From Chapter Five
Sitting Down to Eat
Hands in the Dough and Words in the Mouth
Of course soup tastes better with a little cream, but enriching the taste of a food is not always enough to make it acceptable. For children, “good” means what is prepared well, but also what is already familiar to them. Here are two ways of teaching our children to become familiar with what they eat: putting hands in the dough and words in the mouth.
Hands in the Dough
One of the most pleasant, and certainly most effective ways of making food familiar is having children participate in the preparation of meals. Through this contact prior to ingestion, children awaken their senses. They touch and taste in an unconstrained, even playful, context. This is the beginning of appropriation, gaining knowledge that allows neophobic fear to diminish with regard to what may still be an unknown food. It is also a pleasure to do together, to do with and for one another; it is a gift, a kind of miniature “Babette’s Feast.”
All child professionals know that helping children connect with the products that are used in a dish encourages eating and subsequent pleasure. A study conducted on elementary school children in outdoor recreation centers found that the children left less food behind on their plates when they had participated in making the meals than when the meals were presented to them all prepared in advance.*
In 1989, Rozin did a study in which he asked seventy-six couples to cite the methods they used to encourage their children to eat vegetables and which they considered to be the most effective. The method most often cited was involving them in the preparation of meals. But for being so readily accepted, this idea is rarely put into practice, especially in the present food consumption environment in which a large share of products are manufactured prepared in advance.
That is regrettable. It certainly seems that prepared dishes, like frozen foods, may offer complete nutrition and positive sensory experiences, but they do not spark children’s curiosity about cooking as patiently following a long recipe would. If children help their parents to cook creamed spinach, there is a better chance they will eat it than if they simply watch their parents stick a container in the microwave. On another level, for example with very young children, rather than suggesting they go choose a fruit-flavored yoghurt from the refrigerator, we can spark their curiosity by giving them plain yoghurt and asking them to add their choice of available ingredients: jam, chestnut cream, cereal, pieces of fresh fruit . . .
This is, of course, a case against overrelying on ready-to-eat foods. Despite their practical aspects, we must know how to resist the regular use of prepared products that strike children, who lack any other information or experience, as objects coming from nowhere, void of all significance. To put children’s hands in the dough is to make their mouths water.
Words in the Mouth
The idea behind sensory education is to find ways to go beyond the initial hedonic response of all individuals in relation to food, that poor dichotomy of “this is good” or “this is not good.” This response is spontaneously expressed in the first place because it has a biological value for the individual to the extent that it directs behavior: if I like it, I will eat it; if not, I will leave it on my plate.
To apply words to our foods, to the sensations they produce, can help children get beyond this simplistic hedonic response. Words are learned within a cultural system in situations involving social interaction and thus serve as a springboard to the world of the known, the reassuring. Constructing a verbal image of the food is a way of transferring it from the Unidentified Edible Object stage to the Identified Edible Object stage. Children who know what they are going to eat are thus prepared for the sensory experience that they are going to have and so adopt a less neophobic, more nuanced attitude.
So we must begin at the beginning: to name for children the dishes being offered to them. And why not announce it dramatically, like the waiter at a fine restaurant? Here is our “mashed potatoes and roast pork!” Why not mention the secret recipe, the appearance, color, form, the memories the dish conjures? Then we need to embark upon a more analytical campaign, working from sense to sense. First we can focus on the texture to the touch and the scent to the nose, preparing the child for the sensations to be discovered by tasting the product. Once introduced to the mouth, we can evoke its flavor, especially its olfactory and gustatory qualities.
Sensory education requires a certain availability on the part of adults and children, and in this regard cannot necessarily be practiced every day. However, this learning can be presented as a playful way to make them taste foods. Children are great experimenters and will eagerly agree to participate in the game of sensory discovery. The rules for it are easy. Very young children should be addressed in simple language: “Here is the food. Do you think it is going to be crunchy? Will it make noise when you chew it? Can you tell me what it reminds you of when you taste it? What it is like in your mouth?” Then you name and describe the food with the child. As Jacques Puisais put it so well, we must let the foods tell their story, and we must teach children to play the whole sensory field. By developing their senses, we can wager on seeing them gradually refine their judgments and one day pass from the stage of gourmand to gourmet.
* Unfortunately, for practical reasons, schools and day cares tend to have children help make cake and other pastries. When will they learn to prepare ham with endive in these centers?