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  1. One night my family was standing around the kitchen island talking, and my 15-year-old daughter casually said, “I know: Mom basically has an eating disorder.” Excuse me? I do not have an eating disorder. I am an extremely healthy 49 year-old. I have done CrossFit-style workouts for the last 10 years, and as a result I’m in good shape. I went on a rigorous diet five years ago that I’ve never really stopped, and as part of that I weigh my portions, eat lots of protein and vegetables, eat very little fat and allow myself a “treat” of some sort of moderate portion of a carbohydrate at dinnertime. I never snack, I never let myself eat things that I want to eat, I never let myself eat as much as I’d like to eat, and I never eat when I’m hungry. Does that behavior constitute an eating disorder? The answer to that question doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I thought I was setting an excellent example of healthy eating, and my daughter thinks I have an eating disorder. This is not the first time as a parent that I thought I was setting a shining example but found out I was setting a sh*tty one, instead. [Related: Moms, you're the key to your daughters' positive body images] I talk a lot about “healthy eating habits” in my house, like eating lots of fruits and vegetables, eating balanced portions, and not eating too many sweets. But when I asked my daughter more about her comment, she said, “I think that all of this 'healthy food talk' is more about how you look than actually being healthy.” Ouch. As I thought about what she said, I became confused. Isn’t monitoring and limiting my food intake what I’m supposed to be doing? Doesn’t healthy behavior involve controlling your portions and limiting the amount of unhealthy food that you eat? Isn’t it our society that has a disordered relationship with food by making large portions and salty, sugary food so readily available? It’s not me; it’s society! I’m the one who’s normal! Right? [Related: The social media mom: How social media can influence the way we feel] When I took a hard look at my relationship with food, I saw what my daughter saw, which is that my approach isn’t all that “healthy.” I am obsessed with weight. I think about it — the weight I’ve gained, the weight I’d like to lose, how every morsel of food I put into my mouth will affect that battle — all the time. I thought this was just a running dialogue I was having internally, but apparently it wasn’t. It was obvious for the world to see, and especially for my four daughters — the people I wanted to see it the least. I preach body positivity in my house and I talk to them about it for their own bodies all the time. But when it comes to my own body, none of that applies. I thought I was setting an example of how to maintain a healthy weight and body image into middle age. Instead, I've been setting an example of ordering my life around looking a certain way and constantly denying myself pleasure to maintain it. That example sucks. Many times as a member of Gen X, I thought that just by telling my children a different message than the one I got growing up, that things would be different for them. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too: impose on myself all of the obsessions about weight that I’d grown up with while telling them to be different. But they see that as the hypocritical position it is. I don’t want to be a hypocrite, but letting go of my obsession with my weight? Not so fast. I’ve been in an ongoing conversation with myself about my weight for at least 30 years. Would I be able to love myself, or even like myself, if I gained weight? Not without a lot of hard work. Frankly, it’s a lot easier and very tempting to stay a hypocrite. But I don’t want to set that example for my daughters. I want to have a healthy body image and a healthy relationship with food. I don’t want them to obsess about their weight, and I don’t want them to waste the monumental time and effort that I have obsessing over staying thin. I’ve got to do better. So how will I unpack and unlearn 30 years of internalized beauty standards? I haven’t a clue. That’s a topic for another essay.
