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Nurturing children’s personal development in an international environment through the language of food in Happy Kids

Food as language?

Educational institutions, nurseries should be symbolic and functional statements of equality and diversity. They should celebrate the personal development of each child, through all aspect of teaching and nurturing. Mealtimes, food choices – although very important to remain healthy – are often overlooked as a necessity, meaning “everyone has to eat”. However, its necessity is the character that makes food one of the most versatile, accessible and obvious teaching resource. And above all, eating is a very personal experience.

The choice of incorporating food in pedagogy and learning rather than just eating at mealtimes conveys a strong meaning, both personal and cultural. Cooking, baking, eating, sharing food together, traditionally is a place for listening to the families and their habits, as well as for orientation towards a healthy community, where mealtimes become spaces and contexts of developing relationships and encounters with the world, all needed for positive, well-developed emotional intelligence. Exchanging ideas, and creating plans and seeking for loving partnerships, are actions that often happen around a place (or plate) of shared food. As eating, tasting, likes and dislikes are all very personal, these moments of “real being together” nurture warm and empathic conversation where the existing and forming thoughts and feelings “behind” a person barely show through.

Unfortunately, the more and more popular convenient and simple fast food culture resists children growing up in communities that can share varying family traditions and eating habits over mealtime conversations that would be, as have been for centuries in human history, centres for relationship building and developing skills of social interactions. This is how food becomes a language in its own right.

What can children really learn from food as a language?

Being listened to (Managing feelings and behaviour)

Research shows that children have to have a type of food ten-eleven times on their plates before they will be confident to try it and be able to like it. Approaching eating and relationship with food as learning a new language keeps the central focus on children and their potentials, and it aims to offer new opportunities for creativity to children who are motivated and innovative learners. Amongst only a very few parts of their lives, eating (alongside toileting, communicating and moving), is one of the areas that even the youngest children can control and is an extremely sensitive element of nurture and teaching. When treated with respect, food and eating can become a communication channel through what children can be positively informed and influenced. The language of food hosts communication regardless of age, level of understanding or cultural background.

Being part of society (Making relationships)

When cooking and sharing food children have to play co-operatively, taking turns with others. During a shared cooking activity they have to take account of one another’s ideas about how to organise their own and others’ tasks, whilst showing sensitivity to others’ needs and feelings. Studying a recipe in a group, encourages forming positive relationships with adults and other children. Utensils have to be shared and used together, and most importantly so will be the home-made product. Through food, children can be “told” without words about belonging and about the social rules of being with others, no matter where they came from. Senses, tastes “tell” children about cultures, offering a much more colourful palette than verbal language could.

Creating their own informed understanding of the world (Self-confidence and self-awareness)

Food inspires and motivates exploration, questioning and reasoning. Food is the first resource young babies can be inspired though to become investigative, open and knowledgeable. Food is much more than “something to eat”. It is connection, knowledge, both familiar and new. When food is valued as important to a community, new opportunities emerge to expand the children’s dialogue with people and spaces around their immediate and extended worlds: other schools, farmers, markets, shops offering local and international food, historical locations, chefs, eateries, foragers and natural places. Food is a foreign language that everyone “speaks”, guaranteeing clear understanding and collaboration in a complex variety of contexts and experiences, “telling” about history, culinary traditions, sustainability, ecology, expressive arts and equality.

How food does directly affect children’s personal development?

