Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Food, Family, Community

Last Tuesday I met with Kimberlie Kranich of WILL-TV  over coffee. I hadn’t seen her since spring of 2009, when I was a still a student here at the University of Illinois. As part of a class project, I was involved in some research and volunteer work for WILL-TV’s Youth Media Workshop program.  It was a very rewarding experience; not only was I was engaged in a work that I found personally meaningful, but it turned out to be very educational for me as well!

Through my participation I learned to become much more aware of the existence of ties between the individual and their families and community, eventually realizing that those ties can be strengthened through personal narratives, community involvement, and even food!

Now, I bet you’re all wondering about that last bit. Really? Food? It’s such an integral part of daily life that it can be difficult to ascertain its importance. But that’s just it: it’s a part of daily life for everyone. Food is about as universal as it gets. 

And I began to think about the role food plays in my own family and community life. Soon enough, I realized that in my own family, food is not just nourishment, but an expression of love and solidarity. Dining together benefits the overall health of the family as well; recent studies  have shown that dining together as a family increases the overall physical and mental health of both parents and children:

Even though everyone at home has their own busy schedules, we all try to have a home-cooked dinner together at least two or three times a week-- it just feels nice to be seated at the dinner table with your loved ones for twenty minutes, thirty minutes, an hour. And the meal itself does not need to be fancy; there are no ‘requirements’ (though we do try to take our health in consideration).  It can be as simple as pasta dressed in homemade marinara sauce, served alongside fresh steamed broccoli, and perhaps some garlic bread.

My mother recently came home with a cookbook titled 1 Sauce, 100 Recipes by Linda Doeser. The basic principle of this book is this: one simple tomato sauce recipe can have a multitude of variations, meaning you and your family have almost an endless array of tasty and healthful meal options. This means I could use the same marinara sauce (that I used for pasta) as the sauce on a homemade pizza, or that by tweaking the sauce recipe slightly, I can have a homemade barbeque sauce that tastes great with chicken or pork. I know it is really easy to run out to the store and buy a jar of sauce, but making your own is unbelievably easy. Prepping the ingredients, like chopping tomatoes (though you can use canned tomatoes if fresh ones aren’t available), onions and garlic, might take a little bit of time—say, 10 minutes or so—but I think 10 minutes is a small sacrifice to make for something that tastes so good, and is versatile to boot! Here is the recipe for the basic sauce from Doeser’s book:

Basic Tomato Sauce Recipe

*makes about 2 ½ cups*

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive or other vegetable oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
14 oz canned chopped tomatoes, or 1 lb 2 oz plum tomatoes, peeled, cored, and chopped
2 tbsp tomato paste
brown sugar, to taste
1-2 tbsp chopped fresh herbs and/or 1-2 dried herbs, and/or 1-2 bay leaves
scant ½ cup water
salt and pepper


Melt the butter with the oil in a pan. Add the onion, garlic, and celery and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes, until softened. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar to taste, herbs, and water and season to taste with salt and pepper. Increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes, until thickened.

Now that you have this basic sauce recipe, why not try creating a healthful homemade meal tonight? And who knows what sort of creative variations you’ll come up with next?

Other articles that explain how eating together as a family improves health:
Live Strong
Meals Matter

Hanna Ahn is a resident of Urbana and a graduate of the University of Illinois.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Why Candy on Halloween?

This year, I asked myself, “Why candy on Halloween?” as I set out to buy Halloween goodies for the eager little ones that were prepared to go from door-to-door asking for a treat.

At a time in our country where we are faced with rates of obesity among children as high as 17% and with the reality that our children will be less healthy than we are, why are we giving our children more empty calories to solidify their fate?

This year, I vowed to think outside of the box on this and try a little social experiment of my own. From what I can tell, Halloween’s early beginnings didn’t just involve children getting candy, but required some responsible action on their part as well.

In Scotland and Ireland, children trade candy for a poem or a joke. In Canada, the treat was literally an effort to keep the children responsible by not doing tricks. “Why then, can’t I have a requirement for my treats?” I thought. So this year, my husband and I decided that every piece of candy we gave came with an apple, pretzels or a 100-calorie popcorn ball. I liked to call it my own social experiment.

Although, I definitely got some strange looks as I passed out treats at my trunk (my kids are part of the generation that does trunk-or-treating which involves decorating your car and passing out candy to kids from your trunk), I was pleasantly surprised by the number of kids who on both days of trunk-or-treating (we did it on Saturday at our son’s karate school and on Sunday at our church) were not just excited about their shiny new apple, but told their friends who then came over and asked, “are you the lady giving away apples?”

I can’t tell you how proud I felt to see that all was not lost.

The reality for me was that if Halloween treats originated as apples and oranges and other healthy snacks, today’s kids might be as excited receiving these treats as the kids that dropped by my trunk. It solidified for me how critical the choices I make as a parent are to the level of excitement my own children will have about healthy food. In this case, just “an apple that day” may have made an impact. At the very least, it was one less piece of candy in the already overfilled sacks for every child that dropped by to visit the car dressed up like Clifford the Big Red Dog.

Renique Kersh, author of this post, may be reached directly here.