Holiday RX: Collaborative Holiday Meals

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This is the time of year when food is front and center in our lives. For some, it's a license to indulge. For others, the focus is about their culinary traditions that reflect their heritage through time worn recipes. We connect with our family and friends through gatherings with celebratory food. Then, when the holiday season is over, we make New Year resolutions to become more fit and lose a few pounds. But, could we use this time to be more intentional around the role that food plays in our holiday celebrations, and in our lives? Can this festive season be approached as a tool to bring our family -  or our educational program participants, together to celebrate with local, seasonal, and healthful food?

What does it mean to be intentional around food? Let's explore some ways to approach meals more meaningfully this holiday season.

1. Consider the menu items critically.
You don’t have to serve dishes just because you have ‘always had them at the holidays.’ Take a moment to pause and consider whether you honestly love every dish. Do your holiday recipes represent what your region has to offer in terms of seasonal, fresh food? Do they reflect the health profile of how you like or would like to eat at this point in your life?  Asparagus on the menu?  It’s really a spring vegetable, so why not swap with winter greens or root vegetables that will offer a more seasonal approach. Do those sweet potatoes really need marshmallows? What is a way to enjoy these sweet and lusciously textured vegetables?  The youth from our Teen Battle Chef program are often asked to help prepare Thanksgiving feasts for the elderly or other group settings. Our policy is to ensure that they are also helping to re-interpret ‘typical’ dishes enjoyed over the holidays by providing one or more recipes that has a ‘twist’ on tradition, such as a delectable butternut squash and apple cider soup with feta and dill. 

2. Who will prepare what?  
Do you take on too much when the holidays come along? Are you tempted to just ‘order out’ because it’s so much work?  Or from a program perspective, does making a group feast before the holiday vacation seem too daunting?  This only has to be the case if you are taking on too much yourself and not involving other family members or young cooks in your program. When our founder, Lynn Fredericks’s children were young, she re-evaluated the holiday menus and offered each of her two sons an opportunity to create their signature dish. She helped them select and cook it. This became their new tradition that continues to this day. It was their special ritual and having her boys’ participation took the pressure off of Lynn to do all the cooking by herself.better and in season during the months of April and May, so why not swap traditional vegetables with winter greens or root vegetables that will offer a more seasonal approach.  

3. Establish new traditions.
In addition to new recipes, what new traditions  could you create around cooking or eating together?  Does one child or age group in a program take on table decorations? Can someone take the lead in planning music and songs to be apart of your celebration? What about shopping? Can your students (or children) help you make the shopping list and then go with you to the farmers market and/or the grocery store? Offering ways to enhance your meal with creative additions that make it festive and special can also add to your enjoyment.  Whether it’s Kwanza, Christmas or Hanukkah, you can find special paper decorations to make from snowflakes to dreidels to paper mkekas.

Use the time of the holidays for everyone in your program or family to: make conscious decisions about what’s important for your celebratory meal. Set goals together about your food priorities for taste, budget, as well as health to ensure your meals this holiday season reflect something that everyone feels great about cooking, serving and eating!

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Teen Battle Chefs take on Thai recipe concepts

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Every summer, FamilyCook offers an opportunity for a couple dozen inner city teenagers to have a part-time paid job teaching others to cook healthy meals.  Through Teen Battle Chef, these students learned to cook in their high schools and were nominated for our Summer Leadership Brigade by their TBC instructors from our partner organizations such as HealthCorps

 

I developed Teen Battle Chef 10 years ago to inspire teenagers to find their path to a healthier lifestyle. Through our innovative formula employing time limits and weekly competitions, teens develop a preference to prepare their own snacks and meals using fresh ingredients. Seeing this transformation, we then took the program to the next level by exploring the teens’ capacity to influence their families and friends. With that success, the program’s scope now includes internships and job opportunities for these youths to teach others in their community.

 

We match them to such jobs as teaching younger children to cook and conducting cooking demos in farmers markets, among other roles. Each Tuesday, the whole group meets at a central location for a mentoring session or field trip. This week, we took them into new territory with Thai cuisine!  One of our new dietetic interns (Pamela Wachrathit) is Thai and was excited to participate to be our authenticity guide for our cooking session.  The TBC Alumni Mentors, who organized and co-facilitated the three- hour session, were thrilled at the results!

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Surprising

On the menu were three delicious Thai recipes:  Green Papaya Salad; Lettuce Leaf Wrap Appetizers, and Sticky Rice with Coconut and Mango.  According to our Teen Battle Chef Alumni Mentors (who just a few months back were learning to be TBCs in their own high schools), they were most surprised by the TBC students’ willingness to try all the unusual ingredients, such as dried shrimp which were, according to Mentor Liz Cordero, ‘pretty shrimpy and salty’ tasting.  TBC Mentor Joel Allette was surprised that tutoring the kids on deveining shrimp moved along so speedily and successfully.

 

Hilarious

Apparently some of the ‘newness’ for the teens resulted at times in downright hilarity.  When pressed to give examples, they unanimously agreed upon the moment when TBC Cheyanne reacted to the lettuce leaf wraps, which had chili rounds, pickled garlic, ginger, herbs, coconut, peanuts etc. inside.  They laughed uncontrollably as they described how she was so shocked by the chili spice that hit her palate first, she ‘tried to suck in all the air in the room’ to compensate for the spices. Equally funny, they shared, was the reaction to the opening of the jar of shrimp paste which, Joel assured me, made the entire room smell like Flatbush, Brooklyn on a 100 degree day.  

 

Gratifying

Of course the entire experience of working with youth (even if you’re one of our Mentors, one of which is still a high school student, albeit a very accomplished one) is chock full of proud and satisfying moments.  Dante Mena our amazing musician chef, shared with me that his most gratifying moment was when the students tasted their Thai creations and ‘begged for 2nds, 3rds, and even 4ths!”  For Liz, she most appreciated seeing them ‘eat something totally foreign’ and expect to like it!

 

Teaching Moments:

Beyond the introduction of new recipes teaming with fresh ingredients, the other purpose of the day was to demonstrate how most culture’s recipes are concepts. Once mastered, they can be altered with new seasonal ingredients. This is a very important part of how we teach cooking in FamilyCook programs and it is also described step by step in our book.  According to the TBC mentors, adding some blueberries to the traditional sticky rice and mango was a big hit, as were adding zucchini and radishes to the Thai papaya salad!  Our Thai intern underscored this lesson as she ndescribed how her grandmother made these same dishes with her signature touch.

 

Photos:  Courtesy David Bartolomi

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