What New Research Can Mean for the Picky Eaters

From the moment we enter this world, our internal cues signal us when we are hungry and when we are satisfied. We are born with a sucking reflex so we can obtain nourishment. Once solid food is introduced, it’s a learning process. Up until now, we have largely considered this learning something that happens in infancy into early toddlerhood and as very intentional by the parent.

New research is demonstrating a more complex picture (Kinzler 2016).  This study identified something that FamilyCook Productions has observed for two decades: food preferences are heavily influenced socially. These research findings explain the phenomena that so many parents lament over, where the so-called ‘good eaters’ at 2, 3, and 4 years seem to become picky eaters at 5 or 6.  Not surprisingly, this can be traced to when a child enters elementary school where the meal is noisy and full of unmonitored child disdain. Socially, our children observe  and then ‘learn’ what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ by watching other children (Young 2004). These new pronouncements about foods they have previously accepted, are the result, researchers conclude, of a hard-wired human need to avoid foods that are socially rejected.

TSC pics 053The researchers hypothesize that such strong avoidance of foods that are observed as rejected by nothers is a protective attribute to ensure harmful substances are not ingested. So where does this new research leave a society that wants a cure for picky eaters? In our two decades of experience, we have found this answer leads right back to the family table. More than ever, with social cues being such a key factor in young children’s food preferences, the environment around feeding matters.

We have seen the importance of the social and emotional component of food acceptance born out in each session of our Willow program for preschoolers that operates in WIC centers across the US. Over and over again, parents who swear their child dislikes trying new foods watch in amazement as their child gobbles down kale salad, asparagus spears with hummus, rhubarb with plain yogurt, and even raw grated beets. Why? Because the session sets up for a communal and socially accepting group experience with prompters along the way to gradually and even ceremoniously ‘warm up’ the children to new foods.

Parents are then encouraged to use the exact same techniques at home, and are given take-home support to do so. Hence the well-intentioned parents who has spent time and energy into preparing a meal, places it on the table, and is crushed when their child refuses to eat it has new insight into the social and emotional component of food acceptance. Lacking this understanding, the child seeing a pile of new vegetables on their plate cries out for the ubiquitous french fries, ravioli, or chicken nuggets that generally live in the freezer. Mom, concerned her child will go hungry, gives in. With this action, a vicious cycle is triggered. The child has learned that when food he/she does not want is placed on the table, all they need to do is make a fuss and the offending food is replaced by their ‘kid food’ favorite. 

One of Ellyn Satter’s “Division of Responsibility” in feeding key responsibilities for parents is structured meal times in a social setting with other family members (Satter 1995). This is key for both regular meals and snacks. Making mealtime a family time sets a pleasant environment around food and eating. In this way, food is showcased as the medium that brings the family together, to connect, bond, and celebrate happy times. Mealtime is a time to disconnect from technology and media and to become aware of what is in front of you: good company and good food. It sounds so simple; yet, it’s what happened for most of human existence – until the last couple of generations. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can soul search about our own family meal habits with this key new understanding. 

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What Will Food Policy Advocates Tackle Next?

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In the late 1980’s, the headline of a restaurant industry trade magazine declared “She’s Outta There.”  “She” was referring to America’s mother, portrayed as hanging up her apron and exiting the kitchen. Where was she going? Well, at the time she was in the workforce in an increasingly professional capacity and was not crazy about coming home each night to cook. In response to this, restaurants created attractively priced children’s offerings.

This supply-meets-demand phenomenon created a perfect storm resulting in the tsunami of “kid’s food” that has flooded every setting where our children eat. Everywhere they go, they are fed this same menu - at school, in restaurants and increasingly, at home. The menu items are easy to conjure up: nuggets, burgers, mac ‘n cheese, hot dogs, pizza, pasta, grilled cheese, etc. They are cheap and they don’t require vegetables or quality ingredients.

As the White House focuses on child hunger and ensuring more eligible children can receive free school lunch, policy makers and advocates are turning to kids menus in restaurants as the next frontier. In New York City, a bill introduced by City Council Member Ben Kallos aims to improve the nutritional quality of kids meals in fast food restaurants. Yet as Michael Pollan and key influencers have pointed out, our hyper focus on nutrients and calories in our policy making does not always help citizens make better choices or ensure that our kids will become better, more adventurous eaters.

