Why Do Japanese Kids Eat Everything?

WELCOME back to the Way to Japan Autumn 2022 interview series!

I hugely enjoyed talking to my inspirational friend Anna, who is a Devon-based nutritionist and a mum in a busy Japanese British family day-to-day. I met Anna through an online course have since been relishing her Japan-inspired approach to food over on Instagram.

Anna has gained much first-hand insight into the Japanese ways of approaching food through her varied experiences of living in Japan, first teaching in rural Akita, then returning with her Japanese husband and children to live and work managing a guesthouse in rural Kyoto. 

When she returned to the UK, she used her unique perspective to set up a social enterprise, Nourishing Families, which supports parents, children and young people to build a lifelong positive relationship with food to nurture wellbeing. 

Anna is the Nutrition for Wellbeing Lead at the National Center for Integrated Medicine. She was shortlisted for a Wellbeing Award in the Complementary Therapy Awards 2022.

In this episode, we chat about:

    • Why likes and dislikes are not allowed 🙅‍♀️
    • The way school lunches are served in Japan
    • Why ‘mottainai’ can mean a wasted opportunity
    • A great excuse to buy a dinner gong
    • Why we couldn’t live without our rice cookers

Vanessa: Well, I am absolutely delighted to welcome Anna Thompson from Nourishing Families, who is a nutritionist and social entrepreneur, and the Nutrition for Wellbeing Lead at the National Center for Integrated Medicine.

Anna’s approach to eating has been inspired by her time spent in Japan, both teaching in schools – in Akita prefecture – and also, running a guest house – in rural Kyoto prefecture – with her children and husband (who’s Japanese). That sounds like such an exciting experience!

Anna is a mum of three from Devon and she runs a range of programs to bring together families and food in a relaxed, informed way, such as her Eat, Talk, Thrive Programme. And she’ll be launching some online courses in September, which she’ll tell us about.

So connection is a thread that runs through all you do. And I love what you said the other day, ‘it’s not about the food. It’s about the mood’. So welcome. And how’s your mood today?

Anna: Oh, thanks Vanessa. Yeah. Good. Thank you. The sun is shining and, yeah, all is good.

Vanessa: So I thought we’d start by talking off talking about something which really struck me when I was in Japan. I saw a sign up in a primary school and it was like a manga cartoon of two children eating school lunch. And one of them was saying to the other: ‘Suki kirai wa dame desu yo!’ and it kind of translates as: ‘likes and dislikes aren’t allowed’. So at the time I thought, WOW! It basically means: don’t be fussy. And I was just wanting to hear about what your perspective is on how that ‘unfussiness’ comes about…

Anna: Yeah, it’s incredible, isn’t it? After I worked at the guest house in Kyoto prefecture, I then, the second year, I went to work in three primary schools and in one of the schools, I sat opposite the school nurse and we used to chat quite a lot. And I’d say to her: ‘you know, some children in Britain are really fussy and I have a family member who is like that’. And she was just gobsmacked! She just had never heard of the fact that some children would only like 5 things or 10 things, or would not like lots of different things.

In Japan, my experience, I mean… this is all from personal experience… is that children tend to eat most foods. They all have the one or two things they don’t like, but they really are encouraged – just as you’ve pointed out – not to have lots and lots of dislikes.

And, um, it’s, it is just an interesting way. It’s very different to the UK. I think where we, I think, you know, on the one hand you could say, we honour children’s likes and preferences and dislikes more.

But that, to the end extreme, that means that lots, some children, and maybe I’d suggest many children, don’t like an awful lot of food…

And so in Japan, I noticed when I was working in the schools and also witnessing my own children because they were going through the Japanese school system or the kindergarten system (which is the preschool up till the age of six or seven) how food is central to the school, and how eating is also central to the school day, and how they eat together in one room. And that the children take a really active part in the serving of the food.

