Archive for ‘Benefits of Cooking’

May 18, 2017

Healthy is Beautiful

Why can’t we see that healthy is beautiful? This week there were radishes in my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box. I immediately thought of my grandmother. As the host of all of our Sunday family dinners, birthday celebrations, Thanksgiving meals, and Christmas lunch, she never molded, garnished, piped or styled anything. She didn’t take the time to weave a lattice top over her apple pie, she just rolled a second crust and put a few slits in the top. Her one nod to beautifying her food was the radish rose. Even those she kept simple, using a few rudimentary cuts. Then she placed them on a china plate – sometimes her pattern and sometimes her mother’s.
If this leaves you thinking the table was bland or ugly, think again. A simple white on white table cloth held pristine china, real silverware, cloth napkins, and a row of serving bowls down the center brimming with food from the garden — bright yellow corn, red tomato slices, green okra or string beans with new potatoes. Even the stuffed peppers were home grown, and the dark red Bing cherries were picked fresh from a tree in her yard. Gran may not have used the silver service that sat in her china cabinet next to the dining table or made room for flowers and candles on the table, but her table was elegant, inviting and filled with colorful, fragrant, delicious, fresh food.
What would Gran think of styling or plating food? I don’t know if she’d object. She wasn’t particularly rough around the edges. Her grammar was impeccable, her nails were always perfectly manicured and painted bright red, and she never gave up her high heels. She just had her own sense of priorities and a limited amount of time. That led to practical decisions. Gran was able to discern that fresh ingredients and skilled preparation would trump appearance in the long run so that’s how she allotted her time.

She also shopped and delivered groceries to a disabled man on a regular basis, made regular nursing home rounds to visit old friends, was church clerk and worked 40 hours a week. If you had suggested she style her food rather than perform these tasks, I’m pretty sure she would have stomped her foot and sent you out of the room. That sort of prioritizing just made her mad.

Maybe it’s my grandmother’s influence, or perhaps I’ve just hit that age when lots of things don’t make sense, but our current priorities leave me frequently feeling out of sync. We spend lots of time, energy, and money making things look good on the surface when doing so means sacrificing quality, health, resilience, accomplishment, character, learning, and deep connection. You can see this in play in many areas:
Relationships – Dump this imperfect person for the next imperfect person instead of examining our contribution to the problem
Parenting – Help the child with his homework so he gets a good grade rather than allowing him to learn from failure
Education – Teach to the test instead of teaching how to learn and process knowledge, i.e. think critically
Finances – Spend and borrow so we appear affluent now rather than plan and save for later
Beauty – Starve, cover, augment, inject, fill, and color instead of appreciating the beauty of our natural attributes
Psychological & Emotional Health – Numb with drugs, alcohol, video games, excessive spending, and overworking rather than feeling and healing
Politics – Say what appeals to constituents right now no matter how a policy will affect the country in the future
Nutrition – Substitute packaged, processed, fortified and convenient for fresh, whole, nutrient-rich, minimally processed and variety
Medicine – Treat symptoms with meds in instances when lifestyle changes can be equally effective

The shift in priorities from Gran’s era to now is rarely questioned, but it doesn’t seem to be serving us well. In my city, the homicide total to date is more than double last year’s rate as of this date. The number of nonfatal gunfire injuries has increased 92 percent. Opioid addiction is at an all-time high. Chronic disease is increasing across all age groups. Political divisiveness and hostility now frequently erupt into contentious confrontations. Rudeness abounds. Bad behavior is presented as the norm of the reality TV star. The US barely makes it into the top 20 list of countries with the highest standard of living as measured by the Social Progress Imperative.
How many of these problems could we reverse simply by prioritizing basic healthy practices-
Getting enough sleep
Eating fresh, minimally processed food
Finding a way to be active 5-6 days per week
Making time for stillness
Forgiving ourselves
Owning our decisions
Setting boundaries
Showing appreciation
Practicing gratitude
Listening to each other
Showing compassion

Of course, there’s no way to know, but I believe we have the ability to improve anything on which we focus our energy. If we simply viewed healthy as beautiful, it’s clear we’d throw lots of time, money, and energy into achieving a healthy state. Perhaps we can start by pausing a moment to see the beauty in colorful fresh vegetables, fragrant herbs, and listening to each other over a bowl of homemade soup.

With her energy focused on growing and preparing vegetables, making pickles and tomato juice, and keeping the cookie jar full, Gran may not have had time for frilly or fancy, but she certainly provided a beautiful spread. She’s been gone for more than 20 years and we still talk about those meals. We miss them. On Gran’s table, healthy food had lasting beauty.

The lasting beauty of healthy food that contributes to healing – that’s a priority I can get behind!



June 16, 2015

Feel like a chef? Be a chef.

Feel like a chef? Be a chef. Last week I had the privilege of leading a Cooking at College session for some teens in a College Bound program. The students were broken into 4 teams. Each team prepared 2 different Cooking2Thrive recipes, then presented and served them to the rest of the students plus parents and staff. Chef’s hats were provided for everyone.
chef thomas
Before we even got started, it was clear that some of the students already felt like chefs. They grabbed a hat and chattered about things they like to cook. There was no need to encourage them to begin; they were ready to show off their skills!

