Tag Archives: Cooking with kids

More than just food

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 11.19.43 AMWe wound down a productive summer in the school garden a few weeks back with a Harvest Potluck and celebration that included fun activities like making the scarecrow above, potato and apple prints, mulching the trees and a scavenger hunt. We’d hoped to eat outside beside our still growing vegetable patch, but threat of rain had us setting up in the school gym at tables we’d dressed with kraft paper and white tablecloths, gourds and crayons.

To add to the incredible spread of goodies provided by families (plus corn and cider purchased by the school), our outstanding French/library teacher and garden advocate worked with kids in class to make roasted carrots, kale salad, beet hummus and “smashed” potatoes using garden veggies (with a little help from the farmers’ market!). We’d planned for about 100 people to turn out, and were shocked and thrilled when some 400 people from our school community filled the gym and hallways. There was some minor panic about long lines for the food and not enough seating but nothing a few hastily erected tables and a tray of warm cider and beet hummus offered to those in line didn’t resolve.

The highlight of the evening for me was when the kids brought down the house with a song about the garden they’d been practising all week long with that same French teacher. Let’s just say I wasn’t the only adult in the crowd dabbing at my eyes. The song and the entire evening showed all of us how the garden has become such an essential part of our school community—a place the kids take pride in tending, a place for both learning and celebrating, a place not just for food but for connecting with others.

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 11.20.00 AM(Photos by Andrea Curtis)

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The global kitchen

A chilly view from the high line

A chilly view from the High Line

I spent this past weekend on a mini vacation in New York City walking and exploring and eating, as well as talking about food with school lunch and food justice (super)hero, Jan Poppendieck, who wrote the brilliant Sweet Charity? about the failures of food banking, and the more recent (and equally brilliant) Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.

The weekend was a literal smorgasbord of fun, food and inspiration. One of the surprise highlights was stumbling on the new food exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. Called Our Global Kitchen, it uses multimedia, display, historical objects, diaroma and even taste tests to bring to life the complexity of our food system, the future of food (think seaweed, bugs and less meat) and the joys of eating together. There’s a chance to sit at a table with a Roman aristocrat, see an ancient Aztec marketplace and cook up various recipes on an interactive table/screen.

our global kitchenCurated by the Center for Biodiversity Conservation, the exhibit pulls no punches about the challenges of feeding a projected 9 billion people by 2050 or the profound problems with current industrial agricultural practices.

Considering the equivocating I seem to read in the media about this (as if it’s still sane to question climate change or the failures of the so-called green revolution to feed the world), I was delighted to see how matter of fact the exhibit is. This is science, baby.

I can’t wait to read my friend Sarah Elton’s upcoming book, Consumed: Sustainable Food for a Finite Planet for more on this subject.

(For teachers and educators who can’t make it to New York before the show closes in August, there are downloadable teaching resources for all grades that touch on issues in the food system like biodiversity, the supply chain and trade, hunger and diet-related health issues. The resources are pegged to the exhibit itself but there are lots of ideas about how to bring these topics into the classroom.)

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Unpacking packed lunches

lunch bag, photo by Andrea CurtisI’ve been making school lunch for my boys for nearly a decade. I don’t like it much and have come up with many (thwarted) plans to get out of the business. They invariably involve having my children make their own meal. But that ideal bumps up against the time-strapped, space-strapped, coffee-deprived reality that is our weekday mornings. Frankly, at this moment in our busy lives, I’d rather make their lunch than create another make-work project for myself. We manage pretty well, all things considered (they eat most of the healthy food we offer in their bags and don’t complain—much).

I am learning to accept the fact that I will likely have children who expect their lunches made for them well into their college years and hope that the other opportunities we’ve created for independence, food appreciation and planning will compensate for this failure.

Despite having acknowledged this many times, despite the fact that What’s for Lunch? is a book about the politics of food rather than a how-to for busy, frustrated parents who must pack a meal for their darlings every day, I have been asked frequently since WFL was published about the secret to making a great lunch. I invariably say I don’t have the answers (see above).

