Thinking "Outside the Box": A fascinating new book on Italian food culture and children's eating habits

I just finished reading this fascinating book by Jeannie Marshall, a Canadian now living in Rome with her husband and son Nico. Marshall’s book tells the story of her family’s love affair with Italian food–which is under threat from food marketing, fast food, junk food, and processed foods of all sorts, which are marketed with ever-increasing intensity at Italian children. Sound familiar?

Marshall points to an alarming trend: traditional food culture is alive and well, it seems, amongst Italian adults, but Italian children are apparently starting to eat more like stereotypical North Americans. Marshall talks about the junk food offered at birthday parties, and the apparent innocence (‘it’s just a harmless little treat’) with which Italians offer processed foods of all kinds to their children. And she notes some of the consequences, including an alarming rise in child obesity rates: Italy is not far behind the US, and at current trends is catching up rather quickly! Her anecdotes about her teaching Nico about traditional food culture reveal the tensions and fault lines in contemporary Italian eating habits (which are very similar to those in France).

Marshall’s book contains lovely anecdotes about some of the food traditions that are alive and well in Italy — such as local markets, and the two-course hot lunch served at schools, featuring everything from spicy arugula to nettle salad (yup – nettles!), pumpkin risotto, fish served with tomatoes and capers, and sautéed zucchini flowers. Yum. Sigh. These passages were fascinating for their similarity to school lunches passages remind me of the school lunches served in France (although I have to admit the Italian dishes sound better than that served at the average French cantine!).

The book is a marvellous read because the story is so deceptively simple: one family’s experience of Italian food (with luscious, lingering descriptions of fresh produce and oh-so-satisfying meals). But this is much more than a personal story (fascinating as it is). Marshall also discusses food marketing, nutrition policy, and the food industry–using examples from around the world. Her personal story is thus placed in a broader context; the book is both informative yet accessibly written (not an easy task!).

Marshall’s take home message is summed up in the sub-title of the book: our children need real food, not food products. In fact, Marshall argues that we would do well to be wary of ‘healthy food’ marketing, in which nutritional messages are often used to lure people into buying expensive, yet ultimately less healthy processed foods. Marshall’s argument echoes that made by Marion Nestle (NYU Professor and Atlantic Monthly columnist) in her book Food Politics). Nestle’s endorsement is a wonderful summary:

Outside the Box is about teaching kids how to appreciate real food but also about how globalization is changing the way the world eats. In this beautifully written book about what needs to be done to preserve food culture in Italy and elsewhere, Marshall makes the political personal as she explains how she is teaching her son to enjoy the pleasures of eating food prepared, cooked and lovingly shared by friends and family.”

Bravo for a great book!

Best Kids Food Books…Great Holiday Gifts!

For those of you who love healthy eating, and love to share this with children and the families around you, here are some of my favorite books for kids.

I’m planning to give all of these books as gifts this holiday season (no, I don’t get any endorsements–I’m just a book lover at heart)…and I know I’m looking forward to reading them as much as I hope my kids are!

Eating the Alphabet (Lois Ehrlert, Harcourt Brace, 1996) (preschoolers)

I Can Eat a Rainbow: A Fun Look at Healthy Foods and Vegetables (Annabel Karmel, Dorling Kindersley, 2009) (preschoolers)

Alexander and the Great Food Fight (Linda Hawkins, Heart to Heart, 2004) (5 to 8 years)

Did You Eat Your Vitamins Today? (Ena Sabih, Heart to Heart, 2011) (5 to 8 years)

The Vegetables We Eat (Gail Gibbons, Holiday House, 2007) (8 to 12)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets behind What You Eat. Young Reader’s Edition (Michael Pollan, Dial, 2009) (teens)

Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food (Eric Schlosser, Houghton Mifflin, 2006) (teens)

Happy reading!

Best Kids’ Food Books…Great holiday #gifts for preschoolers to teens

For those of you who love healthy eating, and love to share this with children and the families around you, here are some of my favorite books for kids.

You might be surprised to learn that reading books about vegetables has an effect on children, but studies have shown that even three exposures to a storybook with a positive message about a vegetable can positively affect children’s preferences.

I’m planning to give all of these books as gifts this holiday season (no, I don’t get any endorsements–I’m just a book lover at heart)…and I know I’m looking forward to reading some of them as much as I hope my kids are!

(ps Send me your favorites, and I’ll add them to the list!)