  2. Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with a crazy idea? And then by morning, you think you can actually do it? Well, that's what happened to me in June 2018. At the time I had a successful cooking blog, MommaChef.com, with more than 80,000 followers. It features recipes using six ingredients or less and prepared in six minutes or less. I also was busy writing articles for dozens of magazines and working with various companies to develop recipes using their products. All of this would have been a dream come true for most food bloggers, but I didn't feel complete. Something was missing. It was that aha moment at 3 a.m. when I realized that I wanted to focus more time and energy into helping others. And what could be more perfect than opening a soup kitchen to feed the needy? [Related: Make kindness a daily act with your kids] Once the idea came to me, I was determined to make it happen. Over the next few months, I researched what was needed to help the under-resourced people in the Chicago area. I quickly found a facility that was willing to donate its space to house the Soup Kitchen. I created a business plan, held fundraisers to offset the costs, and designed menus to feed more than 100 people. Within four months, in October 2018, Momma Chef's Soup Kitchen opened its doors at Congregation KINS in West Rogers Park. Each Tuesday evening, Momma Chef’s Soup Kitchen provides a 5-course homemade hot meal to anyone who comes to our doors. We also deliver 70 meals to two local shelters. That middle-of-the-night idea has provided over 15,000 meals since opening our doors. What makes this soup kitchen unique is that I was determined to run it with no overhead other than the cost of food and security. The Soup Kitchen needs more than 600 volunteers/year to prepare and serve the meals. And every person involved, including myself and members of my family, donates their time.* During the start of COVID in April of 2020, when I passed by a neighborhood little free library box, the notion that I could help address food insecurity around the city in the same manner as the library boxes struck me. I decided that day that I wanted to start a “Momma Chef Little Free Pantry Movement” in Chicago, providing 24-hour non-perishable food to anyone in need. It took around a year to get everything in place, and in May 2021, I opened my first pantry at West Ridge Community Methodist Church. My son, who is a junior in high school, is in charge of running the pantry for me. We keep the pantry stocked daily with healthy non-perishable food such as peanut butter, cans of fruit, cans of soups and stews, cans of tuna, chicken, etc. It’s a wonderful way for people in need to take food anonymously at any time of the day. With the success of the first pantry, I am going to be installing more pantries around the city in the next couple of months: My next two will be at Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston, and New Beginnings Church in West Woodlawn. I want to encourage everyone that if there is something you believe in — a cause that taps your shoulder or keeps you awake at night — believe in yourself! One person truly can make a difference. You can find me at www.mommachef.com. I am keeping busy with my blog, Soup Kitchen, Food Pantries, and I plan to publish a cookbook in 2022 with my delicious “6 under 6” recipes, with proceeds going to these projects. *If you're interested in volunteering at the Soup Kitchen, you are more than welcome! Kids 11 and up are welcome, too. Here's how.
  3. Not all kids like to cook at younger ages and that’s to be expected. It’s easy to get intimidated around hot pots and sharp knives. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some fun and safe ways to get your mini chefs involved in making dinner for the whole family! Meatless Monday We know it’s a cliché, but what better day to make a veggie-based pasta? Use a food processor to whip up an easy spinach “pesto” using fresh baby spinach, basil, nuts of your choice, and good parmesan or other aged cheese (optional). Have your kid(s) pour in the olive oil as the motor runs until the pesto is smooth. Cook pasta in a small pot according to package directions, drain (reserving about a tablespoon of the cooking water), and add pesto to the pot. Have your mini(s) stir to coat with a wooden spoon. They can also garnish the prepared bowls by sprinkling in some extra grated parmesan cheese and/or tear up more basil leaves to place on top. [Related: 5 tips for cooking with little kids] Taco Tuesday OK, OK, it’s another cliché, but do tacos on Tuesday ever fail? Switch things up a notch by making crispy taco bowls or cups with toppings of your choice. While you cook some ground beef (or chicken or turkey) seasoned with salt, cumin and chili powder, have your mini(s) push small flour or corn tortillas into the cups of a muffin tin lightly sprayed with olive or avocado oil. You can spoon in the cooked meat, and they can top with shredded Chihuahua, Mexican blend, or other cheese of your choice. Bake off the taco shells in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes or until crisp. Once