Accepted abstract - Creative Tastebuds Symposium 2021

Managing culinary adversity with food literacy: Children’s encounter with whole fish and bitter greens

Research paper

By Hart N. Feuer, Kyoto University, Japan

The global dietary transition is, among other things, marked by the prominence of softer, mechanically easy-to-eat foods, and simple flavors. Attempts to reframe healthy vegetables, fish and meat for picky children often invokes food processing, such as pureeing vegetables and deboning meat and fish. Research in this journal and elsewhere, not to mention parenting experience the world over, has demonstrated how challenging, and perhaps self-defeating, it is to placate children in this method. However, by re-framing the capability to eat “difficult” foods as an admirable, perhaps even competitive, life skill can circumvent the problem of adversity through social rather than material means. Maintaining children’s tolerance to adverse dietary experiences, such as eating around fish bones, or swallowing bitter vegetables, is not only a matter of nutritional balance, but also of cultural preservation. The processing of vegetables or fish is often incompatible with many historical recipes, leading parents to abandon well-balanced and locally embedded foods in favor of convenient global foods or recipes. In this paper, the author reflects on data gathered in 2018-2019 from interactive food literacy benchmarking activities in Japan and Cambodia evaluating the dietary skills of 6th graders. Among the activities were measures of eating skill and tolerating adversity involving consumption of (a) green vegetables of varying degrees of bitterness and (b) whole local fish. Outcomes were analyzed against socio-economic and family characteristics. I find that social pressure and the competitive environment led children to derive social validation from their prowess in eating a whole fish cleanly or swallowing more bitter vegetables. This presents an alternative avenue for casting troublesome and adverse foods as a heroic challenge rather than as misery. It also presents an alternative approach to conventional food education activities, with the possibility for simultaneously measuring food literacy deficits and also creating context for their resolution.