SERVE THREE (YEAR-OLDS)

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

RETRIEVE the bowl placed on the dog's head by your toddler. Pour in one cup milk and add salt from the shaker just emptied out onto the table by curious fingers. Add remaining ingredients. Bake, cool, serve with pride - and have your Chicken Extraordinaire flung across the room after a fleeting taste.

Welcome to parenthood! You've just spent an hour chasing your toddler around the kitchen while preparing what looked like an enticing recipe only to face rejection. And with ever-shrinking family time in this age of two-parent employment, you can't afford to waste a moment. What's a mother - or father - to do?

When cooking for toddlers, simplify, simplify, simplify, advises Rena Coyle, author of ''Baby Let's Eat'' (Workman Publishing, 1987), a cookbook of easy recipes that's still in print after nearly a decade. ''Follow your instincts ... and cook food you're comfortable with. The recipes your mother made were simple recipes,'' says Ms. Coyle who is also a mom.

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Maybe mother did know best. Those time-tested family recipes that easily made you a member of the clean-plate club are likely to be relished by your toddler, too.

Reinvent mom's recipes

Martha Kimmel, who teaches cooking for children, says she and her husband, David, drew upon their experiences when compiling recipes for ''Mommy Made *and Daddy too: Home Cooking for a Healthy Baby and Toddler'' (Bantam Books, 1990).

Their parents made many foods from scratch and ''emphasized home cooking as opposed to reaching into the freezer or off the grocery shelf,'' she says.

But the Kimmels insisted that their recipes be doable ''with a toddler crawling on the kitchen floor,'' she says, adding: ''It shouldn't take an epic amount of time to feed your family.''

Like many toddler-cookbook authors, the Kimmels suggest modernizing ''old timey'' recipes by reducing or eliminating refined sugars and flours and including less meat and fat.

''My mother used to take baked potatoes and make them into meals for us,'' Ms. Kimmel recalls. But instead of strictly following her mother's recipes for potatoes laced with ham, she folds broccoli puree into her ''Stuffed Spudniks'' (see recipe, right). Then she embellishes them with pea eyes, a carrot nose, and parsley hair to entice active toddlers.

''You might learn how to use your spices a little differently'' when cooking for tots, Coyle adds. Instead of using salt, she suggests lemon juice or zest, tarragon, or sesame seeds for flavor.

''Reinvent'' one of your mother's standbys for the '90s, agrees Cynthia Lair, author of ''Feeding the Whole Family'' (LuraMedia, 1994).

''Something I really liked when I was little was Sloppy Joes,'' she confesses. ''I took my mother's recipe off a card from the 1950s and made the recipe just like it was except instead of hamburger I used tempeh,'' a soy-based meat substitute.

She also suggests substituting sugar with pureed dates or raisins, frozen fruit-juice concentrate, or mashed fruit.

Consider making the recipe in stages, Lair adds. Her Three Sisters Stew (bean, corn, and squash chili) can be served over baked polenta for adults, sprinkled with cheese for a child, separated out for toddlers, and mashed without spices for a baby.

One of the benefits of preparing traditional family recipes is that you're likely to end up with a meal everyone in the family can enjoy so you won't need to make a separate dish for the child.

But what if your toddler still doggedly sticks to a bowl of oatmeal or applesauce? Don't throw his rejects into the dog bowl just yet!

''The best way to introduce something new to your child is to combine it with something that's familiar and they already enjoy,'' Coyle suggests. For example, serve meatballs dipped in applesauce. Or sweeten the meatballs with applesauce before cooking them. If that goes over well, try ground-turkey meatballs drizzled with thinned cranberry sauce.

Sometimes success with feeding toddlers depends on one key ingredient: patience.

''For one solid year my daughter ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches every day. I could not get her to eat another thing,'' Coyle admits with a laugh. ''One day she looked at me, and I'm telling you it was a year later, and she said, 'Are you going to make that for me again?' '' The lesson she gleaned: ''Don't obsess,'' she says. ''Just relax.''

Call in the real pros

OK, so your mother's recipe box looks as if it's been through a tax audit, and there are just so many ways to fix spaghetti or pancakes. How can you cultivate your toddler's palate? Call in the experts, as my husband and I did.

Two of our son's friends, Peter and Ben, joined our son, Nathan, for a finger-food fest and ''critique'' of 12 recipes. I created dishes from cookbooks, and the other parents brought samples of their boys' favorites.

We seated the junior judges and began serving appetizers, soups, and main courses. The toddlers - all aged about a month apart - dug in with abandon. None had yet learned the art of balancing peas on a spoon, and forks were turned into catapults and drums.

But preferences soon emerged - all written over their faces. Family recipes were the clear winners: Ben screamed for more of Grandma's Spinach and Potato Soup (all three loved it); Charlie's Corn Fritters, a variation of a recipe Peter's grandfather used to make, received three thumbs up; and Mama Lynn's Lima Bean Soup engaged the trio.

But about midway through the main course, Peter and Ben began clamoring to get down. Nathan, however, tasted all three desserts, followed by a second serving of his favorite food - Mom's Hummus. Also a triple hit. (In a food processor, blend 1 can garbanzo beans, 4 tablespoons liquid from the can, juice from 1/2 lemon, 5 tablespoons safflower oil, and 1/2 teaspoons salt.)

When the gathering came to a close, I packed up dessert samples for the little guests to try later. (A fruit-sweetened banana bread turned out to be the dessert favorite.) And the parents? When they packed up ''sippy'' cups, bibs, booster seats, and diaper bags, they also took with them a cache of new, time-saving ideas to please their sons' palates.

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