Cooking and Public Health: How to Help Families Discover Good Food

Maryland's secretary of health sits down with the editor of ChopChop magazine to talk about a new initiative to get the state eating better


Editor's Note: Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein is the Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene in Maryland. Sally Sampson is a cookbook writer and editor of ChopChop magazine. Recently, Maryland and ChopChop announced a collaboration publicizing fresh, monthly recipes for families to make together. Sharfstein asked Sampson to have a conversation about the initiative.

Sharfstein: Sally, thanks for coming over to our Governor's house for the launch of ChopChop Maryland, a creative effort to promote family cooking and healthy eating in our state. Our state's first lady, Katie O'Malley, was very pleased to launch this initiative. It's one part of our state's strategy to address childhood obesity. With about 12 percent of teenagers in our state obese, and only about a third of adults at a healthy weight, we're in the market for new ideas. Your first recipe for Maryland Apple Crisp was very well received (at least by my children). We've had 50,000 hits to the website in just the first few weeks. We're going to distribute 12 ChopChop recipes, one a month, over the next year. Why start with a dessert?

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Sampson: The intent of ChopChop Maryland is to get families cooking. While we want them to cook all parts of a meal -- soups, stews, entrees, side dishes, and salads -- it's most easy to initially draw kids in with dessert. If I could only eat one dessert for the rest of my life, it would definitely be a crisp: It's adaptable to every season (you can substitute almost any fruit for the apples), easy, inexpensive, uses readily available ingredients, fast, and, most important, delicious. People forget that you can make wonderful desserts that are not laden with sugar and fat. In fact, this one is so healthy, I've been known to eat it for breakfast.

Sharfstein: I won't tell anyone. In public health, we often focus on the content of the food going into someone's mouth -- not on the act of cooking. Working on this project with you has helped me to realize that we can promote healthy eating by encouraging parents to cook with their kids (or is it the other way around?). From your vantage point as a cookbook author, what makes this work?

Sampson: The very process of cooking creates ownership of the meal. So basically if you hand a kid (or an adult, for that matter) a food they aren't so sure of, they'll be more hesitant to try it than if they make it themselves. I believe your very own son hated peaches until he made our Peach Crisp, right? The most effective approach is to try small changes at a time.

Sharfstein: At first, he said he would make the recipe with me, but would not eat it. After he tried it, he kept going back for more. Then he denied he ever said anything negative about peaches. One of the biggest challenges for us is to promote this type of activity beyond the families that may already be doing it -- into a broad range of neighborhoods and communities. We really appreciate ChopChop Maryland being available in Spanish -- that's a start. We also have made recipes available through text message -- people can text CHOPMD to 43186 to sign up (text CHOPES to 43186 for Spanish). And we are partnering with a wide range of community organizations and advocates. But what success have you had in crossing ethnic and income lines with a message of healthy eating? What works and what doesn't?

Sampson: We've made it a priority to use foods that are accessible and affordable and recipes that are simple and kid friendly. We use recipes from all different cultures and we don't beat anyone up with our message of healthy eating: We strive to make it fun and hope that the rest follows from there. So my guess is that many people -- not just you -- can get their children to eat healthy foods by getting them involved in the process rather than lecturing to them about what they should and shouldn't be eating.

Sharfstein: Your second Maryland recipe was for Roasted Squash with honey. I have to admit, I never had tried squash prepared this way before. My kids had a good time scooping out the seeds. We all got our hands a little slimy. But the results were great again. Just a few ingredients, simple preparation, and I've been getting emails from people saying they served it during fancy dinners.

This week, we're joining with the University of Maryland at Baltimore to have an obesity summit. The University is interested in bringing a wide range of disciplines to the problem of childhood obesity -- from planning to social work to law to medicine. It's obvious that a problem this complex will need a wide range of solutions. But rethinking the way we cook and eat is part of the puzzle. How do your efforts at ChopChop magazine fit into other obesity efforts?

Sampson: ChopChop fits into every other approach because it is a tool that can be utilized by any kind of program: school, after-school, gardening, gym, and even math classes. There isn't just one way to solve this problem: you need to attack it from every single angle. As you know, at ChopChop we don't think you can make real change without addressing eating habits, and the only way to really accomplish that is to be in control, which means home cooking. I want to be clear that I am not saying that you can't ever eat out. But if the majority of your food comes from your own hands, you'll know what you are consuming, which is a start.

Image: ChopChop Maryland.