Changing the way our children eat could be as simple as changing the way they talk about food. According to a recent study by Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, children in schools are almost twice as likely to choose vegetables as part of their lunches when they have more exciting, dynamic names like "Power Punch Broccoli," "X-Ray Vision Carrots," and "Silly Dilly Green Beans." While not calling for a revolution in naming, these simple observations are almost intuitive in their conclusions: making any activity fun and engaging makes children more enthusiastic about it, and eating better is no different.
I find these findings incredibly insightful when put in the context of today's larger debate on school lunches. In accordance with the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, school lunch programs throughout the nation are more nutirious than ever before, limiting calorie, sodium, and fat intake while dramatically increasing the number of fruits and vegetables being served.
When compared to the mystery-meat entrees that previously defined school lunches, one can definitely say this is a step in the right direction for improving our children's health. But leading a child to vegetables does not guarantee vegetables will be eaten. As recent features for both NPR and The New York Times have pointed out, many students are protesting the lighter fare they are being offered at school, complaining about the increased cost, reduced choice, and even of being hungry after eating their full meals.
While I'm sure high schoolers will not be wooed by "Silly Dilly Green Beans," I bring up the Cornell Study because it underscores one of the biggest yet most straightforward of challenges we all face in terms of improving our diets. While access and cost of nutritious foods are important issues in their own right, a more universal obstacle to eating better is simply the way we talk about the food we eat. As the researchers show us, positive discussions elicit positive responses and the reverse is undoubtably true when it comes to eating as a whole. I've written about this before, somewhere along our culinary path I've found that we've created this distinction between "healthy" foods and "tasty" foods, that foods that are nutritious are somehow not the same as foods that are delicious. The way students talk about their new school lunches is no different. As one Brooklyn senior told the NYT, "Before, there was no taste and no flavor [in our lunches]...Now there's no taste, no flavor and it's healthy, which makes it even worse."
Besides being false on many counts, what is most troubling about this healthy-tasty divide is the obstacle it poses to improving our eating; it's hard to want to choose "healthy" foods when you've already decided that choice will not be an tasty one. As a chef, I feel a special obligation to end this distinction. As I wrote for The Huffington Post, "I don’t distinguish the music I listen to from great music — it’s just music. There shouldn’t be an announcement that divides our food between what tastes good and what is good for us." I believe broccoli should always be presented to children as broccoli, but changing the way we talk about the goodness of this food, in both flavor and wholesomeness, is an important step in ensuring we eat better.The most straightforward solution I can think of is to simply ban the words "healthy food" from our vocabulary.
The same is even more important when it comes to our children. While we shouldn't let our own words stop us from realizing that health can be an enjoyable experience, we also shouldn't let those words affect the way our kids grow up viewing food. I have led many cooking classes for children in the Harlem area and have seem first hand the power of letting flavors speak for themselves. Telling a child they are going to eat a carrot and it will be good for them produces one result, but letting a child taste how delicious a carrot can be without any preconcieved notions of "healthy" and "tasty" results in a completely different reaction. While teenagers accustomed to daily doses of pizza or chips might have the most complaints about these menu changes, I believe letting Kindergarteners experience these more nutritious school lunches for the first time without any preformulated aversions to "healthy" foods will make a world of difference in how they view eating by the time they enter high school.
All this being said, I am aware that school lunches, new or old, have never had a good reputation for flavor. While people like Jamie Oliver and the Renegade Lunch Lady have been working to improve both the nutrition and flavor of food in schools, their delicious efforts have not yet reached every child in the nation. Simply providing more nutritious food in cafeterias is an important step, but the students' discontent reminds us that is only one in a multitude of changes we need to make in order to truly improve how our children eat in the years to come. In looking to this future of eating, one can hope that it will not only be both delicious and nutritious, but will also include many more servings of positive ideas about good food, X-Ray Vision Carrots and all.