Mustard greens, dandelion greens, spinach, arugula, even plain old romaine – Jacob picks through his vegetable soup looking for the chard, and Lucas jams kale into his mouth by the fistful. Although some people are surprised by how much my kids like to eat green leafy things, I see lots of kids eat and know that mine are not alone in this veggie-love.
I also know that the older they get, the harder it will be to keep those greens front and center in their hearts and on their plates, as they spend more and more time outside of my immediate vicinity, eating on their own and with their friends.
The last few weeks have seen a proliferation of cookie recipes here (and all of them really are delicious!) along with a slew of pastries, pies and treats – so much so that my friend Liz actually suggested renaming the blog “Inherit the Butter.” But we didn’t stop purchasing processed and packaged foods just to replace them all with sugary, floury, and yes buttery homemade snacks. Although we definitely have our fair share of what Lucas (rather frantically) calls “MMMMMMMS!” most of what we eat at home falls squarely on the vegetable part of the spectrum.
This might not strike everyone as an obvious topic for our discussion of occupied kitchens. But if you take a look at Marion Nestle’s recent post about “the cupcake wars” in schools maybe you can see where I am coming from. She writes, “Of course kids will eat treats rather than healthier foods if given half a chance. Isn’t it an adult responsibility—at home and at school—to make sure that kids eat healthfully?” Well yes – it is our responsibility to “make sure” that they eat healthfully. But more importantly I think, it is our responsibility to teach them to eat healthfully. That is – they don’t need to choose treats whenever they are given half a chance. Just like we can teach them to avoid cigarettes or alcohol or heroin (god help me, we can teach them to avoid those things, right? Right?!). I believe this, so say it with me: it is not inevitable that, offered a can of Coke by a friend or even a teacher (seriously, a teacher!), our kids will drink that rather than water. I respect Marion Nestle’s opinion, and I agree with 99.999 percent of what she has to say; but I think (hope) that she is underestimating our kids and their ability to make decisions.
But they are going to be up against it. And I want to be clear that I am NOT saying “make sure your kids have a backbone and then they won’t ever eat junk” because that is obviously a crock and sort of the opposite of my point. Unlike with, say, heroin or cigarettes, junk ‘food’ is not something that is demonized by most people. And also unlike cigarettes or heroin, junk is available to kids at every turn, being offered not by junkies and store clerks but by soccer moms and summer camp counselors. Their peers, the media, their schools, even professional athletes are all on the side of those processed and sugary treats. So we are no doubt asking a lot of our kids, and yes maybe even too much of them, in hoping that they will learn to habitually make healthy choices about what they eat. I don’t think we can expect it at all of very little kids; that’s why it’s important to have parents and coaches, schools and friends on the same page, so that we don’t have to be “that mom” – and so that our communities, as well as just our own kids, can be healthier. Modeling good food choices is critical. And teaching them – not preaching to them, not lecturing them, not just telling them but really showing them and helping them understand – that is the goal, right? Always, with these most-important topics, that is the goal – teach them, so that when they get to be young adults, they can choose wisely, and safely, and with some degree of understanding.
As a parent, I see two main areas of responsibility for teaching my kids about food. First and foremost, Kyle and I have to teach them to love real food, and relatively healthy real food in particular. Second, just like we need to help them understand the other addictive and toxic substances that are unfortunately going to cross their paths, we need to equip our kids (and ourselves!) with information about food processing, sugars, and chemical additives, and what those things do to human bodies – so that they can understand why we hope they will avoid them.
For kids as little as mine, the first part is thankfully easy. They don’t have a whole lot of food influences beyond our family right now, and they are hungry all the time, so it’s just a question of leading by example. I try to make them dishes that are nuanced, that incorporate flavors and textures that they already enjoy along with those that are new, and that are vibrantly colorful.
And when we have a new ingredient in the kitchen – like we did a few weeks ago with these fava greens – I try to keep it simple, and keep them excited about the discovery process. After all, part of what brings me back to the kitchen with them day after day, week after week, is the thrill of learning about new ingredients and new preparations. I want them to see these as exciting moments, not scary ones. If they don’t like something, we never make them eat it. We don’t need power struggles in our kitchen. We just keep providing healthy options, and they choose the ones that they like. The “MMMMMMS!” – cookies yes, but chard and carrots, too.
And after a couple attempts, fava greens are now on their “MMMM” list. The leaves from fava bean plants are a new veggie for me this year, and I am still playing with how to prepare them. They have a texture sort of like spinach, only more buttery and soft, a bit thicker. Their flavor is mild, slightly sweet – almost like snap peas … or young fava beans :) They work really well playing off all “the crunchness” (Jacob) in this simple salad.
For the second part – I am on the hunt for materials that, over the coming years, can help them understand sugar, chemicals, and food processing. I hope a large part of it will come from seeing what real food is, and understanding that chemicals are not real food … like many parenting things, it’s a bridge I am trying to anticipate but will also have to cross when I come to it. (Any advice from other parents out there who are farther down the line? Please?). I don’t want to make my kids crazy or neurotic about what they eat – I do want to help them understand food, and be healthy, and make good choices.
I have great hope that our food system, and our cultural awareness of that food system, are moving toward a better, saner, healthier place. But until we get there, I will do everything I can to help teach my kids the truth about food.
Starting by making them this fava green salad again this weekend.