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How Can We Teach Our Children to Eat Healthfully?
We asked some high-profile local chefs, a restaurateur, and our own Patric Kuh to help us keep our children eating well
Photograph courtesy Flickr/San Jose Library
Karen and Quinn Hatfield
The way to teach our children to eat healthfully starts at home. We, as parents, should set an example for our children—from the food that we buy to what we cook at home to where we dine outside of our homes. We definitely try to stay away from fast food. We’re not perfect by any means—we’re definitely not against good sugar and good fat—but we try to make sure that our daughter is raised eating simple, good, unprocessed food. It’s so important to establish a strong foundation and good habits early on. When our daughter was still an infant, Quinn would drive all the way to Chino Farms to buy organic vegetables for our restaurant, Hatfield’s, and make her baby food with those same vegetables. She grew up with us at the farmer’s market at a very young age—people still remember her and recognize her all the time. She would sit on top of a crate with her little hat, eating fresh strawberries and perfect cucumbers while we shopped. Later on, in her unruly phase, she was a bit of a terror in the farmer’s market. Maybe that’s why people remember her. But these are the memories and experiences that set a child up for a lifetime of healthy eating habits. We’re really lucky to live in Los Angeles, especially where the schools are more progressive with their general philosophies. We have visited and spoken with several different schools, and they all seem to just have a better philosophy about food—food is important, and they keep it top of mind. I do have to say, though, that, as a pastry chef, I will never support outlawing birthday cake!
Restaurant critic for Los Angeles magazine
When Alice Waters’s restaurant, Chez Panisse, opened in Berkeley in 1971, it sparked a revolution in American dining. It was the first restaurant to prove that European food traditions could be channeled through the produce of California. Today the institution has taken a lead in ecological matters (it is one of the few restaurants I know to compost their kitchen waste). With the Edible Schoolyard program that Waters is now heading in California schools, she has fixed her sights on the issue of childhood obesity. The usual Berkeley chestnuts will undoubtedly be dragged out: It’s innocent, unrealistic, self-satisfied, perhaps even censorious. The fact is that in an age where chefs are lending their increased visibility to many worthwhile causes, such as the sustainability of fish species, it is notable that one of our most illustrious restaurateurs is promoting the welfare of America’s kids.
What kids eat may be an issue, but for most parents it is a problem to be solved every day. Worse, to be solved at those moments when our defenses are at their weakest. Why must it be in the evening commute that you mentally race through the contents of your fridge and freezer wondering what combination will constitute a meal? Why must it be in the morning, when kids are reminding you that a form hasn’t been signed, that the library book is overdue and must be found, and that the five-times tables require one last review, that you must decide what goes into the lunch box? We fall into patterns. I think the turkey sandwiches my wife and I give our kids work—all we see is scrunched-up Saran wrap at the end of the day. But there’s no denying it is dull. We’ll occasionally toss in that bag of something fried or sugary to show them we really care.
Vast in scale, the issue of childhood obesity has elements that are both domestic and public. Critically important decisions are made in home kitchens, school cafeterias, and Board of Education meetings. We need to remember that range when thinking campaigns through. A school that communicates meal plans via message board is making suppositions that all parents speak English and own computers. Frankly, I get the willies when I see words associated with gastronomy, such as arugula, peppery salad, or ricotta, entering the argument. Whether little Johnny likes or dislikes arugula is completely beside the point. This is a huge social problem, and any conflation with expanded palates will only trivialize it.
The Edible Schoolyard program is a very worthwhile endeavor—a call to seriousness for parents and educators alike. Ideally though, the domestic sphere is where the right decisions will start to be made. A young kid will always call us out when they spot a difference between what we say and what we do. For once, we should use that to our advantage. If we take them for a walk instead of parking them in front of something electronic, they’ll know we’re serious about exercise. And they’ll know we’re not letting up about diet when, in the morning chaos, we hold our ground cutting carrots and telling them that a math test can always be retaken, but each day they only get one lunch.
Chef and Restaurateur, A.O.C., Lucques, Tavern, and the Hungry Cat
No matter how many fad diets, diet supplements, and easy fixes the diet industry offers us, we all know that the path to a real, sustainable, healthy lifestyle is to eat better and move more. The answer is simple but requires dedication, willpower, and consistency.
