I have just finished reading an amazing book by local author Jeannie Marshall. It has been published under two titles so you might find it by looking for Outside the box: why our children need real food, not food products or by searching The lost art of feeding kids: what Italy taught me about why children need real food.
I had read this book originally a few years ago and picked it up under the second title thinking the author had written another one. Well, a couple chapters in it was too familiar so I checked and it was exactly the same book! Fortunately it was so good that I decided to just keep going and will probably re-read it at least a couple more times in my lifetime. It is one of my favourite books and teaches you so much about food cultures and the art of looking at food as a whole, rather than just a compilation of different nutrients and vitamins to sustain the body.
Here is the blurb from goodreads:
When Canadian journalist Jeannie Marshall moved to Rome with her husband, she delighted in Italy’s famous culinary traditions. But when Marshall gave birth to a son, she began to see how that food culture was eroding, especially within young families. Like their North American counterparts, Italian children were eating sugary cereal in the morning and packaged, processed, salt- and fat-laden snacks later in the day. Busy Italian parents were rejecting local markets for supermercati, and introducing their toddlers to fast food restaurants only too happy to imprint their branding on the youngest of customers. So Marshall set on a quest to discover why something that we can only call “kid food” is proliferating around the world. How did we develop our seemingly insatiable desire for packaged foods that are virtually devoid of nutrition? How can even a mighty food culture like Italy’s change in just a generation? And why, when we should and often do know better, do we persist in filling our children’s lunch boxes, and young bodies, with ingredients that can scarcely even be considered food?
Through discussions with food crusaders such as Alice Waters, with chefs in Italy, nutritionists, fresh food vendors and parents from all over, and with big food companies such as PepsiCo and Nestle, Marshall gets behind the issues of our children’s failing nutrition and serves up a simple recipe for a return to real food.
Marshall doesn’t come across as patronizing or elitist – something food writers and bloggers are often charged with. She doesn’t lecture you but instead inspires you to want something more for your family, and your community. She stresses the importance of societal norms in creating a food culture and its significance to overall health.
Having not grown up in a strong food culture the likes of which is common in Italy, the entire idea behind it was somewhat foreign to me but I love the idea and it is something that I desperately want to implement with my own family. I want my kids to grow up helping in the kitchen because through this they will develop cooking skills (from shopping and storage to preparing meals) as well as social skills, budgetary management skills, and will (hopefully!) associate good wholesome food with a fond, nostalgia for family and home that will carry the habit of healthy eating through the temptations of salty, fatty, sugary foods in adulthood.
The book begins with a short history of her childhood (which is to frame her experiences as an adult and make it easier for North Americans to relate to her) and how she and husband James arrived in Rome. The chunk of the book however follows her struggles as a mother to wade through all the BS and implement the healthiest choices for her son, from the introduction of first foods, to temper tantrums post-swimming lessons because little Nico wants a sugary treat from the vending machine … experiences any mother can relate to, regardless of where she lives.
Outside the Box is so much more than just a dietary ideal though. She talks about the role of advertising, particularly advertisements to children, and the subversive role they play in driving a wedge in between parents and children. Commercials and subtler ads, such as those in a television show, work on kids. Industry wouldn’t spend billions of dollars per year in America alone if they didn’t. And I can see it in the kids in my own life, how they beg, cajole and bargain to get a sweet or salty treat. To me, a treat like ice cream or McDonald’s should’t even be a once a week thing, never mind every day, or every trip to a store.
But you can’t raise your kids in isolation. Marshall uses examples such as these to explain why it is so important to have a societal food culture to raise kids in. If your child is the only one at swimming lessons to not get a treat from the vending machine, and you are the parent constantly saying no, it affects your relationship. If none of the kids get a treat, or if the vending machine isn’t there at all, it’s no big deal. Its normal.
Imagine a culture where everyone upholds a certain standard when it comes to food so that you can be sure that the food your child eats at school or his friends’ houses will be fresh and healthy rather than packaged. Advertising food products, particularly to children, subverts such a food culture.Though the culture supports healthy habits, marketing exploits your desires and weaknesses and encourages you to do what is bad for you. The traditional food culture incorporates opportunities to take pleasure in food with feast days for religious, seasonal or familial reasons. Marketing encourages self-indulgence, and when every day is special, nothing is special. Children have little defence against food marketers, and it doesn’t take long before these intruders define the culture to suit their needs.
Marshall, Jeanie. Outside the box. pg. 81
To me, protecting your children from food marketers is as important as teaching them not to accept candy from people in vans. Someone is coming into your home, through the computer or tv, and attempting to establish a relationship with your child, encouraging them to become consumers who enjoy a treat all the time. Children see commercials as factual and authoritative, according to the American Psychological Association; they can’t ignore or reflect critically on what is presented to them. And many companies go further, portraying parents as dumb old adults who don’t understand children or fun, rather than loving individuals who have to be the bad guys and make you eat broccoli instead of that cupcake because they care about your health.
One of the sections I was most interested in reading in Outside the Box was when Nico was a baby and Jeannie was introducing him to solid foods. In North America, it is still common to introduce foods one at a time in case the baby has a food allergy. In Italy, mothers make a pureed soup broth with veggies and a little rice or pasta for their baby. It incorporates the little into eating with their family unit, as they eat at the table at the same time as everyone else, and are introduced to a healthy and savoury combination of food that continues their introduction into the traditional food culture of their region.
By the way, I read this book as a part of my 2016 Read Harder Challenge!
It was cool to see that Marshall offhandedly includes some traditional Italian recipes in her writing, ones that I am excited to try! I highly recommend this book. Try to find it at your local library or bookstore and give it a try if you have any interest in healthy living, cooking, food justice and sovereignty, or raising healthy children.
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