I’m a culinary free agent. Unmarried and without kids, I usually don’t have to worry about cooking for anyone but myself. This doesn’t mean, however, that I blissfully ignore kids and what they eat. In fact, this is an issue that greatly concerns me.
The diminishing level of culinary literacy among kids (and their parents) has arguably led to the health crisis that we are facing today, namely childhood obesity and diabetes. Without a solid knowledge of what goes into the foods they eat--knowledge that comes from understanding the basics of cooking--kids can’t make wise dietary choices, a situation which too frequently leads to poor health. If the kids of today lack the skills to cook, the children of tomorrow will as well, and this will just compound the current health crisis.
It’s not just personal health that will be compromised, but also the welfare of the planet. Without the ability to prepare meals for themselves when they become adults, kids will have to rely on processed, packaged foods. These items may be cheap and convenient, but they have grave environmental costs. To ensure low prices, food processors demand overly efficient farming methods that consume large amounts of fossil fuels, pollute ground water, and compromise biodiversity.
And there’s also a loss of culture. Parents inculcate familial and ethnic identities in the next generation through food. For me, that meant roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for Sunday dinner. For the Italian family next door, it could be Sunday gravy. For the hippies down the street, it could be tofu and brown rice. What happens when the generations lose the knowledge of these special, identifying dishes? Are we all going to be homogenized through a shared diet of fast food?
So, what to do? How to develop culinary literacy?
First, it’s important to introduce the children in your life to healthful dietary choices, which means, for the most part, foods that are minimally processed. The journalist Michael Pollan, has clever, succinct ways to measure this in his book, Food Rules: “Avoid food products that contain ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce” and “avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.” Sickles can definitely help in this department with its exceptional selection of fresh produce, grains, yogurts of all kinds, artisanal cheeses, wholesome breads, preserved fruits and vegetables, etc. Even its processed foods aren’t off the mark. Take, for example, Ella’s Kitchen, which is available in the market and on Sickles’ on-line store. This brand’s baby food contains organic fruits and vegetables, “with nothing else added, not even water.”
Next, get kids cooking. There are plenty of ways you can do this. First, show by example by making as many of your own meals as possible, with minimally processed foods. Next, get kids in the kitchen. If you yourself are uncomfortable cooking, there are plenty of kid-friendly programs that will show the way. For instance the first Kids Food Fest is happening this weekend (January 21-22). Co-founded by a pal of mine from NYU’s master’s program in food studies, this impressive and fun two-day event at Bryant Park will have plenty of hands-on events and cooking demos, with some big NYC-based chefs, that are geared to promote sensible food choices and generate demand for wholesome and balanced food options. A percentage of the proceeds raised will go to Share Our Strength. Keep an eye on the Monmouth County Library’s Web site; on Sunday, March 4, they are organizing a day-long program about food that is geared for whole families.
I know that this soapbox may be an inappropriate place for me to stand since I myself don’t have kids. I don’t know what it’s like to have kids screaming for food and then rejecting the wholesome meal that you have conscientiously prepared or bought, but I do know that if we don’t get kids cooking or thinking about what they are eating, we are in for crisis.