In Italy, Eating Gets Graded

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Photo by Bruce Tuten/Flickr CC


The day my daughter's kindergarten teacher called me into her Italian classroom to tell me my child was failing lunch, I knew I had run up against the great continental culinary divide. As an American married to an Italian, I've lived off and on in Italy for years, in both Bologna and Venice. I'm an adventurous and enthusiastic cook, an impassioned eater, and one of those parents who throw their kids into the deep end of the culinary pool from birth. Sink or swim: eat your fava beans and grilled calamari or starve.

Yet the teacher's face was grave. Lunch, in this Bolognese classroom, was a subject, as important as any other, and though my apple-cheeked five-year-old sat still, said per favore and grazie, ate all her tortellini and strawberry yogurt, she was still failing. At issue, the teacher informed me, was the meat course. My kid was consistently skipping the bistecchina, and something had to be done.

I tried to make light of the situation: after all, the child was polishing off a heaping bowl of pasta (or risotto or soup), followed by salad, fruit, a yogurt and bread. To my mind, we were keeping malnourishment at bay. But this was clearly the wrong tactic. The teacher drew herself up and fixed me with a kindly, but infinitely superior gaze. "Signora," she declared, "the girl is as skinny as an anchovy. If I have to spoon-feed her every bite, she will learn to eat her ciccia."

Parent-teacher nights where 58 minutes are spent discussing the lunch menu, leaving the remaining two for math, science and spelling? Perhaps even Italians could stand to lighten up.

Let me share a secret from this land of olive oil, whole grains, red wine and local produce, this repository of culinary wisdom and common-sense eating: when it comes to kids and food, Italians get a little nutty.

I have no quarrel with teaching kids to eat sensibly and respectfully. On the contrary: it's a crucial life skill, one that offers more concrete rewards--and is certainly more pleasurable to master--than geometry. Would that our own noisy, smelly, industrialized, slop-it-on-the-tray school cafeterias came under such scrutiny. In my younger daughter's Venetian elementary school, children carried in a plate, bowl, cup, silverware, placemat and cloth napkin each day, set the table for lunch and spent a well-supervised hour over their three-course meal: pasta with speck and zucchini; rolled egg and veal loaf with spinach; cheese and apples. What more could you ask? But still: a flow chart for nursery-age children, detailing precisely what went in--and came out--during the course of each morning? Parent-teacher nights where 58 minutes are spent discussing the lunch menu, leaving the remaining two for math, science and spelling? Perhaps even Italians could stand to lighten up.

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Lesley Freeman Riva writes frequently on food, family, and travel. More

Lesley Freeman Riva writes frequently on food, family, and travel. Her work has appeared in local, national and international outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Cookie, Parenting, Harper's Magazine, Sherman's Travel, the Travel Channel, and Edible Rhody. She and her family live and eat in Rhode Island and Italy.

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