I am a certified nutrition expert, but I haven’t always had the healthiest eating habits. I grew up in the 1970s, in a Jewish household that didn’t exactly follow clean eating principles. Luckily, my grandmother stepped in one day and taught me how to create healthy food that was actually good for you. Here's how I found my inner nutritious chef at such a young age:
1. I realized my dad had lost weight the wrong way.
My dad (pictured with me at a young age below) spent six months at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where he had gone to shed an extreme amount of weight. His bosses at the McCann Erikson Agency felt this measure was imperative for keeping his job as a creative director — writing ads for top clients like Coke, Pringles, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. He consented and successfully lost 175 pounds during his yearlong stay by going from 8,000 calories a day to just 800.
His diet consisted of eating three minuscule bowls of rice a day. The morning one had peaches on the rice. The afternoon meal had a tiny amount of chicken rubbed with mineral oil on the rice. For dinner, he had a tiny bowl of white rice with dry white fish. He also wore a pedometer and was required to take 10,000 steps a day.
Even at a young age, I knew that this wasn’t the route to follow to be healthy. The joy of eating was completely gone and he was depriving himself.
2. I saw a different way of life when, at age 11, I met someone who followed a macrobiotic diet.
My cousin Linda brought her new boyfriend, Mulligan, home from Los Angeles. He was a macrobiotic devotee, who came armed with a special dessert — apple pie. As I ate it, he said, “Let each ingredient dance on your tongue. Do not swallow until you have really tasted it. I usually chew 100 times before swallowing — both for digestion and to honor the food. Pretty tasty, huh?”
The apples tasted so fresh, not syrupy or sweet. And the crust was nutty and firm. “It is vegan. There is no sugar, eggs, or butter in it and it is really healthy,” he told me.
3. I became curious and inquisitive about a different way of eating.
How could this be, I wondered. The pie had none of the usual suspects that make desserts tasty, and yet, it was even more delicious. I drilled Mulligan about the ingredients of the pie, the location of the bakery, what it meant to be vegetarian, and other places in the city that made such yummy, healthy desserts. He began scribbling names and addresses down as I gobbled bite after bite, in spite of his insistence to eat slowly and mindfully.
4. A vegetarian diet appealed to me because it was so different from my current diet at that time.
My grandmother typically made Jewish recipes like braised brisket, beef cholent (stew), or noodle kugel, while my dad was on the white rice and chicken diet after he lost a lot of weight.
I figured that there had to be a happy medium and landed on the vegetarian diet. I liked the idea of eating lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, and beans. I started to avoid processed food and spent my free time learning how to cook my grandmother's recipes — with a modern twist. We lived in different cities, but she would send me a recipe card every week with a traditional Jewish dish and then together we figured out the best way to transform it. Beef cholent became a garbanzo bean and sweet potato stew.
5. I taught myself all about nutrition.
While my friends spent their afternoons at the Bleecker Street playground, I spent my afternoons reading nutrition books and cookbooks, cooking, baking, and juicing as if my life depended on it. My eyes were opened to schools of thought surrounding food. I learned about vegetarians and macrobiotics. I even read books by Jack Lalanne, Frances Moore Lappé, and Adele Davis, the movers and shakers of the health movement.
6. I loved how healthy food made me feel.
I loved how energetic and satiated I felt after eating something simple like apples and fresh peanut butter, or a carob soy shake. I used to suffer from stomachaches, but on this diet I felt a sense of joy. I also discovered the euphoria of steeping an afternoon cup of twig tea.
While I wasn't quite ready to become a full-time vegetarian, I enjoyed learning to swap tofu for chicken in stir-fries, make cheesecake from cashews, create my own flour from blended oatmeal, and swap carob for chocolate in shakes and cookies, and basically add wheat germ to everything imaginable — all the memories and traditions from my grandmother's kitchen, with a modern, healthy twist.
This story was adapted from Dawn Lerman's book My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family, With Recipes from Berkley, a division of Penguin Random House. Photos in this post are reprinted with her permission.
For more mbg-approved tips on getting kids to eat healthier, check out these stories:
- 6 Ways To Raise Kids With Healthy Habits
- The Simplest Way To Get Kids To Eat More Vegetables
- 10 Ways To De-Stress Dinnertime With Young Kids
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