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Cooking for kids? Sweet!

Chef JasHammel from LulCafe 2537 N. Kedzie adds parmesan cheese as he prepares Risotwith squash dish thgoes over well with

Chef Jason Hammel, from Lula Cafe at 2537 N. Kedzie, adds parmesan cheese as he prepares Risotto with squash, a dish that goes over well with his kids. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Jason Hammel’s seven rules for getting kids to eat:

1. Build dinner up. Sell it. But hide it like a present until they are screeching with anticipation. Aromas help.

2. Make it “sweet.” Conjure Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar.

3. Make it pretty. Make it shiny. Make it a color your kids like. Beet juice is good for making other foods pink, by the way.

4. Get excited about it yourself, which means it needs to taste good, period.

5. Make it personal. Everyone likes their personal preferences to be recognized, even 5-year-olds.

6. Let them participate. They can drizzle olive oil at the finish, add a splash of aceto balsamico, tear a mint leaf on top of a cucumber salad. Kids love to get a little dirty. Just let them in when they can do no harm — at the finish.

7. Sit and eat what they are eating. Everyone needs to share.

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Updated: January 13, 2013 6:07AM

I never really cooked at home until I had kids.

More than a decade of professional cooking, of long hours learning a trade into which I had stumbled, had left me on nights off wanting to be someone else’s burden for a while. Then came the two hungry mouths with early bedtimes.

These days, I find myself looking forward to the challenge. I have a 5-year-old with all the common ailments: allergies, abject fickleness, an aversion to anything leafy or green or, in her words, just “ew.” I have a 1-year-old who’s learning from her.

But in recent months they have enjoyed risotto with caramelized winter squash, prosciutto and thyme in their eggs, pineapple grilled with maple sugar over an open fire, goat’s milk custard and burgers seasoned liberally, lovingly, lip-smackingly, with anchovy oil.

I submit they are as picky as your kids. My son can regally sweep entire plates of food on the floor if it pleases him. My kids, however, have an advocate: me.

Over years of cooking, I have begun to understand one basic principle: It’s about “the love.” My daughter always brings up the love in a recipe. She will look at a dish of sweet potato polenta with poached shrimp and demand, matter-of-factly, “Hey Dad, did you remember the love?”

In our house, “the love” isn’t just some kind of sentimental way of saying we care about what we feed our kids. It is making sure the food is something they are going to want to eat. It is the skill of a chef who knows how to sell what he makes, how to market it, present it and make it shine.

Writing a restaurant menu has taught me a lot about giving the love to my kids’ meals. Things need to sound delicious. And I need to get excited about what I’m making. I’m the server and cook — I need to make the sale.

When I sit them down for a meal, I always create an element of suspense. I say, “You guys are NOT GOING TO BELIEVE what I have in this pan!” My daughter cranes her neck. “What is it? Tell me, Dad.

“Is it sweet?”

Bingo. One rule of thumb for kids liking their meals is that something has to be sweet. Now, don’t sound the alarms — I don’t dump sugar in their food. The sweet can be a drizzle of aged balsamic, a handful of golden raisins, apple cider instead of wine in the risotto.

I never let them see the food until it is done, and then I design their plates. My daughter likes diamonds. My son likes things piled high. I get out the ring mold and shape the polenta. I make trapezoidal cuts from the squash.

And yes, I make sure it tastes good first, just as I would for a paying guest, a food critic or the Michelin Man.

Jason Hammel is the owner of Lula Cafe, 2537 N. Kedzie, and Nightwood,
2119 S. Halsted.

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