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Food literacy; a key to healthier eating in children

Nearly 50 percent of vegetables and legumes available in the U.S. in 2013 were either tomatoes or potatoes

When I was growing up, my mother would often make a relatively simple but delicious side dish out of squash blossoms, chopped onions, plum tomatoes, serrano peppers, and fresh mozzarella. It remains one of my all-time favorite dishes. Until later in my life, when I moved out on my own, I found out squash blossoms are not as readily available in the United States. You can only find them during the summer and early fall in most parts of the country. And because squash blossoms are incredibly fragile, supermarkets will rarely stock them. The same can be said for other types of produce. Supermarkets don't carry thousands of edible plants and vegetables because the small group of individuals who control the industrial food system has handpicked them out of our culinary repertoire. Some are just not popular enough to make the cut while others never got a chance to compete. In most grocery stores, you are likely to find a wider variety of cereal boxes than greens and veggies. In fact, nearly 50 percent of vegetables and legumes available in the U.S. in 2013 were either tomatoes or potatoes and even those children are struggling to identify.

Recognizing what we eat and where it comes from is part of being food literate

The funny thing is most parents I've met wish their children would eat a wider variety of vegetables. To increase our variety at home, we must first learn what it is and how to cook it. There are more than 100 different types of squash. Carrots are not only orange, and broccolini is not baby broccoli. My kids are no veggie gurus yet, but we are working on that. At home. Together. One day at a time. Kids need time to get introduced to new flavors and textures. Some days I fail, and others I victory dance all over the kitchen floor. It is not easy. I used to turn to the crude tactics of rewards/punishment out of frustration when either child would refuse to go near one of my dishes. Exposure, however, has become my best ally. Discovering what we are eating and where it comes from has become an essential part of this journey.

Gardening is another way to increase food literacy among children

If we want children to be food literate and make the best health decisions once they are on their own, flashcards of eggplants and rutabagas are not going to cut it. Kids need constant access to places where they can see and experience the truth about our food and the stories of our food⁠— from soil to table and back to the soil. We have lost what it means to wait for strawberry season; how to pick apples for cooking or eating raw; or how to choose a ripe cantaloupe. Children need to know the reasons why we see bananas, mangoes, and kiwis all year long and the costs (monetary and environmental) associated with such luxury. I try to keep things age-appropriate of course, but it is a fundamental topic to talk about with older kids.

A visit to your Farmers Market

There is no better classroom to learn about whole foods and seasonality than your local farm or farmers' market. Not only are these places filled with fresh and healthy local produce but also with friendly food-savvy people that are generally willing to share the fruits of their wisdom — something you won't find at your local grocery's self-checkout!

Here are a few tips:

  1. Get there early. If you want to pick the best produce, get there early!

  2. Take cash. It makes easier transactions. Give some to your kids if age appropriate and let them handle checkout for some of the items. It's a good opportunity to learn money basics.

  3. Pick a recipe ahead of time. I find that going to the farmer's market can be a little overwhelming if you don't have a few recipes in mind and a list of items you need. While those chillis look very attractive, you got to know what to make with them!

  4. Don't be shy. Ask questions and learn about the farm where you are buying from. How far are they? Can you volunteer? Can you visit and hand-pick veggies? Are they excusively organic? What are some of their farming practices?

  5. Don't forget your reusable bags!

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