On Kids and Vegetables, an Interview with Tanya Henderson



Tanya Henderson is a cooking instructor for the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). During the day she cooks with teens at Willard Middle School. Once a week she whips up dishes with kids in the after-school program at Malcolm X Elementary. She also teaches evening nutrition classes to parents at several BUSD locations.

A former New Yorker who worked in television — including directing a season of MTV’s Real World – Henderson moved to Berkeley to attend Bauman College, a holistic nutrition and natural culinary arts academy. Now a certified nutrition consultant and educator, she specializes in digestive wellness, allergies and eating disorders, and sees private clients after hours.

Henderson describes herself as ageless and lives near Lake Merritt in Oakland. We caught up at Mudrakers Cafe, opposite Willard, over gunpowder green tea.

What do you like about teaching cooking to different age groups?

The younger ones are so excited and eager. They come to cooking class with open hearts. They’re willing to try anything and have less judgments about the food than older kids.

The middle school kids are able to take in more of the nutritional information that you want to pass on. And they’re more independent in the kitchen; it’s more about guiding them through a recipe than it is with the younger age group.

The adults are the lock and key. It’s not enough to expose the kids to eating nutritious food if they go home to an environment that doesn’t support eating this way. The parents do make a difference. I’ve found them really willing to learn about healthy ways to feed their families, including organic food, the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen, and how to read ingredient labels.

What are some of the challenges of cooking with children?

The young ones require a fair bit of hand holding; you have to walk them through a recipe. With the older adolescents you’re dealing more with attitudinal issues.

What have you learned from working with BUSD school children?

Children are teachers too. And they like to experiment. I’m all for experimenting, that’s how I cook at home, in a spontaneous way. I tell the kids let’s learn to follow a recipe first, figure out what you like, and then break the rules.

True or False: All kids  — even Berkeley kids — hate vegetables?

False. Kids may say they’re allergic to or don’t like vegetables but in my experience it’s more accurate to say they don’t care for how something is prepared. Take broccoli, which often gets a bad rap among kids. I roast broccoli, cauliflower, and potatoes, tossed in olive oil with salt, pepper, and other seasonings, and kids can’t get enough of them. I don’t buy it when someone says kids don’t like vegetables. I think they just don’t like how they’ve been cooked.

What’s one of the myths about kids in the BUSD schools?

That they’re all eating organic, seasonal, local food at home. That’s just not happening in every home — or even many of the homes of the kids I teach. The BUSD school demographics are very diverse. A large percentage of our student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch. For many of our families, there isn’t the culture of eating healthy, whole food at home.

How can parents of lesser means in the community access organic, seasonal food?

Vendors at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market accept EBT cards, which are basically the new food stamps. And there’s Farm Fresh Choice, an off-shoot of the farmers’ market that helps economically-disadvantaged people. The BUSD parent nutrition classes I teach are free and we specifically want to reach low-income families to show them how they can eat delicious, nutritious food on a budget.

Do you have a local food hero?

Alice Waters.  She created a model program in the Edible Schoolyard. She’s pushed the cause of local, seasonal, organic farmers’ market food and had a huge impact on school food in Berkeley, which is recognized around the country.

Originally published on Berkeleyside

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  1. Thursday, June 3rd, 2010
    Well, I can't let this one pass. If you look carefully at what I wrote, it was "most kids don't like most vegetables most of the time." I think I made plenty of room for exceptions there. So please don't distort what I said.

    I was writing this in the context of cafeteria food. Every study ever conducted by the USDA of its federal meals programs shows that kids least like the foods adults consider healthiest: vegetables and whole grains. And that goes for studies of "plate waste," meaning foods that end up in the trash. If you spend time in cafeterias carefully observing, as I have done, you see that it is extremely difficult to prepare vegetables on a large scale that kids will actually eat. I would venture to say that a majority of the vegatables prepared, if they are actually served, wind up in the trash can. That's why smart chefs, like the ones in Berkeley, do not often serve vegetable side dishes like most schools do, but try to incorporate the vegetables in sauces and soups where they are less obvious. As I noted in my series, even the salad bar at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School did not get "slammed," but executive Chef Bonnie Christensen said kids in elementary schools eat more from the salad bars because they get more attention from the adults on staff.

    Of course I know about exceptions. I've spent the last four years teaching kids cooking and "food appreciation" in a private elementary school here in the District of Columbia, just like Tanya Henderson does in Berkeley. I know kids in small group situations will eat certain vegetables when they have a hand in preparing them and when the recipes are appealing. But those same kids will also turn up their noses at some vegetable dishes--or dishes containing vegetables. It happens all the time. It very often depends on the ages of the kids involved. I've seen situations where younger kids devoured a vegetable dish that older kids didn't like at all, and vice versa.

    This issue defies easy simplifications. But the implications are serious. There seems to be a move afoot to declare vegetables a panacea for an obesity epidemic what ails school lunch programs. People want to write standards requiring schools to serve more vegetables. But the plain truth is that programs like farm to school are way ahead of the current capabilities of the vast majority of school meal programs. Most schools do not have the equipment or the staff to serve vegetables the way they do in Berkeley. The schools here in D.C. flatly rejected proposed standards for bigger vegetable servings for this very reason. Those standards represent an added expense for school food programs that already are strapped for cash, and can't serve vegetables that kids will actually eat.

    Please, this is a nuanced issue. It deserves sophisticated treatment.
  2. Thursday, June 3rd, 2010
    Hi Ed,

    Thanks for weighing in so thoughtfully. It's not my intention at all to distort what you wrote.

    In fact, your Slow Cook series raises a really valid point on the vegetable front and school lunch that deserves further discussion, as I too have observed the cafeteria phenomenon you describe.

    In my question to Tanya, I was really trying to get at how people like her, you, Bonnie Christensen, Ann Cooper, and loads of other school food folk find creative ways to make eating vegetables a more palatable experience for kids, as you note above.

    I appreciate your point about comparing cafeteria food to cooking class experiences -- apples vs. oranges -- but I think many people working for school lunch reform would like to see chicken nuggets and tater tots replaced by something like Jamie Oliver's seven-vegetable sauce with whole grain pasta.
  3. Saturday, June 5th, 2010
    I think we'd all like to see chicken nuggets and tater tos replaced with something like seven-vegetable sauce with whole grain pasta. Unfortunately, the federally-subsidized meals program has done such a thorough job of driving school kitchens into a state of poverty there's no telling when schools might have the kitchen or skilled staff required to do that. It's a real dilemma, and tossing a few pennies at it is no solution.