Last week, my husband bought me some of my favorite food for lunch, yummy sushi – no California rolls, just the usual slices of raw fish and cooked eel on rice. Half of it disappeared into our kids’ tummies, with our 2-yr old especially loving the salmon. Needless to say, I was still hungry after that meal. But I was happy. It was the first time we had witnessed all of our kids not only eat sushi, but ask for seconds and thirds as well.
Only a few years ago, the mere mention of sushi would immediately elicit “Ewww! Raw fish!” from our kids – or a facial expression indicating the same. I would tell friends jokingly that my job was done once I could get all my kids to eat sushi, thinking it would never come to pass. And yet – incredulously – here we are.
I suppose I always assumed our kids would just eat everything. After all, growing up back home, I don’t remember meeting too many picky eaters. Everyone was served the same food at home or at parties, and “kids’ meals” were unheard of.
Since Filipino cuisine includes practically anything edible, we were exposed at an early age to pretty much everything – all kinds of meat (and pretty much all parts of the animal) including frogs legs, chicken feet, kuhol (escargot) smothered in yummy coconut cream sauce, lengua (ox tongue with mushroom sauce), kare-kare (oxtail peanut stew often including tripe), bachoy (noodle soup with pork meat and organs), or dinuguan (pork and offal blood stew), plenty of seafood and shellfish from the tiniest to the largest fish, prawns and squid, fresh or
cooked veggies and roots including ampalaya (bitter gourd/ melon), cassava and purple yam, oodles of noodles with plenty of veggies and non-tomato based sauces, scrumptious soups such as sinigang (sour soup) and bulalo (bone marrow soup), dimsum, tons of fruit including exotic ones like durian, langka (jackfruit), atis (sugar apple), guyabano (soursop), rambutan and lanzones, condiments including the very aromatic fish sauce and bagoong (shrimp paste), all kinds of desserts and snacks including sweet rice cakes, coconut or egg pie, sweet corn milkshakes, taho (silken tofu and sago pearls in sweet syrup), halu-halo (shaved ice with fruit, beans, and sweets), chicharon (fried pork rind / cracklings), and of course, the Philippine claim to Fear Factor/ Bizarre Foods fame, balut (boiled 2-week old duck egg with partially formed chick inside – not for the faint of heart!).
Though we all started enjoying most of these foods and even balut early on, I myself never ate sushi till I was a teen – but only because I’d never been to a sushi restaurant until then. And though I don’t think it was love at first sight, it didn’t take long before I was hooked for life.
So how is it that our kids, like many kids nowadays, especially here in the U.S., are so hesitant to try new foods and have such a long laundry list of foods they will not touch?
Funny enough, it was the French who showed me how to reclaim some of that Filipino foodie heritage for our kids. Out of desperation one day, I scoured the web for tips on how to get our 3rd-percentile-for-weight toddler to eat more than a limited selection of foods – eaten only with applesauce. I found this book and immediately borrowed it from our library:
French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters
This book saved my sanity in the kitchen. I realized, after reading it, that one’s love for food is not just “nature”, but very much “nurture” as well.
And just like French children, 90% of whom eat dinner with family everyday (versus only about half of American children), most, if not all, Filipino children also eat dinner together with their family at home.
It is precisely in this social environment of sharing food and time together that a child’s love for different foods and for the people around him are fostered. Since only one meal is served for all, the child sees his parents enjoying new foods as a matter of course, and, through repeated exposure, eventually comes to enjoy them himself. This collective enjoyment of food further strengthens the bonds within the family, and many happy memories are made around the table, where one is able to nourish not just one’s body but one’s soul as well. (Fr. Leo Patalinghug founded the Grace Before Meals movement on this same principle – strengthening families and relationships through God’s gift of a family meal.)
Granted, many Filipino homes employ live-in household help to do the cooking (a mutually beneficial arrangement, not limited to the upper class), making it easier to have a variety of foods prepared daily. But even those without much income – perhaps because of it – learn to enjoy whatever food, however exotic, is available.
By laying down a few ground rules (in my next post), fostering an atmosphere of relaxed communal enjoyment of food – even new foods – and of family togetherness around the table, and trying to recreate some of the immense variety of foods that someone back home would be exposed to, slowly but surely, our children are discovering the Filipino foodie inside them.
I still, on occasion, despair about our kids’ picky eating, but now the despair is short-lived. For experience has proven time and time again how this unfortunate situation is not at all insurmountable. Now I know it remains anything but permanent – as long as I do my part.
I do still wistfully reminisce about the day our “picky” kids ate nothing at a birthday party because they didn’t know the “strange” food that was served – pizza and hotdogs. Now, of course, those are some of their favorite foods. But it is a small price to pay for their increasingly surprising gastronomic adventures.
And though I still can’t claim our children are the most adventurous diners in the world, we’ve certainly come a long way from those early desperate years. And if we can do it, you can, too!
Kain na! (Let’s eat!)