Food & Nutrition
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Kids in the Kitchen

Making food fun for the whole family

One piece of disturbing news from this year’s American Diabetes Association Scientific Sessions was the revelation that the prevalence of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes substantially increased among young Americans over the past decade. This news may not surprise most people, but I know I found it discouraging. So what might we do about these scary statistics? For those of us who are parents, how can we make a healthy change in our own homes?

One simple – yet fulfilling – action I’ve taken is to invite my children to join me in cooking for our family. I’ve found bringing kids into the kitchen has a variety of benefits, including introducing them to a wider range of healthier foods, teaching appropriate serving sizes, nurturing their creativity, and even helping with math and reading skills as they learn to measure, count out servings, and read recipes.

For Mark Allison, dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, an early food education – and diabetes – helped shape his career. Allison has fond memories of helping his father pick fresh tomatoes from the vines in the greenhouse, as well as “shelling peas from their pods, digging up odd-shaped carrots, pulling rhubarb from the ground, and the smell of fresh mint, which seemed to take over wherever you planted it. Helping prepare the vegetables with my brother and sister for that night’s dinner was a real family affair back then. My brother had type 1 diabetes, and I remember watching my mother count and measure carbohydrates in the kitchen.”

One of Allison’s first creations as a young chef was a lettuce sandwich, which is indelibly etched in his memory: “crisp, light, and full of flavor, it is still a favorite of mine, with lettuce fresh from my local farmers’ market.” While he’s gone on to more complicated creations, the food lessons he learned in his childhood helped inspire his choice of profession. Those early experiences also inspired him to instill a love of cooking in his own children, especially after his middle son, Matthew, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Allison had always focused on fresh foods as a chef, but after Matthew was diagnosed as a child, he changed his approach to feeding his family.

Determined that their young son would enjoy the same food choices as the rest of the family, Allison adopted a plan of moderation and education, “just because you have diabetes does not mean that you have to eat different food than the rest of the family.” He also taught his kids about seasonal produce with visits to the local farmers’ markets. “I like to eat foods that are in season, when they are at top nutritional value and full of flavor, so shopping at the farmers’ market makes sense to me. We take the kids with us each time we go, sometimes bringing along their friends too. You’d be amazed at how many youngsters have not even seen a whole watermelon, because they are used to seeing it already peeled and chopped in a plastic container.”

“Inviting your children to experience the delights of the farmer’s market will engage them in the cooking process,” says Allison. “I love food, it’s one of the greatest pleasures in the world, and you can become a great composer in your own kitchen every day if you wish. You can make it as expensive or inexpensive as you want, but nothing tastes, smells, or looks as inviting to the senses as freshly-made food.”

As a mom of three boys, with type 1 diabetes myself, I’m always trying to come up with new and fun ways to get my own kids involved in cooking, and help them develop a healthy relationship with food. One of my favorite things to do on rainy days is bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies or banana bread with them. For every sweet thing we bake, we also make something healthy for balance, and after enjoying a reasonable portion, we freeze the rest to enjoy on sunny days. The following are a few of my favorite tips for getting your kids in the kitchen with you.

Getting Kids in the Kitchen:

●      Travel the World: (Almost) every Sunday, my family has a “travel the world” dinner. Each boy takes a turn choosing a country, and then planning a dinner based on cuisine from that country (my youngest gets plenty of help!). My middle son, Miles, recently chose Mexico. We looked through cookbooks for Mexican dishes and then went to the grocery store for the ingredients. At the beginning of the meal, Miles had to tell us one interesting fact about Mexico, and we listened to Mexican music as we ate. The boys had so much fun we’ve kept it going through the summer, and so far have covered Italy (pizza), China (sweet and sour chicken), and Germany (sausages and potato gratin). Some foods were better received than others, but the best part has been that my boys are excited about trying new foods and learning about new cultures.

●      Join a CSA: Belonging to our local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) has helped change the way my children think about food and made a big impact on our family diet. Visits are fun, but also teaching opportunities, as the boys race around the room picking out a stalk of garlic or a leaf of kale, asking, “What’s this, Mom?” Our CSA also has hours where we can pick our own berries, which the boys and I have used to make delicious smoothies. This site can help you find a local CSA.

●      Go Fish: When kids get personally involved in making – or catching – the food, they are more apt to eat it themselves. I learned this lesson on a recent summer vacation when my boys, who previously refused to eat any kind of fish, had a lesson from their grandfather in how to bait a hook, wait patiently, and reel in some smallmouth bass. The rule was that the fish had to be thrown back unless the boys were going to eat it. By day two, however, my oldest boy, Will, decided he was ready to eat his catch, so his grandfather helped him through each step, including cleaning! It was the first time in his ten years of life that he tried fish and, boy, was he proud!

●      Make Your Own: Ice pops and snack mixes are often low on nutritional value and expensive; I’ve found one of the easiest ways to get kids excited about cooking is making their own snacks and treats. One of my toddler’s favorites is a banana and peanut butter ice pop. Reid stands on a stool in the kitchen to peel the banana and then he mashes it in the bowl while I scoop the peanut butter. We add a little bit of honey or sugar, blend the ingredients together, and pour the mix into containers to freeze. The result is delicious and I know exactly what it’s made from!

There are some days when I want the kitchen all to myself and don’t want to make room for my noisy, messy children, but then I remember the educational and health benefits of having them involved in cooking. They must develop patience and follow step-by-step directions. My boys have gained confidence being in the kitchen and also take more responsibility for getting their own snacks, instead of shouting across the house, “Mom, I’m hungry!”

Mark Allison agrees and says that at fourteen, Matthew enjoys cooking at home with his father. Trying to manage his blood sugar has taught him “to live each day to its fullest, eat right, exercise, and know that you, your family, and friends can make life a special occasion each and every day, and it all starts around the kitchen table.”

Amy Stockwell Mercer is a freelance writer with type 1 diabetes living in Charleston, SC. She blogs at re-Defining Diabetes and her work can be found in a variety of publications including Charleston Magazine, The City Paper, Diabetes Health, and Literary Mama. Amy Stockwell Mercer is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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