Forager’s Delight: Evergreen Huckleberry Jam

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Visiting family who live on an island in Puget Sound, we noticed an abundance of tiny blue and black berries growing on six foot tall shrubs. With the wonders of modern technology and the wisdom of our grandparents, we were able to verify that these were our lovely little native plant- the evergreen huckleberry. Thankfully we had some help picking – as the berries were tiny, and our toddler charges a hefty berry tax for her participation (one berry into the bucket = one handful into the mouth). After about an hour we had filled a medium size bowl.

I had never eaten these berries before, let alone cooked with them. I considered making a pie but ultimately decided jam was the best way to share their sweet blueberry-esque  flavor with friends, and enjoy it ourselves for weeks to come. This ended up being one of the best jams I’ve made. The only pain was de-stemming the berries.

My advice to others would be: these little buggers are tiny and you end up having to go through thousands of them. It is probably a good idea to pay close attention as you pick, and try to toss the stems and bad berries before they get into the bowl.

This is the first time I’ve ever used low sugar pectin- thanks Emily for the advice! It created a nice firm batch of jam. I used six cups of wild huckleberries, four cups of sugar, and one packet of low sugar pectin. That’s it! I heated the berries and mashed with a potato masher. This ended up releasing the lovely purple juice, and about half of the berries remained whole, so the final product was something like a combination of a jam and a preserve.

We liked it so much we decided to add some bushes to our yard! I love native plants because they are so low maintenance, and tend to compliment our local wildlife. For example, these are somewhat deer resistant plants. They make a lovely shrub or hedge and can do well with heavy rains or dry shade. Awesome. Unfortunately they are nearly impossible to transplant. However, we were able to find them at several area nurseries. After we brought them home, one of the baby bushes actually produced a handful of berries. We will hope for more next year!

Avgolemono Soup

I am currently participating in a workshare program on a local biodynamic farm. In exchange for my time and labor, I am given a large box of freshly harvested farm goodies. Since it’s so early in the season, I had a lot of greens, kale, chard, onions, and herbs. It’s easy to make a “throw everything in the pot” chicken and veggie soup, but we can get pretty burned out on that. As an alternative, this tangy, creamy, Greek soup is one of my favorites to make. It is thickened using eggs, which gives it a vitamin and protein boost and makes it much lighter than other creamy soups which are often thickened using cream, starches, or flour. The lemon/citrus flavor is unique and makes it a very refreshing dish.  After ordering it every time we visited our favorite Greek restaurant, I decided to learn how to make it myself. I adjusted the recipe each time, and it has a lot of flexibility. Feel free to add in extra veggies at any step along the way.

Tips for Picky Eaters

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In my years working with families and small children, the things parents seem to worry about most are the basics: eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom. How often do they nap? For how long? When will you start solids? What about potty training? Where does your baby sleep? Does he sleep all night?

Why are such basic needs of such interest? Probably because they affect every moment of the day for our kids, and we want to help our children spend their days being happy and well adjusted, developing skills that will make them well rounded adults. We can’t eat or sleep or go to the bathroom FOR our children, so instead we end up worrying about how and when they will do these things. And these basic needs can affect every moment of our time parenting as well. A child who needs to eat, or sleep, or poop, and cannot do so, is not a fun child to be spending time with. I have seen the way that having an extremely picky eater can stress a family. Parents become frustrated. They worry about their child getting enough vitamins and adequate nutrition and fiber. They often stop going to restaurants because their child refuses to sit through meals that are of no interest. It can affect every meal decision, and parents often feel very judged and blamed.

Listening to NPR on my drive home last week I heard a great interview with cookbook author Sally Sampson, who founded an organization promoting families cooking together; and Dr. David Ludwig, who is the author of the book “Ending the Food Fight” and works for Boston Children’s Hospital, specializing in Obesity Prevention. The topic on the table was picky eaters. How to prevent pickiness, deal with it when it happens, and create healthful food attitudes in our children. One of the things I appreciate about Sally Sampson’s advice  is that she encourages parents to relax a bit in their meal time approach- she advises to cook just one meal for the whole family and no separate meals for picky little ones. She also follows my personal rule of not getting into power struggles or forcing kids to try things. As a parent and an educator, it’s nice to be told to relax and do less once and awhile. The tips she offers are simple and promote healthful food habits for the entire family, and her tone is very positive and constructive. Here is the interview in full, if you’d like to give it a listen:

http://www.npr.org/2014/02/28/283999734/tips-to-take-back-the-dinner-table-from-picky-eaters

This piece stood out to me because Ludwig and Sampson offered some insightful and very specific tips beyond the usual, vague, “keep offering a variety of foods” and “they’ll grow out of it”. They actually spent time with a family, working with their picky preschooler, and share how in juts six weeks they were able to change his behaviors so drastically that he became extremely adventurous eater.  Their work is chronicled in a blog for the New York Times, called The Picky Eater Project (excerpt and link below).

