Photograph by Joseph Choi
Photograph by Joseph Choi

Teaching Kids to Explore With a Fork

Dinner is a celebratory and full contact relationship with the natural world.

I was raised in a family in Washington, D.C., that had dinner together nearly every night of the year. There was rarely a better meal to be found anywhere.

My parents were good cooks, and intrepid ones at that. My mom would prepare the slow-cooked dishes like grape leaves, stews, curries, and the three-month-long-process fruitcake that left the kitchen smelling as boozy as a Eugene O’Neill character. My father was the short order cook of the family. He would take off his tie, don one of the aprons that hung behind the kitchen door and prepare in a half hour meals that were diverse, healthy, fun, and that fit our budget. He was famous for his tacos made from scratch—the hinged iron mold gently pressing the moistened masa harina dough to form the tortillas. Imagine a little boy rapturously awed by a discovery so new, but which also represented generations of history and culture for the newly American families who lived all around us.

Sure, all of us children played together in the streets, we shared classrooms and had sleepovers. But where this community really integrated was in the grocery store. The diversity of culinary cultures sprouted an array of bodegas to meet their needs. There on offer was an eclectic mix of ingredients each bringing a taste of home. Long before goat meat, star fruit, or berbere spices became a part of culinary fabric of fine restaurants, they formed the foundation of meals eaten by families in communities just like mine all over this country. They offered an opportunity for me to participate in their heritage. To this day I continue to use food to explore our planet with a fork. I use food to meet new people, create relationships, and find common ground with strangers.

We taste the bounty of lands near and far and in our globalized world. We are connected to our distant neighbors through food. Dinner is a universal language and is just as important as any other dialect. As National Geographic explores the Future of Food this year, it is important to engage children in this dialog. Their fluency with food provides them a basis for their relationship with this planet and its growing population.

Preparing meals together just as I did with my parents is one of the best ways we have to teach this fluency. Through food we can help children create an enduring relationship with the places and ingredients that connect all of us on this beautiful planet.

Chef Barton Seaver is a National Geographic Fellow and the author of  National Geographic Kids Cookbook and Foods For Health.