After reading the news about some school districts stopping their healthier lunch programs, I realized that we really need a cultural switch in this country to make the food revolution more than a passing trend. We desperately need to raise our children's food IQ, and here are 10 easy tips to do just that.
1. Start them young.
And by young I mean YOUNG. When our beautiful twins started to eat solid food we had these two high chairs with a big tray in front of them. We would put all sort of food on the trays and our kids would make a mess eating and tasting. To this day the twins, now in college, are extremely adventurous about food and on an early trip to Italy a waiter described them as "buone forchette" (literally "good forks," the ultimate Italian compliment) as they were feasting on seafood at a restaurant in Liguria.
2. Avoid the children's menu.
If you have the opportunity to go to a restaurant (I'm not talking fast food here), please don't order your children food from the kids' menu. You know what I'm talking about, you'll be eating a salad, or a steak or a beautiful pasta and your kids will get mac and cheese or chicken nuggets and fries. In Italy, where I'm from, we don't have kids' menus -- children eat the same dishes as grown-ups (maybe just a half portion). It always struck me as strange that in the States, children, when it comes to food, are second class citizens.
3. Promote better choices.
Why does the devil always have the best tunes? I'm talking to the producers of food here, as well as advertisers, TV and movie executives.
Can't we all make a collective effort to promote healthy food in a better way? Don't we all have children and a responsibility towards them that goes beyond simply making money for the sake of making money? Children are our future and I'm looking forward to a day where fresh vegetables will be advertised on TV with more colorful, animated commercials.
4. Cook with them.
If they cook it they will eat it. As Master Chef at Piccolo Chef, the premiere culinary school for children and teens in California, I know very well how much kids love to cook. Cooking is empowering and a great way to be more creative, adventurous, social and confident.
Come on! Forget the take-out for one night, spread the tablecloth, set the table, have your children help prepare some great recipes, sit down and eat. Remember: we used to do it every day before the introduction of convenience foods.
5. Go to the store together.
I know going to the store can be tedious, but bring your kids along and turn a boring chore in to an adventure. Scout the local stores, the farmer markets, the fresh produce aisles in your supermarket. Smell the produce, touch it, ask the butcher about different cuts of meat, start a conversation with a farmer at his booth. Ask questions, answers them, take your kids on an adventure -- it will pay off!
6. Feed them better food at school.
Serving "healthier" recipes prepared like bad airport food is not going to make kids forget about burgers and fries. Please, concentrate on flavor, taste and presentation while serving food in the cafeteria. Take inspiration from my friend Chef Jason Francisco at Maranatha High School In Pasadena, CA. If you make great food, kids will eat it. Fresh, taste and healthy are the keywords here.
7. Introduce them to new cuisines.
I'm guilty as charged here. I cook all the time, and the few times I go out for dinner, I favor Italian restaurants. My kids, on the other hand, are adventurous, always looking for the new spot, the most exotic cuisine. And why not? Look around you, there's so much variety out there with food trucks, street vendors, cafes and restaurants. Leave the food court and take your kids to explore the true universe of food in your city.
8. Read the labels together.
I ordered some roasted chicken in a big chain restaurant the other day. The food came with a drink so I filled 3/4 of the cup with unsweetened iced tea but when I went to push the button for lemonade, I was shocked to read the label. The "lemonade" contained 0 percent fruit juice! It was written right near the button. Well, that was a turn off (what's inside lemonade if there's no lemon juice?) and clearly, I just had my chicken with iced tea. Reading and learning how to read food labels can be a terrifying experience but at the end it will educate you and your children on how to get the best food.
9. Promote moderation.
I know, by now your mouth is watering and you just want to cook something with your kids or take them to the new Vietnamese restaurant downtown. One more tip before hitting the fork. Remember to eat everything in MODERATION. Forget the supersize and the extra gulp. We tend to eat more than we need (again, guilty as charged -- I promise I'll do better). Here's another tip: if you talk to each other while eating you'll eat less and it'll take longer.
10. Have fun.
None of the tips on this list are meaningful unless you implement them with fun. We are talking about children, so scaring them into eating better is just not going to work. Kids learn best from lessons taught with enthusiasm and fun. It's a great equation for a better lifestyle: a balanced diet, a fitness regimen and a healthy dose of Happiness.
So put a little love in your cooking!