Asked about his favorite thing to cook, one young chef readily admitted he had never cooked anything. He said this with a smile, his head held high, and eagerness to get to the cooking. He wanted to be a chef. He saw himself as a chef. He had full confidence that he would excel at preparing his dish.

Others weren’t so sure at the beginning. After they read their recipes, made a shopping list, and procured ingredients at our “store,” they began to get comfortable. Eventually, they too felt like chefs although they never donned the hats. In fact, once they hit their stride, they challenged me to a taste test — their tomato soup vs. my tomato soup.
One chef assured the group that she deserved applause for having baked them Parmesan Crisp Mini Pizzas. Even though they had yet to taste her contribution, she successfully solicited the applause she desired. She clearly was in charge of her kitchen!

Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of chaos, occasional frustration, and some necessary regrouping here and there, but overall it was clear to see that as the students participated in the process, they gained the confidence to see themselves as something they’d never been before.
That is the joy of trying something new! Through the process, our world opens to possibilities we never imagined. We may take an introductory flight lesson and begin to see ourselves as a pilot. We may try out a pottery wheel and begin to see ourselves as a potter. We may begin to run each day and eventually sign up for a marathon. We may try a yoga class and eventually become an instructor. We may feel compelled to share the story of a friend’s struggle and become a documentary filmmaker. Or, maybe we prepare one delicious meal when we feel like a chef.

My favorite moment of the day was when a student decided to taste the left-over French fry casserole he’d just finished cooking. His look of surprise, appreciation, and accomplishment as he exclaimed, “Ooo, that’s good!”, was priceless. You could literally see it register with him that he had created something delicious. In that moment, he felt like a chef and I felt his joy.

Luckily for all of us, joy is even more delicious than the very best food! I wish you a boatload of it.

Download video of student cooking techniques here:
Tomato Soup
French Fry Casserole
Banana Pudding

June 8, 2014

Fed Up?

Fed Up posterBen, Heather & I went to see the movie Fed Up this week. Our motivation was that James was one of the colorists who worked on the movie, but the visual effect his work created wasn’t the only thing we took away from the theater.

Directed by Stephanie Soechtig, this documentary is brought to us by executive producers Katie Couric and Laurie David. Katie Couric also narrates. The movie’s basic premise is political – an indictment of the US government’s acquiescence to the food lobby that has led to grocery stores full of food with tons of added sugar.

I don’t know if the point of the movie was to suggest that the government change its ways, big business change its ways, or just to shed a light on how the relationships currently work and how those relationships affect what we are told about food. Nonetheless, we all learned something.

In the car after the movie, Heather said she always thought that all calories were equal so it didn’t matter whether she got those calories from French fries or from almonds and carrots, and green beans. Every time Ben has told her that vegetables matter, she has dismissed the idea because she believed what we’ve all been collectively told – calories in, calories out is the key to healthy weight. This movie showed her that nutritionally where the calories come from matters.

Although I read labels any time I buy packaged food, I typically focus on the ingredient list. Sometimes I’ll look at the amount of calories, fat content or carbohydrates. I guess I always thought that sugars never contained a percentage of daily allowance number because the label was just reflecting how many grams of the carbs were sugars.

Fed Up makes the point that due to the lobbying pressure of large food manufacturers, the USDA has not set a recommended daily allowance for sugar. This means that in the US labels never bear a percentage of the daily allowance of sugar because no such recommended daily allowance exists. This is quite a clever strategy for avoiding having to state on the label that one regular can of soda contains 40 grams of sugar and exceeds the World Health Organization’s (WHO) sugar intake recommendation for one day by 15 grams.

chex nutri label

Rice Chex

GF super seeded bread

Gluten-Free Super Seeded Bread

wheat bread label

Wheat Bread

Hamburger helper label

Hamburger Helper

At first glance 15 grams may not sound like much, but 15 grams = 3.5 teaspoons or 60% of The World Health Organization’s recommended daily sugar intake for a whole day. The WHO advises that no more than 5% of your daily calories come from sugars. For the average adult with a normal body mass index (BMI), that comes to about 6 teaspoons or 25 grams of sugar per day. Now remember, one soda is 15 grams above the daily allowance. In other words, one regular can of soda contains 160% of the recommended daily intake of sugar.

Would it change how you feel about handing your child a soda if the label on the can listed the sugars as 160% of the recommended daily allowance? For those of us who try to make informed choices, having the information at out fingertips would make our job much easier.

And that brings me to Ben’s takeaway, and my passion – the only way you ever really know what’s in your food is to cook it yourself! In fact, that’s why we’re here cooking to thrive!

