March is the month when many Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by preparing and/or eating the traditional corned beef and cabbage and potatoes. This meal has been a tradition in my family since before I was even born. My Mom’s side of the family is Irish, so there was never any question as to what was for dinner every March 17th. Interestingly, I recently read an article promoting March as “National Nutrition Month”, which got me thinking about how I have learned to balance comfort food and nutritious food for the kids in my care. It’s been a goal of mine to ensure that when preparing meals for our kids, I not only honored the richness of their own heritage, but that I also introduced them to the traditions of mine as well as include some good ol’ healthy foods.
From the time I welcomed my first foster child into my home in 1990, I made a vow to myself that we would always try and sit down together for dinner. We also started a tradition where Sunday night dinners were extra special, and my Mom would usually come over to join us. I didn’t know this at the time, but have since learned that it is a proven fact that kids who sit down with their family for dinner get better grades than kids who do not. Having said this, I’m not sure I would necessary vouch for this as “fact”, but I do know that what I’ve personally witnessed a lot of kids with tough exteriors, softening up and relaxing during our nightly family dinners.
It is fairly common for foster kids to have issues surrounding food. Many of them have experienced a scarcity of food, never knowing when their next meal would come. And a lot of our kids were raised eating fast food and foods that were high in carbohydrates, salt and lacked protein (hello, ramen noodles). I have always tended to be a comfort food cook myself, serving lots of meatloaf, spaghetti and enchilada casseroles. For some kids, it takes a while for them to stop worrying about whether there will be food the next day or the next. Some of them have even hoarded food in their bedrooms because they were afraid it would be gone. One time, I was helping one of my boys dust the items in his room and when I picked up the speaker to his radio I noticed heard something clunking around inside it. He had stuffed 12 granola bars into his speaker! He was doing what so many of our kids do—using his survival skills to take care of himself. However, it didn’t take him long to realize that there would always be granola bars in our house and that he didn’t have to hide them in his room anymore.
Everyone has their “go-to” comfort foods, and often times these foods aren’t the most nutritious. I’ve learned the healing value of allowing kids to enjoy these foods once in a while even if they make me cringe. I apologize in advance to anyone reading this who I might offend, but Vienna sausages? Processed cheese that squirts out of a can? And, I’m sorry, but have you ever read the ingredients in chorizo? If you haven’t, you probably shouldn’t! BUT, I have found myself saying “yes” to many of these items—in moderation, of course—because of the way my kids react when they get to eat them. I will never forget the pure ecstasy one of our boys experienced when he popped open a can of Vienna sausages. He sniffed the contents and, I’m not kidding, his eyes rolled up in his head and he said, “Ahhhhhhh!” Giving him that experience was worth more to him than any amount of what I would deem “nutritious food.” And you can probably already guess what happened when I gave him the can of “squirty” cheese. Yep, he bypassed the cracker and squirted the stuff directly into his mouth! But this whole experienced supplied another happy memory for a child who didn’t have very many happy memories on which to fall back.
So what does all of these food examples have to do with National Nutrition Month? Well, the theme for this year is: “Savor the flavor of eating right”, and it got me thinking about how important it is to make nutritious foods that are flavorful AND meaningful. Many of the comfort foods that I cook are made with healthy, flavorful ingredients, yet they still deliver on the comfort. I make it a point of asking my kids about their favorite foods—the foods they loved before they came into our care. Then I have them teach me—or we learn together—how to prepare these foods. Sometimes, they even call their family members to get the recipes. All of this effort helps to soften the edges between their family’s home and our foster home, increasing their overall comfort while in our care.
Last year, when the holidays rolled around, one of my kids told me how much he wanted tamales. In his family, tamales were a big tradition at Christmas and on New Year’s. I had never made them before, but I had heard people talk about how difficult it is and how long it takes. But I was determined to make the tamale tradition happen for him, so with the help of several staff members and one amazing Parent Partner from Family Care Network, Celia Sotelo, we invited kids in care into the FCNI kitchen for a Tamales Making Night! We set up an assembly line and made enough tamales for everyone to enjoy that night and take some home. I think we created a new tradition, and I can see an even bigger assembly line for this next holiday season.
A website I found helpful when writing this article was www.eatright.org. This site is devoted to healthy living with a link to the National Nutrition Month page, and it includes a lot recipes, tips and games for getting kids involved. Here are two things from the website that you can do as a family to celebrate this month:
- As a family, commit to trying one new fruit or vegetable each week during the month; and
- Plan to eat more meals together!
And here are two more tips from me:
- Honor your family’s traditions involving food, and if you are a Resource Family, try to honor the foods and traditions of the kids in your care; and
- It there is someone in your life who finds comfort from eating Vienna sausages (or some similar food), let him pop open a can every once in a while. There is as much healing value in these comfort foods as there is in a crate full of carrots!