas, whole grain bread, yogurt, peanut butter, hummus, and milk.

What are your favorite kitchen tools?
A small frying pan. “I heat everything up in a frying pan,” Nathaniel says.

A garlic press. “Garlic and onion start the pan for nearly every meal,” Tawnya says.

What’s a quick, healthy recipe that Kaiden is always excited to eat?
An apple sandwich, where slices of apple—cut horizontally—sub in for the bread. Find the recipe, below.

Nathaniel Dorn's Recipe for an Apple Sandwich

Any secrets for keeping your kid clean during meals?
The yogurt milkshake: “I’ll shake a container yogurt until it’s liquefied and put a straw through the foil lid and tape it down. So instead of sitting there and spooning it, he can walk around with it like it’s a milkshake,” Nathaniel says. (Says Tawyna, “It’s awesome.”)

Dorn yogurt cropped

The yogurt milkshake: Never wipe your toddler’s face again. Photo by Tawnya Dorn.

The banana handle: “The banana goo always gets all over them. But I’ll peel a banana two thirds of the way down and then cut off the edges of the peels so there’s a small peel handle, with the rest of the banana sticking out.”

Dorn banana copy

The banana handle: Nathaniel’s brilliant method of creating a clean banana-eating experience for his three-year-old. Photo by Tawyna Dorn.

What’s your best advice for getting your kid to eat?

  1. Let him be messy. “Cleaning up makes kids more picky eaters,” Tawnya says. “It really does. Or it makes them really finicky about their food. If you’re constantly cleaning them off, they don’t enjoy their food as much as they would if they’re able to eat it and not even think about it. Whenever Kaiden was on my watch, he’d have food all over his head and face, so I had to train Nate a little bit to let him be messy.” Nathaniel is all about cleanliness, as one might expect of an award-winning service director. “That’s a hard one,” he says. He cedes to his wife’s expertise and a lets Kaiden be a bit messy, but his toddler has already picked up dad’s tendency to keep a proper table setting. “If I set food down and move his water glass, he’ll put it back where it’s supposed to be,” Tawnya says.
  1. Use adult utensils. “We found out that he does better with adult silverware. His baby spoons aren’t deep—they don’t have the well that an adult spoon does—and it’s more rewarding when he actually gets the food. So we’ll use an adult teaspoon and a small fork for him,” Nathaniel says. “We focus on using them at dinner, when we’re there to watch and when we have more time as a family to kind of hang out.”
  1. Model food behaviors. “We all get into our own vibe with our food habits, and then we have kids and forget that those might not be the healthiest ways to deal with food around them. We’ll drink a soda in front of our kids while telling them that they can’t have it. As a dietitian, that’s when I see kids start to sneak food,” Tawnya says. She’s all for treats, but recommends aiming for 85 percent healthy foods in the house.
  1. Avoid the reward system. “We’ll put everything in front of him at one time, including dessert (which is usually fruit) so that we’re never rewarding him with dessert. That way we’re also never forcing him to eat,” Nathaniel says. “If he’s hungry, he’ll eat.”
  1. Plan ahead. Tawnya writes out a five-day dinner plan for each week on a whiteboard in the kitchen. “I hate going to the store 20 times per week, and this doesn’t completely eliminate extra trips, but it really helps. I’d day we follow it about 80 percent,” she says.
Dorn mealplan

Tawnya Dorn plans out a week’s worth of dinner menus and groceries, and jots them down on a small dry-erase board on her fridge. Photo by Tawnya Dorn.

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