A few years ago, I was into flax seed. It is loaded with Omega 3 fatty acids, protein and antioxidants. And when I say I was into it, I mean I had a huge bag of it in my freezer and when I would open the door, little seeds would fall out like frozen bug thoraxes onto the floor. Every once in a while, I would grind the seeds and put them into food.
On the morning I was mixing them into my then-18-month-old son's oatmeal, I remembered when I was six, when my mother attempted to sneak some pungent B-vitamin-rich brewer's yeast into our macaroni and cheese. We held a small rebellion at the table and she never tried to pass it off again.
Here I was, 24 years later, feeling misty as I fed flax-seed-riddled oatmeal to my son in his high chair, calling my mom to thank her for being a good mother, and, I must admit, patting myself on the back for being a good mom, too.
This spring, I bought Swiss red chard from Peach Safe Food, an organic food cooperative that buys fresh vegetables and fruits from local farmers and an organization in which I am a (not-so-active) member. But I had to be somewhere just after, and my son and I were hungry. You can't just chew on raw Swiss chard. So we hit the Carl's Jr. drive-through. No misty feelings.
This is how easily it happens. We all know better, and we try as often as we can to be good role models, to provide balanced nutrition for our children, to sneak in our brewer's yeast and flax seed. But life's circumstances, over-scheduling and preoccupation allow our best intentions, family training and education to drift out of the driver side window as we roll it down to order a combo meal.
Someday I'll Get It Right
Kelly, a single mom with a 10-year-old daughter, learned how to cook, bake and sew from her own mom. She plans to teach her daughter these things -- that is, when she has the time to do any of them. For the past four years, she has been going to school full-time to earn her master's degree in clinical psychology. In pulling a 3.9 and working up to 30 hours a week, sometimes she didn't see her daughter until bedtime. On those long days, her daughter ate every meal with someone else.
With sometimes 10 hours and $50 a week to spend with her daughter, nutrition just had to "take a back seat." This is of course where she was sitting all those times they grabbed a quick meal in the drive-though.
Now Kelly has moved across the state to start a paid internship. She's quit her second job and gets home just 15 minutes after her daughter.
"We actually have time together now, and when I can make a good meal, it's great," says Kelly. But that doesn't mean the problem's been solved. "I know what it should be, but it's hard to cook well-balanced meals for just two people. I know there are recipes and quick-cooking magazines, but I can't afford them and I don't have time to look at them."
Spending afternoons and evenings together has given her a glimpse of what she has always wanted. "I can see getting a more stable routine where things aren't as chaotic. What's been missing is getting to spend time together and being able to sit down together."
Mothers like Kelly are just exactly whom Becky Knapp wants to train and nurture. Knapp is manager of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program at Spokane Regional Health. She begins advocating for children's nutrition while the babies are still in the womb.
"Creating healthy eating habits is most vital from the get-go," she says. Fifty-five percent of all babies born in Spokane in 2003 were served by WIC's nutrition and education program. And while it can cost more to eat healthy, WIC is doing what it can to contribute.
"We teach the parents healthy lifestyles for the whole family. We encourage preparing meals together, to keep the family involved," says Knapp. And thanks to assistance from public funds (in the form of vouchers), WIC moms were able to buy $40,000 worth of fresh, local produce from growers at Spokane Farmers' Market. "In addition to giving families fresh vegetables, we show them quick and easy ways to incorporate them into their diets," Knapp says.
Two-parent families with a full-time income (or more) have financial advantages in the quest for eating healthy, but since children with poor health also come from middle- and upper-class families, it obviously takes more than money to make healthy eating a priority.
The Importance of Eating Together
Her kids and husband are still asleep when Amy, mother of four, gets up and packs three breakfasts and one lunch to go, lines them up on the counter and heads out the door by 6:30 am. She has worked part time as a registered nurse since her first child was born 18 years ago, and nutrition has always been one of her major concerns.
With three kids' after-school and evening activity schedules (her oldest child just left home for college), there are nights when Amy's family has three dinner times. "The responsibility of building healthy eating habits weighs on me, especially as my kids get older. I just make sure there is something in our meals from every food group. It always takes a conscious effort."
It's not the nutrition aspect that keeps Amy interested in feeding her family. "Our goal is to eat five times a week together. Dinner time is way more than a time to make people 'not hungry.' It is family time and connection time."
Amy says she knows it's what she and her husband model that impacts and shapes her children's eating and life habits; she hasn't normally counted on them learning those kinds of things that at school. Lately, however, she has noticed her kids making comments about food. "I was making zucchini bread, and my daughter looked concerned and asked 'Mommy, is that a healthy snack? It has sugar in it.'" Her daughter pointed out that sugary snacks don't help with learning and concentration the way that healthy ones do.
Amy's not imagining it. There are changes happening in schools with regard to healthy eating. Spokane Public School's Nutrition Program Director Doug Wordell couldn't be happier that a healthy food conversation was started by one of his students.
The most noticeable changes are to the lunches: Fat-free potatoes offered in place of French fries, side salads and more fresh fruit. But Wordell is pleased that the three goals of the SPS "Nutrition Integrity" program are subtle and designed to be to permanent: Transform students' relationships to healthy eating through choice and moderation, nutritional education and personal responsibility. "I don't like short-term solutions," says Wordell. "And we're a nation of convenience-oriented people looking for instant results."
While he has a big vision, Wordell's message for students is simple: "Eat right. Play more." He's placing calorie limits on snacks, changing portions for all drinks in vending machines from 20 to 12 ounces, and reinforcing what the children learn in their innovative K-12 Fitness and Health classes.
"We want them to be speaking the language of 'caloric needs,' 'balanced diets' and 'aerobic zone.'" You'll find signage near vending machines telling how many minutes in the "aerobic zone" it takes to burn off the calories from sodas and a la carte items.
The Nutrition Integrity program got a boost last week when its "Five a Day for Fruits and Vegetables" campaign won a Promotion of the Year award from Dole. "The award validates and gives credibility to our program. It also gives us permission to be nutrition cheerleaders," says Wordell. And while cheers and encouragement from teachers will have some influence on eating habits and nutrition, Wordell emphasizes that it's what happens at home that has the biggest impact.
"There is a lack of relational activity in families," he says. "We're not turning off distractions."
Both Wordell and Knapp say the most critical thing parents can do is model healthy behaviors, both with eating and physical activity.
"Not only do families have better nutrition," sitting down to eat together, says Knapp, "they develop communication skills, health and family dynamics. Children learn what is normal on a day-to-day basis." In other words, what we do, they will do.
Parents, no matter where they fall on the spectrum of healthy eating role models, will always best serve their children by offering a variation of grains, vegetables, fruits and, Knapp emphasizes, always allowing them to decide how much they'll eat.
If for some of you parents that means they choose none of it, find peace from the wise words one of Amy's pediatricians (during a son's refusal-to-eat phase): "A wiener and a vitamin can sustain life."
Though the more health-conscious among us might want to make that a veggie wiener.