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How to Raise an Omnivore

When I was a child, my family had very severe dining principles by today's standards. We had to finish everything on our plates, and we had to try everything whether or not we thought we would like it. My parents, raised during a time of food scarcity in many parts of the world, used to say to me if I resisted eating "Remember the starving Armenians." Before I knew enough history to know that the Armenians had been many decades past starvation by the time I came along, I would say "please send this food to them." And once I remember being left at the table to finish the hated food on my plate after everyone else had gone to bed - my father came downstairs to check to see if I had eaten yet, late in the night. I hadn't. I would eat only staple American foods like macaroni and cheese, or hamburgers, but I rarely chose anything else. I had few food preferences, only food dislikes.

It wasn't a charitable concern for the starving of the world that made those dislikes disappear: it happened when I was able to choose my own food. I went to college and there with no one monitoring my eating, I learned to like a wide variety of things and to love making my own meals, and especially to love cooking for other people. To earn my way through graduate school, I became a caterer, with no cooking experience behind me, only a term in a famous Tokyo cooking school, Akabori Ryoori Gakuen. By then I loved even natto.

Now I am an omnivore, a lover of all foods. My own childhood experience to a psychologist or parent today might seem traumatic: we would consider that treatment downright abusive. I'm not sure it was, after all, it did not make me hate food. I learned to explore and go farther in food than any geography represented by visas in my passport. It is a luxury to eat the foods I have eaten but also, it is a necessity. Diversity in the diet is not only for the rich and cosmopolitan. Children need the free exploration of foods they may or may not like, especially to learn that there are delicious (and economical) foods close at hand but far from their experience and foods they can themselves make for their families. Sticking to local orthodoxies can mean boredom or even malnutrition. There is no better family project than cooking and this became my chief activity with my own children.

Food exploration with my children started when they could eat solid foods. I did not obey the pediatric knowledge that stressed bland foods; I decided that they were often too colorless in appearance and taste. I went for brightly colored foods, oranges and reds and greens. From the start, they ate what the adults ate; no special meals for children, nor did they usually eat at a separate time. My daughter, who liked inarizushi in her school lunchbox and who ate raw jalapeno chilis at age 11, remembers that she did have to finish what was in front of her, but she adds that I asked her to take only what she could eat, giving her the responsibility of eating what she had chosen. I am relieved that I am not remembered as a stern parent. The outcomes? My children are both talented cooks and love thinking about and eating all manner of dishes - from very different backgrounds, my children and I are on the same plate. My son is a scholar and a food writer who eats everything. So there may not be one road to a food-interested child.

Our early experiences of food are powerful and important. Parental guidance is not only about nutrition, health and formulae for living well on the earth. Parents should also help children to enjoy the myriad pleasures and meanings of food in daily life. As a food anthropologist, I teach my students about the vast worlds of identity and taste, culture and history in foods. Human food cultures are not only scripts for ethnicity and encoded "traditional" family recipes. But these cultures are constantly changing, and so are their "menus."

Children are keen observers and enjoy looking over their neighbors' shoulders to see what is in their school lunchboxes. In Japan in the 1980s, I heard a teacher tell a mother who returned with her family from two years in America, "please make a Japanese lunch for your child instead of a sandwich." Certainly this seems a little limited now, but the intention was kind - to help a child re-enter a cultural setting. Japanese culinary experiences are now very global, even without an extended overseas sojourn, and lunch boxes are objects of creativity.

In a multicultural setting like Hawai'i, school is the place of learning - that child with Portuguese ancestors has beef stew, the boy with Filipino grandparents may have lumpia, and a mainland haole child could have a tuna fish sandwich - or any one of these might have any of the food of the others! There is a parade of identity in those lunchboxes to be shared by everyone.

Adults are more rigid, more orthodox about these things than children. They organize the world of food into compartments. It is from parents that children learn "this is OUR food" and "that's THEIR food." In Japan several decades ago, such organization set a cuisine apart: some people would say, for example, "I smell garlic; there must be Korean food here." And one hundred years ago, Caucasian foreigners were said to "smell of butter."

In a multi-ethnic population, food takes on such meanings. "As American as apple pie" is a well-known saying making an apple pie (two crusts, oozing with baked apple slices and often sided with a scoop of vanilla ice cream) the measure of American identity. When someone says "this is not 'real' Italian olive oil", or, "authentic sushi can only be made by Japanese people," they are expressing culinary prejudices of a kind that children do not -- until they are taught to have such biases or preferences. Children don't care much about these matters. Children's eating habits are part of larger eating cultures, but basically relate to what is in front of them. Eating, even in our globalized world, can be more personal than an ethnic identity, and more down to the earth than a national cuisine.

The meaning of food in children's lives is in the end the product of their parents. These meanings are often irrationally contradictory. It is parents who cut the crusts from bread for sandwiches or peel the potatoes even though they tell their children that you should not waste anything and that there are good vitamins in the skins of potatoes. It is parents who tell children that they won't get that sticky sweet dessert until they eat their vegetables, setting up sweets as a reward for the presumed hardship of eating healthy foods.

Some parents in families where schedules are difficult to coordinate do not insist that the family eat together and do not set a family dinner as a priority because it seems impossible: they may have given up on taking charge. But at the same time, they bemoan their children's bad table manners and "accidental" eating habits, which are results of the lack of a family meal. In Japan and in America there are similar situations. I ask my American students how many times a week they eat together with their families, and on average, they report once a week. Some never sit down together with their families. They don't eat away from home; they eat at random times, taking food from the refrigerator and heating it in the microwave. Or they buy food at a convenience store or a pizza takeout store. One student said, it is food, not a meal. I also ask, what rules for eating does your family observe? One said, "don't eat with your hands" and another said "wash your own dishes." These would be considered fairly rudimentary, or even strange, regulations in my family.

In the early 20th century, the increasing use of the dining room table in Japan led to discussions in magazines and newspapers about the Western family meal, including details about including children in conversation, and including the mother as more than food preparer and server. My family never achieved the level of polite discourse these articles said Western families demonstrated. My brothers and I fought, my parents dictated, and my father finally demanded silence. But fighting was communication and assertion of civilization did set some standards. It is at the shared table that children learn much more than the use of knives and forks: they learn civility and they learn about at least the ideals of community a family represents.

The empty dining table is one problem; at the other extreme is the over-attentive food watchers: there are parents who hover over their children like helicopters, anxious about what they are eating, how they are eating it and how much "junk" food they ingest. They concern themselves with food allergies, well beyond diagnostic evidence. Anxiety characterizes their attitude towards food and this is conveyed to the child, who might ask nervously when approaching a new food "Mom, do I like this?"

Liking food is a start for loving life and engaging with the wider worlds of food and people. My son's teacher once told him to do or try something new every day. Anything at all, from taking a different route to school to picking up a book on birding in the library. He chose for a while to try a different food every day, and went with me to the market to find a vegetable or fruit he'd never had. He didn't like everything of course, but I am still grateful to that teacher for making an explorer out of a stay-at-home culinary imagination.

Above all, it should be about liking food, being comfortable and also joyous about food. In either case, the most important lesson about food goes missing: that is, the pleasure, the sheer sensual pleasure of making and eating good food, an engagement that should be present for children and parents together. Getting into the food is not about lessons of measurement and precision, though those are present too; it is about getting friendly with ingredients and the magic of cooking. In my kitchen I have kneaded bread with my children. We sometimes threw bits of dough at each other, and ate the raw dough, and messed about a lot. I taught them how to do it; they taught me how to have fun doing it.

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