Friday, October 1, 2010

How The Well-Meaning Are Bludgeoning the Fun Out Of Food For Kids

Most of you know I cook with kids in the pre-k class at my kids school. I love it. I really do. I love it so much I'm writing a book about it. And I'm also pleased that so many people are thinking about what kids are eating. Everyday I read about people who are out there, cooking with kids, sharing new foods and flavors with them, trying to shake things up. It's wonderful and from this, good things will happen.

But something else has been happening, too. A large number of well-meaning people are out there making cooking with kids the most boring, uncool, sleep-inducing thing that has ever happened to food. I'm not talking about Department of Health programs actually designed to reach kids and families that might be experiencing food scarcity issues, but rather, well-intentioned parents, bloggers, school boards, parent committees and educators hell-bent on connecting food with lessons about vegetables, morning announcements with "fun" food facts, puzzles about broccoli, color-coded food groups, relay teams competing over how much salad bar produce the kids can pile on their plate, "one hour lectures" about good food choices, learning to read ingredient lists and drilling it into their little skulls over and over that processed is bad and fresh is good, until four year olds are catatonically walking around spouting off about the dangers of high fructose corn syrup and boycotting Monsanto products.

Here's a tip for all those people: Kids like to cook, nearly every single one of them. They come out of the womb curious about pots and pans and things that sizzle and boil. You don't have to lecture them, drill them on it, bludgeon them with good food propaganda, or create a script about carrots to get them to eat them. Just let them cook. Bring a pot to school, put it on a hot plate and let them make something.

Let them have fun, be themselves, feel the freedom of holding a real knife and the success of pushing that knife through a hard carrot for the first time, by themselves, without a neurotic adult hovering over them ready to whisk them off to first aid. Let them watch raw meat turn to cooked meat, see the butter turn from solid to liquid in the pan. Let them see the wisps of smoke coming off the garlic and onions, and smell the cumin, and make something with it...

And see if they won't taste it. They'll likely taste it, and because everybody wants a taste, it will become cool to taste. They will learn that from each other. And the stragglers, the finicky ones, might give it a try, too. Innately, they want to do, touch, see, experience almost everything. No one wants to be left out of the fun.

Just let cooking with kids and feeding kids be that relaxed. Let it be hit and miss. Sometimes great, sometimes terrible. Let it be without a script, without a predictably boring outcome, without a lesson, a lecture or a test, without adults trying to mangle it up with their world views and their politically-correct foodism. Let it be what it is. Please.

Because if you don't, you will bludgeon the joy right out of something that they innately love to do. And then, they'll really hate whole foods.

xo YM



Lesley said...

What a great post, compelling me to involve my daughter more.
A good shake up for me.

And I agree totally with what you are saving

Roving Lemon said...

Thanks for this very thought-provoking post. I suspect that, as with so many other things, this is really about the adults and *their* unhealthy relationships with food and cooking. I find that often, even people who are totally gung-ho about healthy eating have the same joyless approach as the most mindless junk-food consumer around. And no matter what you're eating, whether it's broccoli or Cheez-Whiz, the attitude is what kids pick up on.

Amy said...

This is a great post, and applies to adults as well. Rather than beat people over the head with what they're doing "wrong" (which, of course, is an immediate turn-off. No one likes being told that they're doing something wrong. Whatever that something may be.), encourage them to cook for themselves. Even just one night a week (because many people don't cook, or are intimidated of cooking). Adults will follow the same process of discovery, interaction, and excitement about food that you outline here for kids, and the more they cook, the more they'll care where their food comes from. Heck, they'll probably even pass their new-found interest in food on to their kids!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, and here's to more fun with food for all!

Michelle (What's Cooking) said...

I wish there was a LOVE button on the bottom of this post :-) (Can you tell I am a facebook addict?).

Thanks for saying what needs to be said. Kids like to play, experiment and have fun. That's not to say that you can't squeeze in some persuasive information at the same time...but it should be activity based and inspiring.


Katy said...

Thank you. Great post! I try not to push lessons down the kids' throats when we're cooking, other than "listen to mommy please!" :) I just like to have fun with them, and if they learn something along the way, that's just icing on the cake!

Warner (aka ntsc) said...

Cooking is fun

Good post

Liam O'Malley said...

Awesome post, and I absolutely agree with the other commenters that this applies to anybody and not just kids.

