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.

Where Do Picky Kids Come From? It May Be in the Genes…Or, Not

I read this article in the New York Times last night, and I thought it was interesting. Apparently, a research team, led by Dr. Lucy Cook, an epidemiologist at University College in London, has determined that most children who are picky eaters come by their neophobia (fear of new foods) honestly: through their genes. Apparently, the team is the first to use a standard scale to determine what portion of neophobia comes from genetics and environment, and their findings indicate that it is 78% genetics, and 22% environmental factors.

Of course, the New York times piece doesn’t go into the methodology that the research team used to come up with these numbers, and I would be interested to hear about them; I know that most journalists would consider such things to be only so much gobbledygook that the average reader cannot fathom, but in truth, one cannot really intelligently evaluate the possible validity of the research without understanding how the data was gathered.

And what, exactly, does the research team mean by “environment?” Do they mean the home environment, including what the parents eat, how they present foods, both new and known, to their children, and what sorts of mealtime rituals are followed? Do they investigate how much television the children watch? What about the parents’ shopping habits? What about their habits in regards to dining out?

Without knowing any of this, I cannot intelligently evaluate how much of the team’s data I am willing to believe is possibly true, much less how much of it is probable.

I do know that the examples given in the Times article sounded much more like cases of environmental issues, than genetics. One set of parents profiled in the article even changed their vacation plans in order to accommodate their eleven year-old child’s eating preferences. Another set of parents allow their five year old kid to eat nothing but noodles, and pizza crust without sauce or cheese.

These cases sound more like kids being spoiled by indulgent parents than cases of a genetic predisposition. That genetic component may well be active in these cases, but the ways in which the genetic predisposition is being dealt with is dysfunctional, and has led, at least in the former case, to a dysfunctional family dynamic.

I know that a typical period of pickiness in children starts after the age of two, and lasts until the kid is four or five; this is a typical pattern which is believed to be evolutionarily advantageous. Neophobia keeps newly independent (meaning not attached to Mom, Grandma, Auntie or Big Sister) kids running about on their own from picking up just any old plant, dead animal, rock or tree bit and putting it into their mouths. This keeps them from eating environmental poisons such as mushrooms, berries, toads and the like, while also helping them to avoid choking hazards. This behavioral phase tends to end when a kid is old enough to know what is safe to eat and what is not.

However, when a fifth grader refuses to eat any meat other than frozen chicken nuggets from the grocery store, there is something other than genetic and evolutionary neophobia going on.

Let’s put it this way–if the kid didn’t know that chicken nuggets existed in the first place, she wouldn’t be eating them, now would she?

In other words, her parents had to have put them in front of her as an acceptable food at some point, or else she would not be eating them. The same goes for any junky, highly processed pre-packaged, fat-laden and nutrient deficient foods–if you don’t let a kid eat them int he first place, then they won’t know that they can obsess over them.

In my experience, picky food behaviors in kids are probably related to control issues within the family.

Children have very little control over their lives. That is a simple fact. They have very little autonomy, and when you have a pre-teen kid whose day is micromanaged to the nth degree with school, sports, after school activities and very little free time as tends to be the norm these days, is it any wonder that the child might want to assert his or her independence and autonomy in the only way they have, and in as disruptive a fashion as is possible? Often, about the only real control a child has over his or her environment is in the clothes they wear and the food they eat.

So, should we be surprised that there are a lot of picky kids out there these days in ages long past the generalized picky phase that most kids go through?

Also, we have to take a look at the American myth of “children’s food,” and how advertising has affected our and our children’s perceptions of food.

If you travel to other countries in the world, or even talk to folks from these countries, you will note that there isn’t as much of a cultural concept of a separate class of food which is made expressly for, and marketed toward kids. (This is changing, by the way…some American marketing techniques which target kids as pre-consumers are spreading across the globe.) In Italy and France, for example, you don’t see children’s menus in most restaurants, with foods like hot dogs, macaroni and cheese and french fries taking the place of the food that Mom and Dad are eating. Instead, kids get food from the regular menu, eat it and like it. In India, kids eat spicy foods, though when they first start out, they eat it diluted with yogurt. Thai kids start out eating the less spicy curries and noodle dishes, but eventually gain a taste for chilies, and at a quite early age, begin eating exactly what their parents eat.

