Thursday, March 4, 2010

But what WILL the kids eat??

By Nancy Tringali Piho

Several years ago, when my now-kindergartener was two years old, my family took a vacation to Miami. We stumbled upon a charming little beach-front Peruvian restaurant and decided to give it a try. It wasn't exactly a "kid-friendly" spot, but they did have high chairs available, so we reasoned that our toddler was not the first to darken the doorway. I was a little nervous about going in with a child in tow, but we ended up seated on the patio... perfect for a quick pack-up and get-away, if things started deteriorate.

My husband immediately ordered a large ceviche appetizer platter for us to share. It was laden with all kinds of seafood, including octopus, along with slices of cooked onions, peppers and plantains. It looked and tasted absolutely delicious. We must have been living right, because our little boy attacked the dish with gusto. He simply could not get enough of it, squealing "MORE OCTOPUS!" as we continued to feed it to him. Other diners could not help but notice, and one made an off-hand comment that she had never seen a child so young enjoy a meal so much. That one remark stuck with me for several days and eventually, it changed my thinking about "kids and food," and even the course of my entire career. Why, I kept asking myself, are people so surprised when kids actually eat and like "real" food? Why shouldn't my son have loved that ceviche, every bit as much as my husband and I did?

I have been in the food marketing industry -- public relations and nutrition communications -- here in Washington for almost 20 years. I have worked for and promoted numerous food products and associations, as well as chefs, restaurants and grocery stores. But when I had children, I became aware that what we typically feed our youngsters -- from their earliest days of eating, throughout much of their childhoods -- is so, so different than what we, as adults, choose to eat everyday. I was fascinated by this, and embarked on a 1.5 year "research project" that culiminated in the publication of my new book, "My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything."

I interviewed numerous RDs, pediatricians, scientific researchers and others who study food-eating-taste issues, as well as about 60 chefs from around the country who have young kids themselves. I became more convinced than ever that we have to teach kids about good foods and flavors and textures, and how to appreciate them all. And yet, what we're actually feeding them is a steady diet of "kiddie foods," virtually all of which are comprised of one of three base "flavors": fat, salt or sugar. And then we wonder why kids grow up to be Picky Eaters! They have so little opportunity to ever experience anything else.

School food is a perfect example of this. I was speaking to a group of first-graders at an independent school in another city recently, and before my presentation started, the teacher polled them on their choice for lunch. The options? Chicken nuggets with french fries, or pasta with butter sauce. Applesauce for dessert. Bland. Fat/ Salt/ Sweet. No real flavor. I confess that at this point, I am not up to date on the typical lunch choices in DC public schools, but I would bet anything that this menu sounds familiar.

So I am excited that this group--Parents for Better D.C. School Food--has come forward and is interested in working with the schools to do what we can to improve the school lunch menus in our city. I'm hoping that Washington can be a leader in this movement, one that is gaining steam around the country, I'm happy to say! I would only add that while of course I recognize the nutritional and health implications of these standard kiddie diets, my personal interest is in seeing an improvement in the TASTE of the food, and in teaching our kids what pleasure can be found in learning to appreciate a broad and varied diet.


  1. You are so right. We resisted serving our kid (now 3) kiddie food. When he was first eating solids his favorites were things like avocado, stinky blue cheese and samalmi. I don't know how many times people said to us "what a funny thing for a baby to eat". I offered him string cheese while visiting a mid-western relative and he refused to eat it. Much to my MILs distress he also rejected other "kiddie" foods like canned fruit in syrup and mushy over-cooked beans.

    Its all about what you give them. I only make homemade mac-n-cheese with real cheese. My kids love it, but more than once a visiting child has balked at even trying it. Once they eat the orange stuff, their lost to real food.

  2. Bravo- I'm appalled that we have separate kid's menus in restaurants and those foods are what dominate school meals. smaller portions would be fine for kiddie meals- but totally different, crappy menus are not. If we want kids to eat well, we can't expect to indulge them in nuggets and pizza and then miraculously expect them to eat brussel sprouts and roasted salmon one day.
    our nearly 3 yr old eats what we eat. she might not embrace it the first time- but she generally comes around to most of it.
    for parents looking for a great kid-friendly restaurant- check out zest on 8th street/barracks row.

  3. My children were very adventuresome eaters as toddlers, but then became fairly conservative in their food choices for a number of years. One would try (but not consume more than a bite) of most anything; the other couldn't even be in the same room with certain food smells, let alone get that food near his mouth. They are now 19 and 21 and back to adventuresome eating! However, I have a lot of sympathy/admiration for those charged with the task of coming up with healthy and cost efficient menus and recipes to accommodate an entire school district of children and especially children from such varied backgrounds and cultures comprising DCPS and many other school districts.