“Crunchy carrots! Cool cucumbers! And rice! You are so delicious. (And there are so many of you.)”
I had just asked Alicia what she wanted to put on top of our bibimbap tonight, and she recited me one of her favorite lines from the book I wrote for her. She went on to add:
“I’ve got one. How about artichokes?”
“Well, we could put artichokes on our bibimbap, but we don’t have any artichokes at home today.”
In the end, I steered her toward carrots, cucumbers, bean sprouts, spinach, thinly sliced beef, and shiitake mushrooms—the ingredients I already had in our fridge.
Bibimbap, the Korean dish of rice served with a variety of toppings that all get mixed together in a big bowl, has existed since at least the 16th century. It’s never gone out of style, and it’s easy to see why: It’s infinitely customizable and it can be as simple or as elaborate as you’d like.
This makes bibimbap an absolutely ideal food for kids. Kids, like adults, enjoy exercising autonomy and like to feel that they have some degree of control over their own lives. Our parenting philosophy—especially when it comes to eating—has been to offer Alicia as many opportunities to express this autonomy as we can. The key is to control those opportunities so that no matter what she chooses, she’s going to get good, healthy food into her little system, and bibimbap is packed with the good stuff.
Maybe tonight she only feels like eating green vegetables. That’s fine by me—spinach, cucumbers, and rice make a good supper. Or maybe today she doesn’t want carrots. A-okay. (As it turned out, tonight was a no-meat night for her, as is often her choice.)
Cooking bibimbap can seem a little daunting when you think about all the individual toppings, but it’s actually a very streamlined, simple process. Virtually every topping is served in one of three ways: dressed raw, simply blanched in simmering water, or very briefly stir fried. As far as workflow goes, you can prep all your ingredients first, bring a couple cups of salted water to a simmer in your wok or saucepan, simmer ingredients that need simmering in succession, then empty out the pan and set it back on the stove to briefly stir fry those that need to be stir fried. I never bother cleaning my wok between ingredients when stir frying for bibimbap.
As for kids getting involved in the process, there are a ton of opportunities. Right now, Alicia is really into her red Y-shaped vegetable peeler, and she’ll insist on being designated carrot-peeler. Bigger kids with some knife skills under their belt should be able to start with cucumbers and mushrooms. While carrots, cucumbers, and other long, skinny vegetables are typically slivered into thin matchsticks for bibimbap, splitting them lengthwise and then slicing them thin is easier to do and, frankly, tastes and looks just good.
Nearly every topping for bibimbap gets dressed similarly, with a pinch of salt, a little drizzle of toasted sesame oil, and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds, and this is something that toddlers can handle easily with a little supervision. It’s also a great opportunity to start training their palates. I’ll have Alicia season food just a touch, then taste it and ask her things like, “Does it need more salt?” or, “Do you want more sesame flavor in there?” (and make sure that if you ask for their opinion, you never override their suggestion—the goal here is empowerment and enjoyment, even if that means your spinach comes out a bit more sesame-y than you’d prefer.)
Bibimbap is often seasoned with plain gochujang, but making a sweet-hot gochujang and honey sauce is another opportunity for palate-training. The simple sauce in this recipe combines spicy gochujang with some aromatic toasted sesame oil, sweet honey, sharp vinegar, and umami soy sauce. Kids can taste or smell each component on their own before seeing how they taste once combined.
My daughter has an on-again, off-again relationship with spicy foods. I know she can handle them because she went through a two-week-long phase of dousing everything in Sichuan toasted chili oil, but she’ll still sometimes demur when it comes to adding hot sauce or chilies to her food. We make it a point to never tell Alicia that she’s not going to like something before she tries it, but with spicy foods, after she declines, a simple “that’s okay, Alicia, you don’t have to eat the spicy stuff. Usually people don’t like spicy stuff until they’re really big kids or grown-ups anyway” will get her to immediately change her mind.
Finally, when serving bibimbap, I’ll make a big bowl with all the toppings for me and my wife Adri in the kitchen, but for Alicia I’ll scoop out a separate bowl of white rice, then offer her a plate with every topping on it, and a fried egg to the side (sometimes we’ll go with a raw egg yolk instead of a fried egg—tamago kake gohan is her favorite breakfast). She can then pick and choose how she’s going to eat her food (she, like many kids, typically prefers everything on her plate separate). One of our favorite activities at dinner is to come up with interesting bites (“okay, this time try eating a carrot, and a cucumber, and a bean sprout at. the. same. time.”). Our next favorite dinner activity is to pretend that she’s a specific species of dinosaur, and take bites of food that only that dinosaur would eat.
“Papa, I’m a baby kosmoceratops and kosmoceratops are herbivores, so I’m eating spinach.”
“Alicia, how about you’re an oviraptor and you eat eggs?”
“Actually papa, oviraptors didn’t really eat eggs.”
Yes, she’s actually-ing me already.
Have any child development specialists done studies on why toddlers seem innately attuned to picking up and retaining obscure dinosaur facts?