Eight years ago, in response to a rising incidence of child obesity and other nutrition-related ailments she saw among her young patients, Dr. Nimali Fernando, an acclaimed local pediatrician, launched an uplifting and empowering initiative to promote healthy eating—The Dr. Yum Project. Recently, the nonprofit’s team has recast and augmented the project’s spectrum of online activities and is offering them, free of charge, to meet the needs of families who are staying at home during this unprecedented time.
The Dr. Yum Project features a comprehensive array of practical, easily applicable tools, instructional videos and step-by-step guidance to support families on their journey to wholesome nutrition and activities. Dr. Yum’s characteristic style does not dwell on “don’ts” and “dangers” of reliance on processed foods but, instead, highlights the joys and benefits of healthy eating and features a host of delicious recipes. In addition, its message is often delivered with a touch of humor, ranging from a hand puppet in a cooking presentation for preschoolers to a video (which Dr. Fernando aka Dr. Yum dubbed “Getting Quaran-Teens in the Kitchen”) boosting the benefits of engaging adolescents in the cooking process, including confidence-building and family bonding.
The project’s offerings address the needs of the full age-spectrum of family members, beginning with infants and toddlers, and now includes a free webinar of “Dr. Yum’s Baby Food Adventure.” This session, which is normally an on-site class at the Dr. Yum Project kitchen, addresses topics such as how to introduce your baby to solid foods, how to make your own baby foods, and ideas for adventurous finger foods for babies and toddlers, as well as guidance on adapting Dr. Yum’s family recipes for the little ones.
Each Tuesday at 11:30 a.m., Dr. Yum’s YouTube channel features presentations created by registered dietitian Sarah Moran. Topics included “One Simple Tip for Making Satisfying Meals from What You Have On-Hand” and “The Easy Thing You Are Not Doing to Make your Food Taste Amazing.” Next Tuesday’s YouTube feature will show parents how they can “Cook Once, Eat All Day: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner at Home.”
In addition, Facebook Live presentations on Thursday mornings at 11:30 (available later on videos) offers guidance from Dr. Fernando and her team members. These include a presentation by Master Gardener Jonathan Stevens, who gives tips on five easy ways for a family to start a garden.
“Gardening can be an important tool for parents who are trying to find ways to encourage their kids to eat a healthy, balanced diet,” said Dr. Fernando. “And gardening doesn’t require a perfectly level, large or sunny backyard. Beans and other edible vines can be grown on a trellis leaned against an outside wall, and families can plant in a small raised bed or in containers placed in a sunny spot, which can be an easy way to grow herbs or sweet cherry tomatoes that kids won’t be able to resist!”
A Dr. Yum blog on gardening also details the benefits of gardening for the brain, body and spirit.
The garden also exemplifies Dr. Yum’s focus on establishing a relationship and sense of appreciation for the food we eat. A preschool curriculum that was developed as a vehicle to “teach the teacher” involves children “getting to be friends with the vegetables” before they start cooking with them. “The kids might sing about a cucumber or do a cucumber science experiment or even stomping around to a cucumber song before they begin cooking,” said preschool curriculum liaison Wendy Cannon.
Dr. Fernando also explains that both the kitchen and garden can serve as classrooms during children’s quarantine at home.
“There is so much that can happen within the kitchen, including developing both gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Cooking might also include lessons about science and vocabulary and music might even be woven into the process,” she said. “Seeing a garden grow may spark children’s questions, such as why do plants need sun? how do they drink water? and why are worms good for plants? Families may also talk about soil composition, and photosynthesis, and math as they measure the growth of the plants.”
One of the most empowering things about the Dr. Yum Project’s free online tools is families can begin immediately, where they are, with what they have in their pantry.
The Meal Planner features a spectrum of recipes, noting prep and cooking times, as well as a calendar parents can customize with their weekly activities and time constraints (which can range from current study assignments at home to soccer practices and meetings in future days). Parents can then schedule meals that require more time for days with a broader window for cooking and preparation and plan for meals that can be made quickly, and even leftovers, for evenings when time is short. When their calendar is planned, they can tap “save shopping list” on their screen and will be presented with a shopping list, sorted by grocery departments, that they can download on their mobile devices and take with them to the store.
The Meal-o-Matic is an accessible tool that empowers families to create their own recipes from staples and the ingredients that are in their refrigerators and cupboards. They can select a recipe from a list of Dr. Yum options for seven types of dishes such as stir-fries, curries, salads, soups and pasta and customize it by inserting the vegetables, proteins and aromatics they have on hand for a printable personalized recipe with measurements.
The Meal-o-Matic has also engendered a Dr. Yum Cooking Club with Zoom sessions on the first and third Wednesdays of each month at 5:30 p.m. Participating families can share their process as they create their meals, view what others are doing in their homes, and ask questions along the way.
Developing a comprehensive, innovative, empowering program that has promoted healthy eating for nearly 10 years, Dr. Fernando is impassioned about the nonprofit’s mission but also characteristically humble.
“Our mission started with kids, but children can’t eat well until their families and communities are eating well. That’s why we have the whole-family approach,” she said. “I am very blessed to be in Fredericksburg where I have found this wonderful team of people who believe in our mission and work really hard. It is a unique group of people who are passionate about this work. I don’t do it on my own.”
Having served as a board member of the Dr. Yum Project since its launch, Heidi DiEugenio is an enthusiastic promoter of the array of resources it offers for families.
“We hope families will take advantage of the free tools that we offer—and understand that this is a journey,” she said. “Families will develop practices that they will want to continue after this period of quarantine. Our hope is that cooking together and being thoughtful about meal-planning and exploring recipes (rather than relying on prepared foods) will be a habit that will continue for a lifetime.”