September 8, 2010

Family Food Fun

The most lasting habits are those learned young, something BFC Nutrition Consultant (and mother of two) Sharon Gruber knows well.

Sharon, who conducts nutrition classes and cooking workshops with Bread for the City's adults clients, featured a Family Fun Party at each of our centers (Northwest in Shaw and Southeast in Anacostia). "I thought it would be great to provide a fun, health-focused outing for families the week before DC public schools start for the year," said Sharon.

About 25 mothers, grandmothers and children of all ages were in attendance. Children and caregivers alike enjoyed bananas rolled in sunflower seeds and whole-grain cereal, "sandwich on a stick" and "stuff your own tacos", just to name a few. By Sharon's count, one of the crowd favorites was "plain, low-fat yogurt that the kids sprinkled with cinnamon themselves. The then dipped apples into it, and for extra fiber and nutrients, the apples still had the skin on. No need for the sweetened stuff!"

For many of Sharon's clients and their families, meat is the central element of each meal-- and sometimes diets can lack the proper balance of vegetables and fruits. These classes were designed to explore the possibilities of fruits and vegetables and they were a hit with both children and parents. One mother remarked, "I'm filled up....Who knew it was possible? You really don't need meat."

Recent research suggests that activities like these may be an effective tool to change childhood eating habits permanently. "Previous research has shown that food habits and eating patterns learned in early childhood continue into later childhood and adulthood," according to a study published in the current issue of Nutrition and Dietetics. "This means that emphasizing healthy food choices at an early age can have a major impact on a person's future health...Kindergarteners may be more likely to eat vegetables if they're enticed with things such as tasting parties, cooking classes, gardening and even Popeye cartoons." After a six-week nutrition education program geared towards children, the study found that "vegetable intake doubled and the types of vegetables they ate increased from two to four. In addition, parents said their children talked about vegetables more often and were proud they had eaten them in their school lunch."

"Being a mom has helped me to empathize with parents of those so-called picky kids," explains Sharon. "But it's also taught me that it's important to keep at it until you find something that works. Somewhere, that winning formula exists."

One of our pickiest party-goers, the reluctant brother of two vegetable loving sisters, bravely tried every dish at the event, much to the surprise of his shocked siblings. "He normally only eats French Fries," his younger sister declared. Still, nothing was to his liking until the 11-year-old found carrots and hummus. "This is great!" he said, eyes wide.

Although hummus is common in upscale grocery stores, it is out of reach for many budget conscious shoppers; Sharon encourage participants to try the dishes at home by providing alternative recipes that taste just as good but cost far less.

One of our youngest participants munch happily on each and every vegetable around but declared yogurt to be her favorite fruit. Perhaps not quite the answer we were looking for, but for Sharon this is nonetheless a sign of progress.

"The point of this is to get kids touching food, making food, interacting with food. My hope was that children (and possibly their parents and guardians) would try something new and healthful and enjoy themselves in the process-- to take the pressure out of eating a healthful diet, and to add some laughter and adventure instead."

And that might be the most important lesson learned here: food can be fun!

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