cooled, serve the muffin cups with a variety of toppings: chopped tomatoes or mild salsa, diced avocado, shredded lettuce, chopped fresh cilantro, and a squeeze of lime — if they’re up for it. Meatball Wednesday Time to maka da meatballs! Add ground beef/pork or chicken/turkey in a large bowl. Have your kid(s) sprinkle in some seasoning (onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper, oregano), and then have them squeeze in some ketchup for sweetness. Either you or they can crack an egg and add some panko, or have them tear up day-old bread for fresh breadcrumbs to add to the mix. Using clean hands, mix up the batch and everyone can take turns rolling the meat into golf ball-size balls. Pour a jar of marinara in a large, deep skillet and heat until a slow simmer forms. Gently place the mini meatballs in the mix, cover and cook until cooked through but still tender. Serve with pasta, in hoagie rolls, or by themselves with a veggie of choice. [Related: Ways to make learning playful and fun for kids] Stir-Fry Thursday Remember Mongolian BBQ? Bring back the '90s fave with make-your-own stir-fry bowls. Set up a station with bowls of raw, pre-chopped veggies (broccoli, mushrooms, diced red and yellow peppers, matchstick carrots, peas or edamame, etc.). Have them hand you their bowl while you add the protein (diced chicken or turkey breast or shrimp) and some pre-made stir-fry sauce (store-bought or a combo of soy sauce, hoisin or honey, and grated garlic and ginger). Heat up a little neutral or avocado oil in a wok or large skillet and cook until meat is cooked through and veggies are tender. They can finish off their bowls with any garnish of their choice (sliced scallions, toasted sesame seeds, chopped peanuts or almonds), or skip this part. You can even have then pick out the veggies you’ll be using at the grocery store to help them get more excited about the meal. Pizza Friday Make an easy Detroit-style pizza using a pan! This one’s easier to handle than stretching out and dealing with fresh dough. Line a buttered, 9"’ x 11" pan with prepared pizza dough and lightly brush it with olive oil. Have your kid(s) place alternating pepperoni slices and diced cheese across the dough (Detroit-style uses buttery brick cheese, or go for combination of brick and mozzarella), making sure to place enough cheese in the corners to create those signature, caramelized edges. Bake in a 500-degree oven on the lowest rack until bubbly, and edges are dark brown, almost black — about 30-40 minutes. Be sure to let the pizza rest 10 minutes before cutting into squares and serving. Photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash
  4. When our oldest son was just three years old, we found ourselves at the University of Chicago – our son groggy from anesthesia due to a necessary endoscopy and the doctor telling us, “The pathology and blood tests all confirm celiac disease.” I was relieved because we now had an answer as to why he wasn’t growing or developing. Once we removed the gluten from his diet, that all improved, but my head was also spinning because I had no idea how to deal with this diagnosis. No more birthday cakes, pizza, donut runs on Sunday mornings. Fast forward 10 years, and that all seems like a very distant memory. [Related: Help kids with food allergies enjoy the holidays] Celiac in the city with a teen Now that our oldest is 13, I no longer know where he is every moment and I’m not dictating his every meal. Luckily, we live in a city with a lot of gluten-free options. With celiac disease, one has to be very careful regarding cross-contamination. At home for example, I keep separate peanut butters, butters, and cream cheeses because we don’t all eat gluten free, and if you dip the knife in one of those and then gluten crumbs get into the product, he could get very ill. About 10 milligrams of gluten is what it takes to get sick, and that is about the size of a bread crumb. You’re probably wondering how we ever trust a restaurant or go out to eat. With age and experience has also come his level of risk tolerance for his body. For example, many restaurants don’t have a dedicated fryer for french fries, but he’s realized that this doesn’t seem to impact him, so he is OK to eat the fries, usually. This likely isn’t best practice per his doctors, but he also has to have some “food freedom” in life. Our favorite gluten-free friendly restaurants in Chicago As a family, we love to go out to eat. Below are some restaurants that my son loves – and that I trust: D’Agostino’s — He loves the pizza and the restaurant even went through a celiac certification process Jersey Mike’s – The company uses Udi’s sub rolls and will even clean off the deli slicers before making his sandwich Lettuce Entertain You – Takes celiac disease very seriously and have separate menus in most of their restaurants Wheat’s End – A dedicated gluten-free restaurant with amazing pancakes Zia’s Lakeview – Dedicated gluten-free menu and he loves their octopus appetizer Corridor on Southport – Amazing burgers that he orders without a bun and fantastic fries As my son gets older, it will be up to him to keep his body healthy. He fully understands how awful he feels if he ingests gluten, but I also know he will make mistakes either intentionally or not. Thankfully, there are many great options in Chicago, and he has a great group of friends and parents that all support him. To learn more about gluten threshold levels for teens and others, check out the National Celiac Association's helpful graphic here. Photo: gluten-free doughnut at Wheat's End Cafe