So what can parents and nutrition educators do to encourage a shift to radically change menu items in restaurants and in institutional settings? We can start by recognizing that since American culture is far from homogeneous. We, can embrace our immigrant roots and strive to share with our children the foodways of the many cultures that make up our nation. Going to a Mexican or Chinese restaurant? Parents can say a polite ‘no thank you’ to the kid’s menu and explore a more authentic and unusual dish with their children. Parents can also allow children to share menu items that offer ingredients they like; this way the overall cost of the meal will not climb when they eschew very inexpensive kids menus.

By actively seeking out ethnic restaurants of various types for family dining out excursions, parents can treat dining out like a mini vacation. Parents can generate curiosity by doing some Google searches on the culture to find interesting and fun food facts. And once there, why not ask the staff to explain more about the unusual dishes and customs and context of menu items.

In our many years of providing multicultural cooking classes, we have learned that children are fascinated to discover how children just like them eat so differently in various parts of the globe. Japanese children eat fish for breakfast or Thai children thank the “Rice Mother” before each meal. Learning about these differences has helped our children in our classes become more curious and eager to taste the exotic recipes that they prepare each week.

As for nutrition educators and advocates, let’s think through our policy recommendations and consider the wisdom of a ‘win’ at reducing saturated fat and adding extra fruit or vegetables as part of a regulatory measure on restaurant kids menus. Will a few slices of zucchini on the plate or low fat mac ‘n cheese really help children become more adventurous eaters? By merely restructuring the nutritional composition of kids’ menus without moving away from these time worn menus altogether, we sacrifice variety and quality ingredients in our children’s diets. Can we really afford to make do with nutritionally re-engineering these same ubiquitous kids meals? Isn’t it time that we support American families with policies and nutrition education that encourage a cultural shift to embrace the delicious and diverse flavors and ingredients that reflect our American melting pot society?

We offer some intriguing ways to do just that for nutrition educators, public health professionals, parents and even restaurateurs. Explore our Kids Food Reboot: Serving Our Children Better campaign materials and resources. We can do this, and the media can help. Already the Washington Post made this campaign front page story a little over a year ago. Let’s raise our advocacy and policy voices louder and unwaveringly in support of children’s opportunity to enjoy the same quality food as their parents.

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"Cooking Buddies" Enhance Program Impact

In our 20 years of teaching cooking as nutrition education and family therapy, we’ve found that mixing ages can offer extraordinary group dynamics in the classroom and at home.

Throughout the school day, children are grouped by their age and abilities. But, when it comes to cooking, there are at least 3 major benefits to assigning tasks by level of difficulty for participants of different ages. This can be accomplished in after school settings, community settings, and certainly in the social services setting.

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1. Engagement flourishes with age-appropriate roles.
Parents may be hesitant to invite children into the kitchen if they are unsure how to do so safely and efficiently. Understanding this reality, we build the class experience to highlight appropriate roles and tasks for different ages. By aiming for ‘aha’ moments in each session, parents know just what to do when they get home with each child. This really alleviates parents’ fears because the class shows them how each child can contribute in an authentic and non-chaotic way. Three year olds, for example, can tear up greens and lettuce, while a third grader grates potatoes. Adolescents can be taught to use a chef’s knife and become the family meal sous chef, which makes scratch cooking for parents a breeze. But, the value of combining ages in the class setting extends beyond identifying appropriate tasks for each age.

2. Bonding.
After 20 years of program development and supporting our affiliates across the US, it’s evident that people love to cook together.  Cooking creates a common bond with little ones looking up to older siblings or schoolmates. Adolescents and elementary aged children are equally enthusiastic and proud to be able to support younger children make a solid contribution to a shared meal. There is a huge win-win opportunity created by acknowledging that everyone – regardless of age, has something valuable to contribute.

This point was brought home when our FamilyCook Productions founder, Lynn Fredericks, first began cooking with her own children who are 6 and a half years apart in age.  Back in the 90’s when Stephan was a toddler in the kitchen, nLynn took great pains to make sure he had a very defined role with each recipe, so that he would not feel eclipsed by his older brother. Such role designation plays out similarly in a program setting, where children in each age group take their cues from their peers and know their role well and take pride in it.  Everyone contributes based on their ability and everyone shares in the sense of accomplishment.

