Creating Foodies: The Challenges and Triumphs of a Progressive Food Program

A new parent at a recent enrollment meeting shared some sage advice that her pediatrician gave her: it is the parent’s responsibility to choose the food for their child and it is the child’s responsibility to decide whether to eat it or not. This simple yet brilliant advice can seem daunting for even the most savvy parents to follow consistently. How did our society get so far off the mark in handling one of our most basic human necessities? (If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the documentary, FED UP for the eye-opening and historical answer to this question.) Although the decks are clearly stacked against us and our children, we need to regain our position as the adults that choose the food for our children. All of us at Alphabet Academy know from experience that children, regardless of how picky they have become, will eat if we all just relax and give them time that they need.

I’m not gonna lie, when we undertook this venture of initiating a food program 8 years ago, the best thing we had going for us was our sheer ignorance about the enormity of the task at hand. I was lucky enough to commandeer an insanely hard-working and dedicated toddler parent to head up the kitchen. Chef Kim helped take this program off the ground. She shopped, prepped, cooked, delivered, cleaned and even washed the kitchen towels! Together we worked on creating mostly vegetarian menus that included foods like butternut squash infused macaroni and cheese, mini quinoa quiche and vegetable noodle miso soup. The meals were balanced, healthy and made from fresh ingredients and whole food.

In addition to Chef Kim, we wouldn’t have gotten out of the gate without our parents who weathered that first year with trust in the program we were building. Their kids went from bringing their own familiar lunch and snack from home to eating more diverse meals, and in most cases much healthier options, prepared for them at school. Then came the wet blanket! I shudder when I think about those first few weeks when all of the beautiful food that was so lovingly prepared was then tossed into the trash, like trash. The children didn’t eat. Even with all of the emotional preparation that we engaged in with the children prior to starting, it was far from resembling a success story. The children went home hungry. They went home “hangry.” Personally, my stomach was in knots. But here is the amazing part – not once did a parent complain or even glance at me with scared eyes wondering how their child might fare that day. Still today it makes me well up with joy and gratefulness that they were trusting and confident and reassuring. It was a full two months later that collectively, the children decided it was time to stop protesting because it was clear that things were simply not going to change. They weren’t getting a rise out of their teachers or their parents. Their protests were not acknowledged in the way they had expected. The white flags went up, the battle was over and imagine, they even liked the food!  We survived until we reached the tipping point, and then we began to thrive! Now when a new child joins us our school, their hesitation over unfamiliar foods at mealtime is no longer in the majority. They look around and the upside of peer pressure kicks in. In time they drink the proverbial juice and another Alphabet foodie is in the making. 

Now, with over four years under our belts our food program has grown beyond offering colorful plates of delicious, healthy food. I’m proud to report that if you are a tenured Alphabet child, you tend to look at a new food with optimism rather than fear. You understand that it is only your tongue’s responsibility to decide if you will enjoy the taste of a new food; it is not the job of your eyes. You are reassured by your teachers that if you don’t care for the taste of a new food today, it’s not only acceptable but it’s quite common. As we say, “It may not taste good today, but you might like it the next time you try it.” You will try this new food several times, perhaps prepared in different ways. Your best friend that sits next to you at mealtime will even encourage you to try it again because they themselves didn’t care for it at first but they really do like it now (true story). 

Since that first victory, we at Alphabet Academy continue to raise the bar simply by keeping an open mind and taking advantage of all of the great things that can happen when your heart is open and your intentions are pure. New York Times best selling author Karen Le Billion author of French Kids Eat Everything contacted me after learning about our food program from an Alphabet parent. Karen enlisted us to have our very own kids taste test of her new recipes for her upcoming book Getting To Yum. We made this important announcement to the children: “We have been asked to help an author write the recipes for her new cook book. As you can imagine, this is a very, very important job! We need to taste her food and she would like to know from each and every one of you what you like about the dish and what you do not like about the dish.”  The children were empowered. Through this exercise we realized that by accurately describing new foods, the children were prepared to try just about anything. The children learned to use words to describe what they were tasting such as savory, sweet, salty or bitter to accompany their existing vocabulary of crunchy, smooth, soft, slimy and dry. They tried salmon, brussels sprouts, kale and even anchovies just to name a few.  They tried it…and they liked it!  Thus began the intentional addition of these and many more “non kid-friendly” foods to our menu. The addition of a second full-time chef has allowed us to deepen our collective vision about serving non processed foods to the over 200 young children and their teachers at our three schools. For example, soup stocks, tomato sauce and salad dressings are all Alphabet-made. Occasionally our chefs will butcher whole chicken and fish in-house, often with our kindergarteners observing with brave wide eyes from the other side of the kitchen counter.

As a community of children and teachers we have grown together toward this other way of eating at school. I know from my interactions with parents that the journey continues at home, too. I revel in stories from excited parents about their child recognizing asparagus, cauliflower and jicama at the grocery and asking to make it for dinner.  Among these frequent steps forward, I know that the road for parents isn’t all roses. I know all too well the challenges of cooking up a healthy, delicious meal after a full day at work and getting a child to eat said healthy food.  In a recent conversation with a preschool nutrition researcher and Alphabet alumni mom said, “A major issue that parents, especially very busy parents, seem to have is preparing a meal for the kids and a separate meal for the parents. The food industry does a wonderful job convincing us that children won’t eat real food—they need dinosaur shaped processed chicken instead.” Her advice? “One of the best things parents can do is normalize the consumption of real food, by preparing it together and serving it to children, explaining that this is how our whole family eats; preferably with food made together at home with ingredients that even the children can pronounce.”

Normalize the consumption of real food? That’s profound.  

-Amy Small