Think toddlers aren’t interested in eating anything beyond cheerios, mac n’ cheese and yogurt? Think again. Aiming to train the palettes of very young children toward a life of nutritious eating, New Hampshire/Vermont Fellow Heather Devine introduced a buffet of boldly-flavored foods to a group of wee ones at Magic Mountain in South Royalton, Vermont and they literally ate it up—then asked for more.
“It’s so fun to see kids happily suck on lemon wedges, slurp up olives, munch on fermented carrots, and devour roasted beets,” says Devine. “It is so much more energizing to address good nutrition through exploring flavor than by talking about ‘do’s and don’ts.’ The director of the day care center has told me repeatedly how much the kids enjoy having me come in, and that they ask to eat the leftovers from my taste-tests at lunch time.”
Devine, a student at Vermont Law School, believes strongly that good nutrition is powerful but that its power is consistently undervalued. As a longtime childcare worker, including a stint at a preschool that served kids from very low-income homes, Devine has also seen the devastating effects of poor nutrition and food insecurity. She recalls a little boy who was frequently driven to distraction by hunger, begging Devine for saltine crackers at school. One day he showed up calm and happy, though—carrying a big bag of Doritos and a two-liter bottle of Pepsi.
And as a mother, she bucked the advice of her daughter’s pediatricians to start her off on bland, beige foods like rice and cereal, opting instead to serve her fresh, whole foods like avocado, braised asparagus, and lemon wedges. Meals were seasoned with garlic and turmeric. “I wanted her to be exposed to everything,” says Devine. “It seemed to me that the best protection I could give her health was good food—and exercise—and the best way I could get her to eat that good food was to get her used to all the wonderful flavors good food offers.”
Devine drew on all of these experiences to develop a food curriculum that emphasized putting good nutrition and strong flavors front-and-center in the first two years of a child’s life. She turned to a friend who is an accomplished cook to develop recipes organized into core components that are easy to replicate, with ingredients that can be swapped for others that might be more affordable or in season.
Devine was pleased by the warm reception her program received at the daycare center, where she found a staff that was intensely interested in children’s nutrition. Since she implemented her program, a staff member has secured a grant to pursue a garden-based food curriculum for preschoolers. “I can’t claim responsibility for that interest, but I think I helped,” Devine says.
She and the staff were delighted to see kids noshing on garlicky noodles with capers and olives; curried cauliflower, roasted beets, and fermented carrot sandwich rolls—including the child who asked for seconds of “those little olives” after sampling the capers. There was also the grateful mom who told Devine that after her daughters tasted chickpeas at daycare, she was finally able to get them to eat lentils at home.
“It was fun to see how the kids enjoyed exploring even when they didn’t like particular foods, and it seemed the kids grew more open to exploring all the foods because they were allowed not to like some of them,” says Devine.
Building on the success at her pilot site, Devine is now in the process of creating a curriculum guidebook and recipe book with her community partner, Hunger Free Vermont, for the organization to use when it offers nutrition education to day care facilities throughout the state. Additionally, two of her fellow Vermont Law School students have just received Schweitzer Fellowships to expand her project.
“I am thrilled to have them on board because they’re both very capable people and I think they’ll be able to bring my project along better than I could do myself,” says Devine, who admits she found the Fellowship to be “very challenging.”
She says she worried whether the project was worthwhile. She found it difficult to remember simple things like kitchen equipment. She fretted over what she perceived as “the smallness” of her efforts in the face of big problems, like hunger and poverty, that she wishes to solve.
In overcoming these challenges, Devine gradually came to deeper understanding of the aphorism “the sum is greater than its parts.”
“Although what I personally can accomplish is small,” she says, “there are so many other people who are doing good work! The Fellowship gave me a chance to meet some of them and to learn what they are doing. If I keep doing my little bit year by year, together with others, then we really can have a better world.”