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Return of the Family Dinner: Food for Body, Mind & Soul

For the better part of the last decade,  pundits and nutritionists and social scientists have been lamenting the “death of the family dinner.”  Certainly it’s something I addressed as early as 2000,  in my book, the Food Allergy Field Guide, in my Kitchen Zen reflections.

Eating in America,” I noted at the time, ” once a major social endeavor, has been reduced to “power meals” and “fast food.” Our reverence of and appreciation for the fruits of the earth, our connection with the very essence of life itself, with nourishment, has been severed in our headlong rush to get to wherever it is we’re in a hurry to go.

“Whether this same frenetic rush has anything to do with the increasing prevalence of food sensitivities in the U.S.; whether it drives our hurry to feed our children solid foods in infancy to get them along the road to maturity faster, or fuels our predisposition to eat a lot of the same, mass produced, allergen-laden prepared foods and thus create our own food sensitivities, is probably better left to private speculation. “

Most holidays, of course, many of us gather together – sometimes grudgingly, sometimes happily – for a big family dinner.  With Independence Day just around the corner, many of us will come together for picnics and cook-outs and meals together with family and friends.  But for the better part of the year, eating on the go was more the norm.

Then came Jamie Oliver, the Slow Food movement, locavores , and Michelle Obama’s health initiative and the White House vegetable garden , and slowly  the sundry and varied American family is moving back to the dinner table – or at least so reports the Christian Science Monitor this week, in their cover story, “Back to the Dinner Table.”

Bolstered by scientific data and an intensifying popular buzz, ” says CSM. “the family dinner has returned full force as the most important time of the day for many, and as the defining – nay, sacred – family activity. …Studies show that roughly half of families eat together most nights. And while that number holds fairly steady, as a movement, family dinner seems to be reaching critical mass. Opinion leaders – like Tiger Mother Amy Chua, TV personality Cynthia McFadden, medical ethicist Ezekiel Emanuel – now dish about their personal experiences in The New York Times. The Huffington Post suggests table talk topics. “An Inconvenient Truth” documentary producer Laurie David takes the style elements up a notch in her book “The Family Dinner.” Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg breaks from motherhood’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy to fess up: She’s always left work at 5:30 to eat with her children. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow spills in Harper’s Bazaar that she’s doing dinner for her husband and kids. The food-conscious Obamas share their own family dinner habits.”

There’s even a national “Family Day,” held annually on September 24, with the goal of informing parents, “that the engagement fostered during frequent family dinners is an effective tool to help keep America’s kids substance free. Dinner Makes A Difference!”  And the Family Dinner Project,a start-up grassroots movement of food, fun and conversation about things that matter, ” which notes, “Sharing a fun family meal is good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family meals with the kinds of behaviors that parents want for their children: higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem. Additionally, family meals are linked to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression. We also believe in the power of family dinners to nourish ethical thinking.”

Who can argue with that?  Not me!  Family dinners have always been a cherished part of our lives.  Almost every day of every week, we have a family dinner, with whomever is home at any given time.  In our family today, that includes my husband and myself, at least two young adults, and a grandparent.  Occasionally a friend or other relative joins in.  But there is rarely less than four people at our table for dinner, and usually five or more.   What I find particularly interesting is that even on those occasions when I’m feeling preoccupied or disinclined to eat, one of my now grown children will gently insist I come to dinner – a pleasant turning of the (dinner) table!

Because the fact is, sharing meals with those we love is vital for our health and well-being, for our families and our society.  The CSM noted at 2005-06 report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York linked family dinner “to a host of good outcomes for children”. Among the benefits noted by that and more recent studies, eating dinner together at least five times a week

  • lowers teen use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana;
  • lowers the risk of obesity, eating disorders, and teen pregnancy;
  • improves nutrition, physical and mental health, grades, and relationships with parents;
  • helps adults felt better about their families and jobs.

Additionally, Marshall Duke, professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, told CSM, “family stories told at the table build the resilience kids need to navigate a recession-weary, post-9/11 world.  The more that kids know about their family background, the more resilient they are. And not just about the positives, but about the times the family had trouble and people came through.”

Clearly, the Family Dinner nourishes much more than the body.  It feeds the mind and the soul, as well, and builds a foundational story of who we are together, that will sustain us even when we’re apart.   I’m glad the tables are turning for the Family Dinner!

