Tuesday, February 16, 2010

More On Nutrition And Preschoolers

In the comments to yesterday's post about the call for educators and parents to take a leading role in teaching children about nutrition and exercise, my friend and Woodland Park veteran Heather shared a valuable resource:
For all of you who are like me and get all charged up about this idea and are shouting, "Yeah!" but are facing the reality of what-to-cook-for-dinner-itis, check this out: Cooking Interruptus. Cynthia Lair is a Bastyr University nutrition professor and an improv actress. She combines her talents to teach you a new recipe and make you laugh.
I spent the morning cruising the recipes and videos over there and can honestly say you won't be disappointed on either the food or comedy fronts.

For those of you not from around here, Bastyr University is one of the world's leading academic centers for education, research, and clinical service in the natural health arts and sciences. Operating right here in Seattle's backyard, the area is lousy with Bastyr graduates including naturopathic physicians, acupucturists, oriental medicine practitioners, health psychologists, herbalists, exercise scientists, and of course, nutritionists. There is no doubt in my mind that more fully integrating natural medicine into our health care system, with its emphasis on preventing illness in the first place, is one of the keys to creating healthier Americans while holding down the out-of-control costs associated with the entrenched allopathic approach to health care. (If you're interested in more ranting from my healthcare soap box, you can read here and here.)

And ultimately, that's what sound nutrition is: preventative health care. I'm not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I've found that the simple act of increasing my intake of fresh produce has greatly improved my overall sense of good health. That said, everybody and their hair stylist is promoting his own diet program these days, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to share the patented . . .

Teacher Tom Diet
My underlying theory is that it's very hard to eat too much fresh produce so I have no qualms about stuffing myself with it during the day. I'm lucky that my neighborhood grocery specializes in natural and local, but I believe that more and more traditional supermarkets around the country are striving to meet this growing demand as well.

Breakfast is comprised of a big pile of chopped, fresh fruit (5-6 cups). I like getting a hit of protein in the morning as well and can't stand the watery stuff that passes for non- or low-fat yoghurt. Hence, I add a healthy dollop of the deliciousness of real, creamy, full-fat yoghurt. This takes me about 5 minutes to prepare each morning. My favorite combination is two bananas, a whole mango, and a couple fists full of blueberries, but I mix it up to make sure I'm getting a variety of nutrients as well as to entertain my taste buds. (Lest you be concerned about my carbohydrate intake, I assure you this much fruit gives a body quite a bit of fuel to work on.)

Lunch is a big pile of mixed greens (5-6 cups), at least one other veggie, and a topping of cheese, meat and/or nuts/seeds. My relationship with greens was given a huge boost by the advent of pre-washed mixtures in bags. When I cook dinner for the family, I like to plan ahead by making a little extra broccoli, green beans, bell peppers, or whatever else we're having, so that I can add it to my salad the next day. I do the same thing if we're having any kind of meat for dinner. I really like blue cheese crumbled on top. I sometimes use dressing, but after eating this way for such a long time, I often skip it because I've really learned to love the taste of vegetables -- seriously! This takes me another 5 minutes to prepare and I make it each morning to take with me.

Dinner is whatever I want, including dessert, as long as I don't stuff myself until it hurts.

The results are purely anecdotal and personal, but as a nearly 48-year-old male, my doctor has been pleased with my last half dozen physicals. I rarely get sick even though I work in a natural germ pit, and when I do I recover quickly. I credit it all to my massive consumption of fresh produce. Individual results may vary.

As Jamie Oliver suggests in the video I shared yesterday, one of the keys to teaching our children about food and nutrition is good role modeling.

As a half day preschool, I only get to eat lunch with my students once a week. The Pre-K kids bring their own lunches and we all sit together at one long table. Part of our table conversation always revolves around what everyone brought to eat. I usually guide the conversation by asking about food groups (e.g., "Who brought a kind of fruit?" "Does anyone have any grains?"). By this time of the year, the kids are really noticing when they are lacking one of the food groups. Parents tell me that their kids often want to check their lunch boxes before coming to school to make sure they have at least one of everything to show off during this impromptu show-and-tell session. 

