Let’s Break Bread
I grew up in a Middle Eastern household where mealtime was sacred. If you weren’t coming home for the family meal, you weren’t coming home. We would help our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends – the neighbors and anyone else who decided to show up for a meal – to prepare the food together. Young and old would have a role, from peeling and grating to serving and collecting dishes. The ingredients were gathered from the produce seller, the meat vendor, the dairy guy, the fishmonger, the spice market and all of the vendors and purveyors we shopped from. We took pride in what we had procured and it was the food, the smells and the stories that would emerge from the table that kept us all enchanted. Fresh, clean, beautiful food made with care – lots for fresh veggies and fruit, meat in small amounts, fresh bread warm from the neighborhood bakery oven, beans, farmer’s cheese, olives and other soul-warming foods. We would gather around a large table full of small plates, passing and sharing the fresh food we had created. With the meal, we drank water with a squeeze of lime. After dinner, we would cleanse our palates with a piece of fresh seasonal fruit with a cup of mint tea. We only had ‘dessert’ - in the form of cakes or cookies – at special occasions, like weddings or birthdays. No fluorescent, processed, packaged, artificially flavored, artificially colored, artificially sweetened, artificially preserved foods. No sugary soda or sports drinks.
Just clean, fresh food. Not diet, low fat, carb-free food. That wasn’t even an option.
After meals, we would take walks to visit other relatives, go for a stroll by the Mediterranean Sea, or head to the park for some soccer. It wasn’t about going to a gym and wearing spandex. It was about social activity, playtime, interacting with others and being part of a bigger unit.
The bottom line is, you can’t outrun a bad diet.
A 155 lb. person burns about 500 calories per hour riding a bike moderately. The average serving of fast food fries weighs in at over 500 calories. You get the picture.
So let’s start by fixing mealtime.
First, we have to make sound nutrition relevant, and a priority. It can no longer be an ‘optional’ course in school, it needs to become mandatory, and carried out throughout the education experience. Just as food and water is critical for survival, so is the knowledge and understanding of how to enjoy it in the right amount. As a member of the California School Nutrition Association, I know they are tightening up the school lunch standards, but how about the other school activities? No more cookie dough fundraisers. No more rewarding kids with candy at school for good effort. No more after-school programs offering empty calories.
Second, we need to become better teachers and role models. Make veggies the hero of the plate, stop ‘dissing on them. Get kids involved in the process and help them own it – and throw some kale in there while you’re at it. They are 80% more likely to try something they have a hand in. Make fresh produce a priority and limit the sugar. If our refrigerators are filled with junk, or worse, diet soda and ketchup, what are we teaching? Life on a perpetual diet will make yoyo’s out of all of us.
Now, how about all those great ethnic foods that aren’t the healthiest? Let’s rehab them! As a chef and part of the cast of the Emmy nominated show, ‘Recipe Rehab,’ we helped families enjoy the foods that they grew up with and love, only healthier. I showed families how to take foods like meatloaf and spaghetti and meatballs, tacos and enchiladas and make them clean and lean with what I call ‘smart swaps.’ Techniques like swapping white flour for whole grain tortillas, foregoing the deep frying and trading in leaner cheeses, meats, dairy and beans for their fat-filled counterparts. I taught them how to make nutrient dense, lycopene rich sauces and add veggies like cauliflower into fillings. Portion control was also part of the education, and learning how to really taste your food and savor every bite.
And let’s bring people back to the table in communion with each other. When people come together and eat clean homemade meals, they tend to eat less than eating alone. They make better choices, and the ‘gravy’ is that they become closer to each other.
Perhaps a by-product of fixing mealtime is that we can actually help fix families, too. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate cherry on top?