Of all the ways to try to get kids to eat their vegetables, Bon Appetit Management Co. may have come up with one of the most effective: teaching kids how to eat—and enjoy, and prepare meals and snacks—with them.
The Palo Alto, Calif.-based foodservice-management concern experimented with fun culinary classes for kids last year and now as begun taking a kids nutrition and culinary education program on the road in the San Francisco Bay area, with dozens more classes planned for the coming year.
Bon Appetit’s effective twist is to introduce kids to produce varieties in a fun and social setting rather than to confront them head-on with the need to eat fruits and veggies for their own good, or to play stealth games with them to get them to eat these foods unawares.
“What is special about our program is we’re not trying to hide veggies in pasta, we’re actually bringing them to the forefront,” Hannah Schmunk, community development manager for Bon Appetit, told brandchannel. “What I’ve seen is if you introduce kids to fruits and vegetables in an interactive social setting, where it’s fun and exciting, you can truly shift their taste preferences toward fruits and vegetables and also spark curiosity about new foods.”
Bon Appetit, every other food company, parents, nutritionists, policy makers, insurance companies—and kids, obviously—remain up against the potent enemy of childhood obesity. Despite some signs of recent gains against this scourge thanks to huge societal attention to the problem and the efforts of brands, government agencies and NGOs, obesity now affects 1 in 6 American children and adolescents, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. Childhood obesity also leads to all sorts of other problems, including high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
Schmunk originally helped launch the program at Garden at AT&T Park in San Francisco. After that, more than 5,000 children from Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA and other Bay Area clubs groups have been introduced to a similar program. She talked with brandchannel about getting kids to eat veggies:
bc: Why does this seem to work?
Hannah Schmunk: I don’t want to say it works more effectively than other programs, because kids need to receive these lessons multiple times and in a variety of ways, and certain approaches will have bigger impact on some kids, while different approaches will touch other kids. Working together is how we make an impact on kids.
Healthy foods are often offered in a negative, coercive manner with kids: “If you eat your broccoli, you can have dessert” or “you can watch TV.” In this program, it’s exactly the opposite. We use positive language to encourage kids to eat fruits and vegetables.
bc: So how does it work?
Schmunk: Well, for example, I run a tasting activity where I feature one seasonal fruit and one seasonal vegetable. It can be fun for kids finding a fruit and vegetable they’ve never seen, much less tasted. In one recent program, it was a lemon cucumber and a pluot. Most kids had never laid eyes on either of these, so it was fun to have them guess what it could be, see it in its whole form, pass it around and smell it, and use all five senses—and finish in one bite of taste. It’s sort of an adventure they’re on.
bc: How do you know it’s effective?
Schmunk: One way we learn is from the leaders who bring the groups of kids. We follow up to see if they are seeing behavior changes back at their site. One of my favorite things to hear is that kids go back and share some of the lessons they learned with other kids at their clubhouse.
And a lot of the kids we work with are from disadvantaged families and living in food deserts, where fresh foods aren’t as prevalent. So some of them are teaching their parents about this.
bc: Are there any things that you’ve been surprised to find that kids especially like?
Schmunk: Younger kids are keen on fruits, often because they have a sweet taste. And in this ice breaker game we play where kids name their favorite fruit and veggie, I hear a lot about carrots and a lot about strawberries. And something that we introduced a lot of kids to in the Garden at AT&T park is kale—it grows well in the San Francisco climate. You can grow it year-round here. Kids say, “Am I supposed to eat this?” But we show them different ways that kale can be enjoyed, including a banana kale smoothie—most kids love bananas.
bc: Do you think they’re understanding why you’re doing this, as well as maybe getting to like fruits and vegetables more?
Schmunk: I think they do but it has to be shared with them. For instance, at AT&T Park, we’ve had the chef for the Giants players come in and talk about what he cooks for the players on game day, and why. And for a lot of these kids growing up in the Bay Area, these players are heroes, and so they want to hear what they’re eating before the game—that it gives them more energy on the field, enables them to see the ball better, and gives them muscle power. That’s a new way you can share the you-are-what-you-eat message.