One of my proudest moments as a teacher was a few years ago when a group of the girls started insisting on imitating me by bringing their own salads. Their parents were naturally thrilled. Some of them discovered that a little fruit juice made an acceptable dressing and they would very carefully use the straws from their juice boxes to drizzle a little on their greens.

Another way to share good nutrition with children is to cook with them. We don't have the facilities for this at Woodland Park, but we all have them at home. I think it was the Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling who said that every great chemist got his start by helping his mother cook. I would hazard a guess that this is true for chefs and most healthy eaters as well. 

One of my fondest memories of cooking with my own preschool-aged daughter was teaching her how to steam clams. We started with a little garlic and oil (I like to use a large wok), reduce some white wine, then add some chopped tomatoes and clam juice (or some other kind of broth). The entire time, Josephine would be standing on a stool at the stove between my arms in her apron. When you add the clams, they begin to open within minutes with the same kind of cooking drama that comes from watching the popcorn pop. For years thereafter, my preschooler would order steamed clams in restaurants. Pretty cool. 

Like Oliver says, "If they don't know what it is, they won't eat it." To that I would add: if they know how to cook it, they'll choose it.

I know that many parents struggle with picky eaters so this entire conversation might seem moot. But remember, your job isn't to make them eat anything -- "force feeding" is the surest path to an eating disorder. As my mom said, "You can't make them eat, but you can put healthy food in front of them." That's really the entirety of the parent's job when it comes to nutrition. Home is not a restaurant. If they don't eat it, there shouldn't be an "alternative meal" waiting in the wings, nor some bag of snack food they can dig into to fill themselves up. If they know that is an option, they'll always wait you out.

Children will not starve themselves, I promise. If you're worried about vitamins, give them a supplement. Avoid the fights and expressions of disappointment. If their only options are healthy ones, if you are role-modeling good nutrition, if you involve them in cooking, if you have patience and fight the urge to given in to their whims, they will eventually become healthy eaters. 

When my preschooler would leave her vegetable untouched, I tried to take my mother's wisdom to heart, remain calm, and just add it to my salad the following day. At least it didn't go to waste.

Bookmark and Share


Floor Pie said...

Let me just add for Tom's Seattle readers that Cynthia Lair is giving a FREE lecture, open to the public, sponsored by our preschool's Parent Advisory Council. Mark your calendars: Monday, April 12 at 7pm, at Faith Lutheran Church (8208 18th Ave. NE).

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post!

My girls (preschool age) eat much better when they get to prepare things. It doesn't have to be the entire meal, but for example if we are eating grilled chicken salad. I will put the lettuce in a bowl, broccoli in a bowl, carrots in a bowel, cucumber in a bowl, etc etc etc, and put it all on the center of the table. They then just put their salad together and eat like it's no big deal. If I had put it in a bowl and put it in front of them...no way.

Thanks again for the post!

- Jon
- http://redmosqui.blogspot.com/

Elizabeth said...

Charlie: What are you doing Mama?
Me: Teacher Tom writes and I like to read what he writes.
Charlie: what is he writing about?
Me: He wrote that he loves to eat salad.
Charlie: (very excited) And I like to eat CORNDOGS!

Exactly. Some changes are a-comin' in the Morgan house.

Launa Hall said...

Love this post. Thank you for the tips on preparing super-quick but super-healthy meals. You know, even if we know about healthful eating, I think we need to hear the message again and again, because we're constantly getting the opposite message from the packaged food industry. We have to keep this information circulating in the public discourse. You are part of the solution, Teacher Tom!

Deborah Stewart said...

I really need to go back and read this through again - I have terrible eating habits and am afraid I didn't do such a good job raising my daughter with good eating habits either. We are extremely picky and rarely ever touch a veggie:)

Teacher Tom said...

