If Jeannie Marshall were in charge, we'd all be eating like the Italians. Or at least, like the Italians used to eat.
As a new mother in Italy, Marshall was ready to embrace a culture that, she believed, would allow her to raise a child more healthfully than she could have back home in Canada, where fast food and packaged snacks reign over fresh ingredients and home cooking. She still believes that, but she's also seen how that "traditional" culture is rapidly disappearing, as the food industry continues to take over the world.
The food industry doesn't need to be fixed, Marshall decided -- it needs to be abandoned. In its place, she says, we need a new culture: one that pays less attention to nutrition science and puts a premium on real food instead. Her book, The Lost Art of Feeding Kids, which hits U.S. shelves in January, makes a compelling case for how that can be done.
"It’s hard to see the problem when you’re in the middle of it," Marshall says, "and it’s hard to see your own culture when you’re in the middle of it, too." She spoke with Salon about the real meaning of "health," how the system can help working families, and raising a kid who's into the idea of eating snails. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Raising your son in Italy was a very different experience for you than it would have been had you raised him in Canada. What are some of the assumptions you had about feeding kids that you’ve come to question?
My son, Nico, is almost 9 now, but when he was first born, I hadn’t really been around children that much. All of the things that I had to call upon were from my own experience growing up in Canada, where there were foods for children. When he started eating solid foods he would be picky about things, and I’d think, “Well, certainly our culture has made something for this problem, I’ll just go to the supermarket and look for it.”
I think I expected that the problem was taken care of for me, that I could go to the store and buy packages of macaroni in boxes and things like that which were meant for children. I didn’t find them, and when I did, they looked so ghastly that it made me stop and think. I started to look around and I realized that the Italians didn’t do that. Sometimes I thought, “Really, you’re just going to cook constantly?” That surprised me, just the idea that you would make a meal for the child or expect the child to eat what you’re eating.
So from the beginning, the Italians you met were feeing their children like little adults, and there wasn’t a separate class of food for children?
Yeah, but it’s changing. I’m sure if I went to a baby group right now, even in these few years that have intervened, it would be quite different. But I used to feel this expectation that you would just cook what you were going to be making for your family and you would prepare it in such a way that the baby could eat it, by pureeing it and adding the nice, healthy broth – that you’d also made – to go with it. Once I started doing it, I realized it’s not hard. In fact, it’s easier than going out and trying to stock up on all these products that you have to carry around with you. To actually just feed the child the same thing you’re eating is so much easier.
Would you say your son’s embraced most of that? Is he less picky than other kids?
He had some pickiness, for sure, and he still does. It’s not like it’s perfect. Sometimes when friends have read the book, they come over and try to find the food he won’t eat, just to show me up. And it’s not hard to do if you go outside of Italian culture. But within Italian culture, it’s kind of interesting to me that he will eat just about anything. That includes things that in North American culture children don’t eat. He loves anchovies, he loves octopus, he actually wants to eat snails.
At the same time, we went to an Indian restaurant. He was quite excited by the different culture and the smells and the music. But he would only eat plain rice and drink a mango lassi. So he’s very much into Italian food and that’s a very broad category. But I think we’ll have to wait until he is a teenager to really get him to explore other cultures and their foods as well.
You cite a lot of interesting research about how children start to develop their culture’s taste through breast milk, and even earlier in the womb. Is there a certain point where their culture’s food become ingrained, after which it might be too late to embrace new things?
It’s hard, because here I think kids are getting much more of a mixture than they would have had in the past. I haven’t looked at the recent statistics, but even in Italy, breast-feeding was losing favor for a while. Now it seems to be becoming more accepted again. That’s pretty essential to introducing your child to some of the flavors that they’ll have later on.
Then I think the next step that’s really important is introducing solid foods when they’re around six months old. What we were doing was looking for the packages and the jars of food, and what Italian women were doing was pureeing dinner and making the broth. That was a huge step in getting children to learn and understand the taste of their own culture.
But really once their toddlers are walking around, there are a lot more foods that are available to them now. There are these horrible snack cakes that are everywhere – Mulino Bianco. The E.U. recently shook their finger at them because of a recent ad they had, where one child says to another, “I don’t eat it because it’s good, I eat it because it’s healthy.” All they are is white flour and sugar; there’s nothing healthy in them. Even a lot of my friends will argue with me, saying “They’re healthy, they’re fine.”
That’s a strange interpretation of “healthy.”
I think they argue that because they look sort of like the sweets Italians might make in their homes. But what they are not realizing is that when you make sweets in your home, you might eat them once a week. Kids are eating these things several times a day -- morning snack, afternoon snack, they’re just carrying these things around. So that’s probably introducing a lot more sugar into the diet of children here than they would’ve had 20 or 30 years ago.
Sometimes Italians will say something is healthy when it isn’t, when it’s just traditional. I think that is an interesting confusion that they make. Because for the most part, their traditional food is healthy. Even having that slice of cake at the end of the meal on the weekend is healthy, because you had it at the end of the meal and it makes you happy and you’re eating it with your family. I think that probably plays a role in their health right along with the green vegetables and all of those other things. So sometimes I think it’s not just the individual food, it’s the way the whole thing works together.
It’s funny, though, because we get obsessed with individual foods – I certainly do myself. Now I’m noticing that a lot of my Italian friends are talking about what vitamins are in certain vegetables when I swear three years ago they had no idea. They just knew that you eat all these foods; it’s part of their culture and their culture, for the most part, is healthy.
And what do we know about what’s healthy anyway? The next study that comes out will probably tell you that kale isn’t good for you.
You make a pretty strong argument that the science of nutrition and food labels and all of that are hurting more than they’re helping, because they’re causing people to focus on the wrong aspects of food.
