Kids, Food and Culture
I was always the food guy. In high school on boys weekend trips to a friend’s house for a football game, a camping trip or any other sort of event that required a volunteer to feed our clan, it was always me manning the stove. I wanted it that way, I loved to cook. In college I cooked all the meals for my housemates and room-mates, and when I graduated I went to work in restaurants, and began my culinary career in the kitchens helmed by some of the world’s greatest chefs. I kept cooking even when I was off the clock, for friends and their families and their children, and as the modern American food movement took hold in NYC during the ’80s, I was thrilled to see that children were no longer persona non grata in fancy food eateries. Chefs in restaurants had to know how to cook inventively and with style, even for their youngest and pickiest of eaters. The comfort food movement that exploded in the ’90s I think is a direct result of great chefs cooking for a new wave of younger diners. How else do you explain the fact that Mac n Cheese is on every menu in the United States? By the time I got married and became a father, I knew how to connect to palates of all ages and had a plan in mind for our son Noah beginning with his first real meal that we didn’t have to puree and spoon feed to him ( it was pan fried noodles with chicken and black bean sauce).
Culture can get to kids with one simple message delivered with a staggeringly permanent blow. Noah will eat tongue tacos in Mexico or crickets for that matter. But one day in our yard when I offered to share a worm with him while gardening he demurred, and said “worms are yucky” and moved back to helping me plant tomatoes. It hit me like a sledgehammer. We had read the book Yummy Yucky a few times and despite his admiration for Dad’s day job, pop culture in the form of that book had delivered the message to his brain that worms were not for eating. On the other hand I got to him first with the tongue tacos but not with worms. And it makes sense … the first eaters to run for the wok in rural corners of Cambodia when the tarantulas are being stir-fried are the kids. They don’t have any predisposition to cultural messaging that spiders are strange foods, they think they are as ordinary as a ham sandwich, which proves two things. First, that recoiling from many foods is psychological and secondly, that cultural messaging plays a large part in interfering with a parents efforts to raise an open minded eater. Textures and smells play a vital role in how children react to foods, so does eye appeal, and let’s face it, getting kids to participate in meal planning, shopping and cooking helps them buy into foods a lot faster. So my idea with our kids special was to present this idea with an even bigger message wrapped around it. A message that we see in every episode whenever we sit down to our family meal.
In a world where our kids are eating the unhealthiest diet on the planet, where childhood obesity and diabetes is running rampant, we might want to take some of our cues from kids around the world that we have eaten with. Eating more small whole fish would ease the pressure and price on the most popular (salmon, cod, halibut) fish in our country. And those little fatty fish are good for you too! Eating more game, and different meats besides the holy trinity of pork-lamb-beef would achieve the same thing. See where I’m going with this!
So here’s the thing, our salute to what kids eat around the world is also a prescription for a better food life for our kids, one that has been test driven by families around the world for us. If it looks good, eat it.