When Uli Koester asks a first-grader to hold a turnip, smell beet greens, or describe a kernel of corn, he has a simple message for them: “Food is not something that happens to arrive on [your] plates. This is something the earth makes, and we are going to enjoy it and respect it.”
Koester has gone into classrooms, carting tubs of greens, grains, and root vegetables, along with a portable electric skillet, for more than a decade as part of his work with Midwest Food Connection. He gets down on the floor, at the kids’ level, and talks about the many good things we can eat, rather than setting down rules for junk foods to avoid. He and two colleagues together teach more than 1,000 lessons a year in metro-area public schools, many sponsored by area co-ops.
Among the kids he teaches, Koester says he sees a mix of experience with food. “There are a number who are active in their kitchens,” he says. “And there are other families that are trying, but not succeeding. … And you do get a sense that some are just clueless.” Connecting kids to their food, he says, is mostly about modeling the right attitude. But, as a parent, he knows that even the best attitude may not yield perfect results. His own kids are 10 and 7 and, he says, “One eats everything. The next will eat five things total. So we go with that.”
One thing parents can do to get started down the right path is to “be more intentional: Think about what children are going to eat and talk about it, but make it more of a conversation than a lecture.”
That conversation can stretch from the grocery store, where kids may help pick out two or three foods, to the kitchen, where they can be involved in the planning and preparation, to the table.
At his own table, Koester is a fan of the two-bite rule for new foods. And, in the classroom, he makes it clear without laying down the law that he expects students to touch, smell, and taste the food he prepares. “Parents should have expectations,” he says. “Some fruit should be eaten every day. Some vegetables. Some whole grains.”
At the same time, we don’t need to get ourselves and our kids all tied up in a knot of rules. “We don’t have to do things,” Koester says. “We’re not machines. … Being positive and nonprescriptive is helpful. Kids remember the foods I cook for them because I’m positive and I give them more yeses than nos.”
Tricia Cornell edits Minnesota Parent.