3. Practice in class makes for success at home.  
Apart from parents with twins or triplets, most parents don’t have all 3rd graders at home.  By practicing age specific roles and tasks in a mixed age class, family members return home with an understanding of the boundaries around their capabilities and know when to ask for or offer help.  This is an essential development for harmonious family cooking.  If little ones are determined not to ask for help and frustrate parents with their insistence to do tasks inappropriate for their age and ability, parents will not feel motivated to continue to cook with then. It’s really that simple. The class experience should set the parameters in a positive way that celebrates every participant’s contribution. Both parents and older siblings experience the satisfaction of assisting younger family members to help. With each accomplishment the group cheers for the youngest helper’s culinary success.

This is how youth in Teen Battle Chef across the US approach their growing interest in cooking at home. They have learned so much in the program midway into the semester that they are assigned a family cooking activity designed to include ALL family members. Each Teen Battle Chef knows exactly how to safely engage each participant based on their age and ability. The result is a successful demonstration to their parents that cooking can be a happy, delicious and nutritious family affair.

Stay connected with us! Find out what the New York Times had to say this month about our award-winning programs. Sign up for our mailing list, and check out our latest book!

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Festive Roasted Fall Vegetables

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Festive Roasted Fall Vegetables

Prep Time: 20 minutes Cook Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Additional Cooking Equipment: Baking sheet or roasting pan.

For the most appealing result, select root veggies of contrasting colors. You can leave the peels on all the veggies—even the acorn squash. Just scrub them well, and make sure you cut the squash into semicircles for easy prep and beauty on the plate.

  • 1 medium potato
  • 1 medium sweet potato 
  • 4 small shallots
  • 1 medium acorn or delicata squash 
  • 2 small parsnips
  • 2 small turnips
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 tablespoons (85 g) unsalted butter
  • 3 to 4 fresh sage leaves
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons Spanish sherry vinegar

Note: Children should use plastic or table knives for all child steps that require cutting or chopping.

(Adult) Preheat oven to 400 °F (200°C, or gas mark 6)

(Adult & Child) Adult slices the vegetables. Child can then cut into bite-size and attractive-looking pieces. 

(Adult & Child) Place the vegetables in a large bowl, add olive oil, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss.

(Adult) Oil the baking sheet with some olive oil. Spread the vegetables on baking sheet. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until vegetables are caramelized (browned or roasted to sweetness).  

(Adult) Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat.

(Child) Tear up sage leaves and add to the skillet.

(Adult) Cook until the butter browns but does not burn. Remove from heat; add the vinegar and season with salt to taste. 

(Adult) Serve by placing each portion of veggies on its own plate. Drizzle just enough of the sherry-sage butter over the veggies to add taste—don’t drench.

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Holiday RX: Collaborative Holiday Meals

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This is the time of year when food is front and center in our lives. For some, it's a license to indulge. For others, the focus is about their culinary traditions that reflect their heritage through time worn recipes. We connect with our family and friends through gatherings with celebratory food. Then, when the holiday season is over, we make New Year resolutions to become more fit and lose a few pounds. But, could we use this time to be more intentional around the role that food plays in our holiday celebrations, and in our lives? Can this festive season be approached as a tool to bring our family -  or our educational program participants, together to celebrate with local, seasonal, and healthful food?

What does it mean to be intentional around food? Let's explore some ways to approach meals more meaningfully this holiday season.

1. Consider the menu items critically.
You don’t have to serve dishes just because you have ‘always had them at the holidays.’ Take a moment to pause and consider whether you honestly love every dish. Do your holiday recipes represent what your region has to offer in terms of seasonal, fresh food? Do they reflect the health profile of how you like or would like to eat at this point in your life?  Asparagus on the menu?  It’s really a spring vegetable, so why not swap with winter greens or root vegetables that will offer a more seasonal approach. Do those sweet potatoes really need marshmallows? What is a way to enjoy these sweet and lusciously textured vegetables?  The youth from our Teen Battle Chef program are often asked to help prepare Thanksgiving feasts for the elderly or other group settings. Our policy is to ensure that they are also helping to re-interpret ‘typical’ dishes enjoyed over the holidays by providing one or more recipes that has a ‘twist’ on tradition, such as a delectable butternut squash and apple cider soup with feta and dill. 