Tampa Teen’s Idea PASSes Allergy Test

“Wouldn’t it be cool if you knew exactly what was in the food that you were eating? This is especially important for people with life-threatening food allergies. With the Portable Allergen Specialized Spectrometer, or PASS, you can finally do that! Using the technology of mass spectrometry, the PASS device scans and penetrates the food with microwave beams. It then turns the scanned information into tangible data that goes through the mass spectrometer-like machine inside the device. Once the process is finished, the information will then be shown on a screen, showing each and every type of food that is on the plate. This device will help people with food allergies that are worried that what they are eating at a restaurant might contain the food that they’re allergic to (In other words, they’re afraid their food won’t PASS the allergy test).”

The PASS system is the brainchild of 15 year old Matthew Temmer, of  Land O’Lakes.  Matthew, who presented his insightful thoughts on the power of youth voice and vision at TEDxYouth@TampaBay 2011 , which I help curate, suffers from severe food allergies, and developed the PASS device idea”so that no one ever has to experience a severe allergic reaction at a restaurant again!”

When I wrote the Food Allergy Field Guide, the biggest concern facing those with food allergies,  including my son,  was – and remains – eating out safely.   My son enjoys french fries, but seasoned fries are often off limits, because it’s hard to know if there’s flour in the seasoning, and wait staff aren’t a reliable source of information about ingredients, nor are cooks sometimes.  The same issue applies with gravies and sauces.  And cross contamination is always a concern.  Having something like the PASS device to ensure safe dining would also make for far more relaxed and enjoyable dining for those with food sensitivities.  So I applaud Matthew’s great idea and hope someone can help make it a reality in the near future.

You can read more about Matthew’s idea at Connect a Million Minds, and if you think it’s as potentially useful as I do, I hope you’ll cast a vote for the Portable Allergen Specialized Spectrometer as totally awesome, too!

Food Allergy Field Guide @ Denver FAAN Walk

Many thanks to the Denver FAAN Walk for sharing this great picture from their event.  The young lady in the center is Denver’s Honorary Youth Chair, Ana Valdez.  Ana is  allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, treenuts and shellfish.  Ana, and youth like her, would love to have a cure for food allergies, and she’s working hard with FAAN to meet FAAN’s Denver campaign goals to help fund continued research.

I’m going to keep helping Ana  – through the end of September 2011, 20% of each purchase of the Food Allergy Field Guide made through my website will be donated to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) . Please note “FAAN” in the message section, so proceeds can be allocated properly. If you’d like your book signed in anyone’s name, please let me know when you order.

And look for the Food Allergy Field Guide at the Tampa FAAN Walk in  November, too!

A Walk for Awareness with the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network

Today, on a day when we commemorate sadness and loss, 500 people in Denver are doing something good for others , as they embark on the Denver FAAN Walk  to help fund food allergy awareness, advocacy, education and research .   Food allergies may not be anything you think about if you don’t have them, but  for 15 million Americans, nearly half of them children,  food allergies are a serious and sometimes life threatening problem.  When your need for sustenance is also a serious threat to your health, then life can become pretty complicated, for you and your family.

The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) is a nonprofit organization based in Fairfax, Va., with approximately 25,000 members in the U.S., Canada, and 58 other countries. FAAN provides information and educational resources about food allergy to patients, their families, schools, health professionals, pharmaceutical companies, the food industry, and government officials.

When we were trying to figure out my son’s vague and seemingly intractable health problems a dozen years ago, FAAN resources were vital, and I also drew heavily upon them when putting together my book, the Food Allergy Field Guide: A Lifestyle Manual for Families. Today, the Food Allergy Field Guide is part of the Denver FAAN Walk, and I’m happy to be hosting a month long FAAN fundraiser here, with 20% of book purchases made through my website benefitting FAAN.

Before we discovered my son’s food sensitivities, we never thought about food very much. Our family simply ate the foods we enjoyed without giving the source of our health and well being much consideration. After we learned about gluten intolerance, we began learning about food, its beautifies and complexities, its most essential qualities and its least essential ones. Our son was instrumental in raising our health intelligence quotient , in a way that was ahead of the national learning curve at the time.  Many of the families whose stories I share in the book reported similar experiences.

If there’s a silver lining to living with a food allergy, it’s that it forces us to reexamine our lives from its most basic and fundamental aspects to its most sublime.   Having access to resources and information like FAAN makes available helps those with food allergies live more intentional lives of health and safety, and their research based efforts are also helping pave the way for better labeling, treatments and practices for those with severe food allergies.

More than 80% of every dollar donated to FAAN is spent on research and education and awareness programs. Since 2004, FAAN has funded more than $4.6 million in research. And in education, which remains the single most important component of staying safe while living with food allergies, FAAN has funded nearly $175,000 in Community Outreach Grants since 2006 to local support groups throughout the country. Some of those local groups will be holding our own Tampa FAAN Walk at Lowry Park in Tampa, on November 12, for those interested in making a local impact.