I think that that is true. A few nutritionists in Canada got in touch with me and told me they agreed with me, and I was really surprised. I met a woman for lunch who was coming to Rome, and she felt the same way, that the whole science of nutrition is still very new and sensitive in many ways. But we take those studies and we think that they are sometimes more meaningful than they really are. Sometimes the industry distorts the studies or will use them to promote some of their own products. So I think we just get so confused. And to me, it just seems like, let’s not pay quite so much attention to it, because it is confusing. And it detracts from the pleasure that you get from eating as well. If all you are thinking about is the nutritive quality of the food, it’s not very pleasurable.
That might explain why protein bars sell.
Yeah, I had visitors coming and they drove me crazy because they were just so obsessed about bread and pasta -- they couldn’t believe that people ate bread and pasta here. And the olive oil: everything is finished off with a nice little dollop of lovely, fresh olive oil. I have a tiny sister-in-law who watches her weight carefully, and she was just horrified by that. She thought it’s not good for you, or it’s too much fat and I said, “Just go with the flow.”
It’s easy to see how some of that culture is being lost when you’re looking at a place like Italy, because there is a strong, traditional diet there. What would a return to a traditional diet look like in Canada or the U.S.?
In some ways, looking at Italy has helped me to imagine that, because it’s not so strange. If I were in India it might be a little bit different, because there are things that are not so readily available. We need to just step back from these discussions we’ve been having about how to fix our food problems, how to feed our children, and just look at the problem from a distance, look at it in other cultures. I tried to help the reader step out of their culture and see that what is normal for you isn’t normal in other places. Once we feel unsettled about these things, it kind of opens us up -- we can see what works in other places, and see what works for us, and we can try to adapt it.
I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit, because we’re trying to create a food culture when we don’t completely understand what’s wrong with the one that we’ve got. The devil is trying to reform the food industry and I think, “Just stop worrying about what they’re putting in the food. Just don’t buy it.” I guess that’s easier for me to say because there isn’t as much of it here in Italy. But if you start to do that, if you’re a family and you decide you’re not going to go to fast food restaurants and you’re not going to buy packaged foods, you can influence other people as well. So you might be able to create a little biti of a food culture in your own sphere.
I know that’s hard -- even when we go back to Canada for short visits it’s hard to avoid these things, partly because they are exciting and new for my son and also just because it’s normal. It’s so hard to step out of what you’re used to and see that it’s not normal somewhere else. Maybe we could make it not normal here. That’s partly what has to happen. Even the complex problem, if we break it down we can see that some of the essential steps are within our grasp. We can decide, okay, there are certain things we’re just going to eliminate. Stop worrying about the food industry, stop worrying about fast food. Just don’t eat it. Cook more.
Once you start to do it, it becomes easier and then you can start looking at the harder things that we can’t change as individuals. Collectively, we can start to work to ask our governments to think about our best interests and our health rather than only profits and the interests of business.
I think our food culture could look like Italy’s culture. I don’t know why it couldn’t, really. It’s just that we have to strip away all of these other expectations and all of these other ideas of normal and redefine that first. Then we can start to deal with the foods we’ve got. We need to start creating some basic foods we all share that we all agree are good and work from there.
A lot of things you’re advocating for would be difficult or impossible for everyone to carry out. Having the time and money to shop organic, to grow your own food, to cook for your family every night. Is that really something that you think could happen on a large scale, for people with fewer resources than you?
Well, you know I think it could be, but I think, again, it’s this big problem with lots of tentacles. You have start untangling some of these issues. What I think is really hard is when parents have three children and you have to give them all breakfast in the morning. Then you have to pack their snacks. Then you have to pack their lunch. You do all that stuff and then when they get home you have to make their dinner. It does seem impossible.
And I have to say we are really lucky in Italy right now because I don’t have to do any of this. If only we could create these kinds of systems in the United States and Canada. I make my son’s breakfast in the morning, but then he goes to school, and the parents in his class agreed to do a communal snack, where each family takes responsibility for the snack for two weeks. Lots of families have been bringing in things that are more traditionally Italian, like frittata. When it was our turn we brought in cheeses, some prosciutto, some bread and some olive oil. We brought some raw nuts, too -- kids don’t have nut allergies here like you have in America.
Right, at a lot of schools here you’re not allowed to bring in homemade food because of all the allergies.
Isn’t it incredible? It’s just the opposite of what this is. But anyway, for two weeks we had to do it and it was fun for the two weeks. Now it’s over for the whole year; I don’t have to make another snack. Then he has a two-course lunch at school. For the most part it’s easier for the cooks, because they only make one meal, and it’s easier for the kids, because they just sit together and they eat. They don’t have the expectation that they can choose something else. It’s just never been offered to them. It’s harder to change kids who are used to having the choice, but I think once you get that going, the next generation won’t have the same expectations. And that’s great.
So they’ve eaten this great meal, and by the time it’s dinner usually I just cut up some vegetables Nico can eat while I’m cooking. But it doesn’t feel quite so onerous to make dinner, because I know he’s eaten well all day and I haven’t had to do most of it.
You know, we talk about all the pressure that working families have to face, and particularly working mothers, and I think this a huge one. I am so lucky that I don’t have to deal with it. Why isn’t this system used everywhere? It’s so good for families, and it’s so good for children. In this case, they use all organic produce sourced from four different farms – the cost difference wasn’t very much. But you don’t have to have organic. Organic’s better, but as long as you have fresh food, it’s great.
It does take a communal effort; you can’t do it completely on your own. I’m not saying that I expect everyone to cook every single meal. But to create cultures where kids can have food that has been cooked for them is just as good. If we pay attention to culture, and not just to food, I think we may be able to change the system, and fix the problems that we have now.