Meet Phyllis Grant of Dash & Bella

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Name: Phyllis Grant
Location: Berkeley, CA
Children: Isabel Pixie (7 1/2); Dashiell Skye (almost 3)

The fact that Phyllis Grant’s mouth-watering blog, Dash & Bella, is about cooking with children is both exactly the point and beside the point. Her dishes and recipes are what anyone would want to eat – man, woman or child – and the fact that the bulk of her cooking is done with her two children as enthusiastic sous chefs is the cherry on top as well as great inspiration for all parents.

Dash & Bella is young in the blog world, but we think it deserves a large audience. The mouth-watering recipes are lusciously photographed and Phyllis’ descriptions of each recipe and the experience of making them with her children are fun and personal. Don’t be put off if her recipes seem too “fancy” for your family – Phyllis will gladly tell you that Bella took a 4-year vegetable hiatus and they all enjoy a good PB&J sandwich now and again. She may be a great cook, but she’s a real mom, too! Not only are we inspired to try many of these dishes (which she conveniently makes print-ready), she also has fabulous advice for cooking with and for children, even the picky ones.

Briefly, how would you describe your blog Dash and Bella?
Through anecdotes, photos, and original recipes, the “Dash and Bella” blog captures what it’s like to cook with kids: rewarding, frustrating, exhausting, and worth every second.

How long have you been blogging and why did you start?
I have been blogging for nine months and it’s all thanks to my mom. She follows the Borzoi Cooks at Knopf/Doubleday and she forwarded me info about their Julie/Julia contest. The assignment: cook a Julia Child recipe and blog about it. So I started a blogspot blog called “Dash and Bella” just to have a way to enter the competition. I cooked three Julia Child dishes with my kids (chaos!) and wrote about all the lessons I’d learned. (Lesson Five: Read, read again and then read for a third time every Julia Child recipe before you start cooking.) I found out a week or so later that I had won! Pretty cool to check out the other submissions as well. People went all out.

After winning the competition I wasn’t planning to continue, but I kept going with one post a month, then two, and so on. I had been looking for a way to channel some of my cooking experience and reflect upon the challenges of being a mom and this seemed like a great outlet. And I became OBSESSED with learning how to photograph food. It’s much easier to photograph a kid cooking. Take away the kid and you’re left with a bowl of brown stew.

The big change has been that after the first few posts I started writing my own recipes. I’ve now got a core group of friends (some are online friends I’ve never met) making the recipes and giving me feedback. The community aspect is what’s most exciting for me right now. I just did a post where I asked people to list their favorite kitchen tools. I have another post coming up where I photographed my friend Jen cooking away in her kitchen. Nice to step into other people’s kitchens.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

What’s your philosophy about cooking with kids?
I cook three meals a day. My kids are around. It just seems natural to include them in the process. By stepping behind the camera I’m giving them all sorts of freedom because they are doing a lot of the cooking themselves. And they learn so fast.

• Don’t say “kid food” or “grownup food” because they are the same.
• Make sure your kids ask before they taste (Dash has eaten a lot of raw meat!).
• Let your kids get their hands and the floor dirty.
• Have clear rules.
• It’s okay to sacrifice a few eggs.
• Don’t cook with your kids every night.
• Don’t eat with your kids every night.
• Make sure to do a certain amount of late-night kid-free meditative cooking and eating

How did you learn to cook? What was your experience with food and cooking as a child?

My parents and my grandmother are wonderful cooks. We always ate really well but as a child I didn’t show much interest in cooking anything savory. For me, it was all about chocolate chip cookies, Danish Ebelskiver, Belgian Waffles, and Buche de Noel. After college (in NYC) I worked in a cafe selling muffins and was so bored that I started baking my own muffins at home. Michael McCarty (a family friend) gave me my first pastry job at Michael’s Restaurant. From there I went on to cook professionally for a few years at Bouley and Nobu. I would work until 2 am and then come home and study cookbooks. The mid-nineties in NYC were a very exciting time in restaurants with so many covers and an endless flow of VIPs, so I got lots of hands-on experience. It was very stressful and I burned out fast. But I did manage to learn some fundamentals that gave me some confidence. That was 15 years ago and since then I’ve learned by cooking thousands of hours in my home kitchen for my husband, kids, and friends. For the first time in 40 years I feel like I have a voice as a cook. I’ve also found it humbling to start writing my own recipes. It’s much harder than you would think. Testing and writing the simplest little recipe can take me days.

