Teaching Kids To Eat: The Classical Model of Education

Note: people can be very sensitive about food and food lifestyle. I think this way of doing things is best. If you don't like it, be strong. I'll think no less of you, and if I did, you shouldn't care.

People often comment on how well our kids eat, and some have even asked about our particular methods. Now, natural inclinations obviously play a big role in this, and our kids are of the robust sort. But eating well is not some sort of genetic loop, wherein they are predisposed to eat well, which makes them grow well, which in turn makes them keep eating well. Our eating culture and practices are what most shape our kids' eating habits.

It occurred to me recently when someone asked about this that our way of approaching food follows a pattern very similar to that of classical education, i.e. the trivium. A simple definition from an essay by Susan Wise Bauer:
Classical education depends on a three-part process of training the mind. The early years of school are spent in absorbing facts, systematically laying the foundations for advanced study. In the middle grades, students learn to think through arguments. In the high school years, they learn to express themselves. This classical pattern is called the trivium.
The stages of the trivium, as laid out above, are grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These correspond to phases in how we teach our kids about food and eating, although only in order and rationale, not developmentally or age-wise. The rhetoric phase of general education usually applies to high schoolers, but I would say that our ten-year-old daughter has been in the rhetoric phase of food for a while now.

Eating should be delightful. Many people are bored by food, and I believe they are bored by food because they were allowed to shape their own tastes when they were three (this is a multi-generational curse sometimes). Eating is an art, and needs to be learned. None of our children's habits are not something that has been educated into them, in one way or another.

So, this "classical model" of eating: here's the rationale, by phase.

1. Grammar. In the grammar phase of food, which starts when they're infants, the children are given the straight facts. They memorize how to eat. They may certainly think for themselves, but no food actions are taken which reflect their opinions. We give them food, they eat it.

If we're going to do that as parents, we need to have our act together with our eye on the long view. We need to know where we're going, what we're trying to encourage and what we're trying to avoid. For example, we don't want our kids to develop a sweet tooth, so there is no boxed cereal in our house. Candy is a fun treat, but is not part of a meal. Dessert is a very rare thing. We make our own baby food. If we are crunchy, we are crunchy more for aesthetic than for health reasons. That is to say, our primary concern with sugar is not eating too many desserts, but that the ubiquity of sugar in dinner foods creates bad taste in eaters and cooks.

That helps us with another aspect of this grammar stage. We act like peas and sweet potatoes and zucchini are completely normal. They are foods everyone in the family has been eating for as long as they have memory. If we think kids will naturally not like spinach or onions, we never say that out loud. They'll get there on their own, if they do at all. There is no category for "kid food" in our home. Even the babies eat what we eat. The kids' menu at restaurants is only for coloring.

We avoid processed foods (1), not only because sugar destroys good taste, but because eating real food is an important part of learning to eat. If the table is piled high with vegetables, and there are no alternatives in the pantry, that is what the kids will eat.

We also try to be on the ball. We try to be proactive about showing mercy! We don't want to tolerate complaints, but if we figure out that a younger child doesn't like chickpeas, we serve small. We're not trying to exasperate anyone.

This very early phase is obviously crucial. The attitudes it engenders are necessary before moving to the next phase.

2. Logic. This is where the kids begin to learn why we eat the way we do. This of course means that you need to know why. We have our reasons, you will have yours. Convenience should be a small part of the equation, delight a large part. What is salutary? What is good (in the moral sense)? What is beautiful?

We make off-hand comments about how well certain foods go together. We talk a lot about herbs and spices and flavors. We discuss what certain ingredients or methods will do. We compliment the cook.

At this stage the kids begin to participate in the cooking process, but in a very basic cause-and-effect kind of way. They chop, they stir, they fetch ingredients, they go get specific things from the garden. They throw the noodles in the pot. They disburse the snacks.

We begin to loosen the leash on their opinions and preferences, but we usually want to know why they have them. We help the kids figure it out. We make judgment calls on their maturity and ability to form opinions. My oldest has decided she doesn't like onions. That's a pretty normal kid thing, but we permit it only because she already has displayed a mature and diverse range of taste. The five year old still has to eat all his onions.

Peer pressure plays a positive part here, by the way. The younger boys take pride in pretending to like something they're older siblings don't like. The irony is, sometimes they actually learn to like that food.

3. Rhetoric. As we transition out of logic into rhetoric, the children begin to participate more actively in the preparation of food. If we send them out to the garden, we might ask them what herbs they think should go in the sauce. We might ask how the potatoes should be prepared tonight (as if they hadn't already been clamoring for their favorites for years).

Once that has been happening for a while, they start to actually cook. Our older daughter makes bread every day, and sometimes the oldest son does it. Oldest son makes the coffee every morning. One of the two usually scrambles the eggs or makes the oatmeal for breakfast. They make the salad for dinner. The kids still in the logic stage help.

This process will continue for years, of course. I expect and hope that when the kids are teenagers they'll be preparing full meals for the family. And although I'm sure there will be hiccups, I expect to be able to trust that they will be making delicious meals. Because I love zucchini in my spaghetti sauce, and they've always eaten zucchini. Show 'em the old delicious roads, and they'll walk in them.

I hope the reader has found this to be helpful and delightsome. As I've been writing this, oldest boy has been preparing my mid-day coffee. Perhaps I'll ask him to bring me a scoop of ice cream as well.

1 Lest you think this is a post urging you to go crunchy-granola-pants, here are some processed foods we eat regularly, but which seldom spend time in the pantry: potato chips, hot dogs, cake mix. We make our own bread, but we use regular ol' white flour. We eat tortillas and make quesadillas with shredded cheese, which is allowed by the FDA to have 3.5% wood chips, yes wood chips in it (cellulose). This is something regular people like you and me can, and should, do.


  1. A resource we love for learning flavor affinities (since I'm both teacher and student when it comes to cooking) is The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. It even has some pretty pictures!

    1. I like my cookbooks to have pretty pictures.


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