Read an Excerpt
My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus
Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything
By Nancy Tringali Piho
Bull Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2009 Bull Publishing Company
All rights reserved.
"Mmmmm ... Octopus!
On a family vacation trip to Miami, my husband Paul, our then two-and-a-half-year-old son William, and I strolled past a Peruvian restaurant near our hotel. We stood outside for a few minutes, admiring the al fresco dining environment, perusing the menu, and prepping young Willie for the experience ahead. "Oh, look at all the good things they have to eat, Willie," we said. "Plantains! Dark beans! And lots of seafood. You love seafood!" Reassured by the presence of a highchair and a friendly maitre d', we decided to go in.
We began our meal by ordering a ceviche appetizer to share. The large platter contained calamari, octopus, and shrimp "cooked" in the traditional lemon and lime juices, along with baked plantains and a smattering of local diced sweet onions. It looked absolutely delicious.
As he had been taught (or perhaps trained) to do after so many previous experiences in restaurants, Willie asked the waiter to bring him a small teaspoon. The waiter smiled as he complied, asking, "Is he really going to eat that?"
"Mmmmm! Octopus!" Willie squealed at the first bite. "More octopus!"
His enthusiasm and delight were contagious, attracting attention and comments from diners at several nearby tables.
"I can't believe that child is eating ceviche," one grandmotherly-looking woman said. "He loves it!" her companion noted, adding, "The kids I know would never try something like that."
That comment stuck in my mind as I thought about the youngsters I am in contact with, the children who live in our neighborhood, the members of William's playgroups, and my friends' children. Why is it that so many are described tenderly as "picky eaters"? Why are so many parents afraid to try out new foods and new types of dining experiences on their kids? And, perhaps most important, why is it that people automatically assume that all children want to eat standard, mundane kid-fare, such as chicken fingers and French fries all the time?
Willie liked the ceviche, I realized that night, for the same reason that my husband and I did. It was simply good, fresh food, expertly prepared and properly seasoned. In the absence of the abundant fat, sodium, and sugar found in so many children's foods — and, indeed, in too many adult diets as well — the wonderful flavor of the seafood, juices, plantains, and onions could shine.
That evening's restaurant experience, considered with others we've had as we have introduced young William to the flavors of Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican, Greek, and many other ethnic cuisines, convinced me that my husband and I are onto something in the conscious decision we've made to teach our son how to eat and enjoy a wide range of foods. When Baby Daniel joined our household three years after Willie's birth, it was even more interesting to go through the food introduction process a second time. It's fascinating to compare each child's receptiveness to new foods and his different recognition and acceptance of various flavors as both grow more mature.
From our children's earliest days, we have focused on exposing them to the ideal flavor profile of individual foods. When he was about two years old, William could, by taste, identify capers, discern black olives from green, and distinguish among various types of cheese. The more exposure he has had to different cuisines, the more he has come to understand how to taste "real" foods and how their flavors contrast with foods that are run-of-the-mill, overly processed, or "flavor-enhanced" with chemical sugars or inexpensive deep-frying. As a result, we have seen him develop a happy appreciation for the joy that food can bring to one's life.
What, Me Worry?
"I found a quarter in my son's diaper. Should I be worried?" Recent post on parenting message board
We modern-day American parents are a strange lot.
We dump the plastic baby bottles for fear of the chemical compound BPA, and we send Thomas the Tank Engine toy trains back to China at the first mention of toxic paint. We put our kids in safety helmets and water wings and coat them with layers of sunscreen. We use antibacterial soaps and gels, cringing when someone gets too close to Baby without scrubbing up first. I recently used a local e-mail list to try to buy a "gently used" car seat to have on hand in case of visitors, only to receive a barrage of e-mails warning me about the perils of buying this sort of item second-hand. Warning, warning, warning — that seems to be the buzz word of our time. From government officials and agencies to consumer organizations, scientists, and university researchers — everyone can give you a reason to steer clear, demand a recall or refund, or protest a global corporation's marketing strategies. For the most part, if the safety trend becomes big enough, we all hop on board, sometimes leaving our critical thinking skills behind.
Then there are the things that we spend money on for our kids. We invest hundreds or thousands of dollars in education, exotic travel, and more. We spend on electronic equipment, toys, sporting goods, music lessons, and trendy clothes. We dish out money for soccer teams, ballet and art lessons, and Spanish classes. We sign up our kids for many of these programs under the guise of "play-based learning." We parents will go to any length we can afford to provide "the best" for our kids.
