As I was researching for my series of blog posts about school lunches in Italy, I came across Jeannie Marshall’s recently released book The Lost Art Of Feeding Kids: What Italy Taught Me about Why Children Need Real Food. This book is right up my alley: part food memoir, part food activism; not to mention, it takes place in Italy and centers around what a North American learns about the importance of food culture when she moves to Italy.
Jeannie is a Canadian, initially drawn to Italy by its food culture, who has been living in Rome for over 10 years. She gained a whole new perspective on the inner workings of the country’s customs when she became pregnant with her son Nico and subsequently raised him in Rome. Jeannie was impressed how Italian mothers trained their children to enjoy good food, but also concerned with how quickly her old culture (the Western diet) was threatening her new one.
Italian mothers teach their kids to enjoy the flavor of the local cuisine from a young age.
Even before birth, a child in utero tastes the foods the mother is eating and they continue to taste the flavors of the mother’s diet later through breast milk.
Babies aren’t fed bland, processed baby foods from a jar, but are fed something called the pappa (basically whatever the parents are eating mixed with vegetable broth and puréed).
There aren’t many kids’ menus in Italy (though this is starting to change).
Rather than having a kids’ menu, most restaurants offer half portions of the regular menu items to children.
There also aren’t toddler-specific snacks (think: Goldfish, Cheerios, fruit snacks) and Italian toddlers don’t eat in their strollers, just like Italian adults don’t typically eat while commuting.
The book includes a chapter about school lunches in which Jeannie describes a heavenly lunch at her son Nico’s school, in which the kids sit at a table with their teacher and are served family-style, in contrast to a chaotic school lunch she attended in Toronto, in which the kids barely stayed seated and did more horsing around then eating.
Amid the personal anecdotes, as Jeannie makes her case for the importance of preserving and reinventing local food cultures, she tackles some hefty topics: the problem with nutritionism (the scientific approach to eating), marketing to kids, whether or not industry’s reformulation of processed foods is a good solution, the conflict between capitalism and giving people access to healthy food, the global spread of the Western diet, the global spread of obesity, the homogenization of food cultures, the impact of the Western diet on indigenous populations, and the treatment of micronutrient deficiencies with supplementation programs.
I enjoyed the book from start to finish. If you like reading Michael Pollan or Marion Nestle or if you’re raising a kid or plan to raise a kid, I think you will too. I devoured the book in just a few sittings and would like to reread it more slowly to absorb the details. It’s got me thinking a lot about how I can start building more traditions and a sense of community around our mealtimes. One of my gut reactions upon finishing the book was to get angry — angry that in North America getting access to good food often feels like the exception rather than the norm. But I realized that over the last four years I’ve also seen change unfolding in the US (even the food in airports seems to be getting better). Along with the bouts of anger, I’m also starting to feel hopeful and empowered that the small changes we make as individuals can make a difference.
Personal aside: Last night, I had one of my American girlfriends over for dinner and her Italian husband unexpectedly joined us. I was a little worried: He is one of the many Italians who passionately believes that the cuisine from his hometown is the best food in the world and I had prepared a Thai-inspired pumpkin soup with curry paste and coconut milk. Luckily, I hadn’t added much curry paste and he seemed to like it, but we did talk about how he is slowly learning to eat spicy food (as he made a few faces of disgust). I have to laugh thinking about it now: the guy was groomed from before he was born to love garlic, olive oil, and parmesan. No wonder he’s not crazy for curry!