Food politics and diet are of utmost importance to me, but I recognize how boring that stuff can be to some (okay, maybe most) people. I also have a couple of friends who are interested in cooking but are really only just starting to learn their way around a kitchen. They come to me for advice, and I do encourage them to always go for the best ingredients they can get - but I'll let them ask me why, or how. If they are curious about those aspects of it, then great - and if not then let's just cook some damn food.

SaintTigerlily said...

I love it! Too true and beautifully put!

Liz the Chef said...

Cannot wait for your cookbook. This is my second year volunteering in a local kindergarten. I love doing cooking projects with the children and am amazed by their choices - i.e. Ina Garten over kids' cookbook recipes. Lovely and meaningful post!

Rebecca said...

Amen! I teach a cooking class for kids of various ages locally and I refuse to involve food politics. Those kids have the best time and by extension, I have the best time. They're so excited. Well, except for the two kids whose parents won't let them have sugar, butter, milk, white flour, cheese, or anything else that wasn't free ranged or picked by a very serious looking organic farmer.

(And for the record, I buy mostly organics, free-ranged, all-natural yadda yaddas. I just want the kids to enjoy the creativity instead of worry about the other stuff right now. Plenty of time for that later...)

Rita said...

Well said.

Cheryl Arkison said...

Yay Kim! Learn by doing is always best.

THE Tough Cookie said...

Smart post. Very smart. I was a kid who was banned from the kitchen by a mother who felt (a) I'd make a big mess or (b) I might get hurt. Neither happened, and now I spend all my waking hours in the kitchen.

Some might not be as lucky as I am. Spending positive time in the kitchen with kids has compelling results. And not just for the kids. Try it.

Carolina Matthews said...


I loved how you brought attention to both sides of the issue of cooking with children in your post. One of my big themes in life ever since I was a teenager is how formal education has the power to drive people away from real learning.
Throughout the years I have taught cooking classes to children and adults, I have taught Early Childhood Education, and I have studied Child Psychoanalysis, and my original perception proves true every time.
In my experience I see that the sensibility to the moment is the key: teaching is important when the learner needs it, but discovery is HUGE - it lets us realize learning is exciting.
Thank you for bringing all these thoughts together in a clear and compelling article!

Carolina Matthews

Mrs. Q said...

Very good post. Formal learning does have a way of being stifling.

It goes back to "theory vs practice." That's why I dislike nutrition, but love cooking and eating well. In theory (lol) I should like both, but I don't.

Leah_the_Nosher said...

First time reader, first time commenting, now thrilled to be following. Lady, you just wrote my manifesto for me. From all of us who trust our children in the kitchen, and who watch them flourish in the exploration and creation involved, thank you. Well written and well done.

Picture Me Cooking said...

Great post, I am with you! Cooking with kids should be fun and if you do it right...they have fun, taste what they make and in the end "learn by accident".
I personally love surprising my kids with fun food as well, I show my love with fun treats that are of course balanced out with healthy foods too.

Christina @ Spoonfed said...

Before I started my blog back in March, I spent about a year combing through what seems like every kid-and-food website/blog out there. And I discovered pretty quickly that waaaaaay too much attention was being given to treating food like entertainment or an academic exercise. And it's just gotten worse since Michelle Obama took up the cause. Everyone is jockeying to have the flashiest, most effective tool for teaching kids to eat well, and too often the lessons they're preaching just parrot the government food pyramid and don't even address food enjoyment or nourishment.

I'm all about educating kids about food (including the realities of the food system and food politics), but I think it needs to be done in context, through experience and exposure. Not with bells and whistles.

amanda said...

absolutely, 100% could not agree more.

Amanda Curry
Creator & Host of The Good Food Factory
(a healthy cooking show for kids...that's FUN!)

Carrietracy said...

My third grade class has long taken a field trip to a site where they learn about the local native americans, the Lenape tribe. Part of this includes mixing together cornmeal, butter, maple syrup and dried cranberries and letting it sit over a smoky fire to mimic a known Lenape recipe. Even the kids who order a hot dog every day for lunch and won't touch anything their own mom didn't bring to the class parties are sticking their fingers in this mixture. Something about mashing the ingredients with a wooden spoon in an earthenware pot next to a smoking fire....Cooking really is magical for kids.

Mariko said...

Hear hear. You are the smartest of the bunch.