There is a “no yuck” zone in Melissa Graham’s house.
When Graham’s son Thor was 2, he suddenly morphed from an adventurous eater to a picky toddler. After making some mistakes, Graham decided to approach eating in the same way a parent would approach the topic of wearing a seatbelt.
Thor, now 10, was expected to eat what he was served. He wasn’t expected to like it, but he had to try it, and he couldn’t say “yuck.”
“I know there’s a whole notion out there that you shouldn’t force kids to try things,” Graham says. “I happen to disagree with that.”
Graham, who changed careers from an attorney to starting a catering company, persevered through the tough times with Thor and he now eats plenty of fruits and vegetables and he will try anything.
“At some point it’s not a battle anymore. What’s on the plate is what you’re going to get,” Graham says. “If we took the same mealy-mouthed approach to seatbelts as we do to food we’d have a lot of kids not wearing seatbelts.”
Graham, who is its executive director and head spear, applied the same mentality when forming Purple Asparagus, a nonprofit organization that educates children and families about healthy eating. Purple Asparagus volunteers teach at schools, community organizations and farmers markets. The focus is on introducing children and families to different foods and encouraging them to prepare the foods at home.
Each month, Purple Asparagus volunteers visit 18 schools for the Delicious Nutritious Adventures program. Purple Asparagus focuses on a different ingredient every month. Children learn about the food, they taste it, and they also prepare a dish with the ingredient.
Children participating in the program are encouraged to try everything.
“In our programs, we ask every child to take a polite bite,” says Graham. “It’s a no yuck zone. If they don’t like something we ask them to explain why and really use their mind.”
As part of the program, children take home monthly handouts with recipes and other information about healthy eating. At the end of the year, children are given a Purple Asparagus cookbook. Graham says the program seems to be working—with more families saying they are cooking healthier meals at home.
“Lessons that kids were having in the classroom were coming home,” Graham says. “There was a measurable difference of fruits eaten before the program and after the program. And parents were making at least one of our recipes at home.”
While schools are the main focus of Purple Asparagus, the organization also wants to reach out the community. Purple Asparagus is participating in the Healthy Children Conference and Expo this weekend at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. The expo, hosted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, will be Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $8 in advance or $10 at the door. Kids 18 and under are free. About 6,000 people are expected to attend.
“The programming is really family-friendly for all ages. There will be musicians, dancers, storytelling, cooking demonstrations and other hands-on activities,” says Dr. Jennifer Shu, medical editor for healthychildren.org and a member of the advisory board for the expo.
Healthy living is a big part of the expo, which is where Purple Asparagus will be presenting a cooking demonstration at 2:15 p.m. Sunday. Alia Dalal, a Chicago-based personal chef and Purple Asparagus volunteer, will demonstrate for families how to cook peanut butter sesame noodles with vegetables and a tropical kale salad. (Tastings are not permitted.)
“For this presentation, I’m focusing on families that cook together, eat together,” Dalal says. “How can you take this Purple Asparagus idea and incorporate it at home and get your kids involved in meal preparation?”
Many kids who are wary of trying new foods are more likely to taste something they had a hand in making. So, Dalal says it’s important for parents to choose dishes that are easy for kids to help prepare. Dalal chose the peanut butter sesame noodles because kids have a sweeter palette, and the tropical kale salad is easy to prepare with little hands.
“It’s a fun thing to make. You use your hands. It does have good texture and there’s mango and honey to make it sweet,” Dalal says. “It might not be something you think of as a kid food, but your kid might like it anyway.”