1) Food Can, and Should, Be Fun
I often went grocery shopping with my mom, and I helped her make meals, too. Because I enjoyed baking, she let me experiment with various recipes, including many of which I made up on my own. Some turned out well, others not so well. Regardless of the results though, by involving me in the food selection and preparation process, my mom taught me to have an appreciation for food that I would not have developed if food just suddenly appeared on my dinner plate. I learned that food can, and should, be fun.
2) Listen to Hunger/Fullness Cues
Perhaps in part because they lived through the Great Depression, my grandparents’ generation seemed to emphasize finishing everything on the plate. “There are people starving in China,” I would hear; as if by overeating, I would somehow lend a hand to somebody in need on the other side of the globe. My mom stood up to this misguided notion and taught me to listen to and honor my hunger and fullness cues. Forcing food down past the point of comfortable fullness helps nobody. Uneaten food can be packed up and saved for later. If we must throw it out, at least we learn a lesson to take or make less next time.
3) Where Food Comes From Matters
My brother and I were raised mostly eating organic foods, especially fruits and vegetables. The potential advantages of organic versus conventional foods are debatable, but I learned several lessons from my mom’s emphasis on eating organic: A food’s identity does not automatically indicate its quality; where it comes from and how it is grown/produced/raised matter.
4) Balance Is Key
When parents restrict their children from eating certain foods, the resulting irony is that the children often end up overeating on the forbidden foods as soon as they get access to them. In recognition of this reality, my mom instituted a “Sweet of the Day” policy, whereby my brother and I got to have a small treat each day. We enjoyed our favorites in quantities that did not ruin our health, and we learned not to see any foods as “bad.” In short, this policy was my initial exposure to the concept of nutritional balance.
5) Always More to Learn
Even though she has no formal study in the field, and her employment has nothing to do with the subject, my mom has always taken an interest in it, reading articles, newsletters, and magazines. Research is constantly yielding new insights into nutrition and health. Not only do I have to stay on top of new developments in the field, but I have to be open-minded enough to consider new information and opinions that challenge the status quo.
My mom is one of the most amazing women I know, and she inspires me in many different ways. One of the areas she has the most expertise in is cooking. Just looking at her kitchen, one can see all of the evidence of an experienced chef – tons of dog-eared and worn cookbooks, various cooking gadgets, and binders filled with old family recipes passed down from her mother (and her mother’s mother). Along the way, I have learned a number of nutrition lessons from her, and here are just a few of them.
1) Food is more than just fuel.
In nutrition school, a lot of the focus is on the science of nutrition – chemistry, physiology, nutrient metabolism, etc. But there is so much more to nutrition than just calories in/calories out. Food is family, love and connection. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom cooking and baking, so calm and happy in her kitchen. Of course, every holiday has its traditional meals – roasted turkey and Saltine stuffing on Thanksgiving, brisket and matzo ball soup on Passover, and chocolate brownies for dessert on July 4th. Aside from the holidays, though, my mom’s food can elicit such strong feelings of warmth and comfort. Her oxtail soup is a hearty, thick stew, perfect for cold winter nights. Her sweet and sour tomato cabbage soup is perfectly balanced and is the perfect meal with a piece of crusty French bread. More than anything, her food nourished the soul, and, in turn, inspired me to learn more about the wonderful world of nutrition.
2) When cooking or baking, always use real, fresh ingredients.
Whether the trend was low-fat, low-carb or just plain low-calorie, when it came to cooking and baking, my mom rarely ever made ingredient substitutions in her recipes. Butter, cream, and sugar were regularly used in her kitchen to concoct delicious desserts. Likewise, if the recipe called for bone-in, skin-on chicken, then boneless, skinless chicken breasts wouldn’t cut it. Foods that are made with real, whole, unadulterated ingredients are not only so much better tasting than the diet-y, low calorie stuff, they are more satisfying and satiating. Think about this – on a hot summer’s day, when you are craving an ice cream cone, will fat-free frozen yogurt really satisfy you? In all likelihood, you will eat the frozen yogurt and then, still feeling deprived, munch on other stuff afterwards. Better off sticking with the real treat; it will take less of it to satisfy you, and you won’t feel deprived.
3) You can make your own food rules.
While most of the time we had traditional meals in our household, every once in a blue moon, we would do something out of the ordinary. One time, my mom and I had ice cream for dinner! Obviously, this is not something I would recommend anyone do on a regular basis, but once in a while won’t kill you. We would also occasionally do “breakfast for dinner,” which meant omelets, cereal or bagels for dinner. At the end of the day, you don’t need to follow the food pyramid guidelines (or MyPlate) to be a healthy eater. Mixing it up can be fun and can get you out of a food rut, too.
4) Food tastes so much better when you let yourself enjoy it.
It is not unusual to hear my mom voice her love of food. Dinnertime was (and is) often filled with “mmmm’s” and “yummm’s” and other sounds of pleasure. While this habit of my mom’s has embarrassed me on occasion (mostly during my teenage years), more often than not, I find myself doing the very same thing! It is okay to enjoy your food! Let me rephrase that: The enjoyment of one’s food is a wonderful part of life. Not only is delighting in one’s food a wonderful part of life, there are studies that show that nutrients are absorbed better when the eater is enjoying his or her meal. So go ahead, savor, enjoy and delight in your food – it’s human nature!
5) There are few things more satisfying than planting, harvesting and eating veggies from your own garden.
I have many fond memories of my mom tending to her vegetable and herb gardens. She would grow everything, from tomatoes and zucchini to snap peas and basil. There is a certain joy in watching these plants grow from seedlings to ready for picking. And there is nothing better than crunching into a snap pea straight off the vine. Oftentimes, zucchini in my mom’s garden would be so numerous that it would be difficult to figure out what to do with all of it! Aside from a tasty side veggie, my mom incorporated this bounty into zucchini bisque and zucchini bread, which to this day are some of my favorites. Unfortunately, the next-door neighbor’s trees have grown so tall that my mom’s garden can’t grow anymore. But she still has her herbs, and they show up in many of her recipes.
I owe a lot to my mom in regard to my appreciation and interest in food. She taught me to be adventurous and try new things. She showed me how nourishing a well-prepared meal can be. And most of all, she taught me that food is so much more than just food.