Not convinced that you can make cooking part of your lifestyle? Check out these posts:


Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have a material connection to the colorist mentioned, but no material connection to the companies, brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I did not write this post at the behest of said colorist. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

August 28, 2013

The Benefits of Cooking – Part 3: The Lessons

When I was in junior high school, all girls were required to take a class called Home Economics and all boys were required to take Wood Shop. Well, to be truthful, I never took Home Ec because I opted to take an extra science course instead.

What did I need Home Ec for? I was told that what they did in that class was learn to cook and sew. I already knew how to do those things. My grandmother taught me to sew when I was 9. My mother was delegating her baking to me even before that. I was ready to learn something new. I was off to take a new science class in which I excelled. Why? I was well prepared. All those lessons I learned in the kitchen had prepared me for science, math, and process thinking.

As we watch our kids become less and less skilled in these three areas, I often wonder how closely related it is to the fact that many of us no longer cook. Perhaps we should consider getting the kids back in the kitchen so they’ll be better prepared for school.

Double a recipe and your daughter will quickly come to understand why adding and multiplying fractions are critical skills. Without understanding common denominators, how can she know that 1 1/4 cups plus 1 1/4 cups equals 2 1/2 cups?  But once she has learned these conversions while cooking, there will be no need to resist expanding on that knowledge in math class. Certainly the familiar – “Why do I need to learn this, I’ll never use it in real life?” – argument will be nullified. Want to help her even more, have her make one and a half recipes of cookies. The division required provides an opportunity to use even more advanced math skills.

Throw some salt in a pot of water that you need to hurry up and boil. Your son just learned that you can lower the boiling point of water by adding salt. Put some baking soda in lemon juice and let him watch a frothing chemical reaction that doesn’t threaten to destroy your house or poison its occupants.

There are endless chemistry and physics lessons inherent in cooking. You can point them out, or just let your children learn without knowing they’re learning as they watch solid fats melt into liquids, lemon juice curdle cream, or heat cause baking soda to release carbon dioxide and make a cupcake rise. Even if you don’t specifically discuss the science behind these reactions while you’re cooking, you are creating a repository of knowledge that will make these concepts seem familiar when it’s time to take a chemistry class. This knowledge will help remove the fear of being in the lab and lay the foundation of curiosity for a formula that explains how the acids in baking powder react to create carbon dioxide.

If you have a child who wants all the food to look pretty, you can focus on the art and design lessons in cooking. Mix red and yellow food coloring and the kids can immediately see the resulting orange color. Explore scale and proportion by layering cakes. Experiment with different piping tips, brushes, or “found” tools to create texture in frosting, cookies, or crackers. Build houses, make dough people, or create an entire edible village. For this lesson, innovation and creativity are your guides. Let the ideas flow freely. Feel the excitement that collaboration brings when one idea sparks another.

No matter what lesson you’re attempting to learn in the kitchen, you will learn about process, procedure, and order of operations. If you begin without any plan and ignore a certain order of operations, you will not get the results you expect or want. That doesn’t mean you have to follow every recipe to the letter, or that you must know exactly what you’re going to cook for dinner before you walk into the kitchen. It means you must think through and understand the process. Process thinking helps you to recognize that what you do now should be determined by what you want to happen next, and next, and next…until the end of the process – a finished dish or a coordinated meal. Of course this type of thinking is beneficial in all areas of life. We reach a specified goal with much greater ease when we understand that today’s decision can be determined by our priorities for what will happen next, and next, and next, then allow the process to support us.

My grandmother didn’t talk about process, she just instructed me to always read through an entire recipe before I ever started to get out ingredients, pans, or bowls. There were several reasons for this. One was to make sure that all the ingredients were available in the kitchen. One was so I would only get out what I needed and make less of a mess in her kitchen. One was so that I wouldn’t dump dry ingredients and liquids together until it was time to do so and create a batter that had to be thrown away. She couldn’t stand to waste food. She also wanted to make sure I would properly preheat the oven and prepare the proper baking dish in advance. She didn’t like to waste time either. Once I was competent to prepare individual dishes, I carried this same process thinking into creating a timeline that allowed me to create a coordinated meal in which my all dishes were ready for the dining table at the same time and piping hot.

As a project manager, I have used the reverse timeline to great success when handling complex, detailed, and deadline driven assignments. Communicating instructions based on what must happen one or two steps past that specific instruction streamlines the process and narrows the margin for error. Understanding the process also allows me to be more swift and flexible in finding solutions to problems because I have a clear understanding of what is critical and what is not in achieving a desired result. These are skills I desire in all employees. These are skills I developed in the kitchen before I reached junior high. I simply built on them in secondary school, college, and at work.

I suspect the boys in my junior high were learning a great deal about process thinking in Wood Shop too. If they failed to allow for the thickness of a piece of wood in their overall measurements, they would not cut boards to the proper length when building a cabinet. If they didn’t understand how the equipment worked, they could lose an appendage. I’m certain that these skills serve them well whether they became bankers, writers, carpenters, or electricians.

We worry so much about declining standardized test scores and how to fix the schools. In spite of much discussion, we have made little headway. Perhaps the solution to improvement is quite simple, and possibly delicious. Get the kids in the kitchen and get things cooking!