Dinner vs. Child

The Sardine That Saved Dinner

By • May 10, 2012 • 45 Comments

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Nicholas Day on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.

sardines

If I had one piece of child-rearing advice, and I don’t, it would be this: feed your child sardines.

Almost uniformly, people find this idea incredible: As in not credible—not to be believed: no child would want to eat sardines, so why would you feed them to a  child?

I can never tell if people are trying save their child from having to eat sardines or trying to save themselves from having to be around sardines. Sardines are intense. Sardines are the belligerent, sweaty uncle of canned food.

sardine

But sardines have saved us more often than I can count: they have saved snack; they have saved dinner. Isaiah, the preschooler in our house, adores them and he isn’t precocious. A taste for sardines is easy to acquire and never lost. Oily fish—fishy fish—are a classic case of culinary imprinting: a person who grows up eating fatty fish is not a person who grows up to order tilapia.

Sardines are a harried parent’s solace. You never have to worry about sustainability: the only sustainability problem is that you are eating too few sardines. You never have to worry about mercury: there are no cans of low-mercury sardines for the simple reason that there are no cans of high-mercury sardines. Sardines are the only snack to which you can keep saying yes. If Oliver Twist had only asked for more sardines, the whole novel would have been different.

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Am I writing this only because I want to recommend the wonderful, Beckettian picture book Arlene the Sardine, the uplifting story of a little fish who dreams of becoming a canned sardine? (Dear reader: her dream comes true.) I am not. I also want to recommend its Amazon reviews, including the review from the horrified mother whose daughter “loves to act out the scenes such as getting caught in a purse net.”

You do not have to act out getting caught in a purse net before making the recipes below, although I will not dissuade you.

canned sardines

Recipes is an exaggeration. These are basically exercises in fine motor skill control. The first: open can of sardines; do not pass go, do not put on plate. Let’s be honest: this is how most small fish disappear around here.

The second is the brilliant Sardine Butter from cristinasciarra. This is more concept than recipe, but who needs a recipe when you have this much concept?

The third is a riff on Chad Robertson’s sardines with hummus recipe in Tartine Bread: the hummus tames the sardines; the sardines tickle the hummus. It’s as if kids’ food sat down at a tapas bar. Robertson’s version is better: he uses fresh garbanzos and lightly fries the bread. Mine is doable: make or buy your preferred hummus; I will not judge you. (I know I was last heard complaining about beans: insert obligatory self-exculpating Emerson quote here.) Toast bread and spread with hummus, mixed with parsley or cilantro. Top with sardines from a can. Sprinkle with smoked paprika, if you have it.

There is no reason not to call this dinner.

sardine

Sardines, Hummus, Toast: See the recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

Jump to Comments (45)

Tags: Nicholas Day, kids, parenting, weeknight, dinner, sardines, arlene the sardine, how to save dinner, everyday cooking

Comments (45)

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11 months ago LakeRuby

Delightful. I plan to introduce sardines to my 15 month old immediately.

Stringio

about 1 year ago Midge K. Manlapig

My siblings and I all grew up eating sardines. In fact, Friday-morning breakfasts during the school-year always seemed to consist of sardines in tomato sauce sauteed with sweet onions and fresh garlic. For this reason, I'm shocked to know that there are STILL parents who won't feed their kids sardines!

Stringio

over 1 year ago Ingrid Bates

Too late for my kids! They're 17, 19, and 21! Why does my sister love sardines and I hate them?

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almost 2 years ago MamaKaryn Eaves

I just heated up some smoked gouda mashed potaoes with 1/2 can sardines topped with tomato,avocado,red onion, and parsley..heavenly, gonna go finish the rest, witha martini

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about 2 years ago chava

So I wanted to try the make-your-own tinned sardines mentioned by Kitchen Butterfly, but the link didn't work. Glad to have chocolate on toast with olive oil and salt, but...I'd still like to try the poaching fresh sardine fillets. Has anybody else had a problem?

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about 2 years ago witloof

I love canned sardines mashed up and spread on bread with avocado. Or just broken up gently and mixed with cut up cherry tomatoes and a vinaigrette.

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over 2 years ago AnyaTika

Unfortunately for this write up I don't remember my first sardine but I do remember my first raw oyster, landlocked in North GA sticks, my father pulled a raw one outta the fridge and said open up. I took it pretty well considering. My second oyster was from my mother and it was smoked, on a saltine, outta the can, with a bit of dijon. I've grown from those experiences to love the strong flavored, sour, bitter and extreme flavors. Thanks, parents of the world, who find great pleasure in watching the face contort on their child as they feed them their first intense (and by normal parents' bland standards: adult food) flavors. Looking back on what my parents must have felt brings me the same joy.