Eating the Alphabet (Lois Ehrlert, Harcourt Brace, 1996) (preschoolers)

I Can Eat a Rainbow: A Fun Look at Healthy Foods and Vegetables (Annabel Karmel, Dorling Kindersley, 2009) (preschoolers)

Alexander and the Great Food Fight (Linda Hawkins, Heart to Heart, 2004) (5 to 8 years)

Did You Eat Your Vitamins Today? (Ena Sabih, Heart to Heart, 2011) (5 to 8 years)

The Vegetables We Eat (Gail Gibbons, Holiday House, 2007) (8 to 12)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets behind What You Eat. Young Reader’s Edition (Michael Pollan, Dial, 2009) (teens)

Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food (Eric Schlosser, Houghton Mifflin, 2006) (teens)

Happy Reading!

ps In case you’re interested in the scientific studies I referred to above, here is a reference: E. Byrne and S. Nitzke, “Preschool Children’s Acceptance of a Novel Vegetable Following Exposure to Messages in a Storybook,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 34 (2002): 211-214.

Best Kids' Food Books…Great holiday #gifts for preschoolers to teens

For those of you who love healthy eating, and love to share this with children and the families around you, here are some of my favorite books for kids.

You might be surprised to learn that reading books about vegetables has an effect on children, but studies have shown that even three exposures to a storybook with a positive message about a vegetable can positively affect children’s preferences.

I’m planning to give all of these books as gifts this holiday season (no, I don’t get any endorsements–I’m just a book lover at heart)…and I know I’m looking forward to reading some of them as much as I hope my kids are!

(ps Send me your favorites, and I’ll add them to the list!)

Eating the Alphabet (Lois Ehrlert, Harcourt Brace, 1996) (preschoolers)

I Can Eat a Rainbow: A Fun Look at Healthy Foods and Vegetables (Annabel Karmel, Dorling Kindersley, 2009) (preschoolers)

Alexander and the Great Food Fight (Linda Hawkins, Heart to Heart, 2004) (5 to 8 years)

Did You Eat Your Vitamins Today? (Ena Sabih, Heart to Heart, 2011) (5 to 8 years)

The Vegetables We Eat (Gail Gibbons, Holiday House, 2007) (8 to 12)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets behind What You Eat. Young Reader’s Edition (Michael Pollan, Dial, 2009) (teens)

Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food (Eric Schlosser, Houghton Mifflin, 2006) (teens)

Happy Reading!

ps In case you’re interested in the scientific studies I referred to above, here is a reference: E. Byrne and S. Nitzke, “Preschool Children’s Acceptance of a Novel Vegetable Following Exposure to Messages in a Storybook,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 34 (2002): 211-214.

Connecting with your kids at the family table: Social eaters are better eaters

One of my favorite books on kid’s food is Laurie David’s The Family Dinner: Great ways to connect with your kids, one meal at a time. Full of simple strategies for making mealtimes more enjoyable, Laurie makes a key point that is often overlooked in the kid’s food debate: how we eat is as important as what we eat.

As I realized after our family moved to France, Americans spend the least time of any country in the developed world on cooking (30 minutes per day, whereas the French spend, on average, 48 minutes). But the real difference is in how much time we spend eating: less than an hour per day for Americans (and well over two hours per day for the French).

What’s the point of spending all of that time at the table, you’re probably wondering? Well, research shows that people who eat alone tend to eat more overall, and also tend to eat poorer quality food. Research also shows that children are more likely to try new foods if their parents are sitting with them, and try them too (the ‘do as I do, not as I say’ effect!). So we know that children will eat better if they eat with other people.

But Laurie David’s book captures another important issue, that is more rarely discussed. Children’s emotional relationship to food (which is so central to healthy eating when they become adults) is fostered at the table in interaction with other adults. If the family table is a serene haven in a busy day, then a positive relationship is fostered.

Admittedly, with two very busy children (3 and 7), the table doesn’t feel very peaceful all of the time. But I’ve found that conversation is absolutely critical to capturing my daughters’ interest, and keeping them at the table. One of my earlier tactics was to make up stories, but I soon ran out of repertoire. Here’s where Laurie’s book was helpful: it has lots of great suggestions for conversation starters, games, and other tips and tricks for keeping children interested and happy at the table. Many of these ideas are commonly used by French families, by the way.

Is it hard to make time in our busy lives for eating together? Definitely! Both my husband and I work full time, and we don’t have any help at home. Cooking when we get home from work is always a scramble.

But despite this I’ve taken Laurie David’s message to heart, and we’ve cut back on kid’s after-school activities, in order to make sure we eat together as a family most nights of the week.

So thanks, Laurie, for an inspirational book!