Beets for preschoolers and other good vegetable-y things
It was Citymama herself who cooked up the fresh goodies at the preschool where Everett began his tenure (until she, sadly, moved away to California). Watching small children eat pasta with eggplant tomato sauce or steamed green beans or little hummus cucumber sandwiches is so affirming it made tears come to my eyes. ("They like it. They really LIKE it!") Later, I would birth a baby who would eat carrot greens out of my farmer's market bag, raspberries right off the bushes outside, and salmon salad sandwiches with fresh onions and yogurt-chive dressing (that was today).
Last month, I went to a culinary conference in Austin. There, my friend Michelle (this friend!) organized a visit to a charter school at the University of Texas where grade school-aged kids had grown and learned to cook vegetables from a garden right behind the school. The presenters asked the kids what they had learned to love that they never would have tried before. "Sorrel," said one (!!). The next four kids picked "brussels sprouts."
So when I saw the FOODday piece by Leslie Cole in this week's Oregonian, "Taking a Fresh Approach to Daycare Meals That Kids Will Actually Eat," I squealed a bit. One-year-olds at ChildRoots eating beets, black beans, and steamed grains. Preschoolers at Maryam's Preschool eating Persian rice and vegetables. Parents thrilled... but not really doing anything nearly like this at home.
After having made some mistakes and some total victories with my own kids (and having the sort of child who has a totally unique set of likes and dislikes -- my middle son, Truman, will only eat dried fruit, and only carrots if he can see the vegetable, though he will happily eat grilled fish or sardines or pate, straight), I can say that it's not just exposing kids to a variety of freshly-prepared healthy foods that aren't hidden in other things that is important in developing healthy eating habits; but also maintaining, as much as possible, a food environment in which unhealthy choices are severely limited. It's just a fact: if there is soda in the house, my kids will drink it (same for energy drinks and prepared chocolate milk etc. etc.). If candy is offered right before lunchtime, they'll eat that and skip the salmon-salad sandwiches. If even such a mildly unhealthy choice as Trader Joe's breakfast bars or those sugary yogurt tubes (even the organic ones are pretty high-sugar and TJ's bars have less whole grains and more sugar than I prefer for the kids to have), they'll disappear before the whole-grain scones I made are even touched.
This piece is fantastic inspiration to keep me offering fresh peas and cherries instead of Starbucks treats and yogurt squeezers. I love that more preschools and elementary schools are offering kids whole grains and fresh vegetables prepared in delicious and visible ways (no wink-wink hiding black beans in brownies). I think parents (and here I include my own thoroughly fallible self) could do a better job of supporting these institutional chefs by putting a variety of recognizable vegetables and fruits and whole grains in front of our kids and keep the packaged snack food and sugary treats and breakfast food out of our cupboards. Not every child is going to become a brussels sprout and quinoa lover. But we should give them lots, and lots, and lots of chances -- and they just might end up surprising us.