So why are American kids so different?

I think it is because culturally, we have all bought into the myth of a separate class of food made specifically for and marketed towards children as being not only appropriate nutritionally, but desirable. Nursing mothers are warned to avoid eating spicy foods, because they may “upset baby’s tummy.” (This is bull right here–none of what I have ever eaten has bothered either of my kids, and frankly, I have heard from plenty of women from all over the world that they never restricted their diet to avoid spices because they were nursing. They are pretty sure American doctors are full of crap–and I agree with them–when it comes to that piece of advice.) Parents are advised to give their kids rice cereal for their first food–which tastes exactly as wonderful as wallpaper paste. After that, babies are expected to advance to pureed, plain vegetables and fruits, with no seasoning whatsoever.

And after that, kids eat finger foods. Cereals, and often, cut up bits of hot dog, bits of processed cheese.

Look–it is simple–if you don’t want your kid to be a hot-dog eating pickypuss, then don’t give them hot dogs in the first damned place. Then, even if the tyke has a genetic propensity toward being a picky eater, they will eat something other than hot dogs, thank god. Hopefully, something more nutritious.

And while you are at it, limit the amount of commercial television you let your kid watch. And if you do let him or her watch it, then watch it with them. Don’t let the children’s food marketers get to your kids while you have your back turned. It is as simple as that. Oh, and don’t even go down the cereal aisle when you have the kid at the grocery store with you, at least not until you can have a rational discussion with them over why you absolutely will not buy them Fruit Loops or Coco Puffs.

The problem with seeing picky eating in children as the result of genetic factors is that it might make parents feel hopeless, and they may give up. Experts quoted in the article warn against this natural reaction and state, “Biology is not destiny. Keep trying.”

Which is sound advice for every parent, in many circumstances.

I guess that the reason I am so skeptical about the genetic factor to a child’s eating habits is that Dr. Lucy Cook started investigating genetic factors because as she states flatly, “I came from a position of not wanting to blame parents.”

That is fine, however, in every instance quoted by the New York Times, and in the blog post I linked to, the kids in the examples may have genetic propensities towards neophobia, but these have been exacerbated by the ways in which the parents have chosen to deal with it.

Genetics do not let parents off the hook. They are not an excuse for instilling bad nutritional habits in kids. They are a factor in children’s food preferences which we parents need to know about and understand, but they are not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card that abdicates our parental responsibilities.

My favorite part of the article, though, was the link to a blog, gastrokid. kept by Hugh Garvey, one of the editors of Bon Appetit Magazine, which chronicles his family’s food struggles and triumphs with an omnivorous kid and a picky kid.

His most recent post, Free to be You and Me (with anchovies). Or: Don’t Cook Down to Your Children tells us a very relevant story when it comes to the issue of getting kids to try new things: don’t assume your kids won’t like something and not offer it to them, or worse, offer it to them with the qualifier of “you probably won’t like this, but…” (How many of us heard that as kids? How many of us have said that to a kid, whether ours or someone else’s, in our lives? I know I am just as guilty as probably every other adult reading this blog of having said that at one time or another.)

Hugh had been making pizza with three different flavor zones for his family–one with plain cheese for the picky kid, one with onions and sage for the not picky kid and one with anchovies and red pepper flakes for he and his wife. As he was cleaning up, his kids spied the anchovies, and wanted to know what they were. Dad said, “Salty little fish,” and prepared to put them away. To his surprise, his kids not only insisted on tasting them, they liked them. No, they didn’t like them–they loved them.

He said quite eloquently, “Moral of the story: Even if you think they won’t like something, give them a chance. Don’t cook down to your children. If you do, you might be depriving them of their favorite food, the one they haven’t met yet. I know my kids are anchovy freaks now, and I couldn’t have predicted it.”

I can end with no better words than that–don’t ever cook down to your children. (Or, to anyone else, for that matter.)

