The surprising history of children's food

Where did we get the idea that children could or should eat differently than adults? We go back over 100 years for the answers...and come up with some surprising answers! Learn how to make a modern kid's menu (based on what the kids can cook, of course) and enjoy some great ideas for celebrating Women's History Month.

It’s no secret that we love investigating the fascinating history of food - from foods invented by mistake, to using recipes as a way to time-travel back to the past (and future!). This March, we’re looking into the strange history of “children’s food” (you’ll see why we’re using quote marks in a minute) and talking about how to get your kids into the kitchen with you. Plus, we’ll share some fun ideas for celebrating Women’s History Month!

We’ve talked before about how every culture has a particular “first food” that’s fed to babies - whether that’s a simple dish of okayu (rice porridge) in Japan, or khichdi, an Indian dish made of lentils and rice. But after babyhood, in many cultures around the world children simply eat the same food that adults eat. In some places, kids are even responsible from a young age for preparing everyone else’s food - show your kids this video of a group of village children making curry outdoors, and ask them if they’d like to cook like this, and whether they think this is a good example of “children’s food.”

If your kids are more used to the idea of “children’s food” as smaller versions of fast-food hits (like pizza or chicken fingers) there are a hundred years of history that explain that idea. Foods made specifically for children first became popular in Victorian England. Parents were advised to give their children cod-liver oil daily to improve their health, and children were expected to eat bland “nursery” foods until they were old enough to join their parents at the table. Nursery foods included bread crumbled in milk, porridge and rice puddings. Then, in 1894 pediatrician Emmett Holt published The Care and Feeding of Children, which influenced generations of parents in how they fed their kids. Among other advice, he suggested that children younger than 10 should not be allowed pies, fresh fruit, pastry, ham, bacon,corn, cod or tomato soup. It’s not clear what he based these rules on (his own sister slyly pointed out that he ate all of these things as a boy “and survived”), although this Slate article makes some interesting guesses. Not long after public interest became focused on controlling children’s diets, prohibition rules left restaurants looking for new ways to cheaply attract customers -- and the “children’s menu”, with menu items that were chosen because they were cheap for restaurants to prepare and affordable for parents -- was born. 

Today, eating expert Ellyn Satter takes the opposite approach: kids should be eating what the whole family eats. There’s a lot of science to back this up: eating together makes kids happier, and it can even make you healthier too. To read more about Satter’s approach, check out our interview with her

All this is not to say the whole family can’t enjoy food that is a favourite for the kids.  Try making your own kid’s menu: that is, a menu of all the recipes your kids are interested in cooking and eating with you. To help expand your little ones’ food horizons, try involving them with your meal planning (use our beginner’s guide if you’re new to meal planning) or browse through our recipe archive together to pick out some new-to-you favourites to try. Then, get ready to cook together - we’ve got lots of advice to make that easy and fun. 

For more experienced kids, we’ve got some great Women’s History Month projects - try this imaginary feast for 10 Canadian women who changed history, or cook your way through history with fabulous heroes like Julia Child. Join us on Facebook and Instagram for more tasty cooking ideas, and please share your "kid’s menu" with us!

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