And yet, when it comes to the foods we pump directly into our kids' bodies every day, our standards may not be the same. As a nation, our attitude regarding children's nutrition can be summed up as "whatever." We take little or no responsibility for our children's diets, instead relying largely on multinational corporations (with only nominal supervision from the federal government), whose major priority is their own bottom line, to provide products that are healthy, nutritious, tasty, and safe to eat. Oh, and we expect these products to be reasonably priced, available in every flavor and any quantity, and always accessible whenever and wherever we happen to be. The idea that what we feed our kids may not be what is best for them (or for us) is too incomprehensible, not to mention too inconvenient, to think about. Our bottom line assumption is that the corporations that feed us, and the government bodies that oversee them, all have the best interests of the customers (and their kids) at heart.
When problems do arise in our food chain, they usually make big news. Think about past scares with E. coli in produce and ground beef, avian flu in poultry, and Salmonella in peanut butter and tomatoes. We respond dramatically, or not at all, depending on how directly affected we are. Then, for the most part, we go back to eating, and to feeding our children in the same way that we always have. Food in this country is presumed to be safe. And for the most part, it is safe, very safe. That makes us extremely fortunate, and at the same time, very blasé. "No news is good news," we are schooled to believe.
Sometimes policies and advice do change, usually as a result of pressure from scientific and consumer groups. But it is hard to know when we can trust the information we hear. How do we know what is just a trend, and what is a sensible, long-term policy plan? Who thought much about trans fats ten or fifteen years ago? Yet in the past few years, new scientific evidence and major consumer efforts have made it so that virtually every major snack and food manufacturer in the country has eliminated the stuff as an ingredient. California recently became the first state to ban trans fats from use in restaurants, following the lead of New York City, Philadelphia, and other metropolitan areas. But, of course, the same companies that now tout their trans fat-free products were the ones that developed trans fats in the distant past to extend the shelf life of products, and then blithely marketed this artery-clogging goo for decades. It is difficult to know who should be guiding us, and whether we as consumers are making the right decisions.
It's an exciting time to be in the food world if you're a journalist or a researcher, always on the lookout for the next hot story or product. You won't be disappointed. There is something "new" all the time. But where does that leave the average American parents, who just want to feed their kids in the safest, most wholesome, nutritious, economic, tasty (and often quickest) manner possible? Shrugging their shoulders, most likely. It's hard not to develop a "How can you ever know what's really best?" resignation.
The questions I ask about the foods I feed my kids are different now from what they would have been had I not had substantial exposure to so many facets of the American food industry. Health concerns, of course, top my list, but not far behind now is another criterion that I have come to believe plays just as much of a role in separating "good" foods from "bad," and that is taste. I used to subscribe to some of the mantras of the food marketing world, such as "All foods can fit into a healthful diet." "There are no bad foods, there are only bad diets," we used to say, but I have come to see the holes in those statements. There are definitely "bad" foods — or perhaps I should say, lesser foods, as compared to more superior ones that offer us something from either a nutritional or a wonderful taste point of view, or both. Too few foods designated for, and marketed to, children offer enough of either.
It's hard to paint a picture of this situation without picking on specific food products, so I'm purposely being a little vague here. Just think about the foods and recipes that many of the kids you may know eat, or profess to like to eat, when asked about their favorites. You can find examples in virtually every food category: beverages, cereals, snack foods, entrees, sweets, and desserts. Overwhelmingly, the favorites fall into one of two categories: very sweet, or laden with fat, as in deep-fried. A third group might be heavy on the sodium, as is the case with many packaged and processed snack foods. And what else do they all have in common? At least one of two things: either a distinct lack of unique flavor, or a flavor profile that is completely warped from the way that the food tastes in its natural, prime form.
Throughout this book, I often use fruits to illustrate this point, because they are a good example of how the food industry so often takes a wonderful, natural food — such as, say, an apple or a peach — and uses it to make something else, such as a children's food product, that is of much lesser quality in terms of nutrition and taste. The sweet taste of apples and peaches is perfect in the whole fruit. But turn that fruit into "apple concentrate" or "peach concentrate" to be used as a sweetener in a multitude of kids' food products, and all you have left is sweet. The label may boast, "100% natural," and that may be true, but that label gives a false impression as to the quality of the nutritional value of the product, not to mention its flavor value.
