'To get children to eat properly, you have to involve them in the process."
I listened as the first lady spoke because I care about the growing problem of America -- the obesity of our children.
I sat in a folding chair on the lawn facing the White House, the Rose Garden ahead of me on my right and Michelle Obama, who uttered those words, at the podium on my left. Surrounding me were hundreds of chefs in white, many of whom I knew. Some were women members of Les Dames d'Escoffier: Cat Cora of California via Jackson, Miss., Lydia Bastianich of Boston and Virginia Willis of Atlanta. Others were chefs I'd known throughout my years of cooking: John Currence from Oxford, Miss., Oprah's chef Art Smith from Chicago, and many others.
Change comes slowly, even with children. Especially change that takes a little effort. But changing a child's diet just 10 percent can enhance their nutritional input, start to realign their ideas of what tastes good and modify their eating preferences.
Take the case of after-school snacks. Rather than the "perfect" mother in the 1950s television show giving a couple of homemade cookies and some milk to her child after school before sending her out to play tag, today you're more likely to find a package of crackers or chips and a television. Those crackers and chips are making our children obese.
It is much easier to eat crackers or chips from a package than to make your own snack. Once a package is opened, it is a simple matter to finish it, rather than have those two cookies of the 1950s.
Somehow, parents have to find the time and energy to make their children healthy snacks until the children decide to make them themselves. The first step is to refuse to buy boxed snacks. If it's not there, you can't eat it. The next is organization.
Make a list of easily prepared snacks and post it on the kitchen refrigerator, ready to help when brain-dead first thing in the morning. Remember, aiming for perfection is not the answer, as perfection is discouraging. Take one step further along the good food chain. Fat and sugar are not the enemy. Mindless eating is.
Peanut butter is a good source of protein and energy, and "ants on a log" is a good way to start. Spread peanut butter in the celery's groove, dot with raisins and slip into a plastic bag, visible on an accessible refrigerator shelf. Put a big note on the front door for when the child comes home -- and a gold star wouldn't hurt!
Alternatively, cut up an apple and spread the cut portion completely with peanut butter to prevent browning. After a while, the child will start making his own. (Purchase a good apple, please!) An apple has the added benefit of being able to signal to the stomach that it is "full," making the eater feel satiated and replete rather than the "eat one more" signal from prepared foods.
Try to change just one thing -- for instance, move to whole-wheat English muffins for pizza, rather than fast food or white bread pizza. Assemble the mini pizzas and slip them on a plate, covered with plastic wrap so they can see the goodness inside. Make a little note saying how long to heat in the microwave or toaster oven.
One speaker earlier that morning had talked about apples. Much of the fruit given children in school lunch and other programs is found in the trash cans, discarded by the children. In particular, apples.
She had visited a local school to talk to the students about apples, bringing a dozen varieties with her in a bushel basket. The children stared at her blankly as she talked about the different apples, their qualities and what made them interesting. She suddenly switched tactics, to get them involved, and said, "OK, who's going to dare to eat the first apple?"
The dare got the students energized, and up they came up to eat the apples, one by one, comparing and tasting. Suddenly, they knew. Apples were not what they thought they were. There were tart ones, sweet ones, crunchy ones; green, golden, pink and deep red; small, large and more.
I thought this a little far-fetched. I love apples, and except for occasional Red Delicious ones that seem mealy, usually enjoy them. A few weeks later, my husband purchased a sack of small apples that seemed the ideal size for taking to work each day. I tasted one. I got the message.
The small apples he purchased -- which turned out, by the way, not to be as economical as those sold separately -- tasted terrible. They were tasteless, rubbery and the skins harbored a nearly bitter taste.
Could these be the apples the children had eaten that made them scorn apples so, thinking them not worth the effort of a taste?
I realized how important getting the children to taste the apples had been. The speaker had involved them in the process. The speaker then went further, working with the school's budget and purveyor to get them better fruit. And the children started eating their fruit.
Step by step, one can get there.
Makes 12 muffins
When the kids run in after school, throw their backpacks onto the floor, and stare hungrily at the refrigerator, have something available to them that is as delicious as it is good for them. A healthy little muffin is just the thing to satisfy their sweet tooth, but it also is hearty and sustaining enough to help them through soccer practice and piano lessons.
2 cups All-Bran cereal
1 1/4 cups skim milk
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 egg whites
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup raisins
Turbinado or other large-crystal sugar for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin. Pour the milk over the cereal in a large bowl and allow the cereal to soften for about 5 minutes. Whisk the flour, whole-wheat flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together in a separate bowl. Add the egg whites and canola oil to the cereal and milk mixture and stir to combine thoroughly. Add the dry ingredients and stir just until the mixture is combined. Fold in the raisins. Divide the batter evenly between the muffin cups. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 15 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean and the muffins are golden brown. Let cool slightly on a wire rack.
Will keep in a plastic bag unrefrigerated for 1 to 2 days; refrigerate or freeze if keeping longer. To keep them separated but accessible, freeze each in a small plastic bag, then combine into a larger freezer bag or container, marked with date and name. They will keep at least three months, sometimes longer.
-- Adapted from Kellogg's All Bran Muffin recipe
Granola is an easy snack to grab when kids are starving after school. Sprinkle this tasty granola over yogurt or berries for an extra special after-school treat. If the children don't want to snack on little pieces, make into bars. There looks like a lot of sugar in this treat, but it makes 16 servings. Remember the goal -- moving away from packaged food, and actually knowing what they are eating.
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 teaspoons vanilla, almond, or maple extract
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Toss the oats, brown sugar, coconut, almonds, raisins, and salt together in a large bowl.
Whisk the maple syrup, canola oil and extract together in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Simmer for 2 minutes, whisking occasionally. Pour warm maple syrup mixture over oat mixture. Toss to coat thoroughly. Spread evenly over the baking sheet. Bake for 40 minutes, stirring to prevent burning every 10 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack before serving.
Makes 14-16 bars
1 recipe Maple Almond Granola (above)
6 tablespoons maple syrup
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pulse the dates, maple syrup and eggs together in the food processor. Toss granola and date mixture together. Spread 1/2-inch-thick over an oiled, rimmed baking sheet. (Size doesn't seem to matter.) Bake for 20 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack. Slice into 1x3-inch bars. Refrigerate individually in plastic bags up to a week or freeze. (Some people like them straight from the freezer if they have good teeth!)
Kids love to scoop up dips and salsas with chips, and then eat the whole package, so a healthier alternative is just the thing to have on hand when salty cravings strike.
2 cans cannelloni beans, drained
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of 2 lemons
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, finely chopped
Pulse the beans in a food processor until smooth. Add the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and oregano. Pulse until everything is incorporated. Divide into several small bowls in the refrigerator. Surround each with individual bags of carrot and celery sticks for easy accessibility. Will last about a week, refrigerated.
-- Granola and bean dip recipes were written by Hayley Daen