Predicting What My Toddler Will Eat Is Harder Than Starting My Own Business

Creamy Butternut Squash Pasta. Photo: What’s Gaby Cooking

Butternut squash was my daughter’s first food.

Grace was 4 months old when my family gathered in my mom’s kitchen to watch the little butterball on my lap try her first “solid.” Would she like it? Had I picked the right starter food? All the baby cookbooks gave butternut squash high marks on the first-food canvas, so I felt confident. Plus, I had grand plans for being a puree mom, so I hoped she was as excited by the prospect of solids as I was.

As the soft-tipped baby spoon came her way, she followed it with her big, brown eyes, and then opened her mouth wide. To everyone’s surprise, she lapped up that spoonful (and the many that followed) like she’d been eating professionally for years. As the co-founder of the culinary site New Worlder, it was a very proud moment for mama.

Fast forward to nearly two years later. The days of purees that my daughter inhaled with greedy, sloppy abandon are long over. I’m now the proud mother of a finicky and opinionated toddler. Since her puree days, I swore that I would not raise a chicken-finger-and-buttered-pasta eater, but realized that could be beyond my control if I didn’t set the guidelines for healthy, varied eating at this young age. I’d spent years traveling the globe, eating as a career. I fancied myself a pretty good cook, so I decided that to expand Grace’s palate and foster a respect for food, family, and cooking, we would sit down and eat a home-cooked meal together every night. How hard could it be? I knew food, right?

Turns out, very hard. Correction: I knew restaurants. I knew chefs. I only knew the 20 recipes I’d been cooking for myself and on holidays for the last 20 years. Sure, I could have a conversation about food and ingredients. I could follow a recipe and achieve acceptable results, but I hadn’t actually been that adventurous in my own cooking over the years. Now, with Grace, it all of a sudden mattered that I become the cook I knew I could be.

Now, with Grace, it all of a sudden mattered that I become the cook I knew I could be.

Wracked with newfound kitchen insecurity, I scoured my shelves full of cookbooks and an Instagram feed of culinary sites, food writers, and bloggers for daily inspiration. I began keeping lists of all the recipes that could be good for family meals. I organized my saved lists into recipe categories: meat, poultry, fish, soups/stews, veggies, dessert, and, of course, Grace’s favorite, pasta.

One of the first recipes I added to my ever-growing list was a creamy butternut squash pasta by Gaby Dalkin of What’s Gaby Cooking? This heavenly dish was something that begged to be made — not just for Grace but all humankind. With a 10-minute prep time, a 35-minute cook time, and an easy pantry list (butternut squash, garlic, onion, pasta, stock, cream, olive oil, salt, pepper), this seemed like a perfect way to change up Grace’s treasured pasta dinner, giving it a silky vegetable sauce. She still loved butternut squash; the recipe seemed like a winner.

As soon as Grace hears me click on the stove or clang around in our cabinets, she begs to sit on the counter next to me and watch me cook. To my mother’s chagrin (“Does she need to sit on the counter?”), I love this little cooking ritual we’ve developed, but the challenge always arises when I’m cooking pasta. She can’t help herself during the cook time, so she usually takes to yelling “PASTAAAAAA” over and over again at the top of her lungs while I try to explain how “yelling hurts Mommy’s ears” and she can’t eat the pasta until it’s actually cooked.

“Count to 10?” she sometimes asks sweetly, quoting a refrain I use often to stave off her impatience. But after she counts to 10 and the pasta still isn’t ready, the “PASTAAAAA” screams begin again. This time, I remembered to hide the actual pasta and picked her up every few minutes to look into the oven to see the butternut squash roasting and browning, filling our kitchen with its caramelized aroma as a distraction.

My version of Creamy Butternut Squash Pasta. Photo: Marie Elena Martinez

I’ve now made this recipe a few times and it’s always a hit. If you’re cooking it for the first time, follow Gaby’s directions; you won’t be disappointed. However, now that I’ve gotten to know the recipe and my family’s developing palate a bit better, I make the following changes:

First, I roast the butternut squash for about 40 minutes and I add fresh rosemary to the roasting pan, instead of adding nutmeg — which Gaby recommends — later. Second, I’m not a garlic person (I know, I know, and I apologize), so I halve the garlic used in Gaby’s original recipe or omit it entirely depending on my mood. Third, Gaby suggests spaghetti, but I use whole-wheat pasta in a shape that’s easier for my daughter to eat on her own. Think spirals, ziti, penne. Last, for a nondairy substitute, you can use coconut milk instead of heavy cream. But — and this is important — if you’re into dairy like we are, grated pecorino is a must as a finishing topper.

If you want the recipe for Gaby Dalkin’s butternut squash pasta, click here.

Mama to Grace. Writer/Editor/Events + Food/Travel/Culture. Founder of Meets NYC. Co-Founder of New Worlder. www.marieelenamartinez.com

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