After I had finished listening, one of Dr. Ludwig’s comments stayed in my head (the preschoolers call this “an ear worm” – it’s a little voice that gets in your ear and won’t leave):

“You know, we live in an environment that makes junk food, hyper-sweetened foods the norm. And by comparison an apple doesn’t taste sweet and a vegetable seems completely inedible…You know, there’s a natural developmental cycle here at work. Children are born with a fear of unfamiliar foods, which protects them from eating something toxic. But they’re also programmed to develop an increasingly broad set of taste preferences. If not, children would die of starvation after weaning.The problem is our modern junk food, hyper-sweetened diet tends to keep taste buds in tantalized state.”

When I heard this I immediately thought about the many times I see preschoolers arrive at school with a carefully packed lunchbox containing things like sliced apples, carrot sticks, cheddar cheese, and a “treat”. Maybe a package of M & Ms or fruit snacks, or some Oreos. For any parent who has ever packed this, and instructed your child to eat the fruit and veggies before the treat, I’m just going to give it to you straight: they ignore you, and they probably trash the fruit and veggies. Kids aren’t good at impulse control. They see it. They want it. They aren’t good at waiting. So they eat it. And after they eat something very calorie dense, that is enhanced with  corn syrup or lots of refined sugar they are not going to have much of an appetite for the apple. In contrast it seems bland or sour, and the carrot sticks don’t taste like anything at all. Not to mention, it sets up a punishment/reward attitude about food. Eat your fruit before your treat. It implies that the fruit itself is not a treat, and is something to be endured. If I’m asked for lunchbox advice I usually say pack a variety of good choices and give your child the control to eat whatever they want from their lunchbox with no guilt. I’m not saying don’t pack a cookie. Go ahead and pack a favorite cookie once in awhile. But it doesn’t need to be an obligatory part of every meal. Pack an appropriate portion size so they are still hungry for their other food.

For some fresh ideas and constructive advice, here are The Picky Eater Project’s “12 Tips to Take Back the Dinner Table”:

1. If you don’t want your child to eat it, don’t bring it home. “When it comes to food,” says Dr. David Ludwig, the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and the author of “Ending the Food Fight,”    “one of the pillars of parenting is to protect the home environment. Attention to this non-coercive measure can prevent eating issues in the first place, or help defuse problems that have already developed.” You decide what foods are welcome.

2. Institute a “one-meal rule.” If you don’t want to be a short order cook, making a separate meal for different children, stop. Keep the messaging positive: Tell your kids that the house rule is now one delicious dinner for everyone. “Parents need to parent,” advises Bill Dietz, M.D., the former director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Food related responsibilities in families should go like this: Parents are in charge of what foods are offered at home, and children can choose to eat it or not. If a child rejects the food, it is not the parents’ responsibility to offer something else.” It’s fine to make sure the meal includes at least one thing that’s generally acceptable (even if that’s just plain pasta), and you should decide in advance what’s acceptable to you after dinner for a child who didn’t eat (a choice that’s distinctly different for toddlers than for teenagers).

3. A little hunger can go a long way. Snacks are fine but don’t overdo them. If children arrive at the dinner table hungry, they are more likely to eat what is in front of them. I routinely put salad on the table before the entrée and found that salad eating spiked as a result.

4. Shop and cook together. Involve your children in every step as much as possible. Take them to the grocery store and ask them to pick any vegetable/fruit they want. Have them help you cook. Depending on their age, this can mean counting out cherry tomatoes to add to a salad, stirring, and later making a meal on their own. Even setting the table instills ownership.

5. Meet them where they are. If your children  love roast chicken, don’t start the “one-meal rule” by making exotic pork dishes with a lot of sauces. Make basic food you know they like. This way it will not feel like deprivation. Additionally, make sure they can personalize parts of their meal: If you’re making burritos/omelets/burgers, have all the fillings/toppings in little bowls so they can choose what to add.

6. Don’t force them to eat anything. There are many schools of thought about this. Some people feel you should make them “just take one bite.” I don’t agree and think that this has a very negative implication and tends to backfire. Instead say, “Wow, these roasted brussels sprouts/shredded carrots/spinach pancakes are amazing.” Children who won’t taste don’t get nudged or judged. The 10th time you serve them, your child may, unprompted, take a bite.

