I love food and some of the best travel moments I remember involve food – fish tacos in Costa Rica, pizza in Italy, crepes in France, kalbi in Korea, noodles in China, pretzels in Germany. I even take pictures of food, much to my children’s embarrassment. One of the first questions I ask our exchange students is what American foods they like, what they dislike and what they miss from their home country. Their comments on American food are usually similar – love the cheapness/availability of fast food, are surprised about the quantity of food and the frequency of eating. “Snack” is not a part of European culture for kids. A recent book I read, “Bringing up Bebe”, gave more insight into food culture in France and is written by a US expat living and raising her kids in France. Our two German students missed the grainy, crusty bread that they had each day at home. One of our French students missed the variety of cheese that he had available at the local cheese store. They were all very willing to try new foods while staying with us and usually liked most of it. We did learn that a Minnesota summer favorite, corn on the cob, is considered quite strange to Europeans.
It was with some trepidation that I approached our recent European trip to visit some of these same European students and their families. Although I have tried to get my children to try new foods and expand their tastes, often I am not very successful. And like most American kids, they are used to having some sort of food in front of them every 2 hours. Before leaving we discussed the expense of food in Europe and the anticipated meal plan – breakfast of bread/fruit, lunch from Farmer’s market and sit down dinner (no children’s menu available). Maybe a gelato midday (especially lemon!) while in Paris. All three did much better than I anticipated, even trying some very aromatic cheeses, and didn’t complain about the lack of snacks.
So what are we Americans’ doing wrong with our kids and their food choices? I can remember when my kids were younger, always packing snacks for car rides greater than an hour. My kids still eat something when they get home from school, only a few hours before dinner. Maybe if I hadn’t always associated a car ride with the need to eat, we could actually have a cleaner car without all the crumbs and spilled drink stains. If I had given them a piece of hard, crusty bread to chew on at dinner they might have it at breakfast layered with cucumbers and tomatoes, as our German student loved. A nearby cheese store would make for a great walk and adventure picking out a few cheeses to put on the Sunday platter with sliced meats and breads – this was the default for our French student’s mom so she didn’t need to cook.Spicy food is not prevalent here in the Midwest, although we are starting to think about more spices than just salt and pepper. A spicy food that is sometimes found in our refrigerator is kimchee – a Korean fermented cabbage with red pepper paste and garlic. We were introduced to this food when we visited Korea for the first time to bring our daughter home. She was only 7 months old and still drinking formulae but loved kimchee from the time she first tasted it at around a year of age. This is the same child who loves sushi and sashimi. Each year at Korean culture camp, kimchee is very popular amongst most of the kids. Often their Caucasian siblings are not as enthralled with the taste. I am convinced that there is a inherited taste preference as even most of the adults are not true fans of this condiment. Koreans feed their young children kimchee, wiping off some of the hot pepper paste or first rinsing the cabbage in water. What would they think of our bland, pureed baby food that comes in a variety of colors but with no taste difference?
The final difference I noted while in other countries was the lack of a Children’s menu. Children are expected to eat a smaller portion of what is available on the menu – no chicken nuggets, fries, applesauce option. They are not prepared a separate meal at home if they do not like what is being served.
Maybe one of the ways out of our obesity epidemic is to change the way we start our kids off on their lifelong journey with food – rare snacks, spiced food, getting rid of the Children’s menu options.