Fewer Snack Packs, More Chana Dal: How Children’s Food Media Is Taking a Global View

Michelle Obama, Padma Lakshmi, and other food world notables are fostering new curiosity in kids and parents alike.

By Shane Mitchell

Updated on August 27, 2021

Food is more than what’s on the plate. This is Equal Portions, a series by editor-at-large Shane Mitchell, investigating bigger issues and activism in the food world, and how a few good eggs are working to make it better for everyone.

“What do spices do?” asks Waffles, during the “Herbs & Spices” episode of the Netflix children’s cooking series Waffles + Mochi. When “Mrs. O” (former First Lady Michelle Obama) hires two puppets from the Land of Frozen Food to work in her grocery store, they must jump in a magic flying shopping cart to explore the world of fresh ingredients that wind up on her shelves. 

“​​Spices are a huge world, because they’re not just cuisine,” spice merchant Gino Salazar explains during a scene shot at Antica Drogheria Mascari on Calle degli Spezieri in Venice, Italy. “They’re also geography, history, colors, and medicine as well. What’s beautiful about spices is that they’re liked by everybody, that’s perhaps the best thing because all mankind can relate to them.” It’s this kind of learning experience that’s propelling the “eat right” programming from Higher Ground, the film production company founded by the Obamas.

"The food we eat is the building block of a healthy life,” says Michelle Obama over email. “But unfortunately too many American families lack access to the kinds of foods that can help them build that foundation. That’s what the Pass the Love campaign is all about.” 

“ “Overall, research has shown that families who cook meals at home are more likely to have better diets and health,” says Mrs. Obama. “And that’s why we’re doing this work—because we believe everyone deserves to be healthy and have access to good food.””

The former First Lady is honorary chair of Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), a non-profit focused on transforming the food landscape in pursuit of health equity. In a year when food security has become even more fraught as “at home” food costs have surged, she is promoting an awareness drive (based on her Netflix show) Pass the Love w/ Waffles + Mochi. “Overall, research has shown that families who cook meals at home are more likely to have better diets and health,” says Mrs. Obama. “And that’s why we’re doing this work—because we believe everyone deserves to be healthy and have access to good food.”

With funding from PHA, Pass the Love community partners—276 school districts, food banks, and other hunger relief agencies—are delivering “nutrition-forward” meal kits sourced and assembled by Genuine Foods, a scratch-made food service contractor for schools and healthcare facilities. The program has supported food-scarce neighborhoods in four cities at present: Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Each meal kit includes ingredients to prepare three meals for a family of four, along with fresh produce and easy recipes inspired by episodes of the streaming series. (Netflix has also begun to post the original episodes of Waffles + Mochi on YouTube.)

A family in Philadelphia picks up their nutrition-forward meal kits. These Pass the Love w/ Waffles + Mochi kits are funded by Partnership for a Healthier America, in collaboration with Michelle and Barack Obama’s Higher Ground production company.

The idea is to engage children and their parents in the cooking process using local ingredients to make such dishes as potato massaman curry, tomato chickpea pilaf, and “veggiful” enchiladas. According to Genuine Foods CEO Jeff Mills, the recipes require only the most basic kitchen equipment to prepare. (A can opener was included in a list of the best food bank donations shared widely on Facebook and Twitter earlier this year.)

Children’s book messaging about adventurous eating has a long history. The first known primer, Orbis Pictus, was published in 1658. It contained rudimentary chapters on food origins and cooking techniques: “The Cook...seasoneth things that are boyled with Spices, which he poundeth with a Pestil in a Morter, or grateth with a Grater.” Granted, it’s a long stretch of time until we get to the picky-eating rhymes of Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss or the too-much-of-a-good-thing theme in Russell Hoban’s Bread and Jam for Frances. And today, a new generation of children’s authors are adding to the canon of food-based stories, with an emphasis on the cultural and familial aspects of cooking. 

Aisha Saeed’s Bilal Cooks Daal addresses lessons about sharing family traditions with kids from other cultures. Padma Lakshmi, host of Taste the Nation, just published Tomatoes for Neela, a picture book for kids aged three to seven about learning to cook treasured family recipes with elders. And recently, Derek Wallace and former Le Bernardin sommelier Sarah Thomas launched Kalamata’s Kitchen, whimsically illustrated narratives centered on a fearless young eater and her pet alligator Al Dente.

Former Le Bernardin sommelier Sarah Thomas, who recently launched Kalamata’s Kitchen, a whimsically illustrated book centered on a fearless young eater.

“It’s less about cooking and more about keeping the mind open and trying things,” says Thomas. 

Her goal is to foster empathy and curiosity about food at an early age. A “fork-ready” attitude and “tastebud pledge” are core Kalamata’s Kitchen methods for countering the lunchbox racism some children experience when bringing “stinky” home-cooked meals to school. The project also provides additional free programming and some favorite childhood recipes. “Dal is the first food. Comfort food,” says Thomas, whose family emigrated from Kerala. 

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Cooking programs emphasizing a balanced diet and global cuisines didn’t appear on American children’s television shows until the health food movement began to shift the dialogue in the late 1960s. The after-school and weekend morning lineup was heavily sponsored by toy and junk food manufacturers—audience parting gifts on Wonderama typically included a box of Hostess Twinkies, Fruit Stripe gum, RC Cola, and Good Humor ice cream. But then along came Sesame Street in 1969, and the curriculum evolved with the times: Cookie’s Monster’s healthy food rap. Elmo and Zoe playing the Healthy Food Game in Mr. Hooper’s grocery store. Sesame Workshop launched a Healthy Habits for Life initiative in 2005. 

Now, Waffles + Mochi has a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes, and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment has picked up the rights to create an animated series based on Kalamata and her plush gator toy.

Pass the love, pass the gochugaru, berbere, ras el hanout, and chaat masala. 

Please consider donating to We Need Diverse Books or The Book Fairies, which sponsors free school and community book fairs.

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