By Sally Sampson
Theo hates tofu.
This shouldn’t surprise me, since Theo is nine. And like a lot of kids who didn’t grow up in Asian, vegan, vegetarian or hippy households, Theo, who is an otherwise adventurous, sophisticated eater, considers tofu a foreign, even a suspicious, food.
Normally, I wouldn’t give this much thought. But that day, the “tofu problem” was a stumbling block, since I’d recruited Theo and eight other children to shoot the cooking sequences for issue two of ChopChop, a non-profit kids’ cooking magazine I’ve just launched with a few friends with the mission of encouraging nutritional literacy. The shoot was well underway: my friend Sue’s house had been taken over by ChopChop staff, racks of colorful clothing, boxes of sneakers, piles of socks, crates and crates of tableware, cookware and props and shopping bags (recycled, of course) brimming with fresh ingredients.
The kids arrive, one by one, so tentative, shy and awkward I am sure I have picked the wrong kids: each walks in with head bowed, barely glancing up to say hello. I am apprehensive but hopeful. They change into the clothing and footwear we have selected for them and are whisked off to the kitchen where their tentativeness and awkwardness lift. Actually, it’s Theo’s house too and he is the consummate host. The kids seem to forget the kitchen is filled with bright lights, cameras and chattering adults; they get immersed (and messy) with blenders, knives (yes) and all the jobs at hand.
All of them, including Theo, prep, cook, debate, mug for the camera and gleefully eat and critique the food they have cooked: smoothies, a peanut butter and banana sandwich (a la Elvis, but without the bacon), Panzanella, an assortment of burgers, fried eggs with spinach, guacamole (which they even made into a sandwich) and more.
It was all going so well. No fussing, no fighting, no turf wars, no tantrums, no sulking. Until we got to the Sesame Crusted Tofu. According to Theo, the problem with tofu is the way it looks and the way it feels. “It’s all squishy and white. No food should be like that,” Theo says.
Theo is downcast. Theo is genuinely disappointed, bummed out, in fact. Theo hates tofu.
I tell him he doesn’t have to eat the tofu, doesn’t have to like it and can make a sourpuss face for the camera, which immediately excites the ham in him. I want it to be real, I say, you don’t need to fake it. At that point, a call came in and I had to leave the kitchen. When I came back ten minutes later, something strange happened. Theo was scarfing down the tofu, and literally begging for more.
Theo wants more tofu?
We know that if a kid cooks something himself, he’s more likely to try it and appreciate it. But still, this wasn’t a tentative “I tried it” moment. His initial response had been unambiguous. This was a complete and total turnaround. It was an “I love it” moment.
So what happened to Theo? “Sesame seeds,” he says without hesitation when I ask him later. I suspect it’s a bit more than that. The smell of the roasting seeds, the pairing of the despised food with a beloved one, the joy of creating something with Grace, his brand new friend (who loves tofu), and the surprisingly delicious flavor.
ChopChop is all about this kind of change: we know both anecdotally and from research that cooking can transform a kid’s “no” into a “maybe” and a “maybe” into a “yes!” and yet, every time I see it happen, I am moved and awed by how well it actually works.
Theo loves tofu. Just go ahead and ask him.
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