What happens when you combine a love of poetry, kids and good food? Judith Natelli McLaughlin’s book, Poems on Fruits and Odes to Veggies, brings together all three in a delightfully fun and colorful approach that’s perfect for kids of all ages. Ms. McLaughlin tells us about the inspiration for the poems in her book, explains how parents and teachers can use it to educate kids about healthy eating, and shares some produce-packed stories from her own family.
What inspired you to write this book?
This book started with one phone call. Knowing that I am a poet, a friend of mine asked me to write a poem about a fruit or vegetable for a website she was editing. And so, the poem Zucchini was born. And then I wrote the poem, Banana.
I had so much fun writing about fruits and vegetables that I continued. First I wrote about fruits and vegetables that most children and their families know about, like apples and oranges, and then some that they don’t, like parsnips and papayas. I went on some poetry test tours at schools and libraries, and discovered that practically no one knew what a parsnip or acorn squash was. It occurred to me: how can we expect children to make healthy food choices when they don’t even know what those healthy foods are? So I continued on my journey, writing poetry about fruits and vegetables. When I had amassed a books worth of poetry, it was time to start the illustrations.
I had a vision: I didn’t want the illustrations to be talking carrots or apples with arms and legs. I wanted them to be real and vibrant and pop off the page, just begging kids and their families to try them. So, I took a watercolor class. I spent the next year and a half painting my way through the poems. When I was done, I had a collection for a book – and so Poems on Fruits & Odes to Veggies, Where Healthy Eating Starts With a Poem was born.
How can parents and teachers use your book to encourage kids to try new foods?
Knowledge is power, right? So just by knowing about new foods kids will be more apt to try them. I see families taking the book to farmers markets or the grocery stores and letting the kids find the foods that are in the book. Kids love exploring and finding, so it can become almost like a scavenger hunt. And the prize? You get to taste the food!
Another idea is to pick out a fruit or veggie in the book and agree to try it as a family. Once you have it prepared, recite the poem and eat the food! What a great way to reach all your five senses. You hear a poem about the food. You see the food prepared. You touch the food as you prepare it. You smell the food as it cooks. And finally you taste it!
As for teachers, not only will my book help you educate students about healthy food choices, but there are plenty of opportunities to educate them about literary devices like alliteration, all the while enjoying the silliness and rhyming schemes of the poetry. A creative teacher who reviewed my book said:
“…For our recent unit on the letter “C” McLaughlin’s Carrot, Corn and Cantaloupe poems provided clever rhyme, whimsy and humor that have them seeking the book during their independent book time. I look forward to using it for future units in science, health, literature and FUN!”
In your experience, what are some benefits of introducing children to fruits and vegetables, rather than simply serving them?
In my experience kids are more enthusiastic about things they are a part of. So, if they help make their dinner – for little kids that can be as simple as stirring the soup or putting the butter into the cavity of the acorn squash — they feel more connected to the whole process, and are more apt to try the “fruits of their labor.” And like I said, what better way to really engage a child in healthy eating than to appeal to all their senses!
What was your favorite fruit or vegetable as a child? Why?
Oh man, I was a fruit fanatic! Grapes. Plums. Apples. And I always loved bananas. Still do. They are one of the greatest portable snacks, as they come in their own container.
But here is a funny young memory… I only liked the broccoli flowers and my brother only liked the stems. So we were a perfect pair. I also didn’t like eggplant as a child; I found it bitter. But now it is among my favorite foods! So, there is another lesson: Just because you don’t like something the first time you try it, doesn’t mean you won’t like it later. My mom was big on “just trying.” You don’t have to eat the whole thing, just try it. I think her philosophy is a good one.
You have three kids of your own. How do you help them maintain a healthy diet?
I am a firm believer in the family dinner. From the time my kids were sitting in a high chair we ate together as a family. I worked outside the home for the first 13 years of my oldest daughter’s life. So believe me, I know how tricky it is! But since it was so important to me, I made it work.
I think the routine of dinner at the same time every night helps us all maintain a healthy diet. My kids have always had an interest in cooking too. Allowing them to be hands on the meal prep has helped a lot.
I also never cooked two meals. I made one dinner. If the children weren’t a fan of the meal, they had to taste it, but could opt out for yogurt, fruits and carrots. I can be an adventurous chef sometimes, and there are some meals they won’t ever let me live down! One is this peanut butter dish: I honestly don’t know what the real name was, or what I was trying to make (it was years ago), but it turned out gross! We all opted out for yogurt, fruits and carrots that night- and we still laugh about it!
The squirrel’s a brave and brazen sort
Who flies from tree to tree for sport
He hunts for acorns high and low
And saves them up for winter’s snow
When trees are bare, acorns no more
The squirrel comes up to my front door
As if to ask for food from me
“I took no acorns from your tree!”
For acorn’s not my favorite knosh
Unless it’s buttered acorn squash