"We need to redefine success beyond money and power to include well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving back." Arianna Huffington, the namesake of The Huffington Post, spoke these words at a recent stop to talk about her new book, Thrive. Her advice was meant for the dozens of professional women in the crowd but for me, they struck a chord because of my role as a parent.
I realized at that moment that I don't want my kids to succeed -- I want them to thrive.
Despite all that we know about the toxic effects of stress, we continue to mount massive pressure on our families and especially our kids. We jockey to get our toddlers into feeder schools. High schoolers overload their calendars hoping to beef up their resumes with admissions bait. We scramble to shuttle our kids between extracurricular activities, tutoring and social events to help them "succeed." In the wake of this madness, we cut every corner to save time nourishing our families. Who has time to cook? So we outsource. We buy "all-natural" prepared meals, we grab quick on-the-go snacks and we eat in our cars. We have been lulled into thinking these are healthy choices. But they are not. Like the frog in boiling water, we've slowly let industrial food companies take over the nourishment of our families. And we're paying for it in skyrocketing rates of obesity and illness. A steep toll to pay on the road to "success."
I am as susceptible to this insidious way of thinking as the next parent. So, what can we do to break the cycle?
One simple answer lies in our kitchens.
"The most important thing you can do is cook for your family." - Michael Pollan, Fed Up
1. Improving Well-Being
Countless studies have shown that family dinners reduce stress and improve academics (without a battery of SAT prep tests) -- but only if we use that time to really connect with our kids. Cooking, side-by-side, gives us that opportunity. I've seen this transformation first hand. Before we started cooking together as a family, I would shoo my kids off to play on the computer or watch TV while I frantically scurried around the kitchen trying to piece together a meal. Stress levels increased as quickly as our connections waned. Slowly making the shift -- cooking one new food together each week -- turned the tide. What was once a dreaded part of my day transformed into one of the most treasured. Beyond those important family connections, cooking together teaches our kids how to power their bodies with healthy foods. Meals cooked at home have fewer processed foods, which means fewer of the other toxins that undermine the well-being of our children. Even more, cooking together teaches our kids a skill that will bolster their health for their whole lives -- how to prepare nutritious meals for themselves.
2. Imparting Wisdom
Kids are barraged by food marketing, to the tune of 1.8 billion dollars each year. This environment is as toxic as the stress we are placing on our kids to excel in scholastic tests. Cooking together provides the opportunity to teach our kids how to make healthy choices in this treacherous sea of marketing -- to be wise consumers. Read food labels. Choose wholesome, colorful foods, grown organically when you can. Reduce added sugars by cutting out soda and sugary desserts and replacing them with delicious treats made at home. You may not be able to make healthy choices every time, but try to make them most times. Bringing this way of living to life in our kitchens empowers our kids to make wise choices, not only while they are young but also throughout their adult lives.
3. Inspiring Wonder
Growing food in your backyard, or appreciating the seasonal bounty grown by local farmers, inspires wonder. For children and adults alike, the joy of planting seeds and watching them grow into big beautiful stalks hanging heavy with fruit never gets old. The transformation is captivating. Our search for new foods each week at the market led us on several wonder-filled adventures. Romanesco, with its magical mathematical pattern, sparked a deep curiosity in my 7-year-old and inspired a search for the Fibonacci sequence not only on our plates but also in the world around us. Food has the ability to inspire curiosity and creativity in our kids, if we let it unfold.
4. Giving Back
Getting to know your food -- from how it is grown to how it is prepared -- helps kids grow an appreciation and understanding of what it takes to bring healthy food to the table each day. Shopping, and cooking, together helped my kids see that the food on our plates wasn't delivered through an industrial machine. We met the farmers, face-to-face, each week at our local market. We talked with them about what they were growing in their fields, and what it took to bring their produce to market. For my kids, and for me, getting to know the people who grew our food helped build a better understanding of how the choices we make impact our local community. We learned that even small steps, like eliminating plastic baggies from our lunchboxes, can make a tremendous difference. When we can, we try to make choices that give back to the hard-working community that supports our health and the health of our planet.
With busy lives, it can feel like we don't have time for cooking together with our kids. True, it's easier to purchase prepared foods. It's more time consuming to cook with our kids, at first. But consider the hidden cost. What are we teaching our kids when we prioritize test taking skills over cooking skills, microwave chicken nuggets over a simple, home-cooked meal, resume prep over meal prep?
As parents, our job is to help our kids live their best lives--to help them truly thrive. Let's start cooking together again and give them the precious gift of lifelong health and strong family connections. With those key ingredients, they will succeed beyond measure.
A mother of two, Jennifer Tyler Lee is the author of The 52 New Foods Challenge (Penguin Random House/Avery 2014) and the creator of the award-winning series of healthy eating games, Crunch a Colorￂﾮ. Her family cooking adventures have been featured at Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, Rachael Ray's Yum-O!, Laurie David's Family Dinner, Pottery Barn Kids, and Whole Foods Markets. She is a contributor at The Huffington Post and the James Beard Award-Winning magazine, Edible.