My son and I went to the park recently with my friend Laura and her son Lorenzo. We sat under the shade of an umbrella pine tree while Lorenzo ate his lunch of pasta with some lamb and rapini. Lorenzo is seven months old.
Parents who want their children to eat well should either move to Italy or emulate the Italians. I've lived in Rome for six years and have yet to meet a fussy eater. While Canadian parents are advised to make food fun for kids, Italian parents make food taste so good the kids can't resist.
Italian children don't eat "healthy" versions of chicken fingers and tacos. Such mock fast food only prepares a child for a future of lunches at McDonald's and Taco Bell. Italian children sit at the table and eat what everyone else eats, which sometimes means starting with marinated octopus and finishing with spinach. They go out to restaurants and learn early on to enjoy the experience and the food. They live in a food culture and learn its subtle pleasures with their first mouthfuls.
My son, Nico, was born in Rome three years ago and nearly everything I've learned about feeding a child, I've learned from the Italians.
But I'm also influenced by my own culture. So when the pediatrician told me what to prepare for Nico's first meal, I thought it seemed like too much work.
She told me to simmer a pot of onions, carrots, potatoes, celery and herbs for a couple of hours to make a broth. Then cook potatoes, carrots and green seasonal vegetables in the broth until soft. Then purée the whole works into a thick soup, add cooked baby pasta and a spoonful of pureed lamb, chicken, beef, rabbit or horse, and serve with a spoonful of olive oil and fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano.
My Canadian and American friends were giving their babies rice cereal and mashed banana.
I opted for the easier model and thought the Italians were crazy to make such a complicated dish for a baby who was likely to spit it out. But an Italian mother insisted babies don't spit it out because it tastes too good.
I tried it. Nico ate it up. It was a pleasure to watch.
Since then, I've learned that Nico and his Italian friends will eat almost anything if there is pasta in it, even whole grain pasta. I make tomato sauce with carrots, onions and celery, I mix pasta with spinach, ricotta and pine nuts, or I serve pasta in pesto made from basil or arugula.
Nico's favourite soup is leek, potato and broccoli served with a spoonful of olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano. He loves pasta and chickpea soup and cannellini beans simmered in tomato sauce with rosemary. Italian toddlers eat lightly cooked green beans and asparagus with a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Maybe one reason for their good eating habits is that their culture treats dinner as an event. Parents come home from work late and start cooking, so they don't eat until 8 or 9 p.m. They eat the way their families have for generations, starting with an antipasto plate that may be only olives and raw vegetables, followed by soup, pasta or risotto and finishing with a huge pile of cooked vegetables and sometimes meat or fish. The big crisis here is that mama is at work all day and doesn't have time to make fresh pasta.
Of course, the idea that food should be fast and convenient is taking hold: Little kids eat cellophane-wrapped cakes, teenagers eat fast food and more packaged foods aimed at busy parents appear in the supermarket. But so far, tradition is fairly strong.
In Italy, food for children isn't just about nourishment but about shared rituals. Little Lorenzo's meal in the park was a version of the lunch he will eat when he's older. The only thing missing was the antipasto. By next summer, he will know how to chew the flesh off an olive pit and will be eating prosciutto and figs before the pasta.
Another difference in Italy is that the nicest restaurants will accommodate a child. Last fall, Nico, my husband and I went to an elegant restaurant in Bevagna, near Assisi. We arrived after 10 p.m.
I looked around at the room's crisp, white table linens and crystal wine glasses and thought we had finally come to a place that wouldn't welcome a toddler.
A waiter took us to our table and apologized because all the high chairs were in use. The chef sent out a sample of white bean soup for Nico to taste and asked him if he thought there was too much garlic in it. Nico told him to add more lemon.
The North Americans who live here often complain there is nothing in Italy, particularly in Rome, for children. It's true there are no family restaurants or children's menus, and it's nearly impossible to order dinner before 8 p.m., but I've come to appreciate that while they don't cater to children, children are welcome here. They're welcome to sit at the table and talk with the grown-ups. But they're expected to eat their vegetables.
Jeannie Marshall lives in Rome.