Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Chard ribs au gratin... good for you, or just plain good?

So here it is, Food Day. I have been debating what recipe to share on this festive occasion. Or should I say, on this educational health-oriented day? Should it be something fun? Or something healthy? What if I told you my hope is that, when you read “Chard ribs au gratin”, you will forget how healthy or good for you it might be, and think, “Oh how fun and delicious!”? Therein lies the topic of this post. And perhaps of my blog as well, and one of the most fundamental differences between the French take on food, and the American take.

Food Day is an awesome initiative (more info on it here), self-defined as a nationwide celebration and a movement for healthy, affordable, and sustainable food. I’m so glad they described it first as a celebration of food, but it does have a definite, and admirable focus on health and nutrition. Out of curiosity, I went on the French website for “La Semaine du Goût”, the French version of Food Day, except it’s a full week and the literal translation is “Week of Flavor”. Here’s how they describe their main objectives (in that order): 

-          The education of taste, of consumers, and children in particular.
-          The diversity of flavors
-          Transparent and educational information on food products, their origins, the means of  
 production, and their specificity
-          Raise awareness about professions and know-how in the food industry
-          The pleasure of savoring food
-          Encourage food behaviors and consumption that fit with a durable, balanced lifestyle

Notice how the word “health” isn’t mentioned once?

I was chatting with a French friend last week, about the challenges of finding the time and motivation to exercise (one of my biggest challenges at the moment!). He was telling me every time he tried to exercise as a “duty” or obligation, doing an activity he didn’t enjoy doing, it never lasted longer than a couple of weeks. He was only able to exercise regularly over a long period of time, making it a true habit, when he found something he really loved doing, something that gave him pleasure (in his case, spinning and hiking).
A few days later, I heard on NPR a discussion on whether or not to ban energy and caffeinated drinks for children. And an expert mentioned that educating children about how bad those beverages are for them, did very little to deter them from consuming those beverages. In short, children don’t really care if something is good or bad for them. In fact, something "bad' might have the opposite effect on some children, and motivate them even more to have it! (And vice versa for "good for you" items). 

Then I remembered the study Karen Le Billon mentions in her book and blog on different cultures and their view of food. When shown a picture of a chocolate cake and asked what it made them think of, most Americans responded, “calories”, “guilt”. Most French responded, “celebration”, “pleasure” (while the rate of obesity is much lower in France, and children consume a lot more vegetables than in other countries). 

You probably have figured out by now where I’m going with this… I contend that pleasure, fun and enjoyment are very powerful forces for durable behavior changes, while restrictions, a sense of duty, obligation and guilt are a sure bet to excess and rebellion. 

Talking to children explicitly about health and nutrition concepts can be helpful, but I think it’s limited. First you can only do it when kids are at least 3 or 4. But teaching kids about food and balance can start much much earlier, and in a much more fundamental, visceral way in those formative first three years (that's not to say it can't be learned also later on, and even as an adult. The brain is very malleable and adaptable that way!) I really think the concept of "good for you" is extremely abstract to children and young people. Perhaps it requires a grasp of your own mortality to understand it. It just isn't an good motivator. Pleasure, fun and enjoyment are the best, most durable, efficient tools to help kids build healthy eating habits and have a balanced diet. (Interestingly, the French always seem to emphasize "balanced nutrition" over "healthy nutrition".)

The point is not to ban chocolate cake and other so-called “unhealthy” treats all together (which may lead to binging and making that food all the more attractive for being "forbidden"). Those foods are not so unhealthy if had once in a while. It’s all about finding balance, and making healthy foods a source of fun and pleasure, by nurturing, developing and educating children’s tastes and palates.

So I say let’s not hide vegetables with sweets (forget the apricot banana spinach pouches!), and show our kids how delicious vegetables can be. Because they really are. Let’s not say, “Eat your broccoli because it’s good for you”, but “eat these rib chards au gratin because they’re yummy. They taste good, and they’re colorful and fun.”