For more information about FAAN, and to find great resources about food allergies, please visit www.foodallergy.org.

Food Allergy Field Guide Goes for a FAAN Walk

Knocking on wood here, I’ll start by saying I’m one of those “hardy” people who rarely gets sick,  has never suffered a major injury, and can (and often will) eat just about anything.  I’m an ethnic mutt, bestowed of a motley Heinz 57 genetic legacy from parents of Caribbean and Mediterranean descent, with a smattering of Eastern Europe sprinkled in for good measure.  Much of my childhood was spent barefoot and outdoors, where I got splinters and ticks, stepped on nails and fell out of trees, and kept right on going.

It wasn’t until I had my third child – an adorable little boy with bafflingly fragile health – that I made the acquaintance of allergies; more specifically food sensitivities and intolerances.  The first three years of his life, his father and I made good use of the fledgling Internet as we tried to narrow down just what his various symptoms were telling us.  Finally, as near as we could figure, we concluded he had celiac disease or gluten intolerance.  Our conclusion was more or less confirmed when we took wheat and related grains from his diet for two weeks, and all his symptoms, from GI distress to stuttering and developmental delays, seemed to disappear.

Our pediatrician congratulated us on our amateur diagnosis, charged us a $20 copay (it was 1994!) and sent us on  our way.  For the next few years, as we learned to live gluten free lives, I continued to hear similar stories from other families.  Since there were few resources at the time for families dealing with food allergy and sensitivity issues, and I happened to be a writer, I figured it might be a fun and useful exercise to put one together. The Food Allergy Field Guide was published in 2000, and followed by a second, updated edition in 2006.

My son is 18 now.  He’s a six foot tall, 115 lb. bean pole of a guy, good natured as ever, a budding programmer, finishing up his final year of high school, dual enrolled at a local college, active in his FIRST robotics team, learning to create apps, and constantly inventing the next great ithing.  A couple of years ago, he finally got a blood test to determine whether he really had celiac disease. It came back negative, but he knows he has reactions if he accidentally consumes wheat or related grains, so he still avoids them.  Maybe it’s a false negative. Maybe he has something else.  Either way, he’s made the choice to avoid wheat because he feels better when he doesn’t eat it.

While he’s always battled vague health problems, they’ve never dominated his life.  He bakes his own bread, can cook his own meals, shop for himself and knows how to order “safe” foods in restaurants. He is, as I had hoped he would become when I wrote the Food Allergy Field Guide a dozen years ago, a self-sufficient, self-reliant young man in control of his diet rather than controlled by it.

Over the years, the Food Allergy Field Guide became a dietary companion to many who sung its praises, on Amazon.com, in Good Reads, in support groups and doctors’ offices and a variety of reviews.  So it was with some sadness that I learned it would no longer be carried by  the original Colorado book publisher that had put the book in so many grateful hands.  I could only ship so many to my home in Tampa,  but wanted to make sure remaining copies got a second life.  After a little internet browsing, I came upon  Allergic Child, a wonderful site devoted to providing resources and networking to families of children with a variety of allergies.

It turns out Allergic Child is a sponsor of the upcoming Denver FAAN (Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network) Walk , on September 11,  and I was able to donate 500 copies of the Food Allergy Field Guide for inclusion in Goodie bags for walkers.   I’m delighted more families will have access to this user’s guide to food allergies and sensitivities, because even though we’ve come a long, long way in a dozen years, there are still pitfalls and misconceptions on which to be educated.

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Sandra Beasley, who identifies herself as a former “Allergy Girl,” suggests conversation is still needed on the topic of empowering youth,  and educating others on the subject of food allergies.  I actually agree with Ms. Beasley that the goal shouldn’t be “ to create a bubble around those of us with food allergies.”  But I also believe there’s a reasonable middle ground between what she describes as the daily mission of “dodging death”  and “living our lives”, for those with food allergies.   It shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, where those with allergies throw caution to the winds and take their chances with illness, or worse, in order to live  meaningful and enjoyable lives (which would be neither if they threw caution to the winds!).   My son is a great example of young adult who’s not consumed by his dietary limitations (pun intended) but intelligently careful and living his life quite fully.

