Food News Roundup: More On Picky Kids Around The World, Family Dinners, Local Food in Schools and the Like
When I actually get to sit down and read the papers these days (I don’t know why I call them “the papers–” “the electrons” is probably a more apt description of what I am reading on my laptop screen), I have been finding articles of interest which I mean to post here, and then I forget.
Such is the life of a mother, I suppose.
But today, today, I found goodies, and by gum, I am sharing. (Besides, I can type without having my eyes swim around in circles. Colds suck.)
More on Picky Eaters
I was amazed at the response I got to my Friday post on the topic of picky eating among kids and the finding that much of this propensity has to do with genetics. The number and thoughtfulness of reader responses led me to believe that this is a topic which is in the front of many people’s minds, parents and non-parents alike.
So, I started reading up on recent news items relating to kids who are picky eaters.
First up, did you know that Jerry Seinfeld’s wife, Jessica Seinfeld, has a new book out on how she deals with their three kids, picky eaters all? Well, she does, and she has been all over the television talk shows promoting Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food, which is probably why I was blissfully ignorant of this bit of pop-culture preaching. (I don’t watch broadcast TV. Or, cable TV for that matter.)(Yes, I am weird.) Anyway, the premise behind the book, which has been presented previously by Missy Chase Laprine in her book, The Sneaky Chef, which came out this April, is simple: you teach picky kids to eat healthily by sneaking steamed pureed vegetables into the baked and fried foods they love. You know, like you put spinach puree into brownies. Or squash puree into “macaroni and cheese.” (Euww…ick..pthew!)
Okay, I probably shouldn’t knock her recipes without trying them first. But, I still have questions about her methods. First of all, if you pre-steam a bunch of vegetables, then puree them and throw them in the fridge for a week before adding them to another dish which is going to be cooked a second time, exactly what nutrients are going to be left from those vegetables? Vitamins and phytochemicals are notoriously heat-sensitive, so I cannot imagine that cooking vegetables twice is going to be a particularly good way to get those vitamins and phytochemicals into your kids. Also, a lot of vitamins are easily oxidized when exposed to air–so what do you think will happen when you pre-cook them, grind them up finely, thus exposing more surface area to the air, and then store them for a week before cooking them again?
There also is no nutritional breakdown in the recipes, to tell parents how much good this deceptive sneaking of vegetables into “kid friendly” foods is doing.
If you look at the reviews on Amazon, most parents (most of them mothers, at that–I don’t think I saw a single review, pro or con from a male) are lauding this book as being better than sliced white bread, but I found a review from The Philadelphia Enquirer by columnist Karen Heller, which is less sanguine about the concept and execution of the book. Her wittily acerbic review echoes much of my own thoughts on the issue of presenting “good food” in the guise of “junk food” to your kids as a means of “teaching” them to eat healthy food.
In my view, and in Karen Heller’s it doesn’t teach kids anything. It is a lie. It isn’t teaching them to eat healthy food–it teaches them to eat unhealthy food that has healthy food sneaked into it. In Heller’s words, “Hiding food perpetuates the idea that carrots and spinach don’t taste good. They do.”
She goes on to say, “This prolongs picky eating, common in early childhood, which can be easily remedied and should be, as swiftly as possible. Otherwise, you will be responsible for producing a high-maintenance adult who will have trouble sustaining relationships with attractive partners, thereby forcing you to serve bland food for decades.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. (Of course, Heller goes on to snark about both of the Seinfelds and their personalities, which may annoy or amuse you, depending on your own personality, which is why I am warning you about it here. I have to admit to chuckling, even if what she said wasn’t very nice.)
Interestingly, however, I found an older article, from last month, which shows that this picky kid problem may indeed be more related to American culture, especially our ways of shopping, and cooking, or more often, not, and the mass-media driven food marketing juggernaut directed at children.
This fascinating feature is an interesting twist to my assertion that people in other countries do not seem to have the same strange ideas about children’s food that we do in the US; instead of pointing out what kids in other countries eat, this article talks about what expatriate American kids eat in other countries, and what they eat when they come home. The families featured in this piece make me feel even more strongly that the genetic component to neophobia may exist, but culture and environment seem to be an even larger component of how neophobia manifests in a set of picky eating behaviors.
In the International Herald Tribune, a newspaper devoted to the English-speaking expatriate community, reporter Jennifer Conlin and mother of three tells a story about how her European-born kids exhibit much more sophisticated tastes than their US-born counterparts, much to the confusion of wait staff in US restaurants.
“Last summer, while on home leave in the United States, my family and I had dinner at a child- friendly Italian restaurant in upstate New York. Things were going fine until my Europe-born children, ages 13, 9 and 8, ordered their meals – spaghetti carbonara, seafood linguini and pasta primavera – and then turned down the waitress’s offers to leave out the spices or serve the sauce on the side.
The waitress was flummoxed. “This is the first time in five years of working here I have seen children order an adult dish completely unaltered,” she said. “Where are you from?””
