Kids' Nutrition and the Trickle-Up Effect

Who knew that couscous had such power? Just listen to what happened in Trumansburg, N.Y.

In 1993, a Cornell graduate student in nutrition introduced couscous to students at a small, rural elementary school near Ithaca. Antonia Demas let the kids run their fingers through this uncooked, pearly white pasta while she taught them about its North African history. The children then helped prepare a tempting platter of couscous and lined up to taste their efforts.

Sampling food in the classroom is one thing. Eating it for lunch is another. So the next week, the school cafeteria served couscous to the entire student body. The results? Students who learned about couscous in the classroom ate significantly more than those who had never seen this strange, new food before.

The same thing happened with Spanish rice and beans, collard greens and other foods foreign to this mostly white, rural area of farms.

But the real surprise came later. According to Demas, children liked the foods so much that they asked for them at home. To keep up with demand, the local market began stocking couscous and the other foods introduced in the classroom. This is just one example of a "trickle-up" effect that has since been repeated in inner-city Miami, South Bend, Ind., and Vermont.

It isn't just the food that matters. The simple act of sharing a family meal is proving to be an important shield against poor nutrition, eating disorders and perhaps, even obesity. And, researchers find that kids who eat three to five times weekly with their families do better in school. They are less apt to smoke cigarettes, have sex or use drugs and alcohol.

Perhaps most surprising of all, even teens admit privately to researchers that they enjoy dining with their families regularly. And in this era of over-scheduled families it isn't just dinner that counts: Sharing breakfast or lunch seems just as beneficial. Who knew?

So as you prepare to enjoy today's Thanksgiving feast, consider that it could be just a first step in reviving an endangered species: the family meal. Our forefathers and mothers are likely smiling at our rediscovery of what they knew so well: the importance of savoring food with family. So pass the turkey — and the couscous — please.

Sally Squires writes the nationally syndicated 'Lean Plate Club' column for the Washington Post Writers' Group.

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