Forget peanut butter. There wasn't even any pizza. For a week in China, seventh-grader Michael Sandner filled up on sauteed sea slugs, pig snout, jellyfish, chicken feet and web of Peking Duck.
"Chinese food wasn't anything like at home," reported the 14-year-old, who was greatly relieved to see plenty of rice on every menu. "Sea slugs are kind of slimy, like cranberry sauce," he explained. The chicken foot "looked kind of gross. You could really tell it was a chicken foot. But it didn't really have any taste."
Not bad for a kid who lives on bean burritos and oatmeal at home in suburban Chicago. "Of our seven kids, he's the pickiest eater," said his mother, Carole, who said she was astonished by her son's eating habits on a trip through Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and other parts of China.
"I was pretty amazed myself," said Michael, who accompanied his father Jack, chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, on a business trip to Asia last fall. "But I got interested. The Chinese eat those things all of the time and I wanted to try them."
That's the idea, of course. Food is a natural way to help kids bridge the cultural gap wherever they're traveling. The dinner table can spark a child's interest in a new place and the people who live there with more immediacy than many dusty historical sites. So instead of always sticking to the familiar, head for a barbecue pit in Texas, a lobster shack in Maine, a Mexican cantina in Albuquerque or a tea house serving dim sum dumplings in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Often such places are cheaper than fast food. They're also a lot more fun--especially for parents.
In a foreign country, let the kids shop in local markets for picnic fixings.
"They'd pick things that looked interesting," said Susan Weintraub, a school librarian from Maryland who has spent time in England and France with her husband and three children. As much as the food, the Weintraub kids were intrigued by the way things were packaged and displayed.
"Food is really symbolic of how you encourage kids to take life in and open yourself to new experiences," said educator Lucinda Lee Katz, director of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, who has traveled widely with her two teen-agers. "It gives them the message that taking a risk isn't a bad thing."
This is not to say you can force kids to eat a particular dish, or should. "Just ask them to try it," said Katz, who has eaten plenty of meals with her teen-age son in which he filled up on rice.
'You'll stress yourself out if you're constantly trying to get them to eat new things," Weintraub said. "Everything is so different when you're traveling; the kids want familiar things to eat, too."
Laura Sutherland, co-author or "Innocents Abroad: Traveling With Kids in Europe" (Penguin, $15.95) suggests ordering familiar fare that the kids are certain to eat, in addition to unusual dishes for everyone to try: french fries or an omelet in France, pasta in Italy, plain tortillas with cheese in a Mexican restaurant or fried rice in a Chinese meal.
Of utmost importance, never turn food into a battleground.
"Remember that kids don't think of food the same way adults do," said Chicago child psychologist Sharon Berry, who practices at Northwestern University-affiliated Children's Memorial Hospital. "Food isn't a focus on vacation the way it might be for parents. They're only interested when they're hungry."
"You might think a big plate of weird food is exciting but it might scare little kids," agreed Altadena mom Sally Geisse, who travels to Barcelona with her children every year to visit her husband's family. She recommends looking for foods that are similar to at-home favorites.
Especially if a preschooler or picky eater is along, Berry advises making sure there's access to some "regular" food the child likes, even if it's necessary to bring it along from home. Then put forth the idea of trying some new dishes as an adventure. "The idea is that this is fun," said Berry. "Make it a game. Give points for whomever tries the most new foods."
Talking about the "food adventure" ahead of time helps, too. Get some books from the library about the places you'll be visiting. Try some of the dishes at home, if possible. Laura Sutherland said she knows families who stage special theme dinners at home as a way of introducing the kids to a new place.
A little preparation clearly pays off. San Francisco Chinatown guide Shirley Fong-Torres has shepherded many school groups and visiting families on her Wok Wiz tours, which end with a dim sum lunch. The kids who have the best time, she's convinced, are those who have been prepped for the new experience by their teachers or parents. "Make sure they're comfortable with what they're eating," Fong-Torres advised. "And make it exciting."
But even the best efforts don't always work. There we were, seated around a big circular table in a bustling San Francisco Chinese restaurant. My children Matt and Reggie love Chinese food and couldn't wait for lunch to be served. Neither could the other two kids at the table.
But when the odd-shaped dim sum dumplings arrived, the four kids barely picked at them. They simply didn't like them--the taste, the consistency or even the shape.
"Next time we come to Chinatown for lunch, bring some peanut butter sandwiches," 8-year-old Reggie suggested.
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