The Dreaded Picky Phase

I have written a lot about picky eating. In kids, in adults, what to do about it, cookbooks for picky kids, about nature, about nurture…I’ve written all about it.

And if you have read all of those posts, you know how I feel about picky eating–I don’t really care about what people eat so long as they don’t make it my business, and unfortunately, when you are dealing with kids or adults who act like kids, it is made my business.

And it is certainly my business, when it is my kid.

And Kat, my kid, my beloved baby who used to eat chicken curry, curried carrot and sweet potato soup, garlic stalks, peas by the handful and cherry tomatoes by the pint, has turned into a toddler and has entered–cue dramatic music–the dreaded picky phase.

And vegetables, once beloved, are now to be shunned.

And curry is viewed with suspicion bordering upon paranoia.

And need we mention that lovely toddler capriciousness whereby a food, eaten joyously one day, is now verbotten when next the sun arises?

It is so strange!

Morganna was apparently like this when she was a toddler, though more so with her father and grandmothers than when she was with me. When she was with me, she would be suspicious of unfamiliar foods, but could be convinced pretty handily.

Kat–she is not so malleable.

One day, she is all about bison cheeseburgers–which we call “beefy” and feed her in morsels from our plates, and then the next week, when presented with the same exact food on her own plate, she turns up her nose and declares, “No!”

Corn on the cob uncooked is gobbled down with great glee, but when presented cooked, is rejected. If corn is cooked and mixed into any other food, it is glared at and pushed away. Peas, once consumed by the hundreds, are now only eaten in pasta, when slipped into the center of the penne where it cannot be seen. Carrots are eaten raw. Sometimes.

And tomatoes–Kat used to eat cherry tomatoes in copious amounts–frighteningly copious, in fact. She used to suck the innards out of them before she had teeth, in fact. Then, she just stopped, one day.

Until Saturday–I had bought some Sun Gold cherry tomatoes at the farmers market and as she watched me eat them, she demanded one. And ate it. And then proceeded to eat more than a dozen more. I was THRILLED!

And then, much to my dismay, when presented with tomatoes a few days later, she looked at me like I had lost my damned mind and pushed them away.

Blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are almost consistently eaten–almost. Sometimes, out of the blue, she will refuse them. Strawberries in fresh form are ignored. Dehydrated, or in lassi, they are favored foods. By themselves–Kat shakes her head and says, “No way.”

Yogurt is not touched unless it is in a lassi.

That said, Kat still eats lots of foods that I suspect most kids would turn their noses up at. Pesto is a perennial favorite. Lo mein with fermented black beans is beloved. Chicken, fried, sauteed or baked, is great. Rice with vegetables–so long as the vegetables are about minced to death, is usually accepted. Macaroni and cheese, of course. Grilled cheese sandwiches with sharp cheddar, muenster or havarti are eaten with great gusto. Basil in any form. Cherries are a favorite. Coconut is beloved. Bacon is never turned down. Bread of various sorts is always loved. Scrambled eggs with herbs and cheese is almost always a good bet. Fruity Cheerios, along with lots of other cereals that are almost healthy. Strawberry-filled organic multi-grain bars. Oat bread from the Village Bakery. Refried beans, especially from Casa or the ones I make. Beans are almost always good, but chickpeas–oh, they are scary! Spaghetti with marinara or pesto is good. Creamy sauces for pasta are good. Broccoli with rice and cheese is good, so long as she thinks the broccoli is an herb (I cut it up finely.) Barbecued pork. Stir-fried pork, chicken or beef. Tofu–sometimes. Stir fried bok choy–sometimes. Rice noodles, almost always. Ice cream–duh–always! Dehydrated bananas (but fresh ones–“No way!”) French toast, pancakes and waffles of various sorts, most of them whole grain. Pineapple once it is on the top of pizza, is great. Ham is always beloved, but especially on pizza.

And, of course, the perennial kid-pleaser–fries! We use them as incentive to leave the park or behave for baby sitters. They are definitely a treat, not an every day food. Just like cookies, only starchier!

So, it isn’t so bad.

I guess I should stop complaining, huh? Kat actually does eat a lot of different foods, most of them quite nutritive.

