Spring is the perfect time to teach your kids about eating. It is when nature is reawakening with the rebirth of flowers, fruits and vegetables. It’s an exciting time indeed for young and old.
But some of the most common questions that I hear as I travel from city to city sharing my recipes and passion for cooking, with my television viewers, restaurant patrons and fans are: “How can I get my young child to eat vegetables?” “My child only eats beige foods; what can I do?” “How does a parent deal with a picky eater?”
As a child, I explored the things I ate—picking, peeling, touching, tasting, and smelling. Food excited all of my senses and my mind. Today, I share this joy and respect for food with my own children and grandchildren...
Although there is not one answer that works for every family, one thing I am sure of is that children today need to know more about where their food comes from and how it becomes the good, nourishing food on their table. Children will become more knowledgeable, confident and learn to experiment with new foods and new flavors if they understand better the process of nature and human collaboration with nature.
The first step is teaching them that food really does not come from the grocery store, where food is stacked in random cardboard cartons or presented as unidentifiable nuggets wrapped in plastic containers. Real food grows on a real farm, in seasons, it is harvested at the right time, transported and sold in farmers' markets or on store shelves for us to purchase.
The concept of “picked at the right time” is one of the most overlooked ways to appreciate fruits and vegetables and get children to try them. Eating foods that are in season means they are at the peak of ripeness and flavor, and thus taste their best, and usually are the most economical as well.
Fruits, for example, taste best when they are at the very end of a natural ripening cycle. This is when the natural sugars are intensified, and the aromas are released; it is when the fruit is the tastiest.
On the other hand, vegetables are generally best when they are young and tender, bursting with fresh green flavor. Have your child snap open a freshly picked pea pod and eat the sweet peas inside, or a eat freshly plucked baby carrot -- sweet as sugar.
As the spring months arrive, it is the perfect time to talk to your children about seasonality and how special each season is along with the fruits and vegetables that come with that season. Bring your children shopping with you and let them choose the vegetables they want to eat and let them help you cook those vegetables as well.
A family trip to the farm is always a learning experience for all. Strawberries and apricots are some of the earliest fruits. Take the kids to a “pick your own” farm or to the local farmer’s market so they can really understand the concept of what is in season. A trip to the farm not only allows you to bring back the sweetest fruits and freshest vegetables they will love, but also creates fun family memories.
As the weather gets warmer, I also encourage growing one’s own fruits and vegetables wherever possible. A little piece of land yields a lot of product, and the children learn the symbiotic relationship and dependency that we have with the earth around us. Not only will they learn about growing food, but they will understand the importance of taking care of the earth. Taking care of our environment is of the utmost importance so there will be food for future generations.
A simple herb garden near the window is a great start, and the youngest of children can get involved in the planting, watering and harvesting and be responsible for bringing the freshly picked herbs to the table at mealtime. I loved to crush herbs under my children’s and grandchildren's noses when they were babies and start a sensory library for them.
You can also plant tomatoes and eggplants in large pots during the spring and have the children help you. If you have enough space for a small garden, vegetables like green beans, salad greens and carrots have always been favorites with my children and grandchildren. There is something about a child picking the food from the plants that makes him/her want to taste it.
In my family while growing up, we did not have an overabundance. Just about everything we did have, the family grew or made, sharing simple, joyful meals with loved ones, growing, harvesting, and preparing the foods we ate -- these simple joys brought me great satisfaction in life, and is now my life's work.
We knew where our food came from and respected it, using everything and wasting nothing. As a child, I explored the things I ate—picking, peeling, touching, tasting, and smelling. Food excited all of my senses and my mind. Today, I share this joy and respect for food with my own children and grandchildren and I believe it is our responsibility to do so with all the children of the world.
Lidia Bastianich is the internationally acclaimed chef, Emmy Award-winning television host, cookbook author, co-owner of the artisanal Italian food store, Eataly, and owner of four acclaimed New York City restaurants: Felidia, Becco, Esca and Del Posto, as well as Lidia's Pittsburgh and Lidia's Kansas City. Her "Lidia's" brand of best-selling specialty pastas and sauces can be found in food stores across America. Lidia recently published a new children's book, "Nonna Tell Me a Story: Lidia's Egg-Citing Farm Adventure" that she hopes will help families with young children to think more about what food they purchase and eat in order to build healthy bodies, strong communities and a cleaner planet for generations to come.