Eating your way around the world can be a very satisfying adventure

TAKING THE KIDS

May 08, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Forget peanut butter. There wasn't 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," reports 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," says his mother, Carole, adding that she was astonished watching Michael eat his way through Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and other points.

"I was pretty amazed myself," says Michael, who accompanied his father, Jack, the chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, on a business trip to the Far East 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 a lot more than many dusty historical sites. So instead of always sticking to the familiar fare, head for a barbecue pit in Texas, a lobster shack in Maine, a Mexican cantina in Albuquerque or a tea house serving the traditional Chinese dim sum dumplings in San Francisco's Chinatown. Frequently, they're cheaper than fast food. And they're a lot more fun -- especially for parents.

"Food is really symbolic of how you encourage kids to take life in and open yourself to new experiences," says 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."

That's not to say you can force kids to eat a particular dish -- or should. "Just ask them to try it," suggests Ms. Katz.

Laura Sutherland, co-author of "Innocents Abroad: Traveling With Kids in Europe" (Penguin $15.95) suggests ordering the unusual dishes for everyone to try along with more familiar fare that the kids are certain to eat: French fries or an omelet in France, pasta in Italy, plain tortillas with cheese in a Mexican restaurant or fried rice in a Chinese spot.

Most important, never turn food into a battleground. "Remember that kids don't think of food the same way adults do," explains Chicago child psychologist Sharon Berry. "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," agrees Sally Geisse, who travels to Barcelona every year with her children to visit her husband's family. Her tip: Look for foods that are similar to at-home favorites.

Especially if a preschooler or picky eater is along, Ms. 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," says Ms. 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 says she knows families that stage theme dinners at home as a way of introducing the kids to a new place.

A little preparation clearly pays off. San Francisco Chinatown authority Shirley Fong-Torres has shepherded many school groups and visiting families on her popular Wok Wiz tours that 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," Ms. Fong-Torres advises. "And make it exciting."

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