@Elizabeth . . . I was sitting in traffic, waiting for a long train to finish crossing the road, so I checked my email on my phone. Your conversation with Charlie made me laugh so hard I didn't notice that the crossing barriers had risen again and the other drivers had to honk at me to get me going again!

dv.x.3 said...

Love these posts. They've brought up about a million thoughts for me, but I'll try to stick to just a few here:

Yes, we should all be modeling the kind of eating we want our kids to be doing, if only because it'll
keep US around longer, too. Your 'diet' is what I strive for, too, and do a pretty good job of most
days (though maybe not the FIVE CUPS of fruit and/or veggies at each meal--my husband read that and his comment was, "man, that guy can EAT!"). It's a lot along the lines of Michael Pollan's "eat [real, not processed] food. not much. mostly plants" idea. And the 'anything goes' for dinner is what Mark Bittman, the NY Times food writer and cookbook author who had some serious lifestyle-induced health problems has done to turn his health around. He calls it 'vegan until six' because he strives to cut his consumption of animal products, both for his own health and the health of the planet. He also argues, being a cook, that making 'good' food at home is just as fast and cheap as 'fast food.' Class issues aside, I get his point and think it's a good one.

And as far as what we OFFER our kids, as the mother of one very 'sensitive' eater (it's a texture, temperament and age thing) and one kid who will eat most anything most days (of course he's only one so there's still time for his tastes to change), the point's not moot, but the pill's hard to swallow. My 4 year old likes only carrots, corn and peas (and an occasional nibble of lettuce) in the vegetable group, but I try my best to get other veggies on his plate and our rule is that he has to try a bite of everything, but can stop eating when he's full. If he tells us he's hungry before bed, we remind him that he had his chance at dinner. Tomorrow's another day. We do sometimes have 'back up' meals of yoghurt, undressed pasta, and emergency PBJs when it's really unpalatable, but that happens less and less as he becomes more adventurous.

Last, for those parents who struggle with the food thing, need some new ideas, a place to commiserate and a bit of comic relief, I STRONGLY suggest you pick up the book: "Hungry Monkey: a food loving father's quest to raise an adventurous eater" by local food writer Matthew Amster Burton. It's a fun read, and he has some great recipes that are 'kid-friendly' and ideas on how to involve kids in cooking in a very hip sort of way.

Enough said (for now at least!). :)

Michelle said...

I was able to finally check my favorite blogs this morning and I found your post. I was glued to the screen. My sister is here visiting and introduced me to "Green Smooties." I have 4 great kids and we eat a pretty high processed diet, but 3 of my 4 children will eat a lot of salads and fruit... but 1, No Way!! Enter the smoothie, she taught me how to make a smoothie that has 2.5 servings of fruit and veggies in each cup :) He actually loves the taste (not the color) and drinks 2 a day for the last 4 days :) I am a proud Mama!! It is a life style change that we are willing to make and are excited to have all that extra energy!!! Thanks for the post, it just helps me know I am making the right changes for our family!! Can you imagine how isolated we were without the internet :)

Anonymous said...

I do a lot of cooking at home and have in recent years with the advent of my diabetes been better at making healthier choices. What you wrote about being role models hit home to me. I've always struggled with my weight and I'm doing everything I can to clean up my act so that my son learns to eat right.

The biggest problem I've had has been I'll get on a health kick, drop a ton a weight and then I'll revert to my old ways and gain some (but not all) of it back.

Now that my son is eating big people food I make both of us breakfast, which now consists of a smoothie with lots of fruits and almonds and an 'omelette' of egg whites. I still have a long way to go, but I'm 70#'s off the heaviest I was just a few short years ago.

I think it's funny that I care more about what I'm eating not necessarily for me, but for him.

Unknown said...

I have struggled with food for as long as I can remember. I am glad you have this eating system in place. I am going to try to implement it tomorrow.

We had spaghetti with whole grain noodles tonight for supper. That went over well : ) I am trying to do something every day to help us be healthier.

I feel like such a failure though. A big fat failure.