"From our first taste of sweet mother's milk, we relate food to our attachments with loved ones," the nutritionist explained. "Food is love."
Grandma loved me dearly, and most of my memories of her involve food. Whenever I visited, she'd dish up my favorite meals. None of her recipes were healthy, but they sure tasted good. Breakfast meant pancakes cooked in enough vegetable oil to produce a delicious crispy rim; lunch was always shiny chipped ham on white rolls served with a thick, sweet drink called Lemon-Up; and dinner ranged from homemade pizza to cheesy spaghetti. Dessert followed. Free time meant baking chocolate-chip cookies, deep-frying doughnuts and making peanut-butter balls from scratch. Her kitchen always smelled of sweet dough. We adored time together baking and eating. Grandma's love filled my heart, my stomach and a few arteries.
I continued loving with food into the next generation, using ice cream to heal wounds, celebrating everything with cake, giving my kids special treats to lift their spirits. I used sugar to express affection; the higher the glycemic index, the greater my show of care.
The real purpose of food, to provide the body with nourishing energy, had been lost in my busy life. Grocery shopping, packing lunches and making dinner only meant more dreaded chores to manage. To make life easier, I'd fallen into the trap of prepared foods. My kids thought home cooking meant microwaving little boxes from Ukrop's. I still cringe at the day my son expressed honest surprise that lettuce in a bag was not the original form. Not being a label reader, I had no idea what preservatives were in my son's Lunchables. I didn't realize I needed help until I inadvertently found myself in a healthy-cooking class.
This summer, I went to the New Life Hiking Spa in Vermont to get in shape. The holistic program also included nutrition. Five minutes into class, it became obvious that I needed to change my ways.
The instructor, Janet Dunn-Davenport, was an example of healthy living. A 58-year-old grandmother, she looked so radiant and was in such good shape, I gave up my morning croissant on the spot. She introduced her class as the "Tao of Health and Cooking." She believes preparing wholesome food at home is as important as career, relationships, spirituality, finances and education in determining ultimate happiness and longevity.
"We eat so many chemicals, preservatives, processed foods, white flour and simple sugars that our systems are entirely out of whack, struggling to keep in balance," she explained. "You must put in the good stuff to produce good stuff. We can't be our best on icky fuel."
I needed to bring back the love in my grandmother's kitchen without the fried dough.
"Eat foods as close to their original form as possible. Healthy foods spoil quickly — if something is still fresh after three months, it wasn't fresh to begin with," our instructor said while she sliced, diced, sautéed and stirred. While breathing in the delicious smells of chickpea curry and a very colorful quinoa stir-fry, it occurred to me that some food in my fridge dated before 2005. Gross!
Had I not sampled a variety of healthy, scrumptious dishes, I would've expected my kids to see a rainbow of vegetables and run for the nearest McDonald's. The recipes we made in class tantalized my taste buds and made Dunn-Davenport's mantra, "eat for taste and good nutrition, not for taste alone," easy to believe.
The finale was making a delectable chocolate mousse using dates, avocado, agave nectar and a touch of cocoa powder — no lie! The creamy, fudgy pudding was the pièce de résistance that made Dunn-Davenport my official healthful-cooking guru. "Preparing food is from the heart; it's art and it's creative," she said.
As she spoke, I recalled how much my kids enjoyed working in the kitchen with me: the honor of being in charge of a sauté pan, the trust of using a sharp knife, throwing fruit into a blender and watching it whir into a smoothie. Could making dinner change from a necessary responsibility to a nightly joy?
Armed with a notebook full of healthy meal ideas, I left class ready to become the Picasso of my kitchen. I know I won't turn into an organic Betty Crocker overnight, but I will be more mindful of what I'm feeding my family. I'm throwing out simple sugars and foods with a hundred-year shelf life. I plan to cook vegetarian a couple times a week, eat out less and exchange our bin of processed snack foods for creative, healthy alternatives. My hugs will mean just as much without a cookie, nonbirthday celebrations don't require cake, and care packages for summer camp will contain oatmeal cookies flavored with honey and applesauce instead of sugar and oil. After all, "Food is love."
Sherrie Page Najarian is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond. Her essays and articles have appeared in a variety of local publications, Yale Alumni Magazine, and multiple Chicken Soup for the Soul books.
Chocolate Mousse (serves 6)
- 3 avocados, peeled and pitted
- 8 dates, pits removed
- 1 cup of agave nectar or maple syrup (add more or less to taste)
- 1/2 cup of cocoa powder
- 3 tablespoons of coconut oil
Soak dates in warm water for 10 to 15 minutes, then purée with remaining ingredients in a food processor. Refrigerate before serving.