Winter, and especially the holiday season, is a time for people, families and communities to come together. Nothing brings people together quite like food. No matter your culture or your background, everyone has a memory of cooking with a family member or breathing in the scent of spices simmering on the stove. On December 19th, parents and staff at Maternity Care Coalition (MCC)’s South Philadelphia site had the opportunity to engage in their own culinary experience during a cooking demonstration. This demonstration was set up as a complement to the food buying club that runs on a monthly basis at the South Philadelphia sit. Both are part of the larger C.H.E.W (Cultivating Healthy Eating and Wellness) initiative.
Seven parents and three staff members sat around a large table and measured spices, cracked eggs and sautéed vegetables as Fran Alloway, R.D., led the group through three diverse, healthy and easy recipes. As the parents prepared the food, conversations were sparked by the varied ingredients. One participant shared that she uses plantains to make a lasagna-type dish; another parent said that tamales can always be found on her table during the holiday season. We learned about Three Kings’ Day, a holiday more celebrated than Christmas in Spain and Latin America. New foods were tried and cooking techniques were practiced. As the parents talked and laughed, a feeling of connection came over the room. The participants were not just individuals working on their own tasks; everyone was focused on the same goal of making a delicious meal.
This is not a unique experience; research shows that when people eat and prepare food together, they have an increased sense of wellbeing and contentedness. This is especially true for parents and children; eating meals together offers an opportunity to model healthy nutrition behaviors, teach cultural traditions and engage with children in a meaningful way. The benefits of family meals follow children into adolescence and have been correlated with higher grades in school and less risk-taking behavior, as well as better overall physical health.
The C.H.E.W. initiative’s goal is to work with our parents’ innate desire to provide good nutrition for their children and make it as easy as possible for that to happen. Through the food buying club, we help make fresh, wholesome, nutritious food accessible and affordable. One parent participant stated, “What I like about the boxes is that they have a little bit of everything and a lot of vegetables. It makes it easier for me to cook for my family.” As one in five children are food insecure, it is a priority of C.H.E.W. that all our families have the opportunity to bring home healthy foods. However, providing access to healthy food is only part of our approach. Cooking demonstrations such as this one aim to give parents easy, fast and healthy recipes that will make it possible for them to sit down together with their children at the dinner table. By engaging parents at a deeper level and cooking with them, we hope to teach a healthy, positive association with food that can be passed on to their children. In our short demonstration it was already apparent how quickly a sense of community can develop, even among such a diverse group of people. With cultures from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Indonesia represented, just to name a few, our demonstration was a reminder that we can all learn from each other, no matter our background and that we all want the same thing—to learn how to improve the lives of the children and families in our program. We are so excited that our MCC parents have embraced this idea as well and we can’t wait to plan our next meal.