Lil Foodies with Big Ideas

Staci Strauss

Staci Strauss › Staci Strauss wants you and everyone else to know about and have access to good, real ...


Do you have any budding “Lil Foodies” in your life?

I do, and believe me, the kids’ menus at most restaurants are at best, uninspired, at worst, just awful. Whenever I take my grandkids to dinner, I’m astounded at the boring litany–chicken tenders, hamburgers, or hot dogs. If you’re lucky, buttered noodles. How’s a kid supposed to develop a taste for good real food under these conditions?

It is refreshing, then, to discover the “Lil Foodies” program at elm restaurant in New Canaan, Connecticut. Have you heard about this?

“Lil Foodies” is a grassroots program that aims to provide children with hands-on education about natural, seasonal foods, so that they will be empowered to make better decisions about what they eat throughout their lives.

A quick note: The next session is Saturday, December 7th. Parents can get additional information by visiting or calling  203.920.4994.

Chef Brian Lewis and his wife Dana started “Lil Foodies” at elm restaurant in May of this year to engage with their youngest customers and get them involved and excited about trying new seasonally-focused foods.

Here’s what the chef had to say:

This small, local event quickly became a national vision for me, as I began to see how the children reacted to food education and menu development.

With each successful monthly Lil Foodies workshop, came  word-of-mouth, a waiting list, more family business during slow times and it opened Lewis’ eyes to the realities of what chefs can do at their restaurants to make a real change in eating habits for future generations.

Here are some interesting facts according to Yale University’s FACTS (Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score):

The fast food industry spent more than $4.2 billion dollars in 2009 on TV advertising and other media.

The average preschooler (2-5 years) saw 2.8 TV ads per day for fast food; children (6-11 years) saw 3.5; and teens (12-17 years) saw 4.7.

Even though major fast food chains only showed “better-for-you” foods in child-targeted marketing, their ads did not encourage consumption of these healthier choices.  Instead, child-targeted ads focused on toy giveaways and building brand loyalty.

Forty percent of parents reported that their child asks to go to McDonald’s at least once a week; 15% of preschoolers ask to go every day.

When children are marketed to at this level, they are more likely to reach for fries and chicken fingers instead of choosing foods that contain seasonal produce.

The children in Lewis’ program are more empowered and confident about the foods served on elm’s Lil Foodies menu because they have had the opportunity to learn about seasonal ingredients–how they grow, when they are harvested, what they look like, how they taste–and also have the chance to be a part of the creative menu development.

Here is a break down of how each Lil’ Foodies session works:

Hour 1: Chef Brian Lewis and children visit partnering farms/farmer’s markets for on site visits where farmer and chef, together, discuss seasonal produce that will be used for that installment’s menu–how each item grows, when it’s harvested, how to identify it and any other information. Children have an opportunity to touch, smell and view the items they will later use. (For winter sessions, Brian brings farmers into the restaurant to work with children on various initiatives tied to each month’s Lil Foodies menu, including how to put up food by jarring and canning.)

Hour 2 & 3: Chef Lewis travels back to elm restaurant with children to demonstrate cooking methods for each ingredient, providing tasting portions to showcase how it can be prepared differently, while holding a menu development workshop–chef  and children come up with five dishes for the seasonal Lil Foodies menu.

What a fabulous idea!

When everyone arrives back at the restaurant, it’s time to get down to business–with their impressions still fresh from touching, smelling, tasting and experiencing the produce at the market–the Lil’ Foodies get to put on their creative hats. It’s time to work with Chef Brian to create elm’s rotating children’s menu.

Chef Lewis believes that menu ownership among children reaps enormous benefits in terms of their long term commitment to healthy eating. Participants’ names are branded on the monthly menus they help to create.

It’s an example of how chefs across the country can become much more involved with how children view food and how children can take control over what they eat.

The program takes nutrition education that schools provide a step further to provide children with the tools to make educated choices about healthy ingredients vs. packaged/branded foods still found in many cafeterias.

So here’s what the kids came up with, guided by Chef Lewis, for last summer’s kid fare:

Lil’ Foodies August Menu

First Course
– just picked veggie fries
– white miso

Main Course
– hand made spaghetti
– fresh tomato sauce with basil and garlic bread crumbs
– fried heirloom chicken
– buttered sweet corn
– dinosaur kale

– yogurt panna cotta
– blueberries, raspberries, cherries
– hot fudge chocolate sundae
– vanilla bean ice cream, warm chocolate sauce

Lil’ Foodies July Menu

First Course
– spring vegetable tempura
– herb aoli
– crispy arrancini
– bacon, robiola cheese

Main Course
– sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli
– sweet peppers, garlic bread crumbs
– barbecued beef brisket
– sesame & garlic spinach
– mashed potatoes
– miso chicken
– torn thumb lettuces, creamy herb & parmesan dressing

– yogurt sorbet
– strawberries, berry jam
– peanut butter & chocolate sundae
– salted peanut brittle

How great is that? It all sounds so delicious! May I please be seated at the kid’s table?

Is there a “Lil Foodie” in your life? Would he or she get excited about a program like this one?

Photo credit: elm restaurant