Seeds of health: Lifelong eating habits planted as children
Tammie Nadeau still laughs about the day her teenage son came home after spending the night at a friend's house.
The boys had been stormed in by a blizzard and her son had refused to venture out for burgers or pizza. Just a short while earlier a tow truck had rescued them from a mountain-high drift in the middle of the highway. Wet, cold and exhausted, her son was staying put.
"My son was like, 'No way, we can't go back out there,' " Nadeau said.
"Well, we don't have anything to eat here," the friend persisted.
So, driven by hunger and determined to prove his friend wrong, Nadeau's son quickly rifled through an unfamiliar freezer, refrigerator and cupboards to create a culinary masterpiece from scratch.
In less time than it would have taken for a pepperoni pizza to be delivered, he threw together a chicken/vegetable/rice stir fry.
Stunned, his friend asked: "How did you do that?"
The answer: "It's all right there. It's easy."
Easy for him because his mother had taught him mad skills in the kitchen.
But for many Americans, preparing a meal that doesn't come first from a box or a paper bag is easier said than done.
Nadeau's son, now 27 and still an excellent cook, apparently had beaten the odds.
Access or choice
Public health experts for years have argued high-income households tend to buy more fruits, vegetables and proteins than low-income households. Likewise, studies claim people who favor junk food do so because they either cannot find or afford healthier food.
But a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research now suggests the gap between healthy and unhealthy eaters cannot be explained by access and affordability alone. The study's preliminary findings recently were reported in The Washington Post.
After studying the grocery purchases of 100,000 households for more than a decade, researchers found—with all things equal in availability and price—some consumer groups are just less interested than others in buying healthy foods.
And those groups primarily include people who have less money, education and nutrition knowledge and live in certain geographic areas.
The study's economist and lead author believes regional cuisine and the foods one grows up eating largely impact their food choices later in life.
In other words, if a child rarely ate raw vegetables but grew up regularly eating the region's staple of cheesy pasta and deep-fried chicken she is unlikely to grow up to be a fan of whole wheat toast topped with hummus, thin-sliced avocado, tomato and bean sprouts.
The notion that healthy eating habits begin at an early age is not news to local family wellness and nutrition experts.
"I don't think we have any food deserts in Grand Forks anymore," said Molly Soeby, Family and Community Wellness agent with the North Dakota State University Extension Service in Grand Forks. "I think a lot of people believe they can't afford healthier food, but what we find they need is education so they know how to prepare it and use it, so it doesn't go to waste."
Linda Kuster and Jean Noland both are Extension nutrition educators, and it's their job to teach low-income families healthy eating skills.
"It's really important to start young," Noland said.
Kuster relayed a story of a kindergartner who came home from school so excited after learning about the five food groups that she posted a sticky note at her bedside to keep track of them daily.
"It is so powerful to instill this knowledge in children so they can build healthy, lifelong habits," Kuster said.
The pair guide families on grocery store tours to show them how to read nutrition labels and how to shop smarter with sale ads and meal plans. They also offer hands-on cooking classes that cover topics such as nutritious, low-cost meals and snacks, food-prep safety, food preservation and leftovers, and how to stock a good pantry.
Four of Nadeau's six children still live at home, and they have attended several of the classes together.
Nadeau has learned tricks such as sneaking garbanzo beans into her peanut butter bars and topping pizza with mango.
"My kids will eat a lot of different things, but that's probably because I make a lot of different things," she said. "I never put fruits and vegetables together in a salad, but I do now."
She also blends cauliflower with her mashed potatoes, and onions and mushrooms in her sauces.
"Buzz, buzz," she mimics her Ninja mixer with a laugh. "I throw it in the sauce. They'll never know."
Luellen Hart, the county's program administrator for economic assistance and SNAP, says all parents want their children to grow up healthy, but teaching them the skills to do that doesn't always come naturally.
Busy lives get rushed, and sometimes it's easier for parents to do things themselves rather than take the time to slow down and teach, she said.
"I think about my grandson making French toast," she said. "I have four times the mess and twice the time, but it's the way they learn."
A good start
Nadeau said she learned a lot about healthy eating from her own parents. She grew up with five siblings on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation.
"We had a huge garden. We always had a lot of fruits and vegetables, and I grew up watching Mom and helping her cook," she said. "I think a lot of parents today are both working, and they think it's just easier to go to McDonald's. And there are some kids who never grew up cooking or seeing someone cook."
Nadeau believes even small children can help in the kitchen with supervision. She often puts her 10- and 12-year-old to work peeling potatoes or cutting vegetables. They also can analyze a food label for sugar and fat content.
The family keeps a small garden and also helps with The Share Garden at Stable Days Youth Ranch outside East Grand Forks. The community garden brings together many people to work and enjoy the harvest.
Families also pick a favorite pantry to share the bounty.
Soeby said it's satisfying all around.
"Oftentimes, low-income people can feel marginalized. When they can harvest for others, they feel they are really part of the community and not on the outside," she said. "It feels really good to give back to those who have less than they do. Even the poorest people can give back to the community if they are given the opportunity."
Make veggies fun
Jean Noland offers these tips to help get your children to eat more vegetables:
• Add spinach or kale to a smoothie.
• Sneak shredded zucchini or carrots into muffins, cookies or spaghetti sauce.
• Give it a new name such as X-ray vision carrots, superhero bean dip, cloud fluff (mashed cauliflower).
• Make a happy face using veggies on an English muffin pizza or tortilla.
To learn more about the NDSU Extension Service's Family Nutrition Program, call (701) 780-8229. To learn more about the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, call (701) 231-7254. Info for both programs also can be found at www.ag.ndsu.edu/foodwise.