Instilling excitement about food early in your child’s life is a true gift, a lesson that will reverberate for generations. Fortunately, kids notice where we put our time, resources and attention, which will happily work to the advantage of those who live a traditional, real food lifestyle. A quote by author Wilfred A. Peterson says it all, “Our children are watching us live, and what we are shouts louder than anything we can say.”
Nevertheless, we need to focus on how we make food come alive to our children. How can we make it more inviting and fun to play in the kitchen with us, or if old enough, for us? This piece will touch on different ideas to inspire your children, no matter what age, to desire to get down and dirty in the kitchen and, maybe even, encourage an interest in better nourishing themselves.
PLUSES OF INCLUDING KIDS IN FOOD ACTIVITIES
Think of your kitchen as a play area and classroom, where children learn a treasure trove of lessons, both academic and character building. The best part of cooking together is spending time laughing, enjoying each other and creating memories. The second benefit is fostering a love of good food and an understanding of how to truly properly nourish our bodies.
There is no better time than right in the midst of tearing open the peel of a tangerine or dropping a chicken foot into a bath of stock to discuss the bounty of nutrition it holds. Keep a quick reference resource close by that details the nutrient profile of different foods so you can quickly explain why a particular nutrient is vital to health. For example, The Whole Foods Companion by Dianne Onstad or The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia by Rebecca Wood.
You might want to explain your point in more personal terms. Let’s say little Robby wants to be tall like Michael Jordan and Suzie wants silkier hair. Tell them how nutrition can help, from the inside out! For example, “The sardines mixed in our salmon cakes are packed with protein to help build muscle, and B12 to keep your nervous system firing strong so that you can grow, grow and grow!” or “This yummy trail mix loaded with almonds and sunflower seeds dishes up a good amount of vitamin E and protein, which hair needs to be shiny and strong.”
Other lessons found in the kitchen include:
• Exploring and creativity.
• Persistence—not every recipe turns out perfectly the first time, so try, try and try again.
• Confidence-building by seeing and tasting a job well done.
• Reading and following recipes works on math (measurements and fractions) and science skills for elementary school-aged children. Have a chalk or white board ready for your work.
• Making cultural dishes from around the world opens their eyes to geography and languages (the bunny trails that can be followed with this line of questioning are innumerable).
• Learning to clean up. No kitchen job is complete without working on one’s cleaning skills! And learning to leave a kitchen cleaner than you find it is a lesson that will build responsibility and take your children far.
• Strengthening vocabulary skills by using the proper names for kitchen gadgets and cooking techniques.
• Enhancing fine motor skills in preschool-aged children with stirring, pouring, measuring, pounding, rolling, etc.
• Developing skills to take on to life outside the home. This may even contribute to the family by cooking full or partial meals.
HELPING CHILDREN FEEL INVESTED
Children become invested in a meal when they are involved in any and all aspects of its creation, starting with where the food originated. Ideally, kids should experience their food up close, right from its source. Visit farms to feel the wet nose of a cow that gives your family milk, and dig around in the dirt that grows your carrots and potatoes.
Involving the family in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program is one of the best ways to do this (see my article titled “Getting the Goods” at www.westonaprice.org for more details on CSAs). CSA family farms often welcome members to participate in their day-today operations.
Research confirms what so many home gardeners already know: being out in the sun, growing your own food elicits a deep satisfaction and desire to eat fresh, colorful produce. Spending as little as thirty minutes per week tending a garden will encourage children to taste more vegetables. Do what works for your family—sometimes a full garden is impractical, so consider trying your green thumb at an herb garden in the window sill or sprouts on the kitchen counter. Also visit a local orchard or berry farm (see www.localharvest.org for resources in your area) to pick food to bring home or go on a tour of your neighborhood botanical gardens.
Another way to connect to the source of your food is to visit farmers’ markets and become friendly with the local chemical-free farmers by asking questions—lots of questions! Finally, make grocery shopping a family experience. Let the kids peer into the produce section and ask questions, develop a friendship with the produce manager so they feel comfortable asking what makes one apple different from another or why some carrots are yellow and others orange. Just as with helping in the kitchen, adding children to the mix may lengthen your shopping experience and make for a tiny bit more work, but remember to look at the bigger picture: we are building their food philosophy that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
Each child is unique and some personalities thrive on ownership more than others, but everyone likes to feel accomplished. For my little guy, when I put him “in charge” of a task, he takes it very seriously and follows through with his head held high! While kids are young, consider giving them tasks involving meal preparation or mealtime in some way. Here are some quick ideas to get you started:
• Set the table.
• Grease pans.
• Take “orders” for building a salad (give them a piece of paper or chalk board and have them mark off who wants avocado or who doesn’t want tomatoes in their side dish).
• Research—if children are old enough to work the computer, put them on a quest to find out all they can about the history of the meal. Where did a certain ingredient come from originally? Is it grown seasonally in your area of the world? Where did the recipe you are making originate?
• Clean the table and put away dishes. (Even the smallest member of the family can put clean silverware away or help clear the table.)
• Wash vegetables.
• Knead dough.
• Stir batter.
• Portion out dough or fruit with a melon scooper.
• Shake a plastic bag full of ingredients to mix.
