In the movie "Ratatouille," the terrifying food critic, Anton Ego, transforms into a lovable human with one glorious taste of a Provençal tian from his childhood -- zucchini, eggplant, tomato, thyme and cheese.
Good food, Ego discovers, excites our taste buds and our hearts.
For most American children, the equivalent taste memory will be grease-soaked chicken nuggets and French fries. Registered New York-based dietitian Elisa Zied understands this. Her own childhood memories are connected to fast food as a treat -- including her grandmother sneaking Whoppers with cheese to Zied while she was at sleep-away camp.
"You have to teach children from very early on to enjoy healthy food," says Zied, who changed her eating habits as an adult and has written several books about healthful eating for families. "Changing a culture is not an easy thing to do."
But due in part to an alarming increase in childhood obesity, diabetes and other junk-food-related illnesses, healthful-food movements targeting kids are sprouting all over the United States. From kids' cooking classes to angry mothers demanding more healthful food in cafeterias to edible gardens at schools, more people are looking to improve their families' eating habits.
"The whole food system in our country is broken," says Susan Rubin, a former dentist, now nutritionist in New York, who founded Better School Food, a nonprofit program to help parents improve their kids' school food programs. "Somehow we have gotten the idea that healthy food is not good."
Countering the culture of junk and processed foods takes parental effort and a little creativity. Cynthia Walters of Powell, Ohio, takes her three children on "scavenger hunts" at the local supermarket. Every week, they try to pick out an unfamiliar fruit or vegetable. A few weeks ago, her 11-year-old son spotted an unattractive, brownish-gray vegetable and showed it to his siblings as if he had discovered something truly unique.
"It was a jicama," said Walters. "I remembered reading about it, so we took it home, washed it, peeled it, julienned it and then we made a yogurt dip on the side. They loved the texture. They said it was refreshing because of the crunch."
Walters, a teacher at Shanahan Middle School in Ohio, is one of the winners of the nationwide contest Moms of the Revolution, sponsored by Revolution Foods, an Oakland-based company founded by two moms to provide organic snacks and meals for school lunches. The contest was designed to find grass-roots activists to spread the word about healthful eating for children. Walters founded her school's garden program and the Shanahan Middle School Wellness Green Team that seeks to educate students and teachers on wellness, nutrition, fitness and gardening.
Kids have been discovering food with Samantha Barnes for nearly four years since she founded Kitchen Kid, a "mobile cooking school" that travels to homes, birthday parties and after-school programs in Los Angeles. Barnes says she is often amazed by kids' willingness to taste, even if they claim to have a long list of "will-not-eat" foods.
"I call them hesitant eaters, because they think they are picky but when they make it themselves, they are suddenly not picky anymore," she says. One of her biggest hits has been a red beet and ricotta farfalle pasta. "They love it."
The highlight at her cooking camp this summer was watching 7- and 10-year-olds wander around the Santa Monica Farmers Market buying tomatoes for their own "Iron Chef" challenge. They came up with recipes including stuffed mini-tomatoes with herbs and breadcrumbs, a tomato tart on phyllo dough and roasted tomato soup.
"They bought their own ingredients, came back to the kitchen and made these themselves," she says. "It was so powerful for them to see that they could do that."
Barbara Storper, a nutritionist and artist, has linked food with theater, juggling, cooking and music. Her Massachusetts-based FoodPlay Productions travels to schools nationwide extolling the virtues of good food and teaching kids to make healthful snacks. A few of her recipes are included in Picnic Playground, an album celebrating food by music label Putumayo (founded by her brother Dan). "Food, like music, connects you with all your senses; it is a deep-body experience."
Better School Food's Rubin, who was featured in "Two Angry Moms," a documentary chronicling the effort to change school lunch programs, spent this summer revamping the menu at a camp in northeastern Pennsylvania. In place of the boxed cereals, Rubin and the camp chef made fresh granola and "Scottish porridge." They substituted frozen, processed French toast and corn syrup with fresh bread, battered in eggs and served with real maple syrup. The kids came into the kitchen to cook meals themselves, Rubin says.
"We can't just say, 'Eat your green beans or you don't get your dessert,' " she says. "We have to inspire kids. This whole debate about healthcare -- well, food is healthcare. You know how we got so sick? We got away from real food."