Getting Kids Excited About Food

Several press releases have passed my desk recently regarding children and food and travel.

Having just cooked with six kids in the middle of a field on a farm, I’ve been thinking about how little we really need to offer kids to excited them about food.

I fall prey to what a friend calls the twisting of the kid dial: the standardized tests and four-figure birthday parties at gourmet bowling alleys. (“My preschool was a bowling alley,” a dial-twisting mom marvels, “and when I was good I got to light my mom’s cigarettes”).

Now we’re twisting the kid dial for food, from pint-sized cooking competition shows (when most children barely know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich) to a hotel chain offering a Michelin-starred-chef-designed children’s menu.

It’s just marketing, but are we sacrificing children’s food innocence at the altar of sophisticated, adult competition and media? There is a fine line between trying to teach a child appreciation for fresh foods and twisting the dial to grandstand about your child’s advanced palate and culinary technique. We’ve all been guilty of stepping over the line.

Photo of wild fruit.

Photograph by Steve VanRoekel

Wanting to expose my six-year-old to “real” food this summer, I reserved a room at an agrotourism dairy farm. Turned out it was a little too real. The cows were not allowed to graze in fields (“too much work”, the farmer said) and the resting barn wasn’t big enough for all cows at once, so each cow was chained to its milking station for half a day. As an aside, because I often write about food technology, this sounds like a job for robotic cow milkers.

The place stank worse than any other farm I’ve ever visited. I get that it’s a farm, farms have manure, manure stinks, but this was unbearable. And my son and I accidentally stepped calf-deep into the cavernous manure trough, which was so full it looked like it was level with the floor. There are plenty of American farms that are, if not clean, then at least well managed. This was like telling my kid I was taking him to Disney World, then walking him to Mickey’s prison cell.

Determined to find a compromise between Michelin-starred kids’ meals and grim dairy farms, I visited Shelburne Farms in northern Vermont. A working and educational farm in a restored country home of a Vanderbilt, Shelburne offers guests a viewing area for cheesemaking (the three-year is outstanding and available for purchase), opportunities to milk cows, and a staff trained in discussing humane treatment of animals with visitors. And the chickens—I’ve never seen a roomful of such beautiful birds of astonishing variety. At 10:30 each morning, the coop door opens for the Chicken Parade and a line of birds waddles out, docile enough for children to pick up.

Photo of a kid meeting a chicken.

Photograph by Steve VanRoekel

It’s a farm so there is manure. Shelburne presents it as a game though, and my son still sometimes randomly shouts “Let’s play Name That Poop!” Shelburne sticks with you.

Food doesn’t have to be sanitized for kids, nor does food need to be presented at inappropriate sophistication levels for titillation and corporate marketing. The true benefit of our Tale of Two Vacations this summer is that my son experienced both the effects of farming practices that are not ideal (and let me be clear, the farm we visited was not even in the ballpark of the worst in America) and the advantages of responsible animal husbandry.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.