2. Who will prepare what?  
Do you take on too much when the holidays come along? Are you tempted to just ‘order out’ because it’s so much work?  Or from a program perspective, does making a group feast before the holiday vacation seem too daunting?  This only has to be the case if you are taking on too much yourself and not involving other family members or young cooks in your program. When our founder, Lynn Fredericks’s children were young, she re-evaluated the holiday menus and offered each of her two sons an opportunity to create their signature dish. She helped them select and cook it. This became their new tradition that continues to this day. It was their special ritual and having her boys’ participation took the pressure off of Lynn to do all the cooking by herself.better and in season during the months of April and May, so why not swap traditional vegetables with winter greens or root vegetables that will offer a more seasonal approach.  

3. Establish new traditions.
In addition to new recipes, what new traditions  could you create around cooking or eating together?  Does one child or age group in a program take on table decorations? Can someone take the lead in planning music and songs to be apart of your celebration? What about shopping? Can your students (or children) help you make the shopping list and then go with you to the farmers market and/or the grocery store? Offering ways to enhance your meal with creative additions that make it festive and special can also add to your enjoyment.  Whether it’s Kwanza, Christmas or Hanukkah, you can find special paper decorations to make from snowflakes to dreidels to paper mkekas.

Use the time of the holidays for everyone in your program or family to: make conscious decisions about what’s important for your celebratory meal. Set goals together about your food priorities for taste, budget, as well as health to ensure your meals this holiday season reflect something that everyone feels great about cooking, serving and eating!

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A Solution for the Picky Eater: Multicultural Recipes

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Picky eaters are not confined to children alone. Many finicky children grow up into adults who are averse to eating anything beyond the ubiquitous mac ‘n cheese, hamburgers, pizza, spaghetti, etc. In nutrition education, a common school of thought is to only choose program recipes that reflect the cultural background of the participants. But, there is another approach to broadening the palate of a picky eater that is not an uphill battle.

For many years we’ve effectively used multicultural recipes in our school and community programs, inviting participants of all ages to have an ‘open mind’ and an open mouth.  A sense of adventure is stirred up in participants when an announcement is made that the experience will be an exotic culinary exploration. This approach ignites curiosity and prepares participants to ‘think different’ and expect radically new flavors as well. In fact, when we surveyed elementary and middle/high school students about their favorite aspects of our program, over 75% report they love the opportunity to broaden their horizons about the kinds of foods that are ‘out there’ and learn how to cook with them.

During one of our typical family cooking classes, Thai Inspired Fish Chowder was on the menu. A parent was shocked and asked why we were not teaching his kids to make something they would enjoy, like ‘mac n cheese’. He was adamant that his kids would not eat fish, herbs or lima beans. We had confidence in our approach and by the time his children squeezed the last lime, chopped three types of herbs and helped season their soup, they were excited to enjoy it. That same dad was thrilled and surprised to let us know his kids had three helpings!

So let’s explore this strategy by breaking it down into four steps.

  1. Collaborative Planning
    Who says the primary cook or program leader has to do all the planning too?  Instead, invite picky eaters to help select the cuisine and culture that everyone will explore together. If possible, include them in the entire planning process, such as shopping for ingredients, looking up cultural references and discovering the ‘whys’ of how a culture’s cuisine and recipes evolved the way they have. Families (or groups) can rotate among members to choose the cuisine for the next meal. It’s clear that at regular intervals, each participant can choose a culture they would like to explore. After a few weeks of unfamiliar cultures and ingredients, you can then begin to draw on the heritage of the participants.  Ask them to share their family recipes and together discover ways to enhance their dishes by adding more flavor through additional vegetables. Learning about nutrition becomes more exciting and interactive when highlighting their own cultures.

  2. Strategic Recipe Selection
    Choose (or suggest others choose) a recipe that has a bold flavor profile; the goal is to wake up the palate of the picky eater in a pleasurable way. If the end-product is delicious, then the picky eater will eat it. Ask yourself what flavors do your picky eaters typically like (e.g. if they like tangy things, choose a sweet and sour soup or something that has lemon or lime flavors). Make sure the seasonings in the recipe can be adjusted to taste (e.g. make it more or less spicy), and teach your picky eaters to build the flavor and seasons to their preference - the more control they have, the more comfortable they will feel.