7. Talk about what it takes to grow and cook food. Breed respect. When children understand that someone had to plant a seed and harvest a vegetable even before it gets to your kitchen, they will more fully appreciate what goes into making a meal. Even better, plant a little garden.

8. Be consistent but not rigid. Be sure everyone knows what the rules are, but if your rule is a home-cooked dinner every night and you’re exhausted, cut yourself some slack: get take-out. Eat breakfast for dinner. Pull everything out of the fridge and see who can make what.

9. Be a good role model. Children  take their cues from their parents: if you don’t like something, don’t pretend to like it but express your pleasure that someone – even you — went to the trouble to prepare it.

10. Play. Experiment. Try different food “games” outside of dinnertime. We’ve had a lot of success with games where everyone can make a lot of choices and mix and match:

Vegetable Tasting Extravaganza: trying many vegetables, each prepared in multiple ways. My Plate Scavenger Hunt: show them MyPlate and have them identify what goes into each quadrant. Raw Vegetable and Dip Experiment: trying different dips with different raw vegetables

11. Don’t refer to anyone as a “picky eater” or make a big deal out of their “picky eating.” If your child doesn’t eat carrots, don’t stop serving them, or when your child is a guest at someone else’s, don’t say: My child doesn’t like carrots. If you define them, it makes it much harder for them to change.

12. Use positive peer pressure. When my children were in elementary school, their friends ate whatever my kids ate when they came to our house. I literally never had a child say: “I don’t eat hummus. I don’t like carrots.” Seeing a peer eat an unfamiliar food automatically makes it safer. You’ll be amazed at how many children will eat something because they see another child eating it.

The rest of the advice and stories shared on the Picky Eater Plan are great. To read the full blog post, and the entire series, or find more tips for encouraging adventurous, healthful eating,  here is the link to the New York Times Picky Eater Project:

http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/category/the-picky-eater-project/?module=BlogCategory&version=Blog Post&action=Click&contentCollection=Style&pgtype=Blogs&region=Header

How real food, and the way we eat it, has the power to change the way children think, learn, feel, and live

Eating and trying new foods, much like having an adventure in the woods, is an opportunity for children and adults alike to explore, share, and have new sensory experiences while nourishing our bodies and our minds. Studies on emotion and neuroplasticity continue to show that new and novel experiences, including time spent outdoors and in nature, allow us to release serotonin and dopamine, combat depression, and be happier individuals. By encouraging our children, at a young age, to engage in health positive behaviors, to move more, to eat better, to be outside and connect with their communities and their food sources, we are healing our entire community and helping them to be healthy in a way that is much more balanced and significant than their BMI could possibly indicate. When we move beyond seeing snack time as a time to reach for a box of crackers and satiate until the next time we eat, and view meals as opportunities to learn and experience and participate in the world, we move beyond encouraging physical health, and set our children up to be healthy on an emotional and cognitive level as well.

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This is a photo of  the meals I pack for my one year old daughter to eat during the daytime while I teach. I would expect this to last for 3-4 days. From left to right, top row: tuna and broccoli pasta with garlic and goat’s milk; pasta with tomato basil sauce. middle row: vanilla yogurt; apple slices; blackberries and pomegranate seeds; fresh mozzarella; seasoned firm tofu; seaweed; peas and carrot bites. Bottom row: raspberry yogurt; shredded chicken breast; peas and carrot bites; blackberries and pomegranate; lentils; wild blueberries; mushrooms and asparagus in garlic butter. I will be posting lunch and snack ideas and recipes regularly, as well as tips for feeding kids and families.

When working with children how can we help encourage healthy attitudes about exercise, food, and body image?

I will never encourage a child (or an adult for that matter) to move around to burn calories,  to lose weight, or to “earn” permission to eat treats. I will encourage a child to move to express joy, to feel strong and competent, to develop new skills and gain physical strength. I will encourage them to move so that they can celebrate the amazing things their body can do and the blessing of having functional limbs, and so that they will know the exhilarating joy of sharing experiences like dancing, running, and playing with their friends. I will encourage them to move around outdoors because our world is an amazing place, and they will not be able to fully understand that, or be in awe of our planet and nature, or  inspired to study it, or protect it, until they have first experienced it.