Families and youth educated and empowered in handling food sensitivities – from learning at an early age to articulate their needs, exercise self-discipline in avoiding the wrong foods,  having the skill to read labels and menus, and the self-esteem to ask questions and politely demur questionable offerings – as well as being active advocates for healthy and safe foods in schools and public places, all  go a long way towards keeping children out of bubbles in the first place.  But labels should be clear, and schools and restaurants should be safe and accommodating. That’s the message of the Food Allergy Field Guide, my love note writ large for my son and other children and their families trying to reclaim their healthy birthrights.

I’m grateful to Allergic Child for helping put copies of the Food Allergy Field Guide in more families’ hands, where I hope it will bring comfort and reassurance, and help empower more children. Remaining copies are being given to Denver area hospitals, libraries, doctor’s offices and support groups.   And I’ll be republishing the book in a 3rd edition sometime in the next year, so the Food Allergy Field Guide will continue to provide common sense sustenance for many years to come!

Behold -The Food Plate!

The USDA squashed its food pyramid this week, in favor of — a plate. The new “My Plate” is a bit of a  throw-back to days of simpler eating, and a welcome visual respite from the muddled “My Pyramid” of 2005 that sometimes looked more like a dietary landfill than a plan for healthy eating.

I first got up close and personal with the USDAs nutrition recommendations in elementary school in the 1960s, when eating advice consisted of a very short list of the “Four Basic Food Groups.”  Oils and sugars didn’t play into the picture very much, although I probably got a decent dose of both, alternating between the chorizos and pastelitos of my Cuban family in Miami, and the fried chicken and apple pies of my Anglo relatives in New Jersey.  I also got a really healthy dose of the outdoors, and was outside more than I was ever in.

Over time, the food groups became more partisan, with vegetables and fruits going their separate ways, oil rising to the top and grains holding the whole thing up on their wheaty shoulders.  After my son was born in the early 1990s, I was reacquainted with nutrition in a new way. Plagued by health and development problems from the time he began eating solid foods, our little boy provided the impetus for learning about things like celiac disease and lactose intolerance.   The food pyramid was cause for angst, because the very foundations of healthy eating – grains – were apparently the very thing that made my son ill.

In the course of writing my first book, the Food Allergy Field Guide: A Lifestyle Manual for Families (Savory Palate, 2006, 2nd edition), I made the acquaintance of the USDAs new pyramid, which went from fairly self-explanatory images of food to a color coded circus tent beneath a set of stairs upon which a gender neutral stick figure ascended to nowhere.  It had the same visual affect as wearing horizontal stripes with vertical, and made about as much sense.

In 2005, they threw all the food down at the bottom of the rainbow, apparently to mollify those of us having trouble with the color coding.  When I updated my book in 2006, I made a half hearted attempt to throw support behind the new pyramid, but when the nutrition info was cut from the appendix for printing reasons, I felt a little relieved.

I think I got the message of healthy eating across just fine in my Kitchen Zen reflections:

Now you have a food-sensitive child. Now you have to look at the food you eat. Now you have to reduce it down to the bare essentials, to its purest forms, and distilled to a non-allergenic essence of simplicity.  Behold food! From the ground, from trees, from vines and marshy fields and golden meadows. It is beautiful! The textured skin of a carrot, the earthy odor of a baking potato, the fragrance of a smooth-skinned apple, the savory aroma of seasoned rice simmering quietly on the stove.

As you learn to prepare foods your food-sensitive child and your whole family can enjoy, take the opportunity to engage in a little kitchen Zen. There is elegance to pure, wholesome foods that nothing in a box or a bag can ever approach. You don’t have to be the Galloping Gourmet to appreciate that elegance, or to use your kitchen time, whether it’s daily, or just one day a week …, to regain time for yourself and for your family, and a sense of beauty and richness that will nourish you far outside the walls of your kitchen. It really doesn’t get much simpler, more nutritious or more satisfying than that.

The USDA finally seems to agree, getting back to their own dietary bare essentials with the simple elegance of a plate.  No dietary hierarchies, no fancy representative clip art, no iconic walking people, no piles of food; just a plate, suggesting proportional servings of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein. No one food has precedence over another – they all share the plate in interdependent coexistence, towards the common good of health and well-being.

To balance calories, the USDA advises simply, “Enjoy your food, but eat less” and “Avoid oversized portions.”   The rest of their healthy eating recommendations are similarly common sense and simple – choose foods with lower amounts of sodium, and drink water instead of sugary drinks, among other guidance.

It’s hard to believe a government agency can simplify anything, let alone health recommendations. But the USDA seems to have done just that, and they have my kudos.  Hopefully more people will take the Plate to heart, and find the joy of Kitchen Zen in their own lives.