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Linda Novick O'Keefe Headshot

Four Tips for Spring Cleaning Your Cuisine

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As temperatures start to rise and skies start to clear, it's time for spring cleaning: open the windows, beat the rugs and clear out a winter's worth of dust. Maybe this year, while we clean our homes, we should focus on the kitchen. Spring is a time of renewal, of first plantings and pea shoots. What better time to clean up your family's food habits? Here are four simple changes that I'm trying to bring into my own home this spring:

Tip #1: Introduce an unfamiliar whole food into family meals each month.
Sounds pretty easy, right? At first I was going to write down "every week," but this working mom will be a little more realistic. If I count restaurant visits, I am in decent shape.

I've adopted this idea from my neighbor Ruby, who has been building new foods into meals for several years. Her kids, now 7 and 9, have even evolved a related game. When she introduces an ingredient, she sends the kids online to research a few key facts about its geographical origins. They have a world map on the kitchen wall and the kids apply stickers tracking where the new foods they eat first came from.

Ruby says she's constantly amazed by the factoids the kids unearth about familiar ingredients as well. She didn't know that melons and cucumbers were from the same family, or that the eggplant is related to the deadly purple nightshade whose flowers are a similar deep color. I love how creatively she has aimed her kids' natural explorer instinct toward food. For them, a strange grain or bean is a prompt to learn more. If, as I always say, changing our nation's eating habits involves knowledge and confidence in preparing healthy meals, then we could all take a page out of Ruby's book.

So, before we actually eat quinoa next week, I'm going to ask my brood to do a bit of fun research. At this point, all I know myself is that this tasty South American grain has become much more accessible and affordable in the past few years, and that it's a complete protein that cooks faster than rice. I'll leave it to my food geographers to fill in the gaps.

Tip #2: Get the family gardening.
If it works for the White House, it can work for the O'Keefe house! I've gotten my kids curious by ordering a lot of free seed company catalogues that are released this time of year. Honestly, right now they may be interested mainly because of the vegetables' names: Kentucky Wonder Beans! Black Crim Tomatoes! Who wouldn't want to grow something with a name like that?

A great way to get your child comfortable with food is by helping him or her grow a favorite vegetable. It's amazing what you can do with even tiny spaces or containers. Carrots are sweet, require little room, and can be planted as a border around other vegetables or flowers. Tomatoes, though they do require a bigger pot, are easy to tend and are a perennial favorite among the younger set.

Being realistic about this resolution, I have given myself some time. I'm starting small. The kids and I are planning to buy containers -- two apiece -- where we're going to plant some herbs and tomatoes to encourage some hands-in-the-dirt time come summer.

The gardening will, I hope, tie into my third idea.

Tip #3: Emphasize that food is a gift.
I mean this literally: bread or a jar of preserves or some good coffee beans are hard to beat as house gifts for friends. Making time in a busy schedule to cook for others can be lovingly meditative. It's a chance to focus for an hour on why we care about the recipient. I am feeling pretty good about this idea, lately. We have done a lot of family cooking and baking, and my waist-line is feeling the latter. My four year old is becoming a sugar savant!

At the same time, I also want my kids to value a broader definition of gifts of food. These are the kind we share when we donate to a food pantry, participate in a food drive, or volunteer with Meals on Wheels. One chef who works with Common Threads cooks dinner once a month at a local women's shelter alongside her three kids. Not only is this helpful for the shelter and personally satisfying, but she says that it's gotten her oldest son interested in pursuing a career in social service. Another friend who volunteers occasionally at a food pantry with her teenaged niece tells me that the experience has sparked their desire to learn more about food production and migrant labor. How much are we willing to pay for fresh food? What rights should we extend to those who do the vital work of harvesting our crops? A simple act of volunteerism has prompted an engagement in twenty-first century global economics for both of them.

Tip #4: Allow for occasional informed indulgences.
This seems obvious, but it's worth putting into words since lists of imperative tips can seem so dour. Yes, ice cream every day is pretty sugary. But making sundaes at home to celebrate a great report card? Or, conversely, taking your kid for a milkshake and a talk after a rough day at school? Those are the treats they'll remember. I know there are theorists who say it's bad to use sweets as a reward. Rather than being puritanical about this, though, why can't we say that showing kids how to indulge -- occasionally, in moderation, in company -- is a way of helping them grow into balanced people?

Balance? That's something we can all aspire to as the Earth thaws out. Today is as good a day as ever to revisit your intentions.

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