What’s your first memory of food?
Oh my God, I don’t remember anything I ate before about age 4. Isn’t that crazy? We spend so much time thinking about what we’re feeding our toddlers and they won’t even remember!. My strongest food memories have a very social component. I remember eating graham crackers in kindergarten, having tea and cookies with my mom after school, and sucking on navel orange halves on my best friend’s front porch. And finally, there’s all the toast I ate after school with my friends. Colombo San Francisco-style with lots of butter and my mom’s hella tasty homemade apricot jam.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

How old were your children when you started cooking with them – what do you think is an ideal age to start?
I didn’t cook much with Bella when she was a baby, because she used to play by herself while I cooked. As a baby, Dash was into EVERYTHING so I decided to include him early on in the cooking process out of necessity. Actually, cooking is one of the few activities where he can be calm and focused. But in general, I think you can include your kids in cooking right away. When they’re newborns you can have them in a sling while you cook. When they sit up you can cook while they play on the floor with wooden spoons and pots and pans. And once they’re about a year you can put them in a highchair and hand them a piece of asparagus to gnaw on while you cook. At 2 years they can pick parsley for you and help assemble a tart. At 3 they can try to crack eggs, sift flour, and peel potatoes. And by 4 they can attempt just about anything as long as you’re supervising.

What are Bella and Dash’s favorite foods?

Their favorite foods keep changing. Both kids ate everything in the beginning and then gradually got pickier. At 7 1/2 years old, Bella has just started to come back around to eating vegetables after a 4 year break. This week Dash’s favorite foods are: chicken, quesadillas, popsicles, and cashews. Bella’s favorite foods are Caesar salad and anything with sugar.

You blog about beautiful and presumably delicious dishes you make with your kids – do they also eat kid standards like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?
Oh yeah. They eat everything. And so do I. I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ketchup, and mac and cheese. Last week I took a risk and gave Dash an arugula salad with Boccalone salami for his school lunch and he ate every bite. But you never know. It’s such a bummer to open the lunchbox at the end of the day and see all the wasted food. If I’m not around it’s harder to get them to eat vegetables. But I was like that too. I used to trade my tasty sandwich for anything sweet I could get. I had no problem wasting my food. I feel bad about it now so the message from my parents got through to my brain eventually. And that’s what’s key with kids and food. Don’t stop offering them a variety of things. Make them taste it. Bribe them to taste it. You don’t always have to spell it out, but by example you can reinforce the importance of local, organic, and sustainable food. Seems like a lot of information but it will get through if you say it enough times. My one constant is I never give up. Bella would confirm that I am a broken record.

Any safety tips parents should keep in mind?
Keep repeating the rules. Here are some of ours:

For kids:

• Always ask before you climb up on the kitchen stool.
• Always ask before going close to the oven/stove.
• Don’t touch a knife without a grownup around.
• Never pull something down off the counter, even if you think you know what it is.

For grownups:

• Keep pots on the back burner.
• Let kids use a plastic or dull knife at first to practice. Dash has his own special knife that he gets from the cupboard when it’s time to slice.
• It’s too stressful to say no all the time. Instead, come up with alternatives. There’s a lot kids can’t do in a kitchen but there is just as much they can do. Dash likes to put his hand on my wrist while I chop and it’s almost like he is doing it himself. Bella is now chopping by herself, flipping pancakes, and coming up with recipes (some great and some wacky).

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

What advice would you give someone who is trying to expand the palate of a finicky child?
Take your kids to the market and have them pick out ingredients. Let the kids help with the cooking because they are more likely to try (and maybe eat up) the dish. And I have to admit that I do bribe my kids a lot (many people disagree with this technique). “If you eat your broccoli you get to have some dessert” works brilliantly. What I’ve noticed is often they will start eating the supposedly “disgusting” food and then realize it’s not that bad. And also, as a parent, just chill out and don’t worry so much. As a child I ate sugar every chance I got. But now I crave vegetables. And finally, don’t let your kids dictate the meals. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “This is dinner. I’m not making anything else.” And most of the time I stick to my guns.

What are some of your favorite blogs to visit?

I find new food blogs every week. I can’t believe how many are out there. Here’s a list of a few I visited this week:

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