Around the World in 80 plates
Having raised a fearless gourmand and intrepid traveller, Aleney de Winter shares her philosophy for food, kids and tolerance.
When my son, Rafferty, asked me, “Mama, do you know what my favourite thing in the world is?” I, like any
parent of a six-year-old boy, naturally assumed that the answer would involve a Ninja Turtle with a spare Wii controller and a bag of chocolate. But his amazing response was, “Travelling to new places to see how other people live”.
While people have questioned the usefulness of me “dragging my poor kids around the world”, I believe that exposing them to the world is a gift. And it would seem that my son, who has been ‘dragged’ to 17 different countries, would agree.
Having just started first grade his surprised teachers often comment on his imagination, worldliness, communication skills and empathy. Our friends? Well, they’re more surprised by his unquenchable appetite and his fearlessness when it comes to food.
But it’s no surprise to me. My son has witnessed the best and worst of humanity. He’s seen extremes of poverty and wealth. He’s been exposed to different belief structures and heard wild fables that have captured his imagination. He’s shared simple meals with strangers and eaten in Michelin-starred restaurants. And he wants to see, experience and taste more.
Pick, pick, pick
Travel is an amazing way of introducing children to food. What seems ‘exotic’ or ‘strange’ at home can seem positively mundane in the context of its origins. It may be that I’m raising the next Anthony Bourdain (though hopefully without the sordid phase between childhood and success) but really Rafferty isn’t that different from other kids; we’ve just made eating a part of our family travel experience and he’s embraced it.
While all the signs are there that his three-year-old sister, Marlo, will also be a fearless foodie, given her age we still have to deal with moments of food fussiness... but we’ve found ways of overcoming these. If you have a child who’s a picky eater, don’t despair. Every country has its fair share of simple dishes that even the most pedantic of palates will enjoy and, loath as I am to say it, you’ll find Western fast food pretty much everywhere. If you, like me, would rather see your kids noshing on local delicacies, there are ways to prepare them.
Before you go, take the kids to a restaurant that shares the flavours of your destination so they know what to expect. Order foods that are familiar but have a local twist, like rice, pasta, noodles or grilled meats, with optional sauces on the side. Choose restaurants that are family friendly – nothing spurs on a child to do
something quite like seeing other kids doing it. Get them involved by trying cooking lessons or even foraging for ingredients. Most importantly, don’t force it! It’s counterproductive. After years of being made to sit at the table until I ate all my vegetables, I still hate Brussels sprouts.
When we travel with the kids we tend to stick to larger restaurants but that doesn’t mean street eats are out – just that a little common sense is needed. Our travel mantra is ‘cook it, peel it or forget it’.
Never drink water that’s not bottled and always use a straw. Only choose hot foods that are thoroughly cooked and avoid anything raw – you won’t find many kids arguing about dodging a salad. Be observant – if a vendor’s
store looks dirty, don’t eat there. Do the ingredients look fresh? Is the vendor using gloves and tongs? If yes, there’s a good chance they understand the importance of food hygiene. We also carry our own disposable cutlery for the kids and, just like at home, make them wash their hands before and after every meal. As an added precaution,
we also use a splash of hand sanitiser.
The way to a boy’s heart…
Interestingly most of my son’s strongest memories from our journeys seem to revolve around meal times. Not a single theme park, expensive souvenir or must-see landmark. Just food and the people we shared it with. He often tells me that seeing how people in other countries eat helps him understand them. “Some people eat weird things like bugs which makes me think they are brave. Some people eat in big groups and share their food which makes me think they’re kind. And in some places they eat runny cheese and raw fish and dumplings, which makes me think they are really smart.”
And when I ask him the most important thing he’s learned from eating his way around the world the answer blows me away.
“It’s that everyone, everywhere is awesome no matter how they look, what they believe in or what food they like. Oh, and that I can eat more than anyone in the whole world.”