 Introducing the fun component is pretty easy with children, especially babies and toddlers, they can be so curious and open-minded. Here are some of the ways I’ve tried to wire-connect “fun-pleasure” with “(good) food” for Pablo:

- By example. We really enjoy planning, shopping for, cooking and eating our meals, we talk about it, we get excited about it. He definitely feeds off on that.

- By letting him play with his food (within reason). Especially from 8 months on, letting him experience food in a sensual, tactile way, different textures, colors. I let him eat with his fingers to nurture an interest for what’s in his plate, and a discerning palate. Now he's starting to find that eating with a fork and spoon is very fun too. Phew!

- By nurturing his sense of smell, getting him to smell herbs, dishes, produce, fruits. Smell is a huge part of the sense of taste. I get all excited about smelling a cheese or bread, and so he does too…

- By having him participate in growing some things we eat. I mostly have herbs for now, but plan on doing much more gardening of veggies with him as I learn more about gardening myself.

- Talking to him about the origins of food, and taking him to the countryside to see it, or show him in books. He knows apples, pears, oranges come from trees. He knows milk comes from cows, fish from the sea, etc.

- By having him help with simple kitchen tasks. He had a blast recently shelling peas and fava beans, tasting them raw.

- Using fun family food rituals (from my childhood, or new made-up ones)

- Talking to him about what foods feel like in his mouth. If he tastes something very tangy, we do the “tickle in the mouth head dance”, he giggles and asks for more…

Do you have other ways to make food fun and enjoyable? Let me know in the comments! I’m always looking for new ideas.

So I leave you with this dish from Southern France, which caught my eye a few months ago. I love the look of rainbow chards, but never quite knew what to do with the colorful ribs. This is definitely a good example of making something that is healthy and looks pretty, but doesn’t taste like much on its own, taste delicious.



Chards ribs au gratin

Adapted from La bonne cuisine du Comté de Nice by Jacques Médecin

Serves about 4 as a side dish

Prep time: 5 mn + 10 mn
Cook time: 1 hr + 5-7 mn

Age for babies: 8-10 months, makes a good finger food cut up in small pieces (it's very soft when cooked)

1 bunch of rainbow chards
1 onion (peeled, left whole)
3 garlic cloves
1 small bunch of Italian parsley
1/2 bay leaf
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 sprig of rosemary
1 anchovy fillet
2 tbsp flour
Olive oil
Grated cheese of choice
Salt & pepper

In a large pot, put 2 quarts of water with 1 garlic clove (whole), the onion. Tie together (or place in a small cloth bag) 1/2 of parsley, bay leaf, rosemary, and thyme, and add it in. Bring to a boil and simmer on low heat for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, "peel" the ribs. First separate the ribs from the leaves. (Recipes abound for chard leaves, you can boil the leaves for about 10 minutes in a large pot of water, drain well and eat either hot, creamed, or cold with vinaigrette, or you could try the rainbow chards cod brandade I blogged about.)

An optional step is to take the strings out of the ribs, as follows: take the stem, break it so the hollow part goes inward, and as you pull, you will see the strings, remove them with a small knife. Keep doing this every few inches on the stems to remove most of the strings. See the picture above to get a visual on this.

If you choose not to do that, just cut up the ribs in 2-3 inch pieces.

Then finely chop the remaining parsley and set aside. Mince the 2 remaining garlic cloves.

Put the rib pieces in the broth for 10 minutes, and drain. Discard the onion and herbs.

With a mortar and pestle, grind together the minced garlic and anchovy fillet.

In a small saucepan, heat 2 tbsp of olive oil with 2 tbsp of flour, stir with a wooden spoon until you obtain a "roux" (brown mixture). Add the garlic/anchovy paste and 4 tbsp of minced parsley. Mix well.  Add 2 ladles of the broth used to cook the ribs, and let simmer on low heat, stirring often, until you get a thick sauce.

Place the ribs in a baking dish, pour the sauce over them, and sprinkle a bit of grated cheese (Swiss or Parmesan).

Broil for 5-7 minutes, until golden on top.
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  1. A wonderful post - I couldn't agree more. With our kids we are encouraging a love of food, a love of good food. And by doing that I believe we are developing a healthy approach to food, without having to talk about healthy food as a type of food.


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