The same is true of teaching our children to eat healthfully. We all know the answers: Introduce them to healthy food early and often, don’t feed them junk, and lead by example, seeking out beautiful organic vegetables grown by local farmers and shunning prepackaged, processed, high-sodium, high-sugared snacks.
But for many of us, it’s so much easier said than done. And since we all know the difficulties of finding the time and the energy to cook at home and eat healthfully—yes, even chefs come home from work and order takeout—I’m going to jump right in with some steps that have worked in our house.
- Go to the farmer’s market. Yes, this is one we’ve all heard a million times before, but I mean right now or this weekend, put down your coffee cup, get the kids in the car, and go! Remember, it doesn’t have to be a life-changing event—you don’t have to buy everything, and you don’t have to radically alter your lifestyle. Just let your kids each pick two vegetables and incorporate them into a couple of dinners. Wander through the market, smelling the produce, talking to the farmers. I don’t mean to stereotype, but in my experience, farmers are generally really nice people who are happy to talk about their farms.
- Plant a few seeds. Nothing teaches kids better than letting them do something “all by myself.” We planted some herbs and carrots in pots outside the kitchen door—they loved digging in the dirt, and now they run outside every morning to report on their garden.
- In the same vein, grow a tree! A friend gave my twins a kumquat tree for their second birthday, and they love nothing more than watering it, reporting on the ripening of the fruit and then picking and eating their very own kumquats. They wait for them to turn from green to orange—it’s like magic! And who knew such a sour little fruit would become a kid favorite? Stop by a nursery and pick up a couple of miniature fruit trees and “give” them to your kids. Remind them to water them, ask how the fruit is growing, talk a little about nature.
- Snack on the good stuff. Kids never stop learning from our behavior. When you make dinner, even if it’s chopping some vegetables to add to a jar of pasta sauce, nibble on the veggies while you chop. Don’t say anything, just treat your pile of diced carrots or broccoli florets like a bag of chips you can’t stay away from. Soon enough, your kids will want some too.
- And last, let them help with the cooking. Children, at least my children, love dressing up. So get them aprons, step-stools, and a small knife (age-dependent, of course), and put them to work as your sous-chefs. My kids love nothing more than to hear “Mommy needs your help.” They can pick herbs, shell beans, husk corn, or wash carrots. They’re far more likely to eat dinner if they helped to make it!
Debra K.W. Topham MS, CNS
Director of Knowledge Bank (a regulatory and nutrition science consultant) and food and nutrition lecturer at Chapman University
We have so many opportunities to teach children that are missed. If we integrate a better understanding and respect from birth, we won't lose the opportunity to teach the important connection between food and nutrition. As parents, caregivers, and teachers, we must also practice what we preach and show consistency in our messages, starting when children begin lifting the spoon to their own mouths. It is impractical to expect our children to start learning about food and health when they enter our school system.
We can offer them ways to judge portion sizes by using quick, memorable visuals (a serving of prepared vegetables or fruits is one tablespoon, or the size of one man’s thumb) when they are first learning to eat. This serving size is increased by one tablespoon per year of life, up to five years. When they are ready for more foods, we need to keep the momentum: One cup is the size of an adult fist and should be the serving size for cooked pasta or ready-to-eat cereal or the occasional snack food. The palm of the hand is a serving of cooked meat or poultry.
Children need mealtimes with adults who are giving them their full attention and sharing the same foods. These same children should help plan, shop, and cook meals with us and use at least three colors at every meal. We have to offer a framework for planning food selections—like dinners may be a “divide your plate in 4s” lesson. While enjoying a calcium-rich beverage, eat two of the four parts as fruits or vegetables, one of the four as a meat, poultry, or bean, and the last fourth as a starch. These same occasions are opportunities to let them know they may not like everything, but they are expected to have one tablespoon of each food offered. We are failing our kids if we entitle them to always treating home-based meals like those served in a restaurant. The occasional food jags—say, eating only chicken nuggets for every meal—is a normal preschool-age development behavior and will pass without nutritional consequences after a few days. If we as adults don’t practice setting limits at a very young age, how will it be setting limits on underage drinking in the teen years?