Eating together certainly makes children feel good and safe, delivering a clear message that they are important. Children who feel good, meaning secure and happy, are confident to stretch their personal limitations and they will be biologically programmed to test their personal physical abilities. Making and trying food will be a natural environment to explore. Happy and balanced children will be confident within their environments that will establish their fundamental skills in sharing, join group activities, and they will be desired to communicate their inner self and to listen to that of others. Cooking together will host a vast array of subjects to discuss, like where the ingredients come from, why do we need certain ingredients, why do we like or dislike things, what do people eat in other parts of the world, what happens to de food in our bodies etc. This developing, growing personal control provides children a positive image and influences their beliefs and abilities to expand, and their confidence can manifest in increased tendency of trying new tastes. Children who have a positive image, a developed body- and self-awareness, will effectively manipulate their own movements and expressions in order to navigate through their environments, both physically and mentally. Children who have opportunities to communicate feelings, needs and ideas and are listened to, will develop a strong sense of self and are increasingly able to relate to others in rewarding and appropriate ways, for example eating, having tried, liking or disliking similar foods. Making and tasting food on a positive way, where so-called disliked foods do not have to be eaten but explored, will encourage verbal communication, supporting through descriptions, expressions, questions and answers.

How to support children through the language of food?

Understanding the language of food is very personal and individual, it is about how children come to understand what they can do, what do they like, dislike and why. Only then, when children come to understand who they are, can they see themselves in relation to others, how they make friends, and how they should behave. They then gain understanding of the feelings of their own and others, and learn to see things from another person’s point of view. Food, eating is the most obvious natural frame to aid the children on this journey, and support the adults’ ability to decrease intervention.

1. Sharing: encourage group cooking, choose and examine recipes together, eat together, organise foraging trips that nurtures discussions and shared success, provide plenty of material and encourage exploration by creating own recipes, create a shared cook book, visit local restaurants and eateries and make a “favourites in town” map, organise themed food tasting afternoons for babies with related picture books, invite local chefs, follow food related traditions (e.g. pancake day, Harvest food collection and donation), organise a themed picnic together with the children, create a herb garden.

2. Curiosity: organise themed cooking afternoons, dress up and role play according to the recipe, listen to stories and create recipes for the characters, furnish designated areas for cooking, shopping, food tasting and restaurants and equip it with role play aids, organise historical cooking/eating events, sing songs and talk about ingredients, visit local markets and allow a small budget to buy, create a food related treasure basket, matching colourful food images to shops where they can be bought, matching food images to the plant or animal from which they originate, grow vegetables and use them in recipes, visit a farm, use ingredients as art materials.

3. Independence: create special rules for cooking and help the children to understand them by contributing, create pictorial cards to follow appropriate behaviours (e.g. hygiene or tool use), make pictorial recipe instructions and personal cooking/tasting journeys, open an imaginary cafe with a mixed age group (babies, parents etc.) being the guest, make notes on children’s likes, appoint children to be taste testers and involve them in creating their menus, create rolling snack where children serve themselves.

4. Personal success: affirm and praise positive behaviour by creating special jobs and awards (e.g. the chef of the week, the best bakes) and encourage the children to choose and vote for each other, allow and encourage the child to complete tasks independently, involve children in risk assessments (e.g. provide green and red card for children to mark safe and unsafe items, tools or places and encourage them to give feedback on reasoning), ask the child plenty of questions about their opinions, encourage babies by letting them know through facial expressions how you feel (for example about a dish), ask appointed children daily to decorate the tables by their choice.

As Alan D. Wolfelt rightly said “Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate.” Food is a language that “tells” children that they are loved and safe, that “speaks” to children about where they come from and that “says” the important message that they can be who they want.

For more information:

  • Cavallini. I. & Tedeschi, M. 2008. The languages of food. Recipes, experiences, Thoughts.Reggio Emilia: Reggio Children Publisher.
  • Cotter, Colleen. 1997. Claiming a Piece of the Pie: How the Language of Recipes Defines Community. In Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories, ed. by Anne L. Bower. University of Massachusetts Press. p 51-72. Google Books version
  • Lakoff, Robin. 2006. Identity a la Carte; or, You Are What You Eat. In Discourse and identity (Studies in interactional sociolinguistics) edited by Anna De
  • Fina, Deborah Schiffrin, Michael Bamberg. pp 147-165. Cambridge University Press.

Submitted by Judit Horváth