  1. Make it a Routine
    Expanding the palate of a picky eater takes time, so it’s important to be patient and to have fun while exploring new dishes and cuisines together. Create new habits and build and maintain progress by gradually awakening the palate meal by meal in a predictable way, rather than a once-off occasion or class. The more often a picky eater is exposed, the more likely they will begin to enjoy new flavors and textures.  

  1. Success with One Pot Meals
    At FamilyCook Productions we swear by one-pot disheslike a stir fry, curry, or stew instead of a segmented meal format like meat+vegetables+starch. There are two major reasons why: 1) it helps overcome intimidation factor of a pile of vegetables;  and 2) this strategy addresses the negative feelings that kids might have about certain foods touching each other (e.g. cold slaw touching meat loaf). One pot dishes usually offer plenty of ingredients that need to be broken down, making for lots of jobs to keep children engaged and feeling proud to contribute.

Try This

To start putting these ideas into practice, check out this favorite FamilyCook recipe and from our founder’s primer for families dealing with picky eaters and one from Jamie Oliver - happy exploring!

Scandinavian Barley Salad with Apples

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Super-tasty miso broth

 What are some solutions your family or program have used to satisfy picky eaters?

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From Denmark to the Farmers’ Market

I have been so lucky as to be a part of the FamilyCook Productions team through my nutrition internship, and what an experience it has been. Today I went to Hammarskjold Plaza farmers’ market, and I literally felt like I was 7 again and walking into the biggest candy store. From a Danish viewpoint the variety of vegetables was an incredible experience. I had never seen so many different types of kale or squash in my life! There were so many different colors and shapes, and I felt so inspired to make a delicious kale salad with my very new friend the beautiful Russian kale. 

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It is so easy to get inspired when you go to the farmers’ markets, there is something magical about shopping your produce from the hands of the farmers that have nurtured these fruit and vegetables to growth. I feel like I was shopping for delicious vitamins that would fill my body with all the energy and excitement we all need for life. The greatest gift you can give yourself is good nutrition from these amazing fruit and vegetables. 

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The vegetables and fruits that made the biggest impression on me were the different kales, so I made a salad of russian kale, baked red Bartlett pears, and yellow cherdlee tomatoes. 

Kale is not a favorite dining for many, but this vegetable has some amazing characteristics that you can get great pleasure from.  Kale is very rich in vitamin C, which strengthens our immune system, and it is very high in fiber. Try to experiment with your kale and if you want all the wonderful vitamins and dietary fiber avoid cooking the kale.

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So for this recipe you will need: 

(Serves 4)

  • 1 bunch of russian kale from the farmers' market
  • 2 big Yellow Cherdlee tomatoes
  • 3 red Bartlett piers
  • 1 bunch of Rainbow chard
  • 1.5 cup Quinoa
  • Almonds
  • Olive oil
  • Vinegar
  • Salt
  • Soy 

Directions:

  1. First cut your pears into small wedges and put them in the oven at 300 °F for approx. 15-20 min.
  2. Next set the quinoa over to boil for 10-15 minutes until it has the same consistency as boiled rice 
  3. Roast the almonds with 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, and remove when golden and put them on a plate to cool down.
  4. Rinse all your vegetables and role up your kale and chard to ribbons, so you can cut them in fine strips. Combine 2 tablespoons of vinegar and 1 tablespoon of olive oil together and mix it with the kale
  5. Cut your tomatoes in your desired shapes
  6. Now mix all your ingredients and top with, baked pears, roasted almonds and currants

A great tip is to make a big portion, so you can take it to work or school the next day.

Enjoy!

