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The Sardine That Saved Dinner

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



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.


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.

jar sardines

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.


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

Photos by James Ransom

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

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