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Feature Article

Simply Delicious

Norma Delgado works at two restaurants in Corvallis to help provide for her family. Since her husband died three years ago, she is the sole parent for her five children, ages 6 to 22. Her two jobs mean long hours at work, leaving precious little time for sleep.

“My little girl, when she goes to school, she says, ‘Mommy, you need to wake up,’” Delgado said. “I need to work. I do everything for my kids.”

But working extra shifts also takes time away from playing with her kids, cooking and eating together as a family.

“When I go to sleep, the kids open the refrigerator,” Delgado said.

And they weren’t always making healthy choices. Her youngest son Andres, 9, had developed serious health issues. His pediatrician, Ilana Dickson, MD, of Samaritan Pediatrics, was concerned because his liver wasn’t functioning like it should, and he had high cholesterol. It wasn’t that Andres was eating much differently than many children, Dickson said, but combined with his genetic risk factors and inactivity, his eating habits had caused him to gain extra weight. And putting Andres on medications alone wasn’t going to be enough.

That’s when Dickson referred the whole family to Simply Delicious, an interactive cooking and nutrition education class for children and their families. Samaritan Pediatrics and Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute formed a partnership to teach families how to prepare nutritious meals.

Meeting once a week for five weeks, the Delgados and other families had the chance to try out new recipes, like pumpkin macaroni and cheese, chili and enchiladas, while learning about nutrition from experts.

Delgado said her children were motivated by their love for Andres to make changes to support him. Since taking the class, everyone now helps in the kitchen, chopping and slicing vegetables, even 6-year-old Cecilia.

After finishing her part of making crab salad, a proud Cecilia stepped back from the bowl and declared, “It’s done!”

“My favorite was making chili,” recalled Juan, 11. “It was like a backwards pizza, with corn bread on top.”

Rubi, 13, keeps an eye on nutrition labels, and warns her mom about sodium and unhealthy fat.

“My kids, they are smart,” Delgado said. “They are thinking when I am not thinking.”

The family has replaced canned and other prepared food with fresh ingredients. Instead of white rice, they cook with wild rice or jasmine rice after rinsing away the extra carbohydrates. They’ve switched to non-fat milk. And frying food is out. “Before, we had too much salt,” Delgado said. “No more!”

Around the table, everyone encourages Andres. When they went out to dinner at a fast food restaurant recently, the kids asked their mom, “Are you sure we can go?” And instead of burgers and fries, they all ordered grilled chicken.

Dickson said enabling parents to instill good eating habits at home is the best way to combat childhood obesity. One of the hardest challenges for her patients and their families is clearing up misconceptions about what is healthy, she said. For example, many people who choose restaurants that serve low-fat foods would be surprised to find out what they’re eating is full of salt.

“That’s what keeps you going back to these places,” Dickson said.

The best way to control fat, sugar and salt is to cook at home.

For people who are overweight or obese, especially children, small changes can make a big difference. Avoiding soda, juice, chocolate milk and fried foods is a good start, she said.

Dickson likes to use a growth chart to show families how if a child who is obese simply maintains his current weight as he grows taller, he can make his way back into the range of a healthy body mass index.

But talking about making healthy choices isn’t enough.

“Reality hits when we go home and we fall right back into our old routines,” Dickson said.

Another problem is that parents are often reluctant to involve their children with cooking.

“We don’t want to deal with the cleanup or the hassle,” Dickson said. “We should be getting them involved, showing them how to do these things.”

That’s what makes Simply Delicious different. It’s not just talk. And it’s not just parents.

“When I say, we have a cooking class, and you get to cook with your whole family and have a meal together at the end, almost everyone I pitch it to says, ‘That sounds great.’”

“It empowers them,” Dickson said. “If they learn healthy habits now, they will carry it with them for life.”