Food & fun for kids in English & Chinese: Meet Mika the Picky Eater

Travel, Travel | by Aimee Groom
Posted: March 8th, 2011 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
mika the picky eater Being a parent in China is no easy task, and getting kids to eat their greens without employing Amy Chua Tiger Mother tactics can be a struggle, especially if your kids are of the picky persuasion. Inspired to share her own experience, writer and Shanghai expat Rashmi Jolly Dalai penned a colorful story based on her daughter Manika's finicky ways. With illustrations by her friend, the Shanghai-based artist Monika Lin, the tale of  Mika the Picky Eater unfolds in English, Chinese characters, and pinyin, upping its educational value and fun factor for both parents and kids. Find Rashmi and Monika at the Shanghai Literary Festival Kids Day on March 20, where they'll give a reading. In the meantime, here's the inside scoop on the book, plus their tips for traveling with children in China. >>> China Travel: First up, tell us a little bit about yourselves. What do you do, how long have you been in China, and what brought you both here in the first place? Rashmi: I'm currently a writer and mother of two in Shanghai, although I haven't always been. Back in New York, I wore three work hats—management consultant, writer and parent. What brought me here was the chance to drop one! We came here for a one-year trial stint in 2007, and then returned to stay in 2009. Monika: Five years ago I took a job as Art Director for an American self-publishing company that was outsourcing their design services to Shanghai, using Chinese designers. The designers were having some issues regarding understanding American book genres and the needs of the American publishing world. The publisher felt that someone with a teaching background rather than a publishing background was needed to bridge the cross cultural visual communication gaps/misunderstandings. (I was teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute in the painting department at the time.) The position was a 2.5 year appointment with the end goal being the training of a Chinese individual to take over my position. After those 2.5 years, I returned full time to the studio, showing at OV Gallery and Art Labor Gallery here in Shanghai (with a recent inclusion in a group show at Yongkang Lu Art). I teach painting and drawing (children and adults) and do some design work and am now collaborating on these children's books. China Travel: You've collaborated to create a gorgeous and fun children's book, "Mika the Picky Eater" which is going to be featured in the Shanghai Literary Festival's "It's all About Kids" day on March 20. What inspired you to write a bi-lingual kids book about food? Monika: Thank you very much for that compliment. As with all parents of young children, our challenge was to provide balanced meals made up of healthy food that is also tasty and fun to eat. There are so many people who simply don't know what healthy food is or how to incorporate it into daily life. Rashmi came up with a great way to educate and inspire others to healthier eating through the story of Mika. Rashmi: I wrote the book because when my older daughter turned two, she discovered that she could turn me into a short order cook at dinner if she complained enough. She started rejecting dish after dish until we finally arrived each evening at macaroni and cheese in a box. I was so frustrated and worried about the near elimination of fresh fruits and vegetables from her diet that I wrote a book! Then I roped Monika in to my crazy idea to actually illustrate, publish it and translate it into Chinese. Very lucky for me she loved the idea! the picky eaters cookbook Monika: As parents of children who go to bi- or tri-lingual schools in Shanghai, we also very much wanted to be able to read to our children in Chinese. It occurred to us that others may feel the same way. China Travel: Were either of you picky eaters when you were kids? Rashmi: Yes! Until one night, my poor mother (who prefers action over writing!) decided to dump my untouched dinner plate onto my hair. I was never picky again! Monika: I was uniquely picky, I ate all my vegetables and fruits (loved them) as well as grains/rice/pasta, but I disliked all meats. I would trade my meat for my brothers' veggies. My daughter Sophia also dislikes most meats, which I find very interesting. China Travel: And how about your children now, are they still picky? Rashmi: My daughter is improving. It's less of a power struggle now with her, which I think is more a function of age than understanding. She does know now that "growing up" foods are better than "growing out foods," but that doesn't always mean she wants the former. The trick is to catch her when she's hungry and start by putting the healthiest item first in front of her. Monika: Sophia has only recently turned picky. Some days she will only eat peanut butter for a meal or two—I mean only, not the bread or apples we put it on to get something else in her. Luckily she loves yogurt and broccoli, and will eat those almost every day. China Travel: Getting kids to eat healthily is a challenge no matter where you are in the world—what particular issues does life in China throw into that equation? [callout title=Monika's Mixed Vegetable Salad] 1 small carrot—julienne 2 medium celery stalks—julienne 1- 1 ½ cups bean sprouts 1 handful Enoki mushrooms ½ cup black wood ear mushrooms—julienne ½ bell pepper (red for color) – julienne 1 ½ tsp sesame oil 1 tsp soy sauce ½ tsp of salt Heat wok or pan until very hot then add sesame oil and let it heat up. Add all vegetables and salt—this helps the vegetables release their liquid. Cook for two minutes, stirring or flipping continuously. Remove from heat. Strain liquid then add soy sauce while mixture is still in the pan, stir. Serve at room temperature or chilled. These vegetables are just barely cooked and thus retain the majority of their nutrients—my little girl loves to eat the long strings of crunchy vegetables.