This post comes to us courtesy of Melissa Graham, founding Executive Director of Purple Asparagus.
Anticipation permeates the heavy August air . . . school is starting. During these last precious weeks of summer, parents and children are scurrying about gathering school supplies for the upcoming year.
I, too, am going back to school, but instead of polishing apples, I’m sharpening knives. I’m headed back into the classroom to teach another year of cooking to thousands of Chicago school children.
My name is Melissa Graham and I’m the chief educator and head spear of Purple Asparagus, a Chicago-based non-profit that educates children, families and the community about eating that’s good for the body and the planet.
Combining nutrition education, food literacy, cooking and fun, our popular hands-on classes, Delicious Nutritious Adventures, celebrate farm-fresh fruits and vegetables. Through these classes and my experience with my own 7-year-old son, I’ve developed five simple tips for getting your kids into the kitchen and excited about good food.
Make It Fun
Although teaching kids about healthy choices is a priority for Purple Asparagus, we’re sneaky about that message. Everything about our classes (even our name) is fun. Kids are more willing to try “healthy” foods when they’re not presented as such.
A first-grade boy will surely turn up his nose at a chickpea when told that it’s high in fiber and protein. Explain instead that its Italian name comes from its resemblance to a wart on a famous Roman’s face, and he’ll climb all over his classmates to try those chickpeas. Describe mint as a gum plant and your child’s resistance to the green leaves will melt. Explore food in a way that’s interesting and fun, and you’ll find that your kids are eager to try new foods.
Celebrate Fruits and Vegetables
Don’t hide fruits and vegetables in recipes as if you were ashamed to serve them. Celebrate them! Introduce new varieties or old favorites in different shapes and colors.
Get your kids involved in selecting new fruits and vegetables, whether at the grocery store or the farmers’ market. Learn about what you’re eating, how the varieties are grown and how different fruits and vegetables are related. This takes them out of the realm of “healthy eating,” a chore if ever there were one, and instead makes it fun.
Trust Kids to Develop Their Own Tastes
Give your kids the latitude to not like something. In our classes, we ask every child to take a single “no thank you” bite of everything we try. If they like it, that’s great. If not, we give them language to explain why they don’t. Is it too tart? Is it too sour? This process not only empowers them to try new things without fear of reprisal, but also develops trust, so kids are more likely to try the next food presented.
Don’t Underestimate Kids
We’ve all been guilty of this. A child pushes away an ingredient so often that you, the parent, are programmed to expect they won’t like it. It can take up to 10 tries before a kid will accept a new ingredient. How many kids love tomato sauce but won’t let a raw tomato pass their lips? It’s important for parents to keep trying without expectations.
I once ran a veggie tasting for a group of second graders. Celery was one of the tasting items, so I brought celery root to show them how the plant grew. I offered the class extra credit if they would try the raw root. Fully expecting them to recoil from it, I cut up the root and, to my surprise, almost every child loved it.
Use Cool Tools
Admit it, it’s so much more fun to cook with cool tools, whether old favorites or new gadgets. Kids can’t be expected to be immune to their charms. In our classes, we bring in supplies of kid-sized equipment like tiny whisks, rubber spatulas and bowls. Our measuring cups and spoons are colorful and kid-friendly. Imagine their delight as they whisk up a batch of cumin-scented dressing for black bean salad or cut up tomatoes for a salad with their own hand chopper. Give them the right-sized tools and you’ll have to shoo them out of the kitchen instead of cajoling them in.
Photo credits: Photos of boy eating cucumber and assorted vegetables by Kelly Angeline Photography. Images of chickpeas and kids cooking by Artisan Events.
About the author: Melissa Graham, a former attorney, is the founding Executive Director of Purple Asparagus, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to educating families about all things associated with good eating, eating that’s good for the body and the planet. Though its Delicious Nutritious Adventures program, Purple Asparagus has taught thousands of parents and children about healthful, sustainable eating in schools, community centers, and farmers’ markets throughout Chicago and the suburbs. Melissa speaks and writes regularly on child nutrition and sustainability both in the Chicago community and online, blogging at Little Locavores, as The Sustainable Cook on The Local Beet, and as a regular contributor to Kiwi Magazine’s KiwiLog. In recognition of her contributions to the Chicago community, the Chicago Tribune recently awarded her a 2011 Good Eating Award, an honor previously bestowed to Rick Bayless, Alinea chef Grant Achatz, and First Lady Michelle Obama. Melissa resides in Chicago with her husband and 7-year old son in a rowhouse built in 1896.