I applaud the foundations and schools that are integrating food into all aspects of our educational system. It is important that this momentum starts earlier and continues later. Growing food-based crops lends itself to the controversial discussions of sustainability and importation issues: Is wild-caught seafood any better than farm-raised? What if we never imported another bottle of vanilla extract—what foods would we do without? What is it like to be a coffee or tea farmer in other parts of the world? My own children have enjoyed my science lessons in their school on how to make gases from baking soda and vinegar while cooking chocolate cake. Cooking is the best way for children to connect mathematical lessons on fractions when they use measuring cups or to improve their writing abilities when they practice instructing their peers on the “construction of a taco or peanut butter sandwich.” Even letting children work with time by determining how long it takes to bake frozen lasagna is a simple lesson.
We must also ensure that all of our teachers have the tools to evaluate food and nutrition information in a balanced manner. Many more food and nutrition competencies should be part of our state educational curricula and a part of the California certification test all teachers must take. These teachers will then be exposed to all the free tools that they can bring into the classroom or share with parents from the government (www.nutrition.gov or www.mypyramid.gov) or the Institute of Food Technologists (http://members.ift.org/IFT/Education/EduResources/) as well as numerous commodity groups like the Dairy Council (http://www.dairycouncilofca.org/) or Cattle Farmers (http://www.explorebeef.org/).
We can instill a love of learning about food—not a fear of science—if we persevere as a community of educators for the sake of our next generation.
Master chef and restaurateur
Children’s eating habits start with the parents when they are really young. Just like parents have to teach kids manners, parents have to teach kids how to eat, and they have to make the right choices right away from the very beginning.
I go with my kids on Sundays to the farmer’s market in Beverly Hills. When they were younger, they would get the plastic container and eat goat cheese. We walk around and I try some carrots, and then they eat the carrots. I take them to see the strawberries and explain that the dark ones taste better than the light ones, because they’re sweeter, and then they help pick the berries. I think it’s better when kids know right from the beginning what food is. Now, in the morning when they eat oatmeal, they get some berries. My youngest children are three and almost five. They love carrots. The little one loves broccoli.
I really believe parents should take their kids with them shopping. Take them outside where they have the fresh produce and the fruits. Fresh food is more expensive, but it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. Kids don’t eat that much, really, so it’s not that much more expensive. For the people who don’t have the money, it’s very expensive to go to a farmer’s market, that’s true. It’s not really realistic for an average-income family. But they can go to Walmart. They might not have organic, but they have fresh foods.
You don’t have to be a chef to make good food for your children. I taught my nanny to buy carrots, broccoli, and asparagus—just three vegetables. She steams them in water with some salt. The carrots need a little longer to steam, so when the carrots are still crunchy but almost ready, put in the broccoli and asparagus. Four minutes later, take it out, and it’s a perfect snack with beautiful colors. I put it out with a little olive oil and sprinkle a little salt on it. And that’s it. The kids eat it, and they like it. I think it shows that when people pay a little bit of attention to how to cook foods right, kids see the nice colors and it tastes better.
We have such a big problem with health care, and it starts with nutrition. How many kids are diabetic? It’s not because they eat too much broccoli and asparagus. It’s because there’s no control at home. When my family sits down for dinner, we all drink water and eat the same thing seasoned the same way. We don’t make two different meals.
I think if we as parents are concerned about our own health, the kids will learn it from the beginning. You have to watch what you have around at home. My kids love macaroni and cheese. If I gave it to them every day, they would eat it every day. My son Oliver loves pizza with white truffles. Thank god, they’re only in season for a little bit! Both of my sons love risotto. They eat what we eat.
You cannot tell a school that they have to feed your kids. The school is there to teach—that’s their primary function. It would be great if we could somehow organize a system so that the kids don’t run away and go get pizza during lunch and instead someone brings a cart of food into the classroom where a teacher talks about it a little bit and everybody gets something to eat. If the parents and the teachers get together and ask, “What is the history of food? Where does it come from and why? What is the origin?” kids will make healthy choices. Kids are like sponges—they remember everything. If you tell them to eat cookies, they eat cookies.
That’s why I didn’t understand Jessica Seinfeld’s book about hiding vegetables in cookies. What sense does that make? The kids don’t know cookies if you don’t give them to them when they are young. If you don’t have it around, that’s better. We give our kids french fries or fried chicken sometimes, but not every day or every week.
Parents worry that their children won’t eat. I really believe that kids, when they get hungry, they will eat. They might get cranky or throw something, but they will eat. Remember that you can’t wean them off something on day one. Parents can cut out Coca-Cola or juices and then decide they don’t have to have cookies around, either. At home we have strawberries and bananas and grapes. It’s not too expensive, and they eat it. We eat it too.