[/callout] Monika: I find that knowing what is in food is more difficult and even if clearly marked, not entirely accurate. The best way I have found to give Sophia a healthy balanced meal is to make things from scratch—yogurt, meals made with fresh vegetables (from the local markets as well as foreign stores) using very little or no oils, fresh/live seafood. Rashmi: For me, it's really the absence of fresh vegetables. In China, vegetables are always served cooked and my kids rarely eat them fresh. In New York, we ate salad every day. I often worry what nutrients my kids are missing by having never ate a carrot that wasn't sautéed or steamed. China Travel: What is your go-to home-cooked meal here in China? Rashmi: Sadly, my favorite go-to-home-cooked meals can't be made here. I'm a big sausage lover, particularly funky healthy kinds—like chicken apple, Cajun seitan (Editor's note: wheat glutena great non-meat alternative to soy-based products like tofu)—and none of that is here. I used to be a big sausage stew lover. Now I think French onion soup, a good lasagna, a baked macaroni and cheese (rather than from a box!) are my favorites. Monika: A stir-fried shrimp dish accompanied by a flash-cooked mixed vegetable salad. (Sounds delicious and healthy? It is—check out the side bar for vegetable recipe details.) I also like to make large pots of vegetarian lentil soup, freezing it in smaller portions, to have on hand in a pinch. China Travel: Are there any dishes (or even particular restaurants) that you'd recommend for parents living or traveling in China with their own little picky eaters? Rashmi: When I first moved to Shanghai, I stuck with the usual ex-pat haunts—Element Fresh, but now I go wherever there are dumplings and pasta on the menu. My kids love red bean dumplings, regular dumplings, re-fried rice and noodles. My daughter also loves spare ribs, the greasier the sauce the better. I think they are truly Chinese children in their tastes! Monika: Shui jiao (steamed dumplings) are always tasty and abundant in both the most local of restaurants and the swankest of places. There is a great little place on Yanqing Lu (near Donghu Lu) in Shanghai that has a "happy face" rating (very clean) from the Chinese health bureau. It has the best, freshest (made right in front of you) dumplings I have ever had. Sophia can eat two orders at one sitting. sasha the stubborn sleeper Mo Café (Melange Oasis in the Jiashan Market development) is the most child-friendly place I have been to. Set off a small lane inside a multi-use complex on one end of an open courtyard, it attracts families with children of all ages. There is also plenty on the menu to appeal to the little ones. Blue Frog (a chain) has a children's menu and their Maoming Lu location has a very child-friendly second floor space. China Travel: Eating aside, I'm sure you must have plenty of pearls of wisdom to share with parents who want to travel here… what are your top 5 tips for traveling with children in China? Rashmi:
  • Be mentally prepared for imperfection
  • Do not over-schedule
  • Bring a fruit peeler and a pocketknife for snack emergencies
  • Smile when people stare, it makes them friendlier
  • Assume the best of people you meet, always!
  • Understand the local food options.
  • If your children are accustomed to soy milk, drinkable yogurt, other local flavors, etc.—great. If not, check that where you travel will have what you need. In Hainan, we had a very difficult time getting apple juice. Had we checked in advance and been aware of this, we would have brought some boxes with us.
  • Light-weight/compact stollers. China is not a very stroller friendly place. Be sure to bring the lightest, smallest stroller possible.
  • Bring the usual distractions. Be sure to plan for unexpected waits. Although many transportation systems are well run, there will inevitably be situations in which a coloring book, small DVD/video playing device, book or favorite toy will come in handy and there will be few things around to help distract your children. Also, always bring snacks for that very reason.
  • Know where you're going. This sounds obvious, but I mean really know. Have it written out in Chinese unless you know Mandarin.
  • Be prepared to be crowded in. Particularly if you have small or lighter haired children, you will be the objects of much attention. The Chinese love children and have no problem letting you know it. It's best to make peace ahead of time with the knowledge that there will be attempts to touch, hold, feed, take pictures of and talk about your children—or at least to try and figure out how you may deal with it.
China Travel: Can you recommend any destinations or attractions that are particularly suited to family travel in China? Rashmi: We haven't traveled so much in China because both my two pregnancies were tough, and my son is still an infant and requires mountains of stuff. We've been to the nearby favorites—Hangzhou and Suzhou—but this is no reflection of my intent. As soon as my son is out of diapers, I plan on taking those two kids everywhere. I think China is a place in which you just have to get out and see! Monika:
  • Gulangyu (Xiamen) was a great place to bring children in that there are no cars.
  • Hainan was great once we had our supplies in hand—going to the beach is always a good idea. Sanya was especially good as everything was within walking distance.
  • In Shanghai, the Shanghai Ocean Aqaurium is always a nice place to visit as is Zhongshan Park which has lots of space to run around, areas to set up camp for the day and plenty of other children. For older children (6- 7-years and up) the Pottery Workshop on Shaanxi Nan Lu is a great place to bring children.
China Travel: Do you have any plans for any future children's books or collaborations? Rashmi: Yes! We have "Sasha the Stubborn Sleeper" launching at the literary festival and two more to come over the next year or so. We're just getting started! Monika: Yes, we managed to finish our second title for the Shanghai Lit Fest, "Sasha the Stubborn Sleeper". There's also a cookbook based on Mika, which was written in collaboration with The Kitchen At, cooking school. Called "The Picky Eater's Cookbook: Recipes from The Kitchen at, Cooking School for Kids of All Ages” it will be launched at a cooking/healthy food event on April 17, and coming later in the year are two more children's books from the same series. To buy, preview, or just find out more about this great picture book series and future projects from Rashmi and Monika, contact Rashmi at
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