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Canarsie Food Revolution Engages Residents & Youth

By Teen Battle Chef High School Students Elizabeth Cordero-Hernandez, Joel Allette, and Lorenzo Gallese

Take the L train to the last stop in Brooklyn and you will find yourself in Canarsie. Formerly an Italian and Jewish enclave, it is now home to immigrants hailing from Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America. While some outer borough neighborhoods have seen exciting changes where new influxes ofpeople have created food, shopping and entertainment destinations, Canarsie by contrast has mostly seen little industry and poorer residents.  As mom and pop businesses including larger supermarket chains have left the neighborhood; there has been a devastating effect on access to healthy food.  Yes, Canarsie is a ‘food desert’ if you define the term as having few if any places to purchase a variety of fresh produce, whole grains, sustainably-raised meats and poultry and healthful snack options.

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In 2012 the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council (ADADC) contracted Karp Resources to identify youth programs to engage in a ‘corner store makeover’ project. The idea was a youth-led project fueled with their energy, creativity and familiarity with their own community.  FamilyCook Productions’s Teen Battle Chef program in HealthCorps schools in NYC was identified as a collaborator due to the high level of cooking skill and nutrition knowledge students in their programs gain, and the value of working within a national network of schools through HealthCorps.

FamilyCook and HealthCorps recommended Academy for Conservation and the Environment on the South Shore High School campus in Canarsie and their Coordinator, Courtland “C.K.” Kouassiaman, who delivered the HealthCorps program that includes Teen Battle Chef (TBC).  From there, FCP recruited us  - TBC Alumni who had previously been in the program in a HealthCorps school, to serve as mentors and role models to new TBC students at C.K.’s school.  So that’s how it happened that myself and Teen Battle Chef Alums Joel Allette and Lorenzo Gallese helped to jumpstart the project that the ACE students named the “Canarsie  Health Revolution” over the winter and spring of 2013.

Essentially it was a community outreach project to help the people of Canarsie, Brooklyn to see that there are more to snacks than potato chips.  The project involved weekly meetings among the following key players: FamilyCook’s Youth Development Associate David Bartolomi and we three above-mentions TBC Alums, Karp Resources youth specialist Adam Liebowitz; C.K. the HealthCorps Coordinator at ACE and his TBC students.  First we met with a similar team of youth in Williamsburg who were from Ecostation at an ADADC sponsored launch and we met some key players like Victor Lopes who would help the corner stores from a sourcing and merchandising perspective.  We also learned about their “Fuel Up to Play 60” campaign that communicates the connection between healthy food and being active to youth.

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The goal was not to change the store but to simply embrace options whether it was moving items to the front or to just put stickers indicating the healthy options.  The TBC students also contributed ideas to new signage and ads for the project; they were photographed holding some of the healthy items for the ad campaign.

I have to say that our strategies of handing out small containers of yogurt, samples of our ‘Canarsie Special’ sandwich, and smoothies in front of the corner stores we worked with was fun and made all of us feel a bit like ‘rock stars’!  People were not used to seeing teenagers as the messengers for health in their community and they were very polite to us and attentive. They also loved our food.  By summer’s end, we had exciting positive feedback from the store owners, especially Orlando, who described how the project seemed to encourage customers to ask him to stock specific items like organic eggs. When he did, he sold out!  Clearly an empowerment among the community to ask for what they want is being fostered.  Shoppers outside of the supermarket where we were stationed always asked us when we would be coming back. The consistency of the day helped bring them back to do their weekly shopping when our team would be outside with samples of healthy food options available. We began to see repeat customers, which was very exciting.

More importantly, the community came to see us as a knowledgeable culinary resource; they began looking to us to demonstrate healthy meals they could cook from food available at the store. You could say that from healthy snack focus turned into a full blown ‘shopping makeover’ opportunity with our TBCs being asked for recipe suggestions for things like veggies and fish, which we would write down the recipe and ingredients and then they would shop for them!

In addition to these observations, we also conducted surveys of the residents and learned that all the people surveyed were interested in buying healthier options whether they knew they were there beforehand or not and they were willing to pay for them – average of $5 for healthier snacks which, as students, we thought was a lot of money and kind of surprising!  We also learned that they were quite knowledgeable about the foods that support their health – whole grains, beans, fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, organic and/or lean meats – came up over and over again in our survey about what items they would like to see available.  If people are informed enough to know the good options, then it seems only fair that they are available for them to buy.