ENCOURAGING EXCITEMENT ABOUT MEALTIME
First and foremost, meal times need to be pleasant, relaxing, unhurried and joyful. Talk about positive things; ask questions that will end in happy conversations and tell a joke or two. You can go the extra mile with special centerpieces (kid-created, preferably), soft music, theme-based tablecloth or dishes—let your imagination soar. Below are a few ways to add that extra little zing to mealtime.
Celebrate “Fundays”: Celebrating the unusual keeps the family on their toes and, who knows, may even start a new yearly tradition! Try celebrating these unique “holidays”:
• Elvis’s birthday, January 8. Make fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches (his favorite), stick in an Elvis CD and have everyone dance around the house in their “blue suede shoes.”
• Dr. Seuss’s birthday, March 2, 1904. Read Green Eggs and Ham and make “green” scrambled eggs by blending in a little steamed spinach or a dash of spirulina (a green-blue algae).
• Ice Cream Day, third Sunday in July. Whip up some homemade ice cream from nutrient-rich raw cream, real maple syrup and vanilla and go gun-ho with all the toppings!
• Plan a Theme Night: You can take these ideas as far as you want, but if you get the kids involved, watch out!
• Toothpick night: Everything served is toothpick-able, such as diced meats, cheeses, olives, cherry tomatoes and chopped fruit.
• Restaurant night: Create the ambiance of a nice restaurant with candles, soft music and tablecloths. Give each family member a role to play, such as waiter, chef, hostess or guest.
• Alphabet food night: Pick a letter of the alphabet and serve foods that start with that letter. For example, serve foods that begin with the letter B, such as beef patties with bacon, broccoli and banana ice cream. How about the letter F for fish fajitas, home fries and fruit salad.
Make weekly meal planning a family event: Giving kids a chance to vote for meals throughout the week sends a message of cooperation. Let them pore over your stash of cookbooks, check out some cookbooks especially designed for kids from the library or watch a cooking show on TV together for ideas. Just be prepared to make real food, traditional prep adjustments and substitutions.
USE MOVIES AND BOOKS TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
Watch movies or read books that inspire, or scare! “Super Size Me” is a unique look behind America’s obsession with fast food and the consequences of a fast-food diet on the human body.
“The Future of Food” offers an in-depth investigation into the disturbing truth behind the unlabeled, patented, genetically engineered foods. Try PBS Frontline’s “Modern Meat,” an in-depth investigation of the world of the modern American meat industry. Or view the new movie “Food, Inc.,” a compelling unveiling of our nation’s food industry. Watch one or all of these movies as a family, assign an essay or further research to make the information real to them.
A page-turner book to recommend to older children is Fast Food Nation and Chew on This, both by Eric Schlosser. Chew on This is a re-written Fast Food Nation targeted to a younger audience between ages nine and fifteen. Both books detail the history of fast food as well as the hair-raising, stomach-turning secrets hidden behind closed doors. Some teens may be drawn to Barbara Kingsolver’s work Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, chronicling the true story of her family’s move to a farm in rural Virginia to become locavores (those who eat only locally grown foods) for one year.
Picture Books Galore! We love read-aloud picture books in our home—fun stories, beautiful illustrations, sweet endings. According to Joseph Addison, an early eighteenth century English essayist and poet, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”
There are many books that incorporate food in a fun way. Even if a child is outside the age range, there is still fun to be had by all. Below is just a sampling of our family’s favorites.
• Too Many Pumpkins by Linda White, ages four to eight. A perfect fall and winter read, this book tells the story of Rebecca Estelle, who had to eat an enormous amount of pumpkins when she was growing up. So she vows to never eat pumpkin again. But something happens that makes her open her heart to her neighbors with the help of this most disliked squash. Get ready to make anything pumpkin—pudding, custard, pie, soup or ice cream.
• Johnny Appleseed by Reeve Lindbergh, ages four to nine. There are many books about Jon Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, but this one has such wonderful flow and exquisite folk art that it makes you want not only to make anything apple (baked, dried, pie, fritters), but also to go plant some apples trees of your own.
• Blueberry Mouse by Alice Low, ages four to eight. Blueberry Mouse is completely blue, right down to her eyelashes. She loves blueberries so much that she lives in a blueberry pie. The only thing is, she eats right through it! Make something with blueberries (sauce for pancakes, smoothies, popsicles, muffins) and help the kids come up with their own catchy song, just like in Blueberry Mouse.
• Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, ages nine to twelve. This book, along with the others of this now classic series, has captivated boys and girls alike for generations. Reliving the Ingalls’ experiences in the 1800s frontier is thrilling for children. What better way to experience their way of life than to prepare food the way they did on their little plot of land in the Big Woods of Wisconsin or on their later homesteads further west. Johnny cakes or beet pickles are just a few items of their normal fare. Check out Barbara M. Walker’s book The Little House Cookbook for ideas while reading about the Ingalls’ adventures.
Ask your librarian for more ideas. There is a plethora of brilliantly written books featuring fun foods and families around the world eating their traditional fare. There are always interesting facts to be learned and bunny-trails to be followed.
Now you are prepared to create your own recipe for getting down and dirty in the kitchen with your kids. First, start with a good base of personal excitement and investment in good food and nourishment, sprinkle in some well-planned activities to enhance learning and bake it daily for a lifelong love of good, real, wholesome food. Happy cooking with the kiddos!
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2009.