But as I’ve reflected on my personal experience and all the amazing school lunches I learned about in my research, I have started to think I do have a few thoughts on the matter. Let’s call them observations rather than advice. Continue reading

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Interview with Sweet Potato Chronicles

A couple of weeks back, I had the good fortune to be interviewed by Ceri Marsh, one of the smart women behind Sweet Potato Chronicles, a funny, useful and great-looking website devoted to the family meal. SPC offers recipes, product reviews, ideas for how to get your kids eating healthily and one of my favourite regular features: “What’s so great about…?” (sage, bay leaves, coffee, pumpkin, etc.). Ceri asked such good questions, I wanted to include a few of them here. For the complete interview, follow the link.

Q: What do you want kids to learn about the world from What’s For Lunch?

A: I hope that children who read (or flip through!) the book will see both their differences and similarities to other kids around the world. I hope they’ll recognize the way that food connects us all. I also hope they’ll read about the kids who are taking charge of what they eat at their schools and in their homes—demanding healthy sustainably grown food, asking questions about how it’s produced and by whom—and see that they can also make a difference.

Q: How important is it for kids to have some control/input in their own meals?

A: I’ve been working with our school garden for a few years now and have seen first-hand how kids who weren’t willing to try a new vegetable (or any veg at all!) ended up eating kale pesto simply because they grew the kale themselves. And I love my own son’s enthusiasm about the knobbly little carrots and bitsy peppers we grow in our tiny urban patch. There’s no question when children have an opportunity to grow, cook, prepare or even just get involved in choosing their food, they take more chances and will eat more healthily. But it’s also more than that: when paired with talk about what all this means (to the planet and their own bodies, for instance) they start to see that even in this small way, their personal choices can have a big impact on their world.

Q: Why do you think there is such a strong interest now in what kids eat at school? Is it the Jamie Oliver effect or is there more to it?

A: There’s no question Jamie Oliver has had a huge impact on the school lunch world. But I think that the interest in school lunch is part of a more widespread engagement in food issues. You can’t turn on your computer or open a newspaper without reading about food safety scares, environmental degradation caused by factory farming, escalating food prices, small-scale farmers leaving the land because they can’t make a living, the obesity crisis. People are starting to understand that the industrial system we’ve established over the course of the last few generations is not sustainable. Interest in school lunch and talking about food with children is part of this. If we can teach our children about food and how it’s connected to all these things they care about (their environment, their health, their community and culture) they might actually have a fighting chance of truly changing this system for the better.

Q: How hard or easy is it for parents to get more involved with the issues of food in schools? I just learned my 5 year old is being given chocolate milk for a snack at her Toronto public school. What the heck?

A: It took me a long time to figure out where I fit into my kids’ school as a parent—whether it’s about academic issues, food or volunteering my time. Nobody wants to be that guy when it comes to the teachers, other parents or administrators, marching in and wagging your finger about bake sales or insisting on whole-grain pizza dough on pizza day. But parents are key participants in the school system and we need to be both clear and respectful talking to schools about our expectations, hopes and concerns. Chocolate milk might be okay as a special treat, but serving it to 5 year olds every day doesn’t sound right at all. There was a huge debate about serving chocolate milk in schools in the US last year. Chef Ann Cooper, a key school meal activist otherwise known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, calls it “sugary soda in drag.” I think schools need to think carefully about the mixed messages they send children when they talk about healthy eating in class (the food groups, nutrients, etc.) and then urge them to sell cookie dough or chocolate bars to raise money or offer them processed food or sugary drinks as incentives or snacks.

For more from the Sweet Potato Chronicles interview, click here.

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Writing for children: an education

(The nice people at 49th Shelf asked me to contribute a blog post for the site, and I decided to write about the experience of publishing my first book aimed at kids. Here’s a excerpt. You can read the whole thing here.)  