Anna: They have monitors who stand up at the beginning of the meal and explain exactly what’s in the meal, the nutritional content, where the ingredients come from, how the rice has come from the farmer in this village up the road. And how the, I don’t know, the other vegetables came from a different farmer. You know, all this came from a different prefecture. They’re really focused in on the food and the children seem very interested. And so, yeah, it just struck me as a very, very different way of being around food than we have here in the UK. And I wonder that’s yeah. I think that all plays into how they, yeah. Just, just relate to food very differently.

Vanessa: Yeah. They’re kind of raising generations of foodies all the time! You know, they’re constantly giving them a sense of control. And they feel like part of it, don’t they? Rather than being told, you know: you’ve got to eat this. Like I know at school, my son now he says, ‘well, I eat what I have to until they’ll let me leave and go out and play’. And they try to avoid eating school lunch at all. (laughs) which I, you know, I don’t know what to, I don’t know what to do with it really!

Anna: I mean I think what’s really hard in this country is that the culture is so different. So I think Japanese parents have it a lot easier that there’s a culture in Japan that appreciates food, and is interested and curious about lots of different kinds of food. And it helps of course that they have a really, you know, world famous well established cuisine, which is admired around the world and, you know, Britain doesn’t really have that really…

Um, and so yes, it is hard. And I think the fact that it’s peer-led and that the children will be like, oh, well, why don’t you like that? I remember my son, we went back to visit after we lived in Japan and, and I’d had lunch out and he, my son had two friends over there must have been about 10 or something. And I had, I think it was okra. And my son was like, ‘Ooh, I don’t like okra. It’s really slimy’ or something. And then they’re like, ‘oh, I really like it. Why don’t you like it?’ And they were just confused why he was complaining about it. And for them, you just, you just ate it. And it was all different textures, you know, all different foods are just much more accepted. So I think when you have that around you, you’re like, oh, okay.

Vanessa: Everyone’s doing it.

Anna: Everyone’s doing it. Whereas I think in the UK, everyone’s, you know, like your son wanting to get through it, they’re not encouraged particularly by the culture, and also the school environment. And so it just ends up a little bit of a downward spiral, which I think is a real shame.

And I kind of wish my children were brought up in Japan! Cause I know my daughter, well, all of them, but that my daughter, especially, she’d come home from kindergarten and say, ‘mummy, I like tofu now’. I’m like: ‘oh great, I didn’t have any part to play in that, it was just the school!’ whereas I think here, you really have to work hard at it as a parent. And that is just hard work!

Vanessa: You have to do it at home. Yeah.

You gave me some brilliant advice last year. So Anna and I have become friends over on Instagram, and I just mentioned on one of Anna’s posts that, um, I thought it was difficult to introduce new foods to my children because I ended up wasting things and I have this strong feeling… the Japanese word is ‘mottainai’  – so,‘waste not, want not’. And I was, you know, not wanting to throw things away and it just made me really uptight.

And Anna suggested that I should reframe that by thinking about wasting the opportunity to introduce new foods, which I thought was brilliant. And I literally think about that every day. So what, what do you think families in the UK get wrong, and what does Japan get right?

Anna: Well, I mean, again, I emphasize the fact that I don’t think it’s all down to the parents in Japan. I think they really are well supported by the school system. And just generally the culture as a whole.

I mean, in Japan, you have magazines on ramen noodles on where to find the best ramen noodles (laughs) and the whole magazine is devoted to that. And you get people like ‘otaku’ – people who are really nerdy and very, very sort of focused on one thing. And, and you get lots of food aficionados who search things out. So living in that culture, it, it’s not surprising.

So one thing that just I’ve noticed, so I run this course ‘Eat, Talk, Thrive’ which is for parents. And it’s very much trying to give them time and space to think about things. And I know when I’m discussing different foods and I’ll hear, ‘oh, my son wouldn’t eat that’.

‘I know my daughter, she doesn’t like that’. And I still have to say to them, gently, that you’ve already made up their minds for them by saying that, right? And like, like the sort of ‘mottainai’ of the opportunity. Yes, I understand that, you know, fussiness is generally very prevalent in the UK, but to think they don’t like it YET. And to keep offering them the opportunity to try things and it’s just normal and this is what it is.

