By. Greg Christian, Founder and CEO, Beyond Green Partners
After years of cooking for my family, working in renowned restaurants in New York City developing my culinary skills, and owning an upscale catering business in Chicago…it took a family emergency before I realized the importance of mindful feeding. Following numerous doctor’s visits and emergency room stays, my youngest daughter ultimately found relief from her illnesses through a diet centered on clean, unprocessed foods. This discovery changed my world.
What began as a journey to heal my daughter emerged as a passion to serve not only the bodies of the world, but their minds and spirits as well. Seeing the world anew through the eyes of a dad with a child healed by food, I spent years transitioning my catering business to a mindful feeding program. A mindful feeding approach requires deep listening from both cooks and eaters. It necessitates a vision and continual reminders of what matters. It accounts only to the present moment. Mindful feeding guides eaters into the process of dining while bestowing the cook with purpose and vitality. It takes care of the land and the people, and supports the community.
I now work with schools to introduce them to the concept of mindful feeding, conducting taste tests and surveys to refine menus to meet nutritional standards and kid palate standards. Recently, I began working with second through eighth grade students at Old Donation School in Virginia Beach, Virginia to build a model for a district-wide farm to school program.
So far, I have surveyed close to 400 parents, district managers, food service leaders, and teachers at Old Donation School; however, the students remain my priority as I work to earn their support for an integrative, mindful feeding program that will eventually, hopefully shape their future eating habits. Below are a few simple steps I encourage you to take to begin your school’s journey to mindful feeding:
- Engage Eaters in the Process – Engage students in lessons on where their food originates and allow them to help shape the menu based on seasonality. Ask them early and often what they would like to eat. A program built on mindful feeding uses this dialogue as its foundation. In the early stages of implementation at Old Donation School, we prepared between 300 and 400 samples of over 10 products (such as hand breaded chicken strips, apple bread, chicken guisado, veggie quesadillas, meatballs and marinara) to test with student focus groups. We prepared and served, then listened and engaged.
- Listen Deeply – Everyone wants to be heard, and a child who is heard sees the power of using her voice, feels the joy of contributing to a better world, and learns how to blend her wants and desires with others. At Old Donation School, one cafeteria employee requested pierogis, an ethnic favorite from her childhood. By listening to her wishes and hearing her tell about this powerful food connection, we all practiced mindful feeding. As an added bonus, we were able to introduce a new generation to this food and its importance in their community.
- Remember What’s Important – Obstacles are best overcome when we hold in heart and mind the reason why we are feeding our loved ones. Keep that vision clear and that goal attainable. There will be bumps in the road. If I have learned only one thing as I traveled the country visiting school kitchens, it is that there is no clear path. The most successful programs, like Old Donation School, have strong leadership who are committed to forging on and learning from their mistakes.
- Stay Present – It can take 12 times eating a new food before our palates become accustomed to new tastes. Parents are continually amazed that their children sample at school (and love) ratatouille and tofu. Mindful feeding doesn’t happen overnight; it is a continual process. Invite children to help cook, invite them along every step of the way. Mindful feeding uses the talent around and among us and openly accepts any and all help they want to give.
- Have Fun – Congratulate yourself on a job well done. Healthy food on the table three times a day is no small feat, so make it enjoyable.
When we engage in any part of the food process – growing, cooking, planning, shopping, knowing the farmer, sharing in community, distributing – we are more likely to make healthy choices that benefit ourselves, the community, and the planet. According to a Benefit Fact Sheet compiled by the National Farm to School Network, when schools serve local food, 33.1 percent of students eat more fruits and vegetables. Additionally, each dollar invested in farm to school stimulates an additional $0.60-$2.16 of local economic activity, in one case resulting in a $1.4 million overall contribution to the state. This isn’t just about what’s on your table, or at your school. It’s about being mindful of our connections.
Whether in the school lunch room or at the family dinner table, preparing, serving, and sharing a meal together provides an opportunity to connect with the people around us and the possibility and benefits of much more, locally and globally.
Greg Christian is a highly successful consultant, chef, author of the 9-Minute Nutrition Ninja, and entrepreneur offering solutions to help transform food service into a more sustainable entity. His involvement with the Organic School Project and strong background in the food service sector led him to launch Beyond Green Partners, a sustainability consulting firm, which provides organizations in the food service industry with in-house dining services recommendations for sustainable solutions and implementation strategies, as well as the expertise to adopt sustainable operations.