Those Pesky Kids

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It’s dinner time, so you go and call the kids in from the garden with a tempting “Dinnerrrr! Come and geddit!”
“So, what’s for dinner, Dad? ” they ask.
“Great grub. First, some sushi with wasabi and soy sauce. Then grated carrot and sweetcorn fritters.
Also, the world’s best cheese on toast with mature Coolea cheese, chopped tomato and rocket.
And we finish with stir-fried fresh noodles with purple-sprouting broccoli, spring onion, sliced carrot, ginger, chilli, garlic, fresh coriander and coconut milk with lime”.
Now, who is going to have the surprised look on their face at this point?
Your children, horrified by the thought of having to eat this curious concatenation of ingredients?
Or yourself, astonished at offering them, and expecting them to eat, such a potpourri of good things?
If that roll-call of dishes sounds strange, then rest assured that it isn’t. It’s simply what Denis Cotter, of Cork’s sublime Café Paradiso restaurant, cooked on the street in Bantry recently at a fundraiser for Bantry Hospice beds.
“And the kids were fantastic”, says Mr Cotter, who watched his sushi rolls, his fritters, his amazing cheese on toast and his slurpsome noodles being demolished by the kids who crowded around, asking questions, curious about wasabi, helping to stir yogurt and baking powder into the fritter mixture, and advising Mr Cotter to be sure to remove the seeds as he chopped his hot red chillies.
Standing there, unsuccessfully trying to grab something to eat myself, I was struck by the adventuresome nature of the Bantry kids when it came to these exotic foods. And it struck me that there are two sets of people who are letting down the next generation when it comes to eating.
Firstly, there are our restaurateurs, who all-too-often resort to the chicken nuggets/sausages/fish fingers-with-chips line-up when they write a children’s menu.
Secondly, there are far too many parents whose initial reaction to anything unusual is to say: “Oh, Conor doesn’t actually eat that”, and who thereby foist their own conservative eating habits onto their children.
Limiting what your kids experience in their diet was christened “The Tunnel Effect”, by the food writer Joanna Blythman in her book, “The Food Our Children Eat”.
Ms Blythman wrote of parents who, accepting defeat when their kids turn their noses up at some new foods, thereby create “a downward spiral of narrowing food preferences which limits a child’s palate and makes it doubly difficult to extend it thereafter”.
This tunnel syndrome, so familiar to us all, is especially saddening when one sees the open-minded reaction of kids who are let loose prepping, chopping and cooking foods.
At the recent Burren Slow Food weekend in Lisdoonvarna, Sarah Malone, a local Slow Food volunteer, had a gang of kids sniffing herbs, chopping vegetables and generally getting up close and personal with a lot of stuff that they might not otherwise confront.
The kids, of course, lapped it all up. It was tactile, messy, improvised, and great fun. It was food as play, cooking as craic. Just what any parent would order.
A few weeks earlier, when Denis Cotter cooked another kids demo at Hosford’s garden centre, “ it was as much as we could do to stop them putting their hands in the wok as he served up” says the writer and broadcaster Dianne Curtin.
Ms Curtin, author of the book “The Creators”, has run several several food workshops in schools in West Cork, “and I’m always amazed at how much knowledge they do have already”, she says.
“It’s always about making it fun, and they seem to take food information much easier from a stranger than from their parents!”
Ms Curtin identifies young peoples’ enthusiasm for learning as the all-important springboard for changing eating patterns.
“If they feel they are actively participating they are much more likely to eat the food afterwards than if forced by an adult to “eat their greens”.
Joanna Blythman writes that, “The guiding principle is to make a conscious effort to offer children as wide a range of foods as possible, all the time supplementing tried and tested successful foods with new ones”.
So, fling the chillies at the kids, and the hoi sin sauce and the polenta and the noodles and the sushi.
And ask yourself if the person saying “No!” to something new on the menu isn’t, in fact, yourself, passing on a preference for the tried and tested – and boring – instead of the challenging and exciting foods that are all around us.
And when they start picking the food out of the wok even before it’s been plated, then congratulate yourself on creating an adventurous, questing little palate. Kids are curious, and hungry, so feed the curiosity, and satisfy the hunger.