She’ll come around in time. The cherry tomatoes of last Saturday prove it.

But I do find it amusingly ironic that after all of my work to give her a varied diet and how much I have written about picky eaters and how to avoid same–Kat went through a picky phase anyway.

It just goes to show that there is such a thing as karma (in a light and amusing sense–I am not talking about the big heavy ethical ideas of karma) and the Universe, God or whatever you want to call it, has a sense of humor.

I am just glad I have one, too.

My Pet Peeve: Picky People

So, I had a few extra moments to myself today–a rare commodity these days–and decided to try and catch up on what’s happening in foodblogland. I only got to look at a couple of my favorite blogs, but one entry at one blog jumped out at me and made me want to jump up and testify.

Amy, of Cooking With Amy ranted a wee bit about how she cannot abide picky eaters.

Her post brought forth an amen and a hallelujah from my “amen corner” here, because if there is a human behavior that works my very last nerve, it is food controlling behavior that impinges on the ability for other people to enjoy their own dinners, or otherwise interact socially with the food-controlling individual.

And the thing is–I try really hard to be tolerant of people. I really do. If I know that someone really hates a particular food, I will refrain from cooking it for them. I have already written about how, as a host, I do take into account people’s real food allergies and religious proscriptions against certain foods. I am respectful of health restrictions, because they involve keeping the diners alive (food allergies are not to be trifled with), and my own personal honor is such that I must respect people’s food restrictions that are based on their religious beliefs, because to not do so is for me to put myself between them and their view of God. And that is not my place, nor, really, anyone else’s place. So, that is all good.

But what about people who just have a list of foods they don’t like because they are “icky?” What about people who refuse to eat large categories of foods for no real reason except that they had some traumatic food incident in childhood that has left them permanently scarred? Or, they just don’t like the taste of most foods? Or, they are food controlling because it makes them the center of attention?

I, like Amy, just don’t have patience with these folks. Though, I must make a caveat here–when I say I don’t have patience with picky eaters, please understand I am talking about ADULTS, not kids. I cut kids slack because they go through developmental phases where they are picky, and nearly every kid goes through a stage where they don’t like this or that sort of food. (And that which they like and dislike often changes from day to day, much to the eternal frustration of their parents and caregivers.)

What I object to are adults who act like kids.

And my attitude toward such adults is this–grow up and get over yourself. Or, shut up when we are at the table. Or, get therapy, because you really need it. Or, I just don’t interact with them, because the rise in my blood pressure as I watch them harry waitstaff or when they whimper about this or that food and how they won’t eat it while I am trying to cook is just not worth it.

What is funny about this is that I am married to a man who used to hardly eat anything. Zak used to eat meat, potatoes, a handful of vegetables, pasta, rice, bread and the holy of holies–cold breakfast cereal. I am told by his parents that he used to live on sugar cereal virtually alone, and that there were years when he would eat it for two out of three meals a day.

Well, when I met him, he had just come back from Italy where he had his first culinary epiphany when he tasted pesto for the first time. (This was back before pesto had come to the US and taken over the culinary scene to the point where it became ubiquitous. At this point, in the early 90’s, he was astonished that I even knew what it was.) So, he had tasted truly great food in Italy and in the rest of Europe, and had started loosening up his own food neuroses.

But he credits moving in with me as being a turning point in his life as an eater. Apparently, my indomitable will in the kitchen broke him of being a picky eater, because I flatly refused to cater to his whims and limit my cooking to what I knew he liked. I just flat out refused, and cooked and ate whatever I had a mind to. If he didn’t like it, he could always eat cereal, and there were times when he did. But, over the years, his tastes changed to the point where he is quite the epicure now, and actually can discuss things culinary with me without either his eyes glazing over or saying, “huh?” at my every sentence.

Not only has his palate developed, so has his culinary vocabulary.

I do that with a lot of people. I cook stuff that they supposedly don’t like–often unknowingly, but sometimes on purpose, and damned if they don’t love it when I make it! I have had many a friend tell me, “I hate tofu, but the way you cooked it was awesome.” Or, “I always thought eggplant was nasty until you made that miso-glazed grilled stuff. That was so good.”

