During a trip last October to Capri, before going to sleep I turned on the television in my hotel room (I don’t have a TV at home) and there was an ad for an Italian processed ‘chicken roll’, which looked like a kind of poultry version of a meat loaf. It kept popping up during the program I was watching and showed a table full of children with smiles–a great selling point for harried mothers–ready to dig in.
This made me think about the way children eat today both in Italy, where I live, and the US where I was born. Obviously, I grew up in the country that invented McDonalds (in fact I went to high school with the CEO’s daughter) so I know how fast and processed foods taste and how they supposedly make our lives easier and at a lower cost. What surprised me about this ad is that Italy has such a great culinary richness that comes from a tradition using freshly farmed, local, seasonal ingredients. But because of hard times things are clearly changing…
My friend Jeannie, who lives near me in Rome, wrote a brilliant book that was published last year titled The Lost Art of Feeding Kids about her son, Nico, who was born in Rome though he is Canadian by way of both parents. She was awed and taken aback at how food in Italy is consumed by children. The lunches at Nico’s school are freshly prepared with good ingredients but many of his friends yearn for a hamburger and fries and we all know that peer pressure at a certain age is difficult to resist.
My sisters in the US struggle daily with feeding their children. The temptation to eat pre-packaged, overly sweetened processed foods is everywhere. Clearly sweetness, among the four basic tastes is one of the most seductive, which is why in much of these foods there is a significant dose of corn or fructose syrup. That said, not all pre-packaged food is necessarily unhealthy. I remember when I lived in Philadelphia there was an Italian supermarket, Genuardi’s, in the suburbs nearby that had an amazing section of frozen foods like soups: minestrone, lentil, bean and chicken or beef noodle were the favorites. Nothing was added, just the primary ingredients (I’m an obsessive label-reader so I know it’s true). Sadly the last Genuardi’s closed this year as Whole Foods has taken over their territory but at a cost to consumers.
Mealtime with children can often be a moment of stress and I’ve witnessed tears and tantrums at my sister’s table over a dish that her twins didn’t like (hunger and fatigue also contributed for sure). For me this is yet another example of the challenge for parents attempting to feed their children good, healthy meals while hoping that they enjoy them.
My experience is a bit different from my sister’s even though we both were raised with the same exposure to a variety of tasty, mostly homemade meals. My son grew up in Europe, where genetically modified grains did not exist and neither did government-subsidized corn or soy beans. When Francesco was at the dinner table he ate what was served and it was something prepared with whatever I could get at the market that day. To be honest, he was not always happy. As most mothers do, I tried to make dishes he liked as often as possible but he usually ate (almost all of) what was on his plate. Fortunately this exposed him to tastes that most children would turn away from like liver, bone marrow, anchovies, spinach and other bitter greens. But this helped him develop a curiosity about food that proved useful when he grew up as now he is a consumate traveller and tries any new dish he encounters, wherever he lands.
The challenge to feed children healthy, wholesome food is just that: a challenge (unless you live on an organic farm). Today quickness, convenience and cost rightfully are tantalizing to parents who are working to pay the rent or the mortgage and other expenses just to keep their families going. Food, unfortunately, is slipping by the wayside and quality often takes a back seat to economic factors.
Hopefully, with education–Alice Waters has a magnificent program in the US, the Edible Schoolyard, that teaches primary school students how to grow and cook their own vegetables, fruits, grains and more–the next generation will learn it’s worthwhile to eat well but also healthy food can taste good too and be a positive force for the environment. As I often say to my son, quoting Jesse Jackson, “Keep Hope Alive”!