While living in East Africa while my husband conducted his field work, we regularly saw animals – namely goats – slaughtered and the meat sold for dinner. What was notable about this experience to me was not the fact that we watched that as often as we did, but rather that we were so removed from it here in the States. I don’t mean to suggest that this is true for everyone here in the US, but it certainly is true for me.
And it’s not just meat that seems so abstracted from it’s “raw” and natural form. The modern day grocery store is full of foods that only slightly resemble their ingredients (although their nutrient claims try their best to remind you that these foods actually DO come from real plants).
The final (although no less important) long-term food goal I have for my family is that they know where their food comes from. I don’t mean that they need to know where every cucumber and apple are grown and to have been able to shake the hand of the person that grew them, but I do want them to know that cucumbers grow on vines and apples on trees. I want them to see how potatoes are dug from the ground and to know that a hamburger is beef, which is a cow.
One of the great things about this goal is that there is so much room to grow into this learning. When we have exhausted the simpler lessons about where food comes from, we can talk about why wheat is grown in certain parts of the country and why the price of almonds has skyrockets because California is facing a sever drought. The answer to “where does our food comes from?” is actually very complex.
But for now, with my kids being so young, we’ll stick to some of the easier lessons and use these strategies to help them continue to become aware of what they are eating.
- Plant a garden. We don’t have a vegetable garden, but my parents have three raised beds that they fill with vegetables every spring. Since we spend summers with our extended families, my kids get the benefit of spending their summer months pulling cucumbers fresh from the vine. It’s marvelous. But not everyone has space for three raised beds. Or even one. Just because you live in a high-rise apartment building doesn’t mean you can’t plant something. Use small containers or tiny little pots for herbs on your window sill. Even this small and simple garden provides opportunity to talk to your kids about how things grow and thrive. You can talk specifics about other fruits and vegetables without actually growing them.
- Visit a garden (or farm or just a roadside stand). You don’t have to plant a garden – or whole farm! – to see one. Visiting a local community garden, farm, or even just a small vegetable stand on your summer road trip, can all serve as opportunities to talk about when, where, and how things grow.
- Shop at Farmers’ Markets. One of the things I love about shopping at a Farmers’ Market – aside from getting the freshest foods – is that I see who has grown it. There’s something about seeing the face of the person who grew my food that makes me feel like I am really contributing to the health and wellbeing of my community and family. You can also ask all kinds of questions about how the food was grown, if you’re so inclined. (FYI: Your local farmers are also incredible resources if you have a garden of your own!)
- Read labels. And ingredients. Increasingly, we are able to learn about a food’s country of origin. Apple juice (and sauce) is a particularly fascinating food to examine. Often times, there are apples from 5 or 6 different countries, many of them many, many (many) miles apart. But fruits and vegetables aren’t the only foods on which this information is available. Meats, packaged foods, and dairy also have it. Reading ingredients also provides an opportunities to talk about where they are sourced. So, read up and learn!
- Eat a variety of ethnic cuisine. In addition to being an incredible way to expand your palette and find common ground with different cultures, it’s also a great way to compare what foods are typically consumed and how they are similar or different to yours. Learning to cook these cuisines can also help up expand your horizons and explore your neighborhood (which might be required if you’re looking for harissa or lemon grass).