She goes on to relate similar tales from the experiences of other parents and kids in the expatriate community, including the experience of a cooking teacher who had an eye-opening experience with another American expatriate mother in a state of culinary culture shock. Cooking instructor Katy Kinsolving blames this culture shock on the lack of cooking skills of many American parents.
“I know of a young American woman in Italy who found the grocery stores there very strange,” Kinsolving said. “‘They have no food here,’ she said. ‘Only things to make food from.'”
It is a fascinating little article–I highly recommend you read it, because it made me think that there should be some way to research the differences in cultural environment in the development of picky eating habits among American (and British) kids. A researcher could compare the lifestyles and food cultures surrounding American families residing in the US, and those residing in Europe, Asia or elsewhere. I think that the results would not only make a fascinating scholarly paper, but probably also a really interesting, general interest non-fiction book. (Hrm….I -was- thinking of going to grad school starting next fall or spring….)
It also spoke of how important the family meal is, and how in cultures outside of the US, that importance is still culturally relevant and alive.
Which brings us to our next topic of conversation:
The Family Meal is Still a Good Thing, Even if the TV is On
In the New York Times health blog, I found a post on the newest round of research on how the family meal is good for kids. This round of inquiry found, much to the surprise of the researchers, that even if the family has the television on while they are sitting down to a meal together, the benefits of the meal to the children, which include better nutrition, are just as apparent. This stands on its head the conventional wisdom that television viewing while eating leads to poor eating habits including over-consumption, and eating fat, salt and sugar laden junk foods.
This study, conducted at the University of Minnesota, shows that on average, families who eat around the dinner table without the television on and those who gather around the glowing video box, are both eating meals of roughly equivalent value. In fact, the results of the research point to the idea that in order to change a child’s diet for the better, a parent need only fix a meal and sit down and eat with them, whether at the table, in front of the television, on the ground in the backyard or on the roof of your apartment building. It doesn’t matter. Just cook (together, preferably) and sit down and eat together, and your kid will consume more vitamins, minerals, vegetables and other nutrient rich foods than he or she would if they ate alone.
This result doesn’t surprise me in the least. Humans are social animals, and food is not just fuel to us, it is culture. It isn’t just a bunch of chemicals that keep our bodies alive and kicking, it is sustenance for our minds, hearts and souls as well which promotes connection to each other and the world around us.
So, if you want to make sure your kids eat healthily, do better in school, and have a deep connection to you and the rest of your family, cook a meal together and sit down and eat it together.
It really is that simple.
(This report also made me feel a little better about the number of meals we have eaten seated around the television watching an episode of the X-Files from our new DVD sets, or the newest episode of Torchwood or Dr. Who we downloaded from the ‘net.)
How Hard Can It Be To Get Local Food Into Local Schools?
According to Kim Severson’s article, “Local Carrots With a Side of Red Tape” from this morning’s New York Times, the answer is, “Pretty tough.”
Chronicling the arduous process of hoop-jumping a local New York carrot farmer has had to go through in order to get local carrots in New York City schools, the article shines a light on the murky complexity that comes when the issues of local food, federal school lunch program funding, local school boards, budgets and the federal farm bill become enmeshed into a nearly impenetrable web of “It can’t be done.”
This article is enough to dissuade most inexperienced parents and farmers who want to go all “food activist” on their local school system, but fear not–there is help out there for those who want to tackle the issue.
Enter chef Ann Cooper, a self-described “renegade lunch lady” (-THAT- is a title to aspire to!) who has tirelessly worked to improve the nutritional and culinary value of the school lunches of New York and the rest of the US for years. Her new book, Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children serves as a primer to neophyte food activists who want to wade into the swift moving waters of local politics and help change the way children in schools eat for the better, but who have no idea how to go about it.
Transforming the way our school lunch system works is going to be a long, difficult battle, but is one that is well worth fighting.
And finally, a food story from Japan, by way of the Washington Post:
Rice Is Nice, But Bread Is Best?
“Sticky Times for Rice As Japan Breaks Bread” by Lori Aratani outlines and elucidates the sad fact that per capita consumption of rice in Japan has halved since the 1960’s, in large part due to the growth in popularity of European and American style wheat breads.
While I am sad that the traditional food culture of Japan is suffering as more and more young people reject rice as a staple food, I cannot help but find this culinary cross-pollination fascinating, because it is led by the Japanese free marketplace.
During the US occupation in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, dietary change was attempted by forcing Japanese school children to eat several “bread meals” in school lunches per week. While this was nothing short of culinary cultural imperialism, this new fascination with bread among the youth of Japan is nothing of the kind. It is purely a case of cultural curiosity on the part of the Japanese themselves, which is probably a good thing.
Besides, it has led to a flowering of culinary innovation as rice growers, millers and marketers come up with various rice breads and interesting half-polished rice varieties which include some of the bran and germ, which not only result in better nutritive value, but tints the cooked rice fascinating colors like pink or violet, both of which have brpoven popular with the young adult market which has overwhelmingly begun to prefer wheat products.
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