September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness month and as a result I am letting my food snob freak flag fly. As my close friend Chef Bill Kim said to me yesterday on the phone, "It's 2012, you have to decide for yourself what to put into your body."
Bill couldn't be more right. Our nation has a critical problem: the ever growing epidemic of childhood obesity. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (2010), one-third of American children are currently overweight or obese; these numbers are even higher in low-income minority communities. Since 1980, obesity rates have tripled among children ages 8 to 12. Diseases once associated only with adults, such as Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, are on the rise in progressively younger children. Poor nutrition can result in overweight children who are at a higher risk of being overweight adults.
Studies have shown that a child who is obese between the ages of 10 and 13 has an 80% chance of becoming an obese adult. Additionally, research has shown that poor eating habits have been directly linked to diminished academic performance (Kar, Rao and Chandramouli, 2008). It is a vicious cycle that begs for all of us to start thinking very seriously about what we are putting into our body.
We could all benefit from a bit of food snobbery in my opinion. When I had my first child, Zachary, I was determined to make him a good eater. After I read an inspiring book, My 2-Year-Old Eats Octopus by Nancy Tringali Piho, I was hooked and determined to do my best to teach my children how to eat with good nutrition and variety from the start. Zachary now runs right up to the seafood station at Whole Foods, grabs the tongs and chooses his one octopus, eating one leg at a time, savoring it.
I should start off with the strong opinion that I actually think a food snob is a good thing to be, especially as a parent. Our American culture has become too lax about what we put into our bodies. Our culture is missing the joy of eating and what can make it interesting and exciting. If we and our children are eating hot dogs every day, what are we learning and teaching? We certainly aren't teaching our taste buds very much and we likely are not hitting half of the nutrition notes we need every day. Here are a few family favorites of mine that are easy to adopt or build into your routine this month.
Listen to Your Stomach
We all need to pay attention to what we eat and how it makes us feel. During my conversation with Bill we talked a lot about getting older and knowing it is important to watch what we put into our bodies. Try eating clean and light foods and see how you feel. Bill brings a tuna salad for lunch to the restaurant each day and his staff laughs and seems impressed that he has time to make and bring a lunch to work. He knows that if he plans in advance and eats well, he has the energy to be at his best all day, all night. If you notice that after dinner at a restaurant or at home you hate the way you feel; bloated with a rumbling stomach; take note, it's 2012, you have to decide for yourself what to put into your body.
Even when we were city dwellers, before my son Zack could even talk, he was picking cherry tomatoes off the plant, pulling carrots from pots and tasting home grown herbs. If you have a bit more land you can have a huge variety of vegetables and herbs growing in your back yard. How dreamy to have your kids dig in the dirt and help pick lettuce and vegetables for dinner. No matter how much space you have, even one pot with something edible and very easy to grow (lettuce will give you the quickest usable harvest) will create curiosity and understanding of how good food gets to our plate.
Make this a part of your food shopping when the markets are open. There may even be a year round market near you. There is something new in season that appears at the market nearly every week and that's a wonderful way to get excited and try different produce each week. Let your children walk around and choose something they want to try and talk about how you will prepare it. Chat with and get to know the vendors and have your children ask them what they do on the farm. Tip from Bill: People often don't think of so many of the humble vegetables (like beets, carrots, celery and onion that can be used not just in a salad but as spice. For example, take an onion, wrap it in foil, and grill it. Take it out and it's like butter (no cream, nothing), mash it add some cumin and a little vinegar and spread it on toast. No preservatives, all natural, just good.
Have an Adventure
Family walks are a fun way and affordable way to spend time together. Our family would pack up the stroller with fruit, nuts, rice cakes, and lots of water (burning calories gives us a reason to snack) and hit the Chicago lakefront and zoo. Now that we live in Austin, it is easy to find a hiking trail, hit the park with a frisbee or rent a canoe. It's a great way to get a workout in, take in the fresh air and instill a sense of healthy habits for your family. It's empowering for everyone to recount how many miles were logged and the feeling that you know your kids are outside, breathing fresh air, getting some exercise in the wide open is priceless in an age of television and video games.
Get Moving for Good
There are so many walks, runs, climbs and yoga classes for great causes. Sign up as a family, use it as a way to bond with your child. If the registration is more than you can afford, reach out to the organization's Development Coordinator and ask for ways that you and your family can participate while setting fundraising goals that your family can engage in.
My friend Amiel each year rides a 50 mile race for Parkinson's disease because it is one of the ways he feels he can take control and raise awareness and support for a disease that plagues his mother. Getting moving for good is a way to show someone you care and are committed to supporting them in a situation that feels like there isn't much to do. Setting up a page like this one that Amiel did that explains why the cause is important to you is a great way to show your support, raise awareness for the charity or disease you are raising money for, and helps you focus on making a difference in situations that sometimes feel very much out of your control.
Planting and Cultivating Young Health Advocates
Try to bring healthy habits to your community. If your kids are enrolled in sports, Girl Scouts or Cub Scouts, suggest that everyone commit to healthy snacks as a way to commit to a healthy lifestyle. There are many free curriculums that can help teach kiddos about the energy balance like this one from Together Counts.
Take your kids to restaurants right from the start. Go early in the evening, try breakfast if you have young kids, when you can expect the best behavior (and potentially annoy the least amount of fellow patrons). Worst case scenario, if things get too bumpy, just get the food boxed up and bail. Try sharing dishes and opt for healthy items that you would have a hard time making yourself. See if you can let your kids peak into the kitchen and meet the chefs. I have noticed for my own children, that seeing where the magic happens in the kitchen and meeting the chefs does go a long way in appreciating the food they eat, wanting to go back to specific places and growing an interest in what they eat and enjoy; even at home where Mommy and Daddy are the chefs! If you are a foodie, think about forgoing some of the more luxurious trendy foods (like pork belly) for some of the more difficult and challenging foods to cook with like Armenian cucumbers, kale, and red quinoa.
Ok, this is where the magic happens, people. Home is where the vast majority of our eating happens (hopefully). This is where we include our children in contributing to meal decisions and preparation. We teach them manners. We prepare one meal for the entire family to share (and when faced with grievances, there is always the Pinkalicious response "you get what you get and you don't get upset"). There have been several nights that Zachary and Julia both went to bed without eating dinner. As hard as it is to hear them say that they were hungry, I've got to say that it pays off. Of course we all have our likes and dislikes, but the lesson is that you find something on your plate to eat and you are grateful for the food in front of you because of the effort and love that went into its preparation and the nourishment and energy it will give your body. We discuss which foods are more nutritious as a game and what they do for your body. Finally, of course, our meals (perhaps with the exception of the Super Bowl) are media free. We are together around the table to chat and enjoy each other and our meal. The dinner table is sacred ground for family and friends.
Hey, hot dogs are good (though AmyLu Chicken Sausages are a healthier tastier alternative) and they can have their place at summer cook outs and ball games where they taste better anyway. That makes them special, fun and a part of our culture as well. For day to day eating, we need to keep the processed food to a minimum. Too much of it makes it hard to know what real food tastes like.
Our job as parents is to teach our children and find joy in every day. By showing our children a better way to eat before they are out of our immediate grasp and left to make their own decisions, we have the opportunity to experience their first discoveries in food with them. Let's face it; there is a lot of joy in food and eating. I believe that the way we address dining, cooking and nutrition in our family has created a bond and is something we will share for the rest of our lives. So, there you have it, my friends; my legacy to my children will be as a food snob and I am happy for it. And for the rest of this month, in honor of National Obesity Awareness Month, I hope you become one too!