Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Food is elementary

For the past two days I've had the priviledge to attend a food educator training session for the "Food is Elementary" curriculum developed by Dr. Antonia Demas of the Food Studies Institute. Words can't express how impressed I am with this organization and the amazing work Dr. Demas does. Her program teaches children of all ages about healthy food and nutrition through hands-on multi-cultural lessons that engage all of the senses. And it's real nutrition, too, about vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans (not the typical USDA Food Pyramid nutrition stuff that encourages the consumption of meat and dairy).

The training session was geared specifically for teachers who have volunteered to become part of a pilot program to incorporate these lessons into their regular curriculum. I commend all of them for their incredible enthusiasm, creativity and commitment, as it was a pleasure to share this learning experience with everyone.

Even though I consider myself to be relatively well-versed in vitamins and nutrients, there was still plenty to learn, particularly in the methodology department. Most important, I liked the "No YUCK" rule. Antonia explained that students should be introduced to these new foods gradually, in a safe environment, encouraged - but not forced - to try them. First with smelling and touching, then with taste. It's ok if somebody doesn't like what they eat, as long as they politely indicate this... maybe with a "this is different" or "I've never tasted something like that before" comment. This encourages a sense of freedom and independence so that children learn to appreciate the food on their own. No more cajoling or demanding "Eat it! It's GOOD for you!!"

For most of the teachers, this food was new, too. We created and sampled staple dishes from a variety of ethnic traditions, including Egyptian, Italian, Soul Food and Native American. Who knew okra could taste so divine?! Our group was assigned the task of walking like Egyptians, and we created this lovely Bulgar Wheat Pyramid Pilaf with Dried Apricots, Pistachios and Pomegranate Seeds.

Our main meal consisted of a Barley Salad with Leeks, Artichoke Hearts and Fresh Dill. It couldn't be any easier: simply soak your barley in water, rinse, then put in a pot with water and bring to a boil. Cover it and let simmer for 10-15 minutes. Dump it into a collander to drain off any extra liquid. Then return the pot to the burner and sautee leeks and artichoke hearts in olive oil for a couple of minutes. Add the barley, some frozen peas, fresh chopped dill and a little salt and you're done. Delish!

We also read the lesson plan on the Egyptian culture, learning that the slaves who built the great pyramids ate a diet consisting solely of bread, onions and beer. How's that for the perfect fuel?!

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