Feeding children in Italy

I read a lot of food blogs, both the recipe ones that inspire me to try something new, or simply trigger my drool reflex, and the real food / traditional food ones that inspire me to eat better, treat my body better, and make better, simpler choices for my family. And I’ve noticed a giant chasm between how kids are fed in the US compared to Italy. I had never really thought about it, but now, what with the internet broadcasting everyone’s opinions and choices (and judgments) all over the place, one tends to notice things more.

For example, American kids seem to snack all the time. When they were toddlers I wouldn’t leave the house without a snack, whatever time of day it was, and sure this did save me occasionally, when I was running late, to avert hunger related meltdowns, it isn’t really necessary beyond the initial toddler phase when they haven’t yet completely regulated their meal times. And yet, if I’m going to go somewhere for any extended amount of time I feel the need to bring a snack. Italian kids don’t snack. They have three main meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner and a snack around four o’clock. All kids eat like this. They don’t munch on crackers at the super market. Mothers don’t cut up carrots to take with them every time they leave the house. And the kids somehow survive. That was the first difference I noticed.

The second difference I noticed was when they started preschool. My kids go to a small (tiny) neighborhood preschool, there are only about thirty-five kids aged 3 to 6. They have three teachers, the janitor, and a cook. The cook is beloved by all. Every morning she goes around to our little village shops (which are nothing more than a butcher, a mini market, and a bakery) and she buys whatever vegetables are freshest, whatever meat looks good, and the freshly baked bread for the kids’ lunch. Sure, she has to follow the dietary guidelines of the Italian health ministry, but basically she’s like a mom cooking for her kids.

In typical Italian tradition, the children get a primo (first course – which is generally soup, or pasta, or risotto) and then a secondo with vegetables (main course – generally protein, meat, fish, an omelets etc.), occasionally they get a one-course meal, like pizza or polenta with meat sauce, but that’s a special occasion and usually includes a salad. Dessert is always fruit, or fruit salad, once a week it’s either pudding or yoghurt. They eat really well. They only drink water. They take turns, setting the tables and passing around the breadbasket and then clearing the tables, wiping them down and putting the chairs up for the floors to be cleaned. They love being in charge of something. There are even days, when the cook makes fresh pasta that the kids go up and help her, once a year they make pizza as an activity and then eat it. I have a lot to complain about in Italy, and I certainly have my share of frustration at three-year olds being served coke at birthday parties (because three-year olds really need the caffeine rush), but the school system really has its stuff together, at least food-wise. Children don’t pack their lunches here, it’s all provided by the state. Of course, not all school get the quality that we do because some schools don’t have a cook on staff but outsource to a caterer so the food is reheated and sometimes over cooked, but still the meals are well-balanced and nutritious.

So for once, a post wherein I don’t complain about Italy, where kids eat really well even at school, which should surprise absolutely no one considering how obsessed Italians are with their food!

Song of Summer

It’s August, it’s the middle of summer here. Things are winding down in the US, schools are starting up, life is going back to normal, yet here we’re still in the thick of things. In fact, the Husband hasn’t even had his vacation yet. Summer is a strange time, I find, and this summer has been stranger than most.

I take off for the beach with the kids by mid June and I’m there, suspended in a sort of limbo, until the end of July. The days run into each other, people come down for a few days, this year I’ve had to come home every so often for the never-ending story that is the money pit, we get up, we go to the beach, we come home, we do chores, we watch more tv than we should, we play silly games, we argue and yell more than we do at home. It’s a strange dynamic that comes with summer, we become a one-parent family for most of the week, with nothing to do and no seeming structure but the structure imposed on us by our human needs and cravings and by the rhythm of the sun’s rising and setting.

I’ve never really wanted a house at the beach before getting this one. I hated the idea of always going to the same place, of feeling constrained and obliged to go there because it was just sitting there waiting for us. But now I appreciate the familiarity of going to the same place every year, the shopkeepers’ greetings, the special attention, the small discounts reserved for “friends” that we get at all the little shops. The Children enjoy meeting their friends at the beach every year, a year older, wiser, all from different cities, but with the same desire to leave their hometowns, their schools, their city friends behind and just dig holes together in the sand. What is it about digging holes in the sand? What’s the appeal? And yet it’s not just the children who do it, I find myself digging holes for no reason, at first with my foot, and absent-minded movement, but soon I’m getting in there with my hands with gusto, up to my elbows just digging away with the intensity of one looking for some long-lost treasure.

Our beach place makes me happy. I’m not sure what it is. I like that it’s small but large enough to have friends stay, I like that the kitchen/living room is just one large (ish) area so that the children are always under foot, I like that it’s easy to clean and take care of, it reminds me of living in Milan going to school, a simple life made of basic needs and pleasures.

We’re home now, the seaside magic always ends with the coming of August and the crowds that descend during the official Italian vacation month. Our wandering days aren’t over, of course, we’re of to the french Riviera for a few days to visit the Nonni and then to the mountains of Trentino for the Husbands official holiday. When we get home, we’ll have to gear up for the Boy’s first grade debut, which is making me especially maudlin this summer. How does time go by so quickly, how is he starting first grade already? How are we still here in this two-horse podunk town? I went on the International School of Turin’s website the other day and got all in a lather that I can’t send the Boy to school there (too far). This isn’t where I thought we’d be at this point. It’s so strange (and somewhat disheartening) how our lives tend to go down unexpected paths despite years of methodical and meticulous planning. I’m trying to hang on to summer’s insouciance but I already feel the tendrils of my temporarily abated control-freakishness creeping in and getting a hold on me. But I’m still holding on to the summer song with a strong grip as the raindrops start falling like every afternoon, and hopefully this small hint of anxiety that’s starting up will be washed away with the summer storm.