I’m particularly happy to be doing this post because Heather happens to be my stepsister, which means that all those snuggles and kisses are being showered upon my very first nephew. So keep em’ coming, Heather!
I haven’t had the chance to meet my nephew yet, but knowing his mother and father, I am certain of a few things that are in store for him:
1. He will be a WVU fan.
2. He will wake up to the smell of freshly-baked cinnamon rolls every Christmas morning.
3. He will be there on the sidelines cheering for his mom while she competes in triathlons/24-hour bike rides.
4. He will hear SportsCenter in the background while he does his homework at the dining room table.
How can I be so sure of that last one? Because if there’s one thing I’ve realized through my work as a teacher (not to mention my lifelong role as my father’s daughter), it is this: A child’s relationship with food begins with the adults in his life.
I myself am Fearless in the Kitchen. I learned this from my father, though I didn’t outwardly express any interest in cooking until I was well into my college years. But starting in my earliest years, and continuing today, I’ve watched my father expertly dice onions, magically thicken gravy, patiently peel apples, sagely season stuffing, and my, oh my does that man know how to wield a wok!
My father carries himself with confidence when he’s in the kitchen. He shows no fear. He shows no mercy. And all the while, he keeps a dishcloth carefully draped over his shoulder.
I didn’t know it when I was growing up, but my father’s approach to food was molding my own relationship with it. I have never met an onion that I can’t handle. I have quite the knack for seasoning dishes with the perfect herbs and spices. And every so often, I’ll catch myself nonchalantly tossing a dishcloth over my shoulder.
As a teacher, I’ve seen the same pattern. Children of picky parents tend to be finicky eaters themselves. Children with a multicultural background are often the first to try “unusual” things like hummus or miso soup. Children develop their eating habits, their flavor affinities, and their general attitude toward nutrition by observing the habits, affinities, and attitudes of the adults around them. Young minds are naturally curious about the world around them. They effortlessly soak up information about how their food is grown, how it is prepared, and how it is shared. Food is culture, and it is quite literally a child’s innate mission to become a part of his or her culture.
I’ve had the pleasure of introducing children to chocolate in its natural, unsweetened form (you should have seen their faces pucker when they tasted the bitter flavor!). I’ve seen the wonder in their eyes as they spy the crimson crests of radishes poking out of soil they tilled with their own hands. When I had a pickle in my lunch one day (after not having them for a long time), one of my students asked me, “Is it because pickles weren’t in season?”
They want to know where their food comes from, and they want to know what to do with it.
Here are some tips on how to accomplish this, based on a few things I’ve learned about children and food:
1. Children aren’t as sensitive as we think they are. Are you afraid to tell your three-year-old that beef comes from those cute cows at the petting zoo? Or that Babe becomes bacon? Don’t be. I’ll bet you a hundred bucks that when you tell them, they won’t even flinch. Children have an understanding that is simultaneously spiritual and matter-of-fact. If they can handle the idea that cats eat canaries, then they’ll understand that people eat pigs.
2. Seeing is believing. Have you ever seen a toddler fall flat on his face at the playground, and the first thing he does is look up and gauge the expression on his mother’s face? If his mother looks concerned, he bursts into tears. But if she’s nonchalant, or even smiling? He gets up, forgets to brush himself off, and continues toddling. It works the same way with food. One “blech” at broccoli from a grown-up, and a child will spend the better part of eighteen years pushing the green stuff around on his plate. On the other hand, an adult exuberantly drooling over Brussels sprouts will most likely have a child popping them like M&M’s.
3. Children don’t mind getting their hands dirty; they love it. I am always happy when I get a parent in my class who, when their child is returned to them either dripping in paint or caked with mud, says, “Wow, looks like you had fun today.” That lets me know that they get it. Children learn with their hands – they love digging in the dirt to plant seeds, squishing tomatoes to make marinara sauce, and even using a whisk to make homemade whipped cream (it took forever, but we did it). If they can literally have a hand in preparing a meal, they not only learn about the process, but they get to experience the pride that comes with seeing people savor and enjoy all of their hard work.
Adults possess an enormous amount of power when it comes to children and food. I believe it is our responsibility to educate children about proper nutrition, but it’s the kind of education that doesn’t just come from a book – it comes from a garden. From a kitchen. From a table. And everywhere in between.