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.
The obsessiveness starts at birth. Our Bolognese pediatrician advised me to march down to the local pharmacy and rent a scale, so I could weigh my three-month-old daughter after each feeding. When it was time to introduce solid food, he handed me a detailed booklet: I was to begin with cereal, then add olive oil and parmesan; then proceed to vials of freeze-dried, powdered rabbit meat, chopped veal, and puréed pear. Any deviation was considered an invitation to digestive collapse. My undisciplined, American nursing-on-demand habits were soundly denounced: the fresh milk would meet the half-digested milk in the stomach and cause colic. Huh?
By the time my second daughter was born, I knew the score. This nation of svelte, stylish food-lovers has everything to teach us about a healthy and pleasurable approach to the table, from the sensible portions and emphasis on seasonal fruits and vegetables to the customary post-prandial walk. Basic nutritional literacy is almost universal, and while well-fed paunches are often on display, morbid obesity is a rare sighting. But kids? They fatten them up like little Christmas geese. Italy is awash in pudgy kids, locked in battle with their mammas and nonnas over every spoonful, their intake and appetites monitored with laser-like focus. Total strangers feel free to comment on your child's eating habits, and being of good appetite is the ultimate virtue: "How well she eats!," old women will crow, as your kid inhales a cookie on the street. "How skinny she is!," they cluck disapprovingly, as she leaves a few strands of spaghetti in the bowl.
The result can be a concern that crosses the line into comedy. In second grade, one daughter was required to create a lunch chart for each day of the week, with columns representing the first, second and third course, and a fourth to report on table behavior. Each day she was required to rate her intake and manners. After a while, when I'd ask the perpetual parent question--"How'd it go at school today?"--she'd just reel off: "all, all, some, correct." What else could an adult want to know?