Why can't the kids eat al dente?

My son recently announced plans to go grocery shopping by himself. I'm all for raising autonomous kids, but as most three-year olds aren't ready for independent grocery shopping, I struggled to honor his request while keeping him safe. We compromised: he now walks into the store "alone," while I stay 5-10 feet behind him with the cart, pretending I'm not there while he picks 5 things to buy.

One recent solo venture took him to the pasta aisle, which meant that day's lunch was Kraft Pasta Shapes A-B-C's and 1-2-3's, a food that dishonors both punctuation and proper pasta texture with its cook time of 14-15 minutes. I don't think there's a single pasta in my collection with a cook time that long, even the densest and chewiest hand-rolled orecchiette. Italians, as well as all pasta chefs of good sense, would tell you that pasta should be cooked al dente ("to the tooth"). When you taste a piece and find the center bit (the anima, or "soul" of the pasta) is crunchy, you need to cook it another minute or two. Cook it longer than that and you kill its soul. 

But because my son and I were cooking the pasta together, and because he'd read the instructions on the back of the bag, he insisted we set the timer for 14 minutes.

I skipped lunch. 

The next few times we went grocery shopping, I paid more attention to pasta cook times. The grocery brand's alphabet pasta, which my son prefers to Kraft's version because it contains the other 23 letters, calls for 9-11 minutes, a surprisingly long time for a rice-sized pasta shape. 

All of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese's film tie-ins (Cars, Despicable Me, Finding Dory, Star Wars, Trolls) have a cook time of 11-12 minutes, but the classic blue box takes only 7-8 minutes. 

Back to Nature's Macaroni and Cheese has an even wider gap between kid and adult pasta cook times. The craziest thing about its Crazy Bugs is the 15-17 minute cook time. The Alphabets call for 14-15 minutes. But the Original version is ready in 7-8 minutes. 

I reached out to Kraft's Consumer Relations to ask about the disparity in their pasta cooking times for "adult" and "kid" products. Why are pasta cook times are longer for kids' shapes, even when comparable pasta shapes from other brands have shorter cook times? Is it simply a matter of textural preference for kids, and, if so, had Kraft done market research into that preference? Kraft was unwilling to comment. When I visited Back to Nature's website in order to pose the same questions, I discovered that the premium organic brand is owned by Kraft

What does Kraft know about pasta cook times that I don't? Do kids really need pasta cooked nearly twice as long as the grown-ups' pasta?

Explanation 1: Kids' pasta contains different ingredients than adults' pasta 

The cooking time gap would make sense if kid pastas were made from hardier wheat than their grown-up counterparts. A quick look at the pastas in our house suggests that's not the case. 

Kraft's A-B-C's and 1-2-3's lists "durum wheat semolina" as its main ingredient. Barilla's pastas are made from "semolina (wheat)" and "durum wheat flour." Although that seems repetitive, the distinction is important, because it means that Barilla processes some of its own grain instead of relying solely on flour. 

As a result, it's likely that Barilla's pasta will be harder than Kraft's version after the same amount of cook time. That would suggest Kraft's pasta should actually be ready faster than Barilla pasta, not 7-8 minutes later. 

Explanation 2: Novelty pasta shapes take longer to cook 

You've probably suffered through at least one batch of bow ties that were floppy on the outside but still crunchy on the inside. Pastas with uneven textures will often cook unevenly. That seems like a reasonable explanation for novelty shapes, because they'll be thick in some spots and thin in others. 

But this explanation, much like the pasta, is flimsy, because of the methods used to cut novelty shapes. Go look at the priciest Italian import at your grocery store and you'll notice that the Italian one will look rough and craggy, while the store brand is satiny-smooth. The teflon dies use to extrude those super smooth pastas are cheaper and longer-lasting, and by many accounts make worse pasta. But the bronze dies favored by traditionalists are harder to use for novelty pastas, because the pasta needs to retain a very specific shape. The extruders used to make novelty pasta completely smooth, so a Minion or Troll will still look like a Minion or Troll when cooked. These pasta shapes, because they're so uniform, should cook evenly and quickly. 

Explanation 3: Kids prefer mushy food

Pasta is one of the first finger foods given to small kids. In a world where parents are terrified of choking hazards, it's possible that the mushy pasta problem emerged from feeling that al dente pasta presented too much of a risk (it doesn't, by the way), and that preference, cemented around age 1, follows kids into elementary school. 

So maybe it's just a texture thing. Are companies like Kraft simply catering to innate preferences for mushy textures?

I resolved to answer this question with a thoroughly unscientific experiment. Would a three-year-old presented with pastas cooked at different times prefer the more texturally-complex al dente pieces to the overcooked pieces? 

I set a pot of salted water to boil and added a package of Kraft A-B-C's and 1-2-3's. I hypothesized that the pasta would be finished in about eight minutes. I spent that time labelling the underside of paper plates in one-minute intervals. I then scooped out pasta at 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 minutes and added each scoop to its corresponding plate. I shuffled the plates and announced dinner. 

 Plain pasta taste test.

Plain pasta taste test.

My subject indiscriminately scarfed down most of the pasta (after all, it was nine plates of mom-sanctioned plain pasta for dinner), but when pausing for sips of milk he pointed to which ones he liked best. He chose the 9, 13, and 15 minutes: he had no clear preference for any one cook time.

The 6-minute gap between his favorites suggests that kid pasta cook times are flexible. Maybe the long times printed on kid pasta packaging just reassure harried parents who forgot they had the stove on that they don't have to throw out pasta they think has overcooked. 

The bigger problem here may not be the difference in kid and adult cook times, or even the inferior quality pastas marketed to kids. It's that our product packaging provides instructions for something that can really only be understood through experience. Oretta Zanini de Vita's Encyclopedia of Pasta includes 310 pasta shape entries with incredible detail regarding the origins, methods of production, and serving suggestions for each of its 310 pasta shape entires, but does not include a single cook time. 

Instead of blindly following instructions, parents should step back 5-10 feet and teach our kids the simple joy of fishing a piece of pasta out and testing to see if it's done.