Find me a parent who says they've never thought, "Just eat the damn broccoli, kid," and I will show you a liar. From practically the moment of their offspring's conception, parents are bombarded with information, ads, and advice on how to feed their babies with one common thread: make it healthy. Easier said than done. Negotiating with a toddler on why they should eat green beans is like trying to reason with Kim Jung-un. He's gonna refuse and then it'll blow up in your face. I know, because I've tried.
I bought into the book Bébé Gourmet. For a month, I was cooking root vegetable galettes like a madwoman before I realized I had a flaccid stack of flapjacks in my fridge that my kid wouldn't touch. That's when I gave in to the pouch. The real Mother's Little Helper, sorry Stones, those pocket-sized goo packs were the answer to my 'just eat it' prayers.
But a pouch is not a real solution and a pureed wad of veggies is not a meal. As numerous studies will tell you, kids really do need to eat healthy and fortunately in this food obsessed city, there are three organizations making that just a little bit easier for children to swallow.
Since 2015, Carolyn Larson has been spearheading Tiny Tastemakers, the kid-focused arm of Charleston's Slow Food organization. "Taste education is something Slow Food is based on," says Larson, and to that end, her goal with Tiny Tastemakers has been to come up with unique ways to get kids interested in learning about food, namely heirloom and organic. For instance, at the Charleston Farmers Market one year, she helped organize an apple tasting for kids.
"We lined up all sorts of apples, four or five varieties, and had the kids not only look at color, size, and shape, but compare the flavors," she says. "Some apples are sour, some are crunchy, it was a new way to engage." Families purchased the apple tasting for a $5 donation and each child got to leave with a bag of their favorites. The funds went to support Slow Food, but the real win for Larson was seeing kids trying something new.
"We want to emphasize the importance of introducing kids to the food system and the role it plays in their life since that will influence how they eat later," she says.
Much of her recent inspiration for the program has come from her family's trip to Terra Madre, the international Slow Food conference in Torino, Italy.
"In Italy in the beer gardens they'd have a sandbox filled with dirt and plants but also noodles and forks and spoons and butter knives to encourage kids to play with their food and learn," Larson says. "Sure they'd shred the seedlings, but they were learning about root structure as they went." Larson implemented a twist on the idea at Slow Food's recent Potluck. For the event she filled a wagon with rice and noodles. "The kids were playing shoots and ladders out of rigatoni and lasagna noodles," she says.
But that's not all. With Tiny Tastemakers, Larson's done worm demos, made Seed Bombs, brought in the BeeCause's demonstration honeybees, taken groups strawberry picking, and more.
Right now she's working on planning a summer Tiny Tastemakers camp at The Pour House. The idea is to combine art and food for activities for children ages two to 10.
And if you're going to High Water Festival in April, she has plans for that too. Children under six will be admitted for free with an adult at the music festival and Tiny Tastemakers will be there with activities to entertain. "We're putting some things together for that too," says Larson.
For freelance writer Jenny Dibenedetto and her business partners, food stylist Anna Kate Lister, Mise En Place Public Relations owner Becky Tanenbaum, and illustrator Sam Sidney, the key to engaging a child in eating new foods begins with letting them get messy in the kitchen. That's why they're starting My Lil Sous, a website slated to launch in late spring, that will offer easy-to-manage recipes that kids as young as two can participate in.
"As a mom, you're always rushed. You're trying to cook dinner and it's like occupy the kids with blocks so I can quickly cook dinner and give it to them," says Dibenedetto. "It's always at the hardest time of day, but when you engage them in helping, they're much better people, much better eaters, it makes it a better process for everybody." Dibenedetto learned this first hand with her 3 year old Sam.
"The thing about the site is not every recipe is the perfect recipe for my kid to make. These are recipes that parents make that have parts of them that kids can be involved with. For instance, if you're making a tomato sauce, it's messy and there's a hot stove. But you don't have to do every step with the kid. I can give Sam a little Curious Chef plastic knife and a tomato and he'll chop one tomato for 15 minutes and then, guess what? He made dinner!" says Dibenedetto. The mother of two says it's the same with other kitchen activities.
"Give Sam a tiny little cast iron skillet and a cutting board and let him have at it. It's destructive, tearing, banging, it's a sensory experience. And if you give them one little thing to do they feel like they made dinner and they're proud of it. It's a sense of accomplishment and there's a lot of physical skills they're learning," she says.
For Dibenedetto, the former Fitness Editor for Women's Health, the idea is to give parents a tool to make cooking a more family-friendly experience without the stress. And with all of the innovative culinary people in Charleston, finding willing partners to help her create the brand was an easy sell. All four My Lil Sous founders have a cooking connection. Before Tanenbaum started her own local PR firm, she founded Jonas White's Butter, a compound butter company in New York City. Anna Kate Lister has worked for Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits and previously owned Heirloom Book Co., a vintage cookbook shop, and Sam Sidney has spent plenty of time in the kitchen with her three children and signed on to give the site a playful, kid-friendly look.
And though it's just a website for now, the women would love to see My Lil Sous evolve to one day include cooking classes.
"The chefs in this town are so involved and active, I'm sure they'd want to be involved," says Dibenedetto. "It feels like there's a niche for some sort of cooking camp." But that's down the line. For now, My Lil Sous is just getting started and eager to build a kids' cooking community.
"When I was kid I was taught how to cook and I just loved it," says Elodie Brittingham. The French expat grew up in the town of Metz between Champagne and Alsace where cooking was at the heart of her childhood. "My grandmother was a chef and my dad learned to cook with her. My dad owns a restaurant in Luxembourg. He taught me everything."
Now Brittingham is passing on those lessons to children in Charleston. As part of the local French Alliance, Brittingham teaches L'École des petits chefs, a Saturday morning French cooking classes to children ages five to 12.
"Every Saturday for an hour and a half we make a different recipe," says Brittingham. "The first week we did a King's Cake, little almond cake as a French celebration. One week we do sweets, the next we do salty. Last week we did a vegetable quiche. They love it."
Brittingham peppers her lessons with French so it's at once a cooking course and a language class.
Brittingham fell into the gig after graduating law school in France and moving to Charleston to take a job as an au pair. "I worked for a family of four kids. Then I fell in love with a man here. That was not the plan. I got married and then I stayed here," she says.
But even after becoming a realtor in Charleston, her love of cooking persisted and her need to share that could not be ignored.
"Each day the children take home a recipe and whatever they made. The desserts work best," she says. "This week we'll be making vanilla and chocolate cake."
L'École des petits chefs is from 1:30-3 p.m. each Saturday and is $35 per child. For more information, visit a-f-charleston.com. For recipes like simple tomato sauce, visit mylilsous.com next month, and for upcoming Tiny Tastemakers events, check out slowfoodcharleston.org.