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March 2006
Teaching Greens
By Elizabeth Johnson

 

Elizabeth Johnson. Photo by Ben Witte
Learning to make pesto. Photo by Ben Witte

There is a dangerous myth circling around town about young people and vegetables. Word on the street is young folks won’t be caught dead consuming fruits and vegetables. Many of us have heard that crunchy green things like broccoli, string beans and lettuce will be met with staunch defiance and closed mouths by teenagers the world over. But these ideas are far from the truth.

I’ve been teaching people, especially young people, to eat well for several years. People who come to observe my classes are often amazed when they see kindergarteners or teenagers sampling and enjoying fresh, seasonal salads, vegetable soups and odd-looking raw veggies and fruits. Everyone wants to know, “What’s your secret?” I’ve found there are a few things adults can do to encourage young people to make better food choices.

Youth, like us adults, have likes and dislikes, and we must honor and respect their tastes. The best way to show appreciation for their responses to the foods they eat is to give them a working vocabulary that they can use to clearly express their sentiments. For example, when I teach, my students are not allowed to say “ewww” or “that’s nasty,” or “that’s good.” I teach my students to ascribe adjectives to these thoughts. I encourage them to say “I don’t like this because it is too bitter and the texture is too chewy,” or “I like the combination of sweet and salty in this dish even though it’s not presented well.” Then I ask the students to tell me how they would change a dish so that they would like it. These types of exercises help empower children to trust their taste buds and to think critically about food. They also let young people know they don’t have to like everything they eat, but they do have to at least try it and give it some thought.

Once we’ve got the young folks developing their palates and thinking discerningly, we must involve them in the preparation of food. As with any subject, active participation is key. When people invest time and energy into a project they become more interested in the result even if the individual tasks do not intrigue them. In other words, even if a student has no desire to eat chickpeas, working with them to make a chickpea hummus may lead them to want to taste the fruit of their labor. This step is an important one. The process of touching, tasting, smelling, cutting and cooking raw ingredients and turning them into an amazing dish is magical. It connects us to our food in a way that nothing else can. This connection is one we want to savor; we want it to become a part of us. And even if we don’t love the dish that we’ve made we want to at least like it because we’ve touched it, we’ve had a hand in its creation.

At this point, our youth have learned how to taste and describe food, and they know how to cook it. The next question is how do we get young people to buy into cooking health supportive food for the long-term? The answer to this has a few parts. The first is helping young people make the connection between what we eat and our level of mental, physical and spiritual health. For me it seems like a simple equation: Quality of food you eat equals quality of life you have. And yet for some reason, while many of us fail to grasp this concept as it relates to our bodies, we understand it quite well when it comes to our cars. For example, most of us wouldn’t put poor quality gas or oil into our fancy cars. We would not ride around town with dust all over our cherry red paint job. But, when our friend shows up with a bag of mini-hamburgers, a side of fries, onion rings and some pie, we thank them and are more than happy to fill up our tanks with low quality fuel.

We must begin to recognize that food is for us what gasoline is for our cars. It is the fuel that gives us the energy to complete each and every task we set out to do each day. More importantly than gasoline though, food also affects how we feel physically and emotionally and can prevent, cure or help treat illness. Choosing good-quality, fresh foods will enable us, and the young people we encourage, to function optimally.

All this may be hard for you to believe, I know, but it’s true. And interestingly enough, one of the major challenges to getting young people to eat well is our disbelief. How can we expect our children to eat well if we don’t believe that they will? The negative expectations of adults create an atmosphere that does not encourage healthy eating habits. As elders we must approach our youth with openness and the assumption that they will and in fact want to eat well. We must behave with the understanding that eating delicious, healthy foods is natural and expected. This is the first and one of the most important steps to getting young folks to begin to choose foods that will bring them health and vitality.

I know this to be true because the young people I work with come to my classes because they want to. Most of them do not receive school credit and do not get paid. The young folks come initially, some say, for the free food and to be like Emeril. But they stay because they feel nurtured and they learn valuable, applicable skills and information that help them live better lives.

Elizabeth Johnson is the program coordinator for Community Food Education at Just Food and teaches workshops to youth and adults through her own company Conscious Cravers. She attended the Natural Gourmet Cooking School for Food and Health. There are several New York based organizations that work with young people to help them understand how to eat well and why it matters, including B-HEALTHY! (www.b-healthy.org), Just Food (www.justfood.org) and Added Value (www.addedvalue.org). For more information about interactive, hands-on workshops that encourage youth and adults to engage in health supportive eating habits, contact Elizabeth Johnson at ebeth2301@yahoo.com.


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