Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Food for Thought

I came across an interesting article earlier this week that I couldn't wait to share with you. It's called "Death to the Chicken Finger: How we created an entire generation of unsophisticated, picky eaters — and why we must stop the tasteless cycle."

The premise of the article is that North American children are increasingly becoming picky eaters because we, as a society, are allowing them to. Through the prevalence of kid's menus at restaurants, limited choices at school cafeterias, and "fun" snack foods, the author, Adam McDowell, argues that by automatically assuming what types of food children will and will not eat, we are limiting their cultural experiences and potentially harming their future relationships with food.

Dan and I love food. We love eating it, cooking it and talking about it. We've tried to raise Zahara with a similar appreciation. Though her first introduction to solid foods was puréed sweet potato, she quickly told us that she preferred to eat what we were eating. And so began our journey with baby led weaning.

By the time Zahara had turned a year old, she had already sampled foods that many adults would shy away from: raw mackerel, pickled herring, beets, curried chicken, sushi...the list goes on.

I am fully aware that every kid is different and that we got lucky with our wonderful, adventurous eater. And I realize that even a great eater will generally go through a picky phase at some point. In fact, McDowell brought up a really interesting point I had never heard before about why toddlers will often begin refusing vegetables. He says it is a remnant from our hunter-gatherer days: "Children who are just learning to walk are also mobile enough to start grabbing a fistful of wild plant material to jam into their mouths — which could be poisonous..."

Despite the article's title, McDowell doesn't advocate ending all "kid's food." The problem, as he sees it, is that when restaurants put the same basic foods on every kids menu, they are automatically assuming that kids will only eat those foods. And that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If kids see that they are only supposed to eat chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, they may reject "adult" food without even trying it. Instead, he encourages parents and schools to advance their children's palates the way the French do:
Here are some rules for French children, as enforced in the cantines scolaires (school cafeterias) that are standard throughout the country...: A child is not forced to eat any particular food, but won’t get an alternate choice. Parents and educators don’t make a big fuss when children refuse; they just take the dish away and try again another time. When the next meal comes, the adults figure, the kid will be hungry enough to try anything. And if the next meal is dinner, the child is likely to have at least one parent there to help him or her along. The French also avoid scheduling children’s lessons and activities for weekday dinnertimes.
Again, I recognize that each child is different and, knowing from the personal experience of my best friend, not every kid will eat when they are hungry. Parents should make the best choices for their children. But, as a whole, we as a society should encourage our kids to explore the world through food.

I don't think the solution to a generation of picky eaters begins with reforming restaurant menus; I think that change needs to happen at home. However, why can't restaurants make a better kid's menu? There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of a kid's menu. Smaller portions at a smaller cost that comes with a toy? Great! But, instead of offering the same few choices, let's add a roasted chicken drumstick or a chickpea curry. Good food doesn't have to come in the shape of a dinosaur.

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