Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Teach Your Children Well

Ruth Reichl, Editor of Gourmet Magazine, sheds light on the question of what we should feed our children. I agree with her that we should aspire to a family dinner where we all eat the same meal - and no special foods for the kids. They need to learn by example and as she eloquently states :
"Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is endlessly delicious."

Here is her entire letter:
"Be warned: This is a rant. If you don't want to listen, turn the page. But I recently read a laudatory article about the opening of a new shop in New York City dedicated to children's food, and the very notion drives me so crazy that I simply can't keep quiet.On the surface it seemed a rather charming idea: a shop dedicated to food that children will eat. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to feel that this epitomizes everything that's wrong with the way we eat today.For starters, the notion that children are a separate species who require a different diet from the rest of us pretty much does away with the concept of the family meal. The point of eating together, it seems to me, is not just that we all sit down around the same table but also that we share the food. The same food.Children study their parents--that is their primary job in life--and one of the things they absorb is the way the grown-ups eat. "Oh look, Mommy loves salad and Daddy thinks spaghetti alla bolognese is swell" is one lesson learned at the family table. The message is that these are delicious and desirable foods, and the obvious conclusion is "I'll probably like them, too." But if little Suzy and Sam get applesauce instead of salad and naked pasta in place of meat sauce, the lesson is quite different. What we are really telling our children is "You won't like what we are eating."And yet we know that what children like is mostly learned. Japanese children are not born thinking that rice, fish, and seaweed are breakfast foods any more than American children are born with an innate preference for cereal. We tell them what they like, even if we don't say it in words.No thinking person would force a child to eat food he didn't want. That turns the dinner table into a battleground and ultimately makes everyone miserable. It's just plain stupid. But by the same token, no conscious parent would really want to tell his children, night after night, that they are going to dislike the food that the grown-ups are eating.The great anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss did groundbreaking work when he observed that in turning the raw into the cooked we transform nature into culture; in other words, cooking is one of the ways in which we define ourselves as civilized creatures. Through our cooking, and our eating habits, we tell ourselves who we are. When we offer our children a different menu, we are telling them that they are different from us. And being different, that we also have different expectations of them. Why, then, should we be surprised that many modern children have such poor table manners? In giving them children's food, we are essentially telling them that they are not expected to behave like adults when they are at the table.We're supposed to be the grown-ups, and when we ask children to choose their own food, we're offering them choices they would probably rather not make. And if we are incapable of making the easy decisions about what's for dinner, why should they trust us to make the harder ones? Offering children a special menu may make life momentarily more comfortable, but in the long run it's a cop-out, a way of walking away from one of the responsibilities of being a parent.But there's an even more important reason for us to be dismayed by special menus aimed at pleasing your young palates. When we feed children the old familiar grilled cheese sandwiches and vanilla ice cream, we are teaching them to stick with the tried-and-true instead of encouraging them to dare to taste the new.Sitting down to dinner, at any age, should be an invitation to the fabulous banquet that is life. The most important lesson we learn at the table is that great rewards await those who take chances. Do we really want to be telling our children, "Just eat your nice chicken nuggets"? It would make so much more sense to say, "Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is endlessly delicious."


Liz K. said...

I have been thinking a lot about this article since you posted it.

I am a hard core No Special Meals for Kids Mom, a conscientious avoider of all things processed and all kinds of Frankenfood. My children go to dim sum and Indian restaurants, eat organic, farmers-market produce and fresh eggs and meats. I bake from scratch and they have never darkened the door of an Applebees restaurant or eaten a Twinkie.

I agree in concept with what RR is saying, and her vision is very similar to the kind of dinner table we have in our family. However, there is an undercurrent in her article that I find objectionable. It is the idea that children should be like adults, and especially like the passionate adults that surround them, and that if we simply expose children to our passions, they will follow.

My first kid is a natural foodie, but my second kid is utterly ambivalent about food, and has no interest in trying new things. He is surrounded by parents and an older sibling who are fearless and passionate eaters, and he would be happy with cereal for every meal.

I think it is too hard on well-meaning parents for RR to accuse them of copping out. Maybe these parents are simply trying to serve their children food that they will eat. Believe me, it is difficult to sit down to a lovingly prepared, delicious meal night after night and have a child who simply refuses. They worry about their nutrition...and as RR acknowledges, do not want to fight with their children.

As a parent with a food refusnik, I have not succumbed to the nugget-based dinner, and continue to serve the family healthful, quality meals. But some of those meals are more son-friendly than others, because my son is also a member of the family, and he deserves to have a say in the meal rotation as much as the foodie daughter and parents.

What parent can let their child go to bed hungry night after night simply because they do not share your passion for food? Because they truly do prefer their grilled cheese and vanilla ice cream?

The truth is, no one can make me like olives. No amount of savoring, modeling, various preparations or welcoming invitations as described by RR can get me to like the taste of an olive. The same goes for children.

If we trult want to treat our children with respect, like adults, why not let them have some control over their choices? Why not accept that some children, just like some adults, are not destined to be foodies? We cannot mold our children to have our interests, our passions. We have to let them find their own. The athlete parent might have a scientist or artist. The gourmand can rear a philistine. Our children are who they are, not an amalgam of our good parenting choices or the highminded things to which we choose to expose them.

Foodies (like me) have to remember that it is not a character flaw to not care passionately about food, and that it is not the duty of parents to mold children in to small versions of themselves.

It is OK for children to like childrens things, and maybe they'll acquire more sophisticated tastes when and if they are ready.

Feed them consciously and healthfully, but accept who they are, foodie or not.

The truth is, I was a grilled cheese/vanilla ice cream person until my 20s.

Liz K. said...

Wow. That's a hell of a rant.

This has been a struggle for our family, obviously. I just wish it was as simple as RR makes it out to be.

Anonymous said...

¿adónde vas cuando deseas apenas estar solo? ¿y por qué no puede cualquier persona justo darme hora de pensar? .