One of the first questions I asked myself before embarking on this research and writing project was whether or not the issue of kids and eating is even a justifiable subject, given the numerous books that already exist on the topic. I asked myself whether and why the topic merits yet another book. After all, you could say that hunger alone solves a lot of the standard eating problems. And by the time most of these kids reach adulthood, they, like most of us, will have learned to navigate their way well enough through grocery stores, kitchens, and restaurants to feed themselves sufficiently. The answer to the question about the relevance of picky eating at a young age depends on whom you ask, or perhaps from which angle you look at the topic.
It's easy to see the need for such a book from a medical perspective. With 13% of American children ages two to five overweight or obese, and another 18% of kids ages six to eleven in the same category, there is no question that childhood obesity is a serious public health problem. With regard to specific nutrients, what kids eat is also a real problem: once-conquered diseases such as rickets, caused by a lack of vitamin D, are presenting again in children, as are illnesses resulting from iron deficiencies.
And how important is the psychological role that food plays in the parent-child relationship? I provide food for you; you eat for hunger, nourishment, and then enjoyment. Later you stop eating as a way to gain my attention, punish me when you feel controlled, or just to test me in an effort to learn about boundaries and limits. Out of guilt, embarrassment, or exhaustion, I give in and give you what you want to eat, rather than what you should eat, or what the rest of the family is eating. You respond by eating too much or too little. This goes on for weeks or months or years, shaping or reflecting a distorted relationship.
Theories and strategies about what to do with kids who have eating problems, real or imagined, abound. As I was working on this project, two best-selling cookbooks advocating methods of sneaking healthful foods into standard kids' recipes were much-talked-about in many parenting circles. "Acknowledging your kids' genuine (food) dislikes without being confined by them" is the message here, as these authors scheme to hide puréed vegetables in recipes for pancakes, brownies, muffins, and other favorites. The amount of clamor these books instigated, both positive and negative, reinforces the idea that feeding is a front-burner issue for many parents.
In sorting out all of this, I became convinced that there is indeed room for discussion about kids and eating from one point of view that is often overlooked. That point of view is the role of the taste of kids' foods.
What This Book Is, and What It Is Not
This book is not written to be a guide to children's nutrition, a medical discussion on the health benefits of a proper diet, another discussion on the perils of childhood and adult obesity, or a parenting primer with advice on handling the inevitable conflicts that arise as young children are being trained to sit at a table and eat a meal. I'm not a doctor or any sort of health professional, nor am I a researcher or even a professionally trained chef. What I am is a mother of two little boys, the wife of a real "super taster" who loves good food and drink, a fairly accomplished home cook, and a public relations professional who has worked for almost twenty years in the food industry.
In my business, I have come in contact with a lot of chefs. I know restaurant trends, grocery store layouts, new food products, cookbook authors, and many people in the food media. I have worked for numerous food companies and industries, including chocolate, chicken, candy, beer, pistachios, farm-raised salmon, fruits and vegetables, sugar, and dairy products. I've practiced enough to know how to pull together a simple-but-tasty dinner party. I've learned much about nutrition from working on programs, such as 5 A Day for Better Health, with organizations, such as the American Dietetic Association, and with prominent doctors and dietitians. I've taken numerous cooking classes and have grown to appreciate and advocate the seasonal and local concept of food choice, particularly with produce. I've absorbed much about the business side of the food industry from my clients, have studied up on food safety, and have even had some exposure to regulatory and federal government lobbying concerning agricultural industry issues. In short, for all of my professional life, I had been immersed in various facets of the U.S. food industry, not as an expert in any one area, but with a comprehensive knowledge broader than that of the average person.
And then I had children. And with real people that I love and am responsible for feeding on a daily basis, the situation suddenly became a lot clearer to me. People don't eat trends, nutritional components, units of perishable parts, SKUs, dietary guidelines, phytosterols, vitamin compounds, recipes, further-processed-versus-fresh products, or any of the other concepts and buzzwords that reflect an invisible barrier that exists between farmers, manufacturers, chefs, and other industry producers and the final consumer in modern-day America. We eat food.
To some of us, or to all of us at some point in our lives, that means nothing more than satisfying our urges from one hunger pang to the next, with cost or convenience being the only factor determining choice. To others, food is a political statement or a nutritional mandate, chosen carefully to reflect personal views or to fortify the body's physiological needs. To the stressed or depressed, food is a comfort item or a consoling friend; to the modern-day epicurean, food is a constant source of self-satisfaction. We can take for granted in this country that the foods that we like to eat are safe for us to eat (even if not particularly good for us to eat), and that they will be available when we want them.
Excerpted from My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus by Nancy Tringali Piho. Copyright © 2009 Bull Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of Bull Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.