When my mother was young, she hated peas. Everything I love about them – their tender texture, their sweet, earthy flavor, the way they smash so easily under the pressure of a fork – made her stomach turn. Her parents, who grew up in a less plentiful time and worked hard to serve a home-cooked meal for their five children every night, had no patience for this pickiness.
Whenever my siblings and I would complain about having vegetables, my mother would tell us the story of one Halloween night when she was eight years old: dinner was pea soup, her personal nightmare, and her father insisted that she finish it before she went trick-or-treating. She flatly refused. As she sat at the kitchen table staring down the fragrant, pale green puree, her siblings put on their costumes and left to collect their sweet rewards. By the time she relented and choked down the congealed mush, it was too late to go out.
Any guesses on whether my mother still hates peas? Did she pause during her tearful consumption of the soup to think, “Hey — these are actually delicious!” No, and it’s no surprise that she still can’t stand them. Forcing them down cold as a prerequisite to candy didn’t help.
Many people have stories like this from their own childhood. Maybe broccoli was your personal demon, or sweet potatoes. Almost universally, being forced to clean your plate of a particularly hated vegetable doesn’t result in changing your attitude toward it. And knowing that it’s “good for you” doesn’t sweeten the taste either — in fact, it often injects a bitter note of drudgery, turning food into homework. Peas are not only mushy, but a source of vitamin K and magnesium. What could be less appetizing to a child?
At Spoons Across America, we know from experience and research that preference is a major barrier to increasing children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables. Very simply, it doesn’t matter how much they know about the nutritional benefits of broccoli: if they don’t like it, they won’t eat it. And to like it, they have to be open to trying it in the first place.
That’s where we come in. If we want kids to crave a balanced
, nourishing diet, we have to rely on the natural resources of childhood: joy and curiosity. So we focus on nurturing “taste explorers” who are curious about new flavors and are able to experience their food fully with all five senses. All of our programs center around the full enjoyment of food. Studies show that repeated, low-pressure exposure to fruits and vegetables, presented in the spirit of openness and curiosity, allows a child’s preference for fresh, nutritious foods to grow — and this in turn increases healthy consumption. We provide tiny tastes of ingredients they might see at the salad bar or the market, encouraging them to smell, taste, and feel what’s unique about each food, and allowing them to react however they like — no finger wagging or cajoling when they wrinkle their noses, but lots of encouragement to keep an open mind.
This method has a direct and immediate impact on how children approach new foods. In class, when kids compare the crunch of a sweet carrot and a tart apple, or explore how a squeeze of fresh lemon changes the flavor of a chickpea salad, they’re building a rich flavor vocabulary and adding to a store of positive, surprising experiences with fruits and vegetables. Last semester a child with severe food aversions, whose teachers claimed she’d never try a new food, surprised herself and her friends by sampling seaweed, basil, and bell peppers. If she’d been bullied into forcing them down, it would only have cemented those flavors as disgusting and she would have mentally filed them as “foods to avoid.” The low-pressure atmosphere we created and the excitement of her classmates allowed her to try flavors she’d normally reject out of hand.
In a few weeks, I’ll be reading books and sampling new flavors with second-graders in Farm to Book, leading third-graders in conversations about snacking as we Take A Taste, and placing our eating habits and traditions in the larger context of family, health, and community as fifth grade classrooms gear up to host their own Dinner Party. We’ll also be implementing a brand-new fourth-grade program: Spoons Recipe Days, a year of cooking classes that go beyond simple step-by-step instructions as we sample each ingredient, learn about seasonal eating and local food systems, and discuss how to nourish our bodies with delicious meals cooked from scratch. Each of these programs can only succeed when we tap into the students’ natural appetite for exploration and delight.
We know that not every parent has the time, resources or patience to painstakingly introduce new vegetables the way we do in class — that’s why we’re here. But by keeping mealtimes lecture-free and focusing on the full enjoyment of food and the excitement of trying new flavors, families can encourage “taste explorers” just like we do in our programs.
With that in mind, the activity we’re providing this month harnesses the bounty of late summer, changing mellow and familiar cucumbers into tangy, crunchy pickles as a simple brine transforms their texture
, flavor and color. (And we added a surprising twist on the recipe for extra adventurous eaters.) It’s a perfect cooking-meets-science experiment — ready-made for the curiosity of a young palate. If we call Spoons the “recipe for healthier children,” joy is the main ingredient.
Click here for the recipe to make pickles at home!