A few months ago, a girlfriend and I were commiserating over having to cook another meal yet again for our kids and I said, “I wish someone would cook for me every day.” She replied, “Well, someone once did cook for you every day.” Right. How easily we forget. I was fed daily by my mother who was an amazing cook. We’d have everything from sundried tomato fettucine to crab curry, all which she would concoct after a full day’s work.
I have a fairly broad palette and consider myself a healthy eater. As I stood in my kitchen, I wondered whether there were some historical roots attached to this behavior and if there were perhaps habits from childhood that I could use to pass on to ensure my kids would also choose healthier eating. My mom is no longer with us and months such as May (when we celebrate our Mother’s in full blown fashion as we should) are often a stark reminder, but then I remember that she lives on in many of things that inherently know, how I act, and how I live. Many of these traits are expressed in my kitchen—the place where we went countless hours together.
In my reflection of how my mother influenced me to be a healthier eater, here are four tips that I hope can be helpful to you:
1. Model good behavior. This was perhaps the most important quality. My mom focused on eating well, but also on cooking simply. My love of cooking is no accident because I spent hours in the kitchen with her whenever I could, watching and talking about everyday things. Watching her cook inspired me, but she also focused on better-for-you foods, however they were defined at the time.
2. Offer healthier alternatives. While junk food was not off limits, carrots and cucumbers were cut as an alternative and always available. For example, she wouldn’t forbid us from eating sweets, but would offer up carrot and cucumber sticks with ranch dressing or hummus. Once our bodies had acclimated to healthier foods our bellies would be craving those carrots if we overindulged in junk. Making accessible healthy or healthier alternatives such as these Carrot Cake Cupcakes with Orange Mascarpone Frosting serve as alternative examples of how to eat, while perhaps simultaneously limiting the number of store-bought plastic-bagged treats.
3. Add a sauce to a meal. A sauce changes a dish. It adds texture or contrast that changes up flavors and almost every dish we ate growing up was served with one. My mom grew up in India, so having condiments such as pickled mangos along with a meal was considered the norm, so it’s not surprising that she carried over this tradition. Vegetables or salads taste better with a sauce or really good dressing and while some kids are sauce-adverse and like to keep foods separate, many like to dip their foods or have actionable steps as part of their meal.
Sauces can range from easy to intricate or time-consuming such as a Béarnaise, but they can also be simple and bursting with flavor. These Zucchini and Corn Fritters went from meh to fantastic with a Sour Cream Chive Sauce that blitzed together in about 2 minutes. Other easy sauces are chimichurri, raita, peanut sauce, chipotle mayo, or this flavor-bomb green sauce for dunking Peruvian Chicken. Sauces don’t have to be rich and heavy. When they are bursting with flavor, they can inspire you to eat any set of vegetables.
4. Involve children in cooking and planning. We were asked if we wanted any favorites for dinner during the week—it was different than taking specific requests or being a short-order cook though. She teased out if we were craving any favorite foods and worked around this in some way. Again, the food wasn’t complicated or heavy, it was just good and made with care and lots of love. Many kids have opinions and they like to be heard, so ask them for suggestions when planning you week’s meals. Twist up what they want by being creative. If I wanted cheese enchiladas, for example, my mom would offer something like these Chile Rellenos, which have the red sauce, queso fresco, but are also loaded with butternut squash, mushrooms and stuffed into peppers. It has the same explosion of flavors in the mouth, minus the corn tortilla and filled with tons of vitamins. Besides involving them in planning, children tend to be more vested in eating something they have touched, cut, cooked or sorted. There are many age-appropriate kitchen gadgets and tools, like this lettuce cutter, that empower children to be little helpers in the kitchen, to watch and learn from you, and ultimately to just be your sidekick in the kitchen.
So, as we honor our mothers this month, let’s remember to be thankful for all of the daily meals they put out for us as we strive to do the same.