Kids Eat Only Pizza, Burgers, and Chicken Fingers, Right?
I’ve learned a lot cooking with kids, and one of the most important lessons is this: if you invite young children into the kitchen to cook with you you’ll find that they are wide open to new, healthy foods.
Skeptical? Let me tell you a story.
In June 2010, I was one of about 800 food professionals who were invited to the White House to learn about Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative. The First Lady spoke about the health crisis facing school-aged children. One in three American kids are at risk for childhood diabetes, obesity, and other health-related issues due to their diet of fast food, candy and soda. The First Lady offered us a challenge. “Go home and adopt a school in your community and try to make a difference.”
I am a food journalist, not a chef or educator. I figured I’d write about Mrs. Obama’s challenge, not actually do something to advance her vision. But the First Lady’s words haunted me and before I knew it I was on the phone with the principal at the local elementary school that my daughters attended years ago.
Little did I know how life changing my trip to the White House would be.
During the past four years, I’ve taught cooking classes that focus on fruits and vegetables to each of the nearly five hundred Pre-K through 3rd graders who attend Central School in South Berwick, Maine. We built a hoop house in the fall of 2010 where the kids grow vegetables for close to 10 months of the year. We planted a fruit orchard where they grow berries, peaches, apples, and grapes. Every child at the school has planted a seed and watched it grow. And in June the kids harvest the food they’ve grown and throw an all-school salad bar picnic. The third graders make a few types of salad dressings using the herbs from the garden and we celebrate the end of the school year with fresh, healthy food.
During the past few years, we’ve harvested vegetables and fruit from the hoop house to make the kind of dishes people tell you no kids will eat. Swiss chard enchiladas, kale chips, blueberry muffins, peach cobbler, fruit smoothies with locally-made yogurt, sautéed baby spinach with garlic as a topping for homemade spinach pasta, and more.
Sound impressive? Well the most impressive part of the whole thing is the way the kids eat everything. Despite what TV ads tell us (and big corporate food companies want us to believe) kids devour more than just pizza, chicken fingers, and burgers. These are the very same kids who are labeled “picky eaters” at home. I know because their parents come to school to volunteer for the cooking classes and are baffled by what they see. One mother pulled me aside, with tears in her eyes, and said, “I don’t get it. My son won’t eat any fruit or vegetables at home. He’s actually eating kale chips?”
Why do the kids at Central eat these “adventurous” foods? Call it peer pressure or the pride that comes from growing something yourself, watering it, weeding it, harvesting it, and then cooking it with your friends and classmates. As I told the young, tearful mother, “How’s he not going to eat it?”
Invite a child to cook dinner with you. Help them to discover the joys of the kitchen – the chopping, the mixing, the tossing, the tasting. The lessons they learn will last far longer than the meal or the mess you make together.
First published August 2014