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Forget perfection and just cook for your kids, says new book by Stanford author

Maya Adam at farmers market“Our children are in trouble because we’ve outsourced the job of feeding them,” says Stanford child nutrition expert Maya Adam, MD.

To tackle the problem, Adam is spreading a refreshing message: Forget celebrity-chef culture and food fads, and just cook for your kids. Eat real food and enjoy it. Don’t worry about perfection. Help your children learn to love healthy foods that will love them back.

Over the last few years, as the instructor of a wildly popular online nutrition and cooking course and through the nonprofit she founded, Adam has shared her common-sense approach with thousands of people. Now she has a book, Food Love Family: A Practical Guide to Child Nutrition, which builds on those messages with stories about how parents around the world find a healthy approach to feeding their kids.

“My goal was to translate scientific research on nutrition and children’s health, and make it something parents could turn into practical success,” Adam told me when I called to chat about her new book. An edited version of our conversation is below.

Your book suggests we focus more on whole foods and less on individual nutrients. Why is that important for parents to hear?

Traditionally, nutrition science is reductionist – it has focused on individual nutrients because that’s how scientists study them. But it doesn’t necessarily translate to action for parents, because we eat food, not nutrients. The book is about making that link, translating science into helpful strategies parents could implement with their families.

In childhood, we have this unique opportunity to create a situation where the foods kids enjoy most are the foods that will support them throughout their lives. If we can do that, then we’ve won: We never have to re-train them later when they’re pre-diabetic or struggling with their weight and say, “You’re no longer allowed to eat the foods you’ve grown to love.” Instead, their whole lives they love the right things.

You’ve written about the fact that our culture has built cooking up into an extreme sport, not to be attempted by amateurs — and that scares people off. If you heard from a parent who said, “OK, you’ve convinced me to overcome my fear of cooking, but I need an easy place to start,” what would you tell them?

At the end of the book, we’ve included very simple recipes, all of which tie back to our free online course with videos that show the recipes in action. It’s part of a system of support for parents. If they’re visual learners and want to see someone doing it – how to crack an egg while holding a young child on your hip, for instance – we have that.

Cooking for your family is not about being perfect; it’s about being real, about doing just a little more than you’re doing now. We all have to do the best we can with the resources that are available. Maybe we can’t always afford the grass-fed beef, for instance, but that’s OK. We do what we can with the time, skills and financial resources we have.

You also write about getting kids to help cook. What are the benefits?

When kids get involved in the process of cooking, they are so much more likely to eat the food. Kids like to be right! If you let them pick the spices — give them a choice of three spices, and then when they tell you which one they want, you say, “Are you sure?” and they say “Yes!” — when the dish is finished, they will be the ones to say, “See, it tastes divine!” You’re respecting that they have egos. You define the choices, but then let them have at it.

Also, it’s an honor for kids. You give your kids a certain amount of trust when you let them help. Some people would say it’s too dangerous, but I think it’s much more dangerous not to let them try to, say, cut a mushroom. Of course you’re not going to give a 5-year-old a razor-sharp chef’s knife, but you want to build up their kitchen safety skills and cooking skills gradually, because the alternative of being unable to cook for themselves is really unsafe in terms of their long-term health.

What’s an example of a food that you would never order in a restaurant because you know you can make a better version yourself at home?

Something like chicken nuggets. People think of them as a junk food or as really difficult to make at home. In reality, if you make them at home, it only takes 5 ingredients, and they’re all ingredients you recognize and can get at any supermarket. And they’re very tasty and infinitely healthier than something at a fast-food restaurant.

Any final thoughts?

I hope the book is more than just a source of information; I hope it’s also a source of inspiration. Healthful food can bring so much joy and add so much value to a family’s life. I have a friend who moved here from China who told me, “Americans seem to be afraid of food, that it will make them fat. In China we use food to celebrate.” If this book can help people see that food is not something to fear, it’s something to celebrate, then we will have really succeeded.

Previously: "Less is more:" More holiday eating tips from a Stanford nutrition lecturer, Where is the love? A discussion of nutrition, health and repairing our relationship with food and Free Stanford online course on child nutrition & cooking
Photo courtesy of Maya Adam

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