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Editorial: Eating fresh for health and family

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The simple acts of eating fresh produce and cooking can not only make us healthier, but they can also strengthen the social bonds that bind our families and our communities together.

If that seems like a lot to swallow, chew on this.

By almost any measure, Americans are some of the unhealthiest people on the planet. According to the Mexico Bariatric Center, all but one of the least healthy countries in the world is in Central Europe. Alcohol consumption and cigarette use is the prime reason places like Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic score so poorly.

Americans rank No. 11, and that rating is attributed primarily to our obesity, which is the logical result of the ultraprocessed foods we eat.

The simple act of cutting out this food and replacing it with healthy choices can have a profound impact on our weight, our mood, and our overall health after just a month, according to one National Institutes of Health study.

So if this bad food is making us sick, why don’t we just eat healthier? The truth is, it’s not so simple to stop.

To begin, ultraprocessed foods like chips and American cheese are, according to some neuroscientists, addictive.

Then there’s the cost. Studies done prior to COVID showed that fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive to purchase, adding as much as 25% to families’ food budgets.

Finally, convincing people to cook is hard. It’s more time consuming and requires much more effort than popping something in the microwave or running through the drive-thru on the way home.

Enter Dr. Yum, a nonprofit organization founded and operating in Spotsylvania County, that is focused on helping people learn to eat healthy.

“It’s really about reframing how you look at cooking,” says Heidi DiEugenio. Serving as the director of programs and a founding board member for Dr. Yum, she understands the challenge. She had to reframe her approach to cooking once, too.

For DiEugenio, it was turning cooking into a creative enterprise. “Once I made cooking my creative outlet,” she said, “it just changed everything for me.”

Another challenge people face is keeping costs down and actually learning how to cook.

“The essence of what we do is providing examples and recipes,” she says, that show cooking fresh doesn’t have to be hard, expensive, or bad tasting. Just the opposite, in fact.

The Dr. Yum site has a “Meal-o-matic” program that “is designed to help people gain confidence with cooking with what’s in the refrigerator,” DiEugenio says.

Just choose a type of dish (stir-fry, curry, soup, salad, bake, etc.), and then select options you have in your refrigerator (protein, vegetables, oils, seasonings, toppings, greens, etc.), and the program delivers a recipe you can make. There’s even a how-to video to guide you.

This way, people don’t have to get “hung up on shopping lists” or recipes. So it takes a lot stress out of cooking.

In addition, DiEugenio says, “we have a lot of dishes for $2.50 per serving or less.”

As for the social benefits, cooking fresh creates opportunities for families to work together at mealtime.

“Meals start with the preparation,” DiEugenio says. “Getting everyone in the kitchen together really helps in a lot of ways. It helps with conversations and bonding.”

By handling and preparing foods, kids and adults can begin to experiment with the incredible diversity of flavors before us. And in the process, we come closer together.

Discussing food as a family can also increase our awareness of those who don’t have enough. And that leads to one question: “How can we help?”

Turns out, it isn’t all that hard.

The Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank is trying to increase the number of fresh items it offers. One way it’s doing this is launching a new project called “Grow a Row.”

The program targets “ordinary gardeners … who produce for the sake of their own edification,” says Dan Maher, president and CEO of the nonprofit. “If we could get a few hundred people growing for us, this would be a good start.”

Better eating, more family time, greater community awareness.

All that from just eating healthy.

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