But some people defeat my kitchen super-powers, and are simply too whiney or neurotic to even try whatever it is I make for them, and it is these folks who bug the crap out of me. I guess because they aren’t even willing to meet me halfway and try something new. They just want to complain.

Strangely enough, quite a few culinary arts students are that way. I met more picky people in culinary school than anywhere else I have been. It seemed as if young food-controlling people flocked to culinary college, though, why, I have no idea, since most of the chefs delighted in torturing them by insisting that they try all of these scary new foods.Personally, I cannot get why someone would aspire to be a chef and yet refuse to eat vegetables. It seems rather–well, like an aspiring race car driver who won’t drive to work or something. It is just weird.

Folks like that try my patience, and tend to make me cranky, leading to rants like this one.

I guess it bugs me because extremly picky eaters tend to be narcissistic–they are so self-absorbed in their food controlling behaviors, they are either unaware of how annoying they are to those around them, or they just flat out don’t care. (Remember, I am talking about really picky eaters here, not just someone who doesn’t like okra because it is slimy and canned peas because they are olive green and mushy. I am talking about people who will not eat whole categories of food for no logical or sensible reason, and who make a big deal about it.)

That kind of self-centered behavior is extremely immature and childish, and I think that is the crux of the issue for me–I am not good at dealing with adults who act like spoiled little kids.

So, Amy–know this–you are not the only one out there who dislikes picky people. I’m the same exact way.

Thoughts on Cooking (Or Not) For Kids

As my pregnancy wends its way into the home stretch, and I am continually reminded by the ever-more-frequent interior pummelling I am recieving of the incipient arrival of Kat, a small being whose food choices I will have a great deal of input into, I find myself thinking on the issues surrounding food and children more and more often.

Both food and children are subjects fraught with emotion to Americans; the intersection between them is a particularly perilous sea of contradiction, conflicting advice, well-meaning but misguided theories, media manipulation, health warnings, fears, paranoia and worries. Every parent must think on this issue, at least a little bit (I refuse to believe that parents just go on autopilot and feed kids whatever the television tells them to feed them–for this, I may be rightly or wrongly called an idealist), as they blunder through their experiences as the guiding light and civilizing influence upon the wee humans under their care.

We must remember that every parent brings his or her own food experiences, good and bad, prejudices, likes and dislikes and attitudes to the family table when it comes to feeding their kids, and we must also remember that no matter how poorly we think some parents make thier choices, often they believe that they are doing the best that they can for their kids and so we should be gentle in our criticism.

I cannot help but think deeply on this issue myself, because my experiences with food growing up were very different than my peers in most cases. Because my grandparents farmed, growing enough vegetables, fruits, fish, fowl, eggs, pastured beef and pork, to feed most of our family at least most of the time, I was not as firmly ensconsed in the advertising-led descent of the American diet into fast-food, packaged food mediocrity. At the time I was growing up–the late sixties and seventies, processed foods were still more expensive than plain, fresh foods, and fast food was still seen as an extravagance or treat. Sure, I still was given Kool-Aid or Hi-C to drink now and again, but water and milk were the beverages of choice, and soda or tooth-achingly sweet iced tea (which I never really liked) were given only in small amounts and as a summertime treat. People who drank soda habitually were looked down upon, and my mother and Grandmothers decried the practice of giving little kids soda habitually as being “bad for them.” (Now, there was no real discussion as to what exactly was bad about it, except for the sugar content, but the practice was still widely condemned.)

So, I grew up with a mother and two grandmothers who cooked to different degrees from scratch, who used minimal processed foods, with aunts and a father who all could throw down and put a fine meal on the table, too. I learned to eat what adults ate, and little concession was made to my child’s palate. Yet, still, my parents were not “food Nazis.” We still enjoyed pizza and went out for McDonald’s now and again, and more infrequently, to “nice” steakhouses and restaurants, where I got my first tastes of aged, rare-cooked filet mignon, a meat so far removed from my mother’s thin, well-done steaks that I did not recognize them as the same food. I grew up with fishermen in the family, so, alothough I was a pre-teen before I tasted shellfish or seafood, I had a love of freshwater fish: lake perch, catfish, bass, and bluegill, with rainbow trout being my favorite food of all time.