Did anyone ever read the article written by an American chef -when duck fat fries was something new- about how baby food was silly and he was feeding his toddler all the soft foods he was eating? Same ilk, never tires.

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over 2 years ago jenmmcd

You've convinced me. I'm going to try this with my sons who are 3 and 4.. Hope I'll reach them in time!

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over 2 years ago jenmmcd

You've convinced me. I'm going to try this with sons who are 3 and 4.. Hope I'll reach them in time!

Cookbooks

over 2 years ago nettleandquince

Nice post, great title - I've often felt the same way. One of my sons' favorite dinner for a long time was sardines and rice. Two easy, practical, non perishable staples. Of course, it does requires some cooking...

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over 2 years ago Sauertea

I wish I had dared to try this with my daughter. I have memories of my grandparents having sardines for cocktail hour. From that I ate sardinia sandwiches with mustard! Thanks for jogging ny memory.

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over 2 years ago Sauertea

I wish I had dared to try this with my daughter. I have memories of my grandparents having sardines for cocktail hour. From that I ate sardinia sandwiches with mustard! Thanks for jogging ny memory.

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over 2 years ago Sauertea

I wish I had dared to try this with my daughter. I have memories of my grandparents having sardines for cocktail hour. From that I ate sardinia sandwiches with mustard! Thanks for jogging ny memory.

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over 2 years ago eboyd

What a wonderful post! I too, have been a fan of sardines since I was a toddler. ( raw oysters, too!) lately, I have taken to Alton Brown's sardine sandwich, which is a piece of rye toast with avocado mashed on it, then topped with sardines. I like to add tomato and arugula when I have them. Today, my sardine sandwich was on homemade ciabatta with mustard, spring mix, sardines, and thinly sliced Yukon golds - AND an egg, over easy. Amazingly delicious!

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over 2 years ago foodiemama

Thanks for this post! I started my now 4 year old out on sardines as one of her first foods. I am not a fish lover so it was a difficult thing for me to deal with the smell but so worth it for her health. I later found that since she liked the taste of fish so much I could give her fish oil supplements like they are candy. I think starting early is really the key.

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over 2 years ago mellific

Yay! I started my son on sardines when he was 2 yrs. old. He is 5 now and still loves them!
My grandmother thought I was crazy feeding a toddler sardines but I am so happy to have gone and followed my gut instinct.
Love this article- Love this website!!

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over 2 years ago Emiko

This article is brilliant, bringing up so many important things - feeding kids vitamin and nutrient-packed foods, helping them with gaining an acquired taste for one of the best and tastiest food-sources ever and seafood sustainability. All of these things seem (oddly) highly underrated when they should in fact be what everyone's talking about! Bravo.

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over 2 years ago WFDoran

I THINK SARDINES ARE HIGHLY UNDER RATED BY MANY FOLKS . TRY THEM ON A SLICE OF DSNISH RYE BREAD WITH A BIT OF BUTTER SLATHERED ON THE BREAD THEN THE SARDINES TOPPED WITH SOME RAW ONION AND BLACK PEPPER AND A BIT OF PARSLEY

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over 2 years ago WFDoran

i FORGOT TO ADD WASHED DOWN WITHICE COLD RUSSIAN VODKA ALMOST AS GOOD AS CAVIAR

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over 2 years ago WFDoran

i FORGOT TO ADD WASHED DOWN WITHICE COLD RUSSIAN VODKA ALMOST AS GOOD AS CAVIAR

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over 2 years ago WFDoran

i FORGOT TO ADD WASHED DOWN WITHICE COLD RUSSIAN VODKA ALMOST AS GOOD AS CAVIAR

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over 2 years ago WFDoran

i FORGOT TO ADD WASHED DOWN WITHICE COLD RUSSIAN VODKA ALMOST AS GOOD AS CAVIAR

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over 2 years ago WFDoran

i FORGOT TO ADD WASHED DOWN WITHICE COLD RUSSIAN VODKA ALMOST AS GOOD AS CAVIAR

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over 2 years ago Whats4Dinner

I have a friend from my college days that got me hooked on sardines on saltines. Wow! What fond memories. Thanks! Now I have to run to the market for sardines and saltines :-)

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over 2 years ago RHammond

Yes def saltines... AND cottage cheese!

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over 2 years ago Mockingbird

I eat canned sardines on a daily basis(okay, more like five times a week). I grew up eating them in omelets that my mother dubbed "sardine patties" and though I parted with them throughout my teenage years, I'm 24 now and pretty much a sardine spokesperson. And ditto on the tilapia comment, to this day my preference is for much stronger tasting fish.

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over 2 years ago sheredel

FINALLY the lowly sardine is coming out of the closet!!! ever have "sprats" ? similar, my personal favorite, the skinless and boneless but either type will do!!!