All in all, it was exciting to be a part of this project – we all felt that we had a real impact on the residents of Canarsie and that our efforts were appreciated. We are excited to see if there are other indicators like sales data that will support our affirmation that our efforts were effective. Based on our own research and the faces of the TBC youth and their ‘customers’ outside the stores, this was a successful project worth examining for its future potential, especially building onto similar projects that our NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene have been conducting.  

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Teen Battle Chefs take on Thai recipe concepts

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Every summer, FamilyCook offers an opportunity for a couple dozen inner city teenagers to have a part-time paid job teaching others to cook healthy meals.  Through Teen Battle Chef, these students learned to cook in their high schools and were nominated for our Summer Leadership Brigade by their TBC instructors from our partner organizations such as HealthCorps

 

I developed Teen Battle Chef 10 years ago to inspire teenagers to find their path to a healthier lifestyle. Through our innovative formula employing time limits and weekly competitions, teens develop a preference to prepare their own snacks and meals using fresh ingredients. Seeing this transformation, we then took the program to the next level by exploring the teens’ capacity to influence their families and friends. With that success, the program’s scope now includes internships and job opportunities for these youths to teach others in their community.

 

We match them to such jobs as teaching younger children to cook and conducting cooking demos in farmers markets, among other roles. Each Tuesday, the whole group meets at a central location for a mentoring session or field trip. This week, we took them into new territory with Thai cuisine!  One of our new dietetic interns (Pamela Wachrathit) is Thai and was excited to participate to be our authenticity guide for our cooking session.  The TBC Alumni Mentors, who organized and co-facilitated the three- hour session, were thrilled at the results!

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Surprising

On the menu were three delicious Thai recipes:  Green Papaya Salad; Lettuce Leaf Wrap Appetizers, and Sticky Rice with Coconut and Mango.  According to our Teen Battle Chef Alumni Mentors (who just a few months back were learning to be TBCs in their own high schools), they were most surprised by the TBC students’ willingness to try all the unusual ingredients, such as dried shrimp which were, according to Mentor Liz Cordero, ‘pretty shrimpy and salty’ tasting.  TBC Mentor Joel Allette was surprised that tutoring the kids on deveining shrimp moved along so speedily and successfully.

 

Hilarious

Apparently some of the ‘newness’ for the teens resulted at times in downright hilarity.  When pressed to give examples, they unanimously agreed upon the moment when TBC Cheyanne reacted to the lettuce leaf wraps, which had chili rounds, pickled garlic, ginger, herbs, coconut, peanuts etc. inside.  They laughed uncontrollably as they described how she was so shocked by the chili spice that hit her palate first, she ‘tried to suck in all the air in the room’ to compensate for the spices. Equally funny, they shared, was the reaction to the opening of the jar of shrimp paste which, Joel assured me, made the entire room smell like Flatbush, Brooklyn on a 100 degree day.  

 

Gratifying

Of course the entire experience of working with youth (even if you’re one of our Mentors, one of which is still a high school student, albeit a very accomplished one) is chock full of proud and satisfying moments.  Dante Mena our amazing musician chef, shared with me that his most gratifying moment was when the students tasted their Thai creations and ‘begged for 2nds, 3rds, and even 4ths!”  For Liz, she most appreciated seeing them ‘eat something totally foreign’ and expect to like it!

 

Teaching Moments:

Beyond the introduction of new recipes teaming with fresh ingredients, the other purpose of the day was to demonstrate how most culture’s recipes are concepts. Once mastered, they can be altered with new seasonal ingredients. This is a very important part of how we teach cooking in FamilyCook programs and it is also described step by step in our book.  According to the TBC mentors, adding some blueberries to the traditional sticky rice and mango was a big hit, as were adding zucchini and radishes to the Thai papaya salad!  Our Thai intern underscored this lesson as she ndescribed how her grandmother made these same dishes with her signature touch.

 

Photos:  Courtesy David Bartolomi

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Turn food explorations into a taste test with children

I was in London this summer visiting my close friends, meeting with my English publisher, and looking for things that were new and different. My plan was to purchase things to bring back to Emma, my English friend’s 9-year-old daughter, so we could taste and rate them together!

