Thursday, September 29, 2011

THE YUCK! STOPS HERE – The Culture of Kids and Food

There's more to the splendor of this world than the arm's-length sort of experience we generally associate with discovery and curiosity. Some wonders we eat.

How do you feel about eating? Is it just another necessary chore for you? Do you simply consume your food, often on the run or while you're doing something else? Does healthy food appeal to you? Are you an adventurous eater?

I'm fortunate to be the son of a restaurateur, so I learned early and well to take my time appreciating good food and to enjoy trying new tastes. This, along with my passion for promoting everyday awareness, leads me to think quite often about eating, and to wish everyone could see it, not as just another task, but as an adventure, a nourishing, sensory experience.

Our attitudes about food and eating take shape early in life.

When I was a kid, a healthy, balanced diet and a sense of food adventure were both part of our family culture. No one ever gave me the choice of whether or not to eat my vegetables. Mom knew what was good for us and, except for the occasional bootlegged candy bar or soda, we ate and drank what she served. And, as far as I could tell, this was true for most of my friends too.

Dad, of course, was a student not only of the restaurant business, but of food and its meaning to people. Wherever we went, around town or away on vacation, he loved to try new restaurants and study how they did things.

Straight up from the plate it would go.

Even at home, my parents tried to make eating new things fun. Before I was three, I was convinced my Brussels sprouts were miniature cabbages and my broccoli fat little green trees. I sculpted my Cream of Wheat into a little pond and filled it with milk. For some reason, this simple imagery was enough to get me to eat these things back then—and I still do.

My dad had another trick. He’d pretend his hand was an excavator and the spoon its bucket. Straight up from the plate it would go. Chug-a-chug-a-chug! At mouth level, it would creak to a stop, shift gears and grind its way toward my mouth. I couldn’t wait for the chance to open the hatch!

Today, though, I have to marvel at the little food co-dependencies I see played out in so many American families. Parents start their enabling by asking their kids what they want to eat. Are you kidding me? Their kids, not yet capable of good judgement and having picked up the No-vegetables! mantra from friends and/or media, inevitably make poor choices.

Worse yet, some parents don’t even ask; they just assume their kids won’t eat anything that’s really good for them, and then do everything they can to fulfill their own prophecy. This little scam is then reinforced by the kids’ friends and their parents, and restaurants, which just assume the only thing a kid’s ever going to want is a grilled cheese or a hot dog.

And we wring our hands about the epidemic of childhood obesity!

Parents just assume their kids won’t eat anything that’s really good for them, and then...fulfill their own prophecy.

Not long ago I saw a TV commercial in which a young mother's standing in her kitchen, pondering a sort of holographic version of the nutritional food groups pyramid floating above the center island. She blithely dismisses every item on the chart that's green, thinking aloud something like, "No way my kids are gonna eat these things!"

The solution she and the sponsor propose: one of those engineered nutritional drinks originally prescribed medically for kids temporarily unable to eat solid food. So…I guess the message is if you can't beat 'em, join 'em! Hey, I've got an idea: take a lovely fish fillet, some brown rice and a crown or two of broccoli and compress it into something that looks and tastes like a potato chip. Come to think of it, why not just condense it all down to a pill and sneak it into that hot dog!

How sad that kids—with lots of help from all the wrong places—are losing touch with real, healthy food! For this wonder seeker, the worst part of this is seeing them robbed of their natural sense of adventure. Unfortunately, this is happening at the same time that kids are becoming more and more alienated from Nature. It's all part of the same invisible tragedy, one which will inevitably prove very costly for both a generation of children and for society.

What can we do to reclaim healthy, adventurous, wonder-full eating for our kids and grandkids? Probably the single best approach: turn off the TV. Decide for yourself what your kids should eat. Offer them a couple of healthy options—and then leave them with just one choice: eat one of these or starve.

Decide for yourself what your kids should eat...
and then leave them with just one choice: eat 
this or starve.

My daughter uses a couple of somewhat less severe solutions with her headstrong five-year-old. First, the good ol' dessert come-on: finish your veggies or no cookie. And, if it's something she's never tried before, there's the "no thank you" bite: eat at least one bite before you're excused from the table. This way, she at least has the chance to discover, for herself, if she might not actually like things her little friends are being taught to hate.

Parents: make the wonders of food part of your family culture. Think of your kids' nutrition in as uncompromising a way as you think of their safety. Start early. Set a few basic rules. Make sure the rules go with them to school, to friends' houses and to restaurants. Talk to your relatives and your kids' friends' parents about supporting your decisions.

Push the envelope a bit. No one learns anything without first venturing into unfamiliar territory. It's the same with food. Experiment now and then with dishes typical of other cultures. Travel as much as you can with your kids, and bypass the McDonald's in favor of places where the locals eat.

At home, declare at least a couple of evenings a week as family mealtimes in which you take time to really enjoy the food—and the company. Why not make one dinner a month a theme dinner featuring a dish—and perhaps simple decorations and music—from another culture.

Be flexible, but firm. Make it positive—all about opportunities, adventure, fun. Involve your little ones in some guided decision-making about what you're cooking, and then let them help in the preparation.

Travel as much as you can with your kids, and bypass the McDonald's in favor of places where the locals eat.

Some foods I now enjoy very much were among those I didn't care for as a child. If my parents had caved in to my complaints back then, I might easily have put those things into my "can't stand it" compartment—never again to see the light of day. As it turns out, my parents' de-mystification of those items left me free to try many of these foods again as an adult. This is how I developed tastes for oatmeal, black olives, cantaloupe, bleu cheese and liver, among others.

How would you describe your family's food and eating culture? Do you have some closeted food tastes? Have you ever given another chance to something you hated as a kid? Have any of your kids or grandchildren surprised you with the maturity or adventurousness of their food tastes?

We'd love to hear about your experiences!


Evita said...

Jeffrey this is SUCH an important and wonderfully written post! Oh my goodness I wish to make photocopies of it and pass it around on the streets....yes, yes, yes! You touched so well on so many good and critical points.

The best part I think for me was the asking the kids what do you want to eat? I can understand giving them a choice of say apple or banana (or any other 2 healthy choices) and asking them to choose to feel empowered but to leave the choice wide open is setting oneself up for failure. And yes, most parents are living out their own self fulfilling prophecies by simply not taking conscious control of their own eating, which then trickles down to their kids.

Parents must understand the HUGE influence and example they are setting in how they eat themselves and how they treat family food and mealtimes.

For me, food today is one of the many beautiful arts of life. Only the finest, cleanest, healthiest and most natural goes in, and each is enjoyed like a gourmet meal :)

Jeffrey Willius said...

Oh, Evita. Your comment means so much to me, in view of your expertise and advocacy for good nutrition. I don't pretend to be an expert, but I think my parents sort of instinctively knew what was healthy and what wasn't. Maybe that's because there weren't so many distractions back then.

As for the art part, I totally agree -- what human activity so thoroughly engages all the senses? Not to mention food's obvious connection with love.

Grace said...

My mother looks after kids and often tells me horror stories about what the kids will and won't eat. She has a hard time with some of them to get them to eat her home-cooked food. The last story she told me involved taking one of the kids to the garden to pick lettuce. The kid was very confused and said, "But Marisa, lettuce comes from the grocery store!" Funny, but sad.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks for the comments, Grace. Your little story is just another indicator of our (especially our kids') loss of contact with Nature. Your mom is one who's helping reclaim it, one teachable moment at a time. Good for her!

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