And I think we have a very much a sense of almost dumbing down… like having children’s food, kiddy food, and not expecting children to like adult or mature taste, whereas sometimes they can.

And actually this is, I had this in a school where sorry, a bit of a story, but, um, I was doing food tastings trying to encourage them to try new things. And I told them to use their senses. If they didn’t wanna to try it, they didn’t wanna eat it, that’s fine, but they could touch it and feel it.

And then I brought in kimchi, which is very popular in Japan, obviously a Korean pickle. Cause I wanted to get the teachers to try something. Because I think modeling what you want is really important. And that’s also what parents need to do, or you know, should be encouraged to do is model what they want their children to do, which I think probably Japanese parents do quite well. So I got these teachers to try this kimchi at the end and then amazingly, all the children wanted to try it… Well of most them, and I thought, they’re not gonna try this it’s you know, I’m sure everyone’s familiar, very…

Vanessa: Very strong smell, isn’t it?

Anna: It’s a cabbage pickle, it’s fermented and it’s… I didn’t make it too hot, but it was a bit spicy and they all wanted to try it. And out of all the class, I think all but three ended up trying it. They didn’t all like it, but it’s that sense of ‘oh, what’s that?’ And I think that is more prevalent in Japan and having different foods and not sort of veering towards ending up just having what your children like, because it’s easy.

So the ‘mottainai’ of opportunity I think is, is really important.

Vanessa: That’s brilliant. That’s so interesting about the kimchi. So I’m going to just ask you a few random questions just beginning to wrap up our time. What’s your favourite Japanese word?

Anna: Well, I’ve got several, but I think actually ‘tekito’ is the one I’ve decided. ‘Tekito’ is like, um, oh, it’s like not doing things precisely and, and being a little bit… Um, how would you describe ‘tekito’ in English sometimes I find it hard to directly translate from…

Vanessa: Yeah, not so strict. Is it random?

Anna: Being a little bit kind of, uh, yeah. ‘Tekito’ not doing things in a real position or in really the right way. I love that. Cause that’s just me, down to a T, is just about generally doing it that way. (laughs)

Vanessa: I love that because we think that Japanese society, Japanese words are all about being, uh, specific and yeah. Um, doing things exactly. Right. Um, but there there’s the room for the kind of fuzziness and uh, yeah, I really like that word.

And what’s a Japanese thing you couldn’t do without?

Anna: Oh. I think it would have to be our rice cooker, which we got given. So it’s actually a European Japanese rice cooker. So it’s got European plug, which we’ve got little adapter, but our rice cooker, you can set it to come on when you like, we eat rice a lot and just having rice there… ‘Is there anything to eat?’ Oh, there’s probably rice in the rice cooker. It’s always there, fresh to eat. It’s just one of the best inventions!

Vanessa: I agree. We’ve got one that we were handed down when somebody went back to Japan, and they left their cooker and their massive adapter, which weighs more than anything else in the world!

And I think that something I love about that is setting the timer for, for breakfast as well in the winter. So there’s something hot and just ready to go. Um, the kids absolutely love furikake yeah. I dunno how healthy that is. (laughs) but at least it’s got some nori in…

Anna: Yeah, my kids do too. And you know, you can always make a meal quickly can’t you, ochazuke sometimes with a bit of, when there’s hot rice ready.

Vanessa: Absolutely. Yes. So handy. Um, and then, oh, I wanted to ask you about what we could do right now, what listeners could do to apply a little bit of the Japanese way of thinking about eating to their life straight away.

Anna: Yeah. That’s a really interesting question. I think, I mean, Japan is very much a country of form and ritual, and beginnings and endings are really important in Japan.

So like whether it’s starting a class or a meeting or, you know, obviously finishing high school, junior high school, whatever, they all have like ceremonies and, you know, ways of formally marking that. And that extends to the home as well.