And yeah, I ate my share of grilled cheese sandwiches made of Velveeta, with canned Campbell’s cream of tomato soup, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread. (Though, eventually, my mother relented when my father and I pressed the fact that we liked whole wheat bread (or as we called it, “brown bread”) better and started buying it. I grew up with hot dogs from the neighborhood beer joint, piled high with chili sauce, raw onions, mustard and coleslaw, or fried baloney sandiwches doused in hot sauce.

But on the whole, I realized as I grew up and went over to friends’ homes for supper, that my food history was very different from theirs. At their houses I encountered many more convenience foods such as frozen pizzas, Hamburger Helper, and tuna noodle casseroles (a hideous waste of canned tuna, packaged noodles and cream of mushroom soup in my opinion, both then and now), and was offered soda or Kool-Aid to drink, even though I would have preferred milk. It got to the point that I was more likely to have kids over to eat at our home, (with Mom’s blessing) than I was to eat with my friends, because I couldn’t stand the food they served, while with my Mom, I knew that my friends were getting good food. (And my Mom, bless her heart, would cook extra food for my friends who came from poorer households, and would carefully make sure to leave the table while we were still eating so that my friends could clear out the serving bowls without being made self-conscious. Neither she nor Dad ever said much about it, but it was their way of making sure my friends got healthy food as much as possible without hurting their sense of pride.)

Now, with all of this history behind me, I am looking forward to what it will be like to feed Kat as she grows up, continually in my care, her feeding my responsibility until she is old enough (and hopefully wise enough) to feed herself. I am both excited and humbled at the thought that it will be up to Zak and I to introduce her to the wide world of food, and it is an awesome responsibility. I -do- wonder if she will be a “picky” eater, though I am not too afraid of that possibility. If it is indeed true that food preferences are influenced in the womb, I don’t think I will have to worry about Kat disliking anything, except perhaps large slabs of meat, as I have eaten a varied, whole grain, vegetable, fruit, dairy and egg-based diet from day one of this pregnancy with small amounts of fish and meat added in as I can tolerate them. If kids are affected by their parents’ food choices, then I am not too concerned, as both Zak and I eat heartily and well, and Morganna, too, is very fond of good food, to the point where she cannot any longer tolerate fast food. (When she lived with her father, through most of her childhood, she ate mostly packaged and fast food, to the point that at times, I despaired of her ever liking real food.)

And, if television marketing of “kids’ food” is influential, I am not too worried. None of the three of us who live in this house watch television habitually. In fact, we only have the television in order to watch DVD’s of selected films and television shows, so we seem to miss out on advertising alltogether. Even our magazine consumption is such that we tend to miss most mainstream ads, to the point that when we visit friends and they have television on, we watch the commercials, stuptified at their number, inanity and crude techniques used to sell products that none of the three of us consider to be either useful or desireable. All I can think of when I watch them is “This stuff works?”

Apparently, it does with those who watch television, though, if the thing isn’t even turned on, I guess marketing is pretty ineffectual.

I find myself cruising through the “inner aisles” of the grocery store, looking at all of the “kids’ food” options, and pondering them. The cereal aisle is a wasteland of high fructose corn syrup and processed grains–simple carbohydrates all made “appealing” by the use of artificial food colorings in hues never seen in nature and smiling cartoon characters on the boxes. The frozen food section is rife with entrees and snacks aimed directly at kids: pizza rolls, “cheese” filled pretzel bites, corndogs, and chicken patties shaped like dinosaurs or Nickelodeon characters. A glance at the ingredients list of these items shows me that fat is apparently the primary food group for kids, with sugar and salt coming in close behind. Even the baby-food aisle is not safe from ickiness–sugar and starch seem to be the order of the day in those cute little jars of pureed foods aimed at every baby in every highchair in America.