Wherever I go, discovering new food markets and neighborhoods are always high on my ‘to do’ list. When in London, I met with my Les Dames d’Escoffier colleague Valentina Harris, from our London Chapter, and she encouraged me to check out Old Spitalfields Market in the East End. I realized I was headed somewhere interesting by the stylish (Ted Baker) and edgy (men’s waxing) shops along the walk from the subway. Then I arrived to an impressive, airy and lively market with tables of food and artisan vendors. Along the periphery were brick and mortar food shops. The mixture of clothing and accessory artisans to food was very dynamic, and the actual stores and restaurants all had café seating out in the market as well as inside. There was a LOT to explore; I found myself circling the market a few times, each time discovering something different and intriguing. But what would be fun to try with Emma?

Lynn July 12 Spitalfields Market

English cheese with very intense flavors...

I could not resist Androuet cheese shop, a highly acclaimed establishment renowned in Paris for over a century. Two sons in the youngest generation of the family came to London and have carried on the family tradition of offering selections from small producers who specialize in raw milk cheeses, over 80 seasonal selections. To supplement their French offerings, the young owners have partnered with Paxton & Whitfield for quality English producers. The owner, Alex, was terrific in assisting me on their local selections, and I settled on a cow’s milk Smoked Poacher cheese from Lincolnshire and a raw sheep’s milk cheese called Berkswell from the West Midlands.

Artisan breads – so difficult to choose...

With my cheese purchase completed, I was looking for a worthy companion for them. I didn’t have to go very far to spot a vendor table with a vast array of artisan bread. Levain Bakery bakes 100% sourdough breads in a wood-fired oven. They use the finest quality stone-ground flours and their sourdough starter uses rye flour. I have lots of rye sourdough bread options that I like in New York, but have not found that many multi-grain breads that really taste great, so I chose that to pair with the cheese. I thought that for our taste test, Emma would like a bread with a subtler flavor that wouldn’t overpower the cheeses.

Taste testing with young Emma

When it was time to taste the cheeses, Emma (who really loves cheese in general) got out the cheese board and starting arranging them as I cut up the bread. Emma considers it her role to set up the cheese board after dinner to see if her family might like some cheese after dinner. She loves the arranging and ceremony of it and the fact that her mother lets this be her ‘job’. But for this occasion, Emma and I were going to have our special taste test first and then share with the others. As much as she likes cheese, she was hesitant when I said one of the types were smoked. We agreed that since there were only two to taste, we could each decide which one to try first. I went for the smoked and she went first for the Berkswell. In the end, I really preferred the deep smoky flavor of the Smoked Poacher and she liked theBerkswell, the texture was a bit creamier. This cheese tasting was really fun and she loved the fact that I was sincerely interested in her opinion!

In our book and our school program we offer lots of taste tests as just one way to empower children to explore new flavors; they take the lead and because it’s a tasting, they know it’s ‘on the table’ to not like something!

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Emma's Quesadilla

Let your kids try their hand at modifying a recipe…

When my sons were little, my English neighbor Michelle was also a single mom. We often cooked and shared meals together, forming our own hybrid family to help us cope and make meals festive and memorable! Years later, Michelle, now remarried, is back in London. This summer when I visited, our book intrigued her daughter Emma.  As she leafed through, one recipe in particular caught her eye: Fig and Goat Cheese Quesadilla. She made it twice, trying out different delicious possibilities.

Emmas fig quesadilla2

Improvise when you can’t find all the ingredients

Emma is 9 years old and loves goat’s cheese and lots of things most kids would turn up their noses to.  She can also be picky, so when I could not find the fig jam for our recipe, I thought of the berries she loves and settled on black current.  I honestly didn’t know how she’d react to this change, but she wasn’t concerned. She loved crumbling the cheese and was surprised that we did not oil the skillet. When the moment of truth came, and she had cut it into 8 even triangles, she smiled very contentedly – she loved it.

Consider the season when making variations!

Some days later we were planning dinner with her parents, grandmother and cousin.  Emma wanted to make an ‘appetizer’ of the quesadilla.  By this time some fig jam was found and she also bought fresh, local figs at the market with her mom.  When it came time to prepare the quesadillas, Emma was now in full command. She discovered the perfect balance of jam and cheese, and knew exactly how browned she wanted it as she gently lifted the quesadilla with a spatula and peaked underneath to check for the color. She was proud that I photographed her making the final one – I think her self-confidence and pride shows through in these photos!  Well done, Emma!

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