I will never use food as a reward for behavior. I will never encourage a child to “trade” “healthy” foods such as vegetables for “unhealthy” foods such as desserts, to count calories, to watch their carbohydrate or fat intake, or to deprive themselves of foods they love. As long as children play and move and do not have underlying health issues, if they have access to a variety of good food choices- nutritious whole foods, they are naturally good at eating what they need.  I encourage them to try new foods because it is exciting and fun to try new things. I talk with them about what they are eating and where their food comes from. How they feel about it and how it tastes.  I encourage children to learn where their food comes from, and then go a step further and plant the seeds, to grow the vegetables, to participate in cooking their favorite meals. I encourage children to eat because sharing meals with friends promotes meaningful conversation and relationships. I encourage them to eat because they love the sensory experience and taste of the foods in front of them. I will encourage them to think about how what they are eating affects the way their bodies feel. I  will give them more when they ask for it, and trust that they know their limits, are done when they say so or walk away, and never force them to eat food or clear their plate.

I teach the preschoolers to look at their food and think about the ingredients, to know where it came from and how it is connected to the earth. Yes, that is string cheese. But how did it get to your lunch box? An amazing number of children will tell me that it “comes from my refrigerator” or it “comes from the store”. How can we expect children to care about what they put into their bodies, and care about animals, and care about the earth, if they don’t see how these things are all connected? I want them to know that the little things like sunflower seeds, and blueberries, and water drops, and the big things like mountains, and forests, and cities are all part of cycles that affect one another, and give and take energy, and I want the children to understand that they are part of those systems too.

Making meals an adventure helps underscore a broader message that life is full of opportunities to explore, to be flexible, and to celebrate and feel grateful for the simple joys in life.

My goal, when feeding my daughter or sharing food with the people in my life- children and adults, is to be intentional in the choices I make. To create opportunities to eat a wide variety of whole foods (as few ingredients as possible, as close to their natural form as possible). I try to offer different colors and textures and types of flavors, and make each meal a sensory experience. At the same time, I try to support my values by shopping as locally and organically as possible, and support my family by doing it as an economical a way as I can.

This week we had some encouraging local news about children’s health. Too often we are told what we are doing wrong, and given a gloomy picture of the ills in society. It’s nice to pass on a story that is hopeful and encouraging, and share some useful tips about what we CAN do to make a positive difference for our kids and our world.

One important side note to this story, if you can’t already guess from my previous statements, is that I don’t believe talking about obesity and focusing on BMI and caloric intake and weight is a useful way to encourage health among children. It is a data point that can be tracked and measured which makes it useful to administrators and organizations when looking at the impact of this grant program.

Both the Seattle Times and NPR reported a drop in obesity rates of 17% among high school students in King County. Overall, for Washington State and for our country as a whole, obesity rates remain stable or are on the increase. This change seems to indicate that we can have a positive impact and change outcomes for children and young adults on a broad scale. (here is the original article: (http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2022957941_obesitydownxml.html) The children being tracked in this study are generally from low income school districts, and participated in a grant program designed to promote healthy lives among youth. This grant program took a holistic approach at promoting health. From the article:

“The 41 grant recipients were asked to focus on goals such as creating safe, walkable and bikeable communities, reducing consumption of sugary beverages, and supporting farm-to-school programs, low-income immigrant urban farmers and small retailers seeking to provide healthful options.”

I’m so encouraged that this program took a look at the school and citizens within the context of a community. It recognizes that time outdoors, and community connections, and fresh produce and whole foods are all interconnected components in creating a healthy life for our children. And the proof that this approach works seems to be evident in the numbers. My hope is that parents and school districts and legislators can take this evidence and use it to affect change in our schools across the state and country. Investing in our children’s health is an investment in their future and an investment in their ability to learn and thrive in the classroom environment. Children who are hungry, sick, tired, poorly nourished, and deprived of time outdoors playing, exploring, and moving, cannot be effective learners. As a nation we all need to do the same thing that I encourage my preschoolers do. And we need to make sure these opportunities are accessible regardless of where children live and go to school. Go outside. Move. Play. Explore. Eat real food. Be happy and grateful and responsible. Every. Single. Day.

Top 100 Foods for Health and Budget

The Environmental Working Group’s latest effort is a nice visual presentation of the “Top 100 Foods” which combine the qualities of being affordable, highly nutritious, and less likely to be contaminated with pesticides, toxins, or additives. When considering that daily “What’s for dinner?” question, this is a great source of inspiration to get the ball rolling. The proteins were my favorite category, where I personally tend to get into a rut with meal ideas.

http://ewg.org/goodfood/protein.php

When in doubt, my personal rule of thumb is- shop seasonal, shop local, shop colorful, shop organic where you can (when prices are close, when cooking for young kids or pregnant women, or when the food is highly likely to have pesticides which are difficult to remove even with washing, such as those on the “dirty dozen list”).  When I follow these rules I always have fresh ingredients and variety in my cooking and don’t spend too much.