The spot where I stare idly at my computer (or at the street below)

Like many people who have children and also write for a living, I’ve long imagined writing something that my own kids would read (and, I dared to hope, enjoy). I know they suspect I sit and stare idly at my computer screen all day long, so tangible evidence of my labour in a medium they could appreciate would be welcome. I’ve been doing this for too long to think writing a book—for children or anyone else—would actually be easy, but I did venture to hope that a kids’ book would take less time and be different in intensity from writing for adults. Kind of like hitting the refresh button between other projects.

I was wrong on almost all counts. Writing for children is hard. It’s intense. And depending on what it is you’re writing, can take just as long as any adult book.

My idea with What’s for Lunch? was to use the lens of school lunch around the world as a way to look at the complexity of the international food system. I would take this common experience kids have all over the world and through it explore tough global issues like poverty, hunger, the obesity epidemic, sustainable agriculture and fast food culture. I knew it would require a light touch, a sense of fun and careful use of language and ideas. I knew, too, that I’d have to do a lot of research. But what I found was that culling that research and bringing it into focus for children was a task requiring not just the steak knife I’m accustomed to using to make cuts, but also a machete. I would cut and filter, then cut and filter some more—honing the research down to the barest of bones, as precise and relevant as possible.

I learned, too, that the ability to move between fun anecdote and big concept is a tightrope—lean one way and the book becomes dull; the other and it’s a wackadoodle circus that fails to touch on the important issues. Add to that the fact that children’s authors need to have carefully tuned antennae for cultural bias (do the French really love stinky cheese or is that just a Gallophobe stereotype?), and the tightrope grows ever more tricky.

But even while trying to negotiate this new balancing act, there was one thing that turned out as I hoped.  Writing for children did indeed act as a mental refresh button for me—as both writer and parent. It forced me to think more carefully about what we expect of children as readers and learners. I began to realize more fully how we often fail to give kids the credit they deserve for being wise and insightful, able to grasp multiple levels of an idea at the same time.

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School lunch matters

With the recent publication of What’s for Lunch? I’ve been talking a lot about the potential for school lunch to transform schools and communities. I thought I’d try to express some of those possibilities in an easy-to-digest infographic ready for sharing. Please feel free to share, and let others know about the power of food.

Many thanks to Oliver Sutherns who designed and stick-handled the infographic from idea to reality!

Embed this image on your site:

<a href="http://unpackingschoollunch.wordpress.com/the-blog/school-lunch-matters/"><img src="http://unpackingschoollunch.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/school-lunch-infographic1.jpg" alt="School Lunch Matters Infographic" border="0" /></a><br />Brought to you by <a href="http://unpackingschoollunch.wordpress.com">Andrea Curtis</a>


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What’s for Lunch? out in the world

What’s for Lunch? How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World is finally out!

It’s been a long process and I couldn’t be happier to see the book in people’s hands. I’ve had a great response already from kids and parents, educators and food activists. It’s a thrill, especially, to see young people picking it up and talking about what’s for lunch and how they can shape the food system.

I’ll be launching the book officially in September with a party and lots of fun stuff. Watch here for details. In the meantime, here are a few links and highlights of the coverage so far.

The always awesome radio host and food fighter Matt Galloway had me on Metro Morning to talk about  What’s for Lunch? just before school begins in Toronto next week. Check out the podcast here.

49th Shelf featured What’s for Lunch? in their list for Young Readers: Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2012. (I’ve also contributed a blog post to the site, which they’ll be putting up soon.)

CartoCraze, “an online geography community,” bringing maps and hands-on geography activities to teachers raved about What’s for Lunch? on their blog: “This book captivates at the first glance–beautiful photos of lunches from around the world as well as text that makes us aware of geographic and cultural influences.”

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Canoe trip rules

As far as I’m concerned, family food rules go out the window on our summer canoe trip. My kids get the kind of packaged cookies that love but we rarely buy, dessert at every meal and assorted treats offered liberally throughout the day. Cleaning your face before (or after) eating is optional and licking plates is encouraged. To me, it’s all part of the fun of being in the bush.