You notice I am not even mentioning the phenomina of green or blue ketchup, as I find them to be to horrid to contemplate, because they further the idea that food for kids must be as fake as possible, and further the idea that food is not just food, but entertainment. While this is the case with adult food as well (El Bulli’s novel approach to foodstuffs that surprise and delight adults comes to mind), I don’t think that food she be marketed as entertainment to small children on the basis of making it look as little like food as possible.)

(Okay, there–I did mention the green and blue ketchup, even though I told myself I wouldn’t.)

What is the point of this long and rambling post?

Well, that it really isn’t -that- hard to cook for kids, and that cooking isn’t even necessary in order to feed kids a decent meal, without resorting to crap from the freezer or from the fast-food joint down the street.

Kids don’t need to eat french fries, tater or instant mashed potatoes just to save Mom the effort of cooking from scratch.

It just takes a bit of planning and effort is all.

Look at the wee lunch pictured above. Whole grain bread from the local bakery, trimmed of crusts and cut into triangles. (Kids like novel shapes cut into sizes to fit their little hands. I remember this from helping prepare lunch for my younger cousins.) Cream of tomato soup from Pacific Organics that actually tastes like tomato, and is low in fat, but still flavorful. (I like it with a dollup of sour cream, myself, but a sprinkling of freshly chopped cherry tomato is great, too.) And, locally grown white grapes, just in from the farmer’s market on Saturday.

I didn’t have to cook a thing, but it is a nutritious, tasty meal, balanced and flavored appropriately for a kid’s palate. It is attractive, with contrasting colors and textures, and it comes on a plate with cute little Japanese cartoon character bunnies on it, with utensils sized to fit small hands.

What more can a kid ask for? And how long did it take me to put it together?

Five minutes.

I could have added cheese, in the form of a grilled cheese sandwich, made on that whole wheat bread, with some good aged cheddar cheese that is in the fridge. The only reason I didn’t was because I didn’t want to eat a grilled cheese sandwich after the photos were taken–so I ate bread instead. If I had done the sandwich, the time taken would have been upped to about ten minutes.

Ten minutes out of a day to make lunch is nothing. It isn’t hard.

It also isn’t hard to puree or mash a bit of what the rest of the family is eating for dinner to feed a baby. If you do more of it than is needed at a sitting, you can freeze it in ice-cube trays and pop the little portions into ziplock bags to be thawed up and reheated later. Heck, some adult foods care soft enough on their own without being mashed up much, and you get the added bonus that baby -wants- to eat whatever it is that is on your plate, and so will lunge for it heartily, while ignoring the very same thing that is right in front of her on her own plate. (Morganna was that way, as were all of my cousins. They saw what the adults were eating and wanted that and to hell with the crap out of jars that was being pushed at them.)

My point is this: I wish parents listened less to advertising, slowed down and spent more time in the kitchen and dining room with their kids, than worry so much about enriching their kids lives through playdates, early nursery schools, “educational” TV and infant swimming lessons.

Food is fundamental to human life. We -need- it to live, whereas a missed playdate is not going to kill us. The lack of Mozart in a baby’s life will cause no great harm (what did babies do before Mozart was born, I wonder?) but, a lack of nutrients is deadly.

Food is also fundamental to culture–it is intrinsically tied to our own sense of self and history, and to our families, and to our communities. How we eat, and how we teach our children to eat reveals much about us as a people.

Currently, the dominant American media-driven culture is filled with artificial foods of dubious nutritive value, and as a partial result, we have what is continually touted as an obesity epidemic.

Is this what we want to pass on to our children?

I don’t think so.

At least, I know that I don’t want to, and I notice that here in Athens, where local, sustainable food is a goal worked on by a large group of committed community members, there are plenty of other parents who don’t want to pass on to our kids the plastic, not so fantastic American fast food culture.

Instead, we opt to cook for our kids, and spend time teaching them what real food tastes like, where it comes from and what to do with it. We recognize the value of spending time with our kids in the kitchen and the dining room, teaching them healthy eating habits that not only help them grow strong bodies, but also happy hearts and minds. We opt to pass on older American traditions that value food as an intimate part of life, as a partner in creating bonds between family members and the community.

As we look back at these older traditions, I hope that we are also looking forward to a happier, healthier future for our kids, and others like them.

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