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over 2 years ago Melissafitz

My 6yo has been eating sardines (straight from the can, at times) since she was 2. I have had to encourage her to tell her lunch-time friends not to "yuck on my yum", but otherwise getting my Unami loving child to eat sardines has been effortless. Don't ask about my carb-o-holic and sweet loving sons!

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over 2 years ago Robyne Jane

I love em, and they are still very affordable fresh fish as well, my fish shop butterflies them and they are yummy quick fried with a lemony parsley caper salsa...yum!

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over 2 years ago Anne Alderete/Tokyoastrogirl

My dad used to make buttered toast topped with sardines and a tiny, paper thin slice of lemon on top and my twin sister and I would devour them. For breakfast. To this day, it's one of my favorite things to eat- whether with coffee in the morning or a glass of wine at night. It's cheap, nutritious and delicious and I never feel like it's some cop-out meal- in fact, I always feel quite sophisticated, probably because I felt that way when my dad would serve us his sardines on toast.

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over 2 years ago simonjohn

A fun post. My 2 year old devours Sardines; I flake them into his mini omelettes, serve them with fresh parsley, garlic and twisted lemon on pasta and sometimes spread them straight onto toast for him... he loves 'em. Nice to hear others are enjoying these beautiful, and much underrated, fish too.

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over 2 years ago adashofbitters

I grew up eating sardines, never thought they were weird or anything. It was only when my classmates convinced me they were gross that I stopped. Luckily, I returned to them again over a decade ago and never looked back.

Now, we (that's me and lastnightsdinner) have a 7-month-old, and when he's old enough for them, we plan to make sure he eats them at least twice a week.

Henrykiss

over 2 years ago arielleclementine

loved this. have put ortiz sardines on the shopping list.

Chris_in_oslo

over 2 years ago Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

In the 1950's, all kids, at least the ones I knew, loved sardines. Preferably on a Triscuit or a Wheat Thin.

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over 2 years ago mrslarkin

Mrs. Larkin is a trusted source on Baking.

I wish I could turn back time. I'm at least 13 years too late with getting my kids to think about sardines, let alone eat them. But I will try, try again. Wish me luck.

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over 2 years ago Kitchen Butterfly

Oh, I'll have to open some tins and encourage my kids to have some! I have had luck with making my own 'tinned' sardines - by poaching fresh sardine fillets. Took minutes and I ended up with something absolutely delightful. See http://food52.com/recipes....

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over 2 years ago Apple to Zucchini

This is a great post and I absolutely agree, if you feed your child fishy, oily fish, she will continue to appreciate the flavors throughout her life. I am a prime example, having grown up in Ukraine and eaten herring as a child. I have fed my daughter brined sardines since she was 1.5 and she loves them. She also loves salmon roe and nearly any other fish I can offer her.

My only concern is that you didn't mention the high BPA content in can liners. I don't know if that's the case with imported sardines- I know European standards restrict the use of BPA, but I do think that parents should avoid feeding their children (or themselves) anything from cans containing BPA (which is nearly every can manufactured in the U.S., except for Eden Organic).

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over 2 years ago Nicholas Day

Parenthood is really an endless series of things you haven't thought enough about, isn't it? We eat hardly anything in cans besides sardines, so I admit I haven't worried much about the BPA in canned sardines. That said, Wild Planet and Vital Choice say they use BPA-free packaging.

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over 2 years ago Kitchen Butterfly

Validation...parental validation - thank you. And yep, there's so much we haven't thought about but it won't stop us from trying to do our best!

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over 2 years ago catewms

Say there's a person who has never eaten (or therefore purchased) a sardine. Is there a recommended brand, or any specific type that (s)he should look for?

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over 2 years ago Nicholas Day

The Ortiz sardines -- as shown! -- are undeniably lovely, if pricier. I've had good luck with the Matiz cans, too. Honestly, though, a three-year-old will very happily eat an entire can of the Trader Joe's brand. Also: some brands have the spines still there, some strip it out. If the spine's still there, removing it is a snap, though.

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over 2 years ago sheredel

if first time on eating, try the skinless and boneless in olive oil. any variety at the good old supermarket!

Sausage2

over 2 years ago fiveandspice

Emily is a trusted source on Scandinavian Cuisine.

Oh my gosh. I need that book. When I had to take a PR class once, I tried to convince my group that we should do a promotional project on sardines, selling them as the tuna of tomorrow, or some terribly catchy thing like that. They were not interested. Surely if I'd had Arlene, things would have turned out differently.

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over 2 years ago Nicholas Day

This is my new favorite comment ever.

Sausage2

over 2 years ago fiveandspice

Emily is a trusted source on Scandinavian Cuisine.

Ha! Well, I'm honored!