And so a mealtime generally starts with itadakimasu and then ends with gochisosamadeshita. And so itadakimasuis obviously another, sorry is one of my favorite words as well. And I think it has Buddhist origins, but it means ‘I will receive’, in a sort of a humble way, but it’s also recognizing all the effort and the people and the animals and how everything that’s been involved in producing that food or bringing that food to you. And just really recognising that… sort of real acknowledgement of the food web.

Vanessa: I love that…

Anna: I love that word. And so when I’m talking to parents, actually, I often say, you know, our meal times can be a bit kind of scattered or not quite, you know, clearly defined. And I think holding a space for a mealtime and really thinking about it is a time to share, um, with your family to talk, to converse, and you happen to eating a nice meal, hopefully, or maybe not a nice meal, but just to enjoy that time together.

And so taking the concept of it, itadakimasu. Now, obviously if you’re not a Japanese speaker, you’re not gonna start saying that. I mean, obviously other cultures have words like ‘bon appetit’, but I encourage them to think of a way of starting and possibly ending a meal and some go for lighting a candle, that can really lovely in winter. Someone did say their child, they gave it to the child (again, it’s giving the children a bit of responsibility they can control).

So they asked the child and they said: ‘ready, steady, eat!’ So then the child starts a meal with ‘ready, steady, eat’. And then I dunno, I think they said, ‘thank you’ at the end of the meal.

And actually, I remember one mum… She was so really taken with this idea, and she liked the idea of a gong as noise. And so she sat there in the session, on Amazon, and ordered herself a gong. And she said that was the best bit. Because she was alone a lot, her husband or partner was, um, in the forces, so away a lot. So she just loved the fact that it brought this sense of sort of ritual or ceremony to their meal.

Vanessa: I love that, oh, I want a gong! Any excuse to get a gong, right? (laughs)

Anna: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So I think this sort of beginning and ending and marking it and, and making it important, I think in Britain, it not for everyone, of course, but for some people, you know, food, food is a bit of fuel. Yes. Like, you know, and it’s just get the job done, but it’s like, let’s make it an important part of our day together.

Vanessa: Oh, I absolutely love that. I think it’s really important. I remember children asking me in schools, what do you say before you start eating in England? And I said, oh… nothing. And then they all kind of looked at me like: what? And so I said, oh, we might say: let’s eat. You know? And I mean, obviously it’s got no, no sense of, um, of the kind of gratitude or, or anything. Yeah.

Anna: So I think it’s a problem again with the culture, isn’t it. We don’t have that formal holding, so we kind of have to invent it ourselves. And so it takes a bit more effort, whereas Japanese people have got it all set up.

Vanessa: Just built in. Absolutely. Yeah. Oh, that’s been so interesting. I could talk to you all day about this, no doubt, but I’ll let you, get on with your day. But before we go, please, could you tell us where we could find you to find out more about your kind of connection and Japan inspired approach to mindful eating?

Anna: Yeah, of course. So I run a social enterprise, Nourishing Family CIC, and the handle for that on both Facebook and Instagram is @NourishingFamiliesCIC, but also on Instagram, on @kandojournalandkitchen and that’s more Japan related and family food and that kind of thing.

And obviously I have a website as well for my organization, which is www.nourishingfamilies.co.uk. And I will be starting some new courses, this autumn and the first one starts on the 21st September now ‘Eat, Talk, Thrive’ course – it’ll be online. So open to anyone.

Vanessa: Oh wow. You’re going to have an ‘Eat, Talk, Thrive’ online. Yeah. Okay. Oh, I’m really looking forward to that. I hope we can join you. Um, oh, and just, I love your Instagram. So it’s ‘kando’ with a K.

Anna: Yeah, ‘kando’ as in, in Japanese, I think it’s to feel moved or excited. And so I, yeah, I chose that because that’s what I feel about food. I think it’s a wonderful part of our life. And so it’s just trying to bring that into our every day. Yes, ‘Kando Journal and Kitchen’.

Vanessa: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Anna It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you.

Anna: Oh thank you Vanessa. It’s been great!

Get to know Anna’s work better:

Thank you so much for listening!

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