The canoe trip “kitchen”

On a recent trip in Northern Ontario where the lake was so quiet it made the days and nights feel gloriously long, my youngest son asked me over and over (and over): “Why can’t we cook this food at home?” The truth is—special treats aside—the actual meals weren’t so different from our regular fare (pasta, rice with chickpea curry). But everything always tastes better on a canoe trip.

Maybe it’s that you have to work together to make your food (collect wood, soap pots, tend fire, tend pots, etc.) or the taste of the flames, or just being outdoors  improves a person’s appetite. When I was kid, we called the magic spice that makes canoe trip food so yummy “vitamin K”— for the ash and debris that gets into everything when you’re cooking over an open fire.

As we head into the new school year in a few short weeks, I wouldn’t mind bringing a bit of this into our daily lunch-making ritual. Maybe I should bottle a little “Vitamin K” and sprinkle it on my boys’ packed lunches so they’ll gobble them up like they did all that delicious canoe trip food.

The Pickerel River

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Jam: a love story

Like many women, I am deeply ambivalent about domestic tasks. Raised by a working mother who would have spent her last $20 on a cleaner so she didn’t have to do the loathsome job of scrubbing toilets, devouring a steady diet of  feminist texts equating housework with servitude, I now vacillate wildly between enjoying things like cooking, gardening and family organizing and feeling oppressed by them. (Cleaning, I reserve for the wholely unambivalent category of Last Circle of Hell.)

But I put this all aside for making strawberry jam. When I was a kid, picking the berries (and gorging myself on them in the field) was the highlight of June. Eating the jam my mom and dad made from it was my favourite part of the day the rest of the year. Continue reading

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Read this book!

Last year at this time, my family and I visited Rome. We ate and walked and bumped into major historical sites at every turn and then ate some more. (See my post on school lunch in Italy here.)

While there, a mutual friend introduced us to Jeannie Marshall, a Canadian writer and journalist who’s lived in Italy for many years with her husband, James, and their young son, Nico. We met up at a wonderful pizza place in Trastevere (where one of my sons promptly feel asleep with his head on the table!), and I learned that Jeannie was also working on a book about kids and food.

Well, that book, Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products is out, and it is a game-changer. Part manifesto, part family story, it’s about the disappearance of “real food,” as the title suggests, but more than anything, it’s about the value of  “food culture” in ensuring a healthy and sustainable food system for kids and adults alike. Anyone with an interest in children and food (parents, teachers, activists, educators of all kinds), or the politics of the food system should run out and get it now. Jeannie’s easy-to-read style and chilling, clear-eyed marshalling of the facts makes it a standout among food books.

Jeannie graciously agreed to answer some questions for all of us here at What’s for Lunch? and I’ll be running her answers all week. Please come back the rest of the week for more!

Today, why kids in the Hebrides used to love to eat cod heads stuffed with liver and why kids in Toronto wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.

Q: I was fascinated and a bit depressed by your early chapter on how children’s taste for healthy, whole food is perverted, even destroyed, by industrial food. What can we do to support kids to establish a taste for healthier, more sustainable food?

Jeannie Marshall: The first thing we can do is avoid the industrial food in our own homes. That means pretty much everything that comes in a package, whether it’s sliced, whole wheat bread we buy in the supermarkets or frozen fish sticks. We have to resist the urge to buy “products” that we think are healthy and remember that real food is always healthier.

But, another important thing is to recognize that what we do in our homes is not enough. As children grow up they naturally try to understand and fit into their communities, particularly with their peer group. Whether we recognize it or not, we live in a culture – it’s like a fine net that holds us together and is all but invisible to those of us who live within it. Yet it exerts an incredible power over our preferences in everything from food to fashion. It even forms a fundamental part of our identity. What we eat tells us something about who we are. For centuries in many parts of the world this sense of shared identity that comes through eating and enjoying the same foods as our neighbours has kept us alive.

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