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A Healthy-Living Essay

First Place Prize

Lana Cook Audubon, NJ

As a mother of two small boys, ages three and a half and ten months, I put a lot of thought and energy into modeling a healthy lifestyle, from preparing healthy meals and snacks, to making sure they get outside for active play as much as possible. A key factor to our healthy lifestyle is the food choices that are made in my home everyday, both by my children and me. With regard to feeding my boys—husband included—there are a few simple rules that I live by: plan meals, prepare food, partner up, and prettify the plates!

My philosophy on meal planning is two-fold: make a plan (and a grocery list) and cook at home. I like to serve home cooked meals every night, and I know that if I didn’t plan them ahead of time, this would not be possible. I have a list of general items that I purchase weekly, including organic eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese, but aside from those items, I plan our meals around the seasonal fruits and vegetables that are advertised as on sale for that week. I am not only cost conscious; I adhere to a strict no-waste policy, and I plan meals accordingly. For example, I often follow chicken parmigiana with homemade veggie pizza, to ensure that the remaining sauce and cheese are put to use; or, in the winter, I turn left over sauce into vegetarian chili—nothing goes to waste in our home. I even freeze bananas and berries, to use later in smoothies, before they become overly ripe. I believe that modeling an appreciation, gratitude, and respect for food is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle, and I try to foster this attitude in my sons.

Serving a home cooked meal every night is not as challenging or time-consuming as it sounds, though it does involve a bit of planning and preparation. I take a few hours on ‘grocery day’ to prepare the food I purchased and to make sure that I can easily cook a healthy meal each night throughout the week. I chop and store two days worth of vegetables for Monday and Tuesday’s dinners, and I also chop and store either a pineapple or a melon to keep in the fridge as a quick and delicious snack. If I plan to serve chicken or steak, I buy in bulk and portion and freeze it as soon as I get home.

My sons are not picky eaters; I believe they are more flexible because they feel connected to the processes involved in shopping, cooking, and preparing food. I involve them as much as possible when I select the food we eat. I never go to the grocery store without them, and they both love to touch, and discuss—or learn about—everything that goes into our cart. If they are not selecting their vegetables from the store, then they are choosing them from our garden. My husband and I encourage our older son to plant, pick, water, and weed the garden with us. He loves to go into the garden and pick fresh strawberries, or ripe red tomatoes off the vine, and it has given him a connection with his food that he would otherwise miss out on. We also take them on seasonal hayrides at a local farm, where children are invited to pick various fruits and veggies at each stop.

Cooking is a family affair in my home; I always offer samples as I cook, and I encourage my older son to help out. His favorite things to do are scoop melon directly from a halved and de-seeded cantaloupe, or pour ingredients into a bowl and, with my guidance, use a mixer to combine them. He is a part of each meal from start to finish, and my younger son is also involved, as both my toddler and I have fun introducing new foods to him.

Once everything else is in place, I try to make meals look fun and beautiful by serving an array of colors, textures, and dipping sauces. For example, my older son loves to dip fire-engine red tomatoes in vibrant green pesto, and my younger son loves pureed sweet potatoes and firm brown rice. I love presenting my sons with a good-looking array of healthful foods. I have found that ramekins are a great way to get kids excited about eating their veggies. For some reason, they like to see each item on their plate displayed exclusively, so each night at dinner, I fill a ramekin with fresh fruit and another with a fresh vegetable; some favorites are melon, blueberries, edamame and green beans—they love them all!

My sons have fun in the kitchen. It is not a place that we stop in to grab a quick snack; it is a place where we spend quality time together learning about the beauty of the nutritious foods that sustain us. Mealtime is an opportunity for me to bond with my children, appreciate whatever is before us, and be thankful for how it got there.

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