  5. Photo by Flora Westbrook Winter ain’t over just yet! With possible snow still on the horizon, we’ve got you covered with these warm and comforting, kid-friendly meals you can easily make in the slow cooker. Dressing them up with some fresh herbs, bright citrus and other toppers, though, will help keep your sight on Spring (and please the adults in the room). [Related: Make this easy London broil recipe for your family] Chicken Enchiladas Place 1 pound (or more) boneless chicken thighs in the slow cooker with a generous sprinkling of cumin, chili powder, garlic powder and onion powder, plus a pinch of salt and a 14.5-ounce can of fire-roasted, diced tomatoes (drained). Cook for 8 hours on low. Shred using two forks, stuff into tortillas, and bake them off with a bunch of cheese on top. Dress it up: Chopped fresh cilantro, lime wedges, a dollop of sour cream or plain Greek yogurt, and pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds) for crunch. Cheeseburger Soup Place 1 pound ground beef (brown first, if possible), celery-carrots-onion mirepoix mix, garlic powder, 3 cups chicken broth or stock, 1/4 cup sour cream, 1 1/2 cups milk, 4 cups cubed potatoes, and 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese in a slow cooker. Cook on low for 8 hours. Dress it up: Halved cherry tomatoes, baby spinach leaves, cooked chopped bacon or bacon bits for smokiness, and homemade croutons (toss day-old bread pieces with olive oil and dried herbs and bake in a 350ºF toaster oven for 15 minutes or so) for crunch. Mac n’ Cheese Place 1 pound uncooked, rinsed elbow pasta, 2 1/2 cups whole milk, 3 cups shredded cheddar or extra cheddar cheese, 4 ounces American (or other melty cheese) cheese, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and dry mustard powder in the slow cooker. Top with 1/2 a stick of cubed, unsalted butter and cook on low for 8 hours. Dress it up: Steamed broccoli, grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese, torn basil leaves, balsamic glaze (made by microwaving balsamic vinegar on 30% power in the microwave for 2 minutes), and a touch of panko breadcrumbs for crunch. Build-Your-Own Ramen Place 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, diced yellow onion, a few garlic cloves, 4 cups chicken broth, 1/4 cup soy sauce, a touch of rice vinegar, a package of sliced mushrooms, and some minced ginger (or ground ginger) in a slow cooker. Cook on low for 3 hours. Remove chicken and add ramen noodles (from a few packages, discarding the chemical-laden seasoning) or Udon noodles. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes while you shred the chicken. Dress it up: Soft- or hard-boiled egg, baby spinach leaves, toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds, thinly sliced scallions, chopped fresh cilantro, Sriracha sauce or sliced jalapenos, peanuts (or almonds or cashews) for crunch.
  6. As parents, we hope to instill in our children the importance of traditions. Many of our family traditions revolve around food. For example, our Sunday evening tradition has become a London broil dinner. All my kids love this meal—which is quite a miracle—and I hope it might become a tradition in your home, too. London broil 1 ½-2 lb. London broil ¾ cup Italian dressing ¼ cup soy sauce ¼ cup honey Mix Italian dressing, honey and soy sauce in a large Ziploc bag. Add London broil to bag and, if possible, let it marinate for several hours in the refrigerator. Grill on low heat 12 minutes each side (4 minutes longer per side if you like it well done, but who likes it well done?!). Can you believe that’s all it takes? Enjoy! Tips: This is a great recipe to quickly throw together in the morning and let marinate in the refrigerator during the day. Just put the meat in the oven or grill it when you get home. If you are living a cold climate and aren’t brave enough to grill in the winter (we Chicagoans grill in the snow), then preheat the oven to 400 degrees and bake the London broil on the lowest rack uncovered in a disposable pan for 1 hour. As always with red meat, let it sit after cooking for 5-10 minutes before cutting to seal in the juice. This London broil is great served with grilled asparagus and brown rice (my favorite is Trader Joe’s frozen brown rice) Related articles: Bring these easy-pack snacks and gear on your next family picnic 5 simple ways to help your picky eater Your kid will hate some foods, and that's ok
  7. As parents, we are sometimes just as excited as our kids when school is out for summer. For us, that means no helping with homework, no rushing around in the morning, and no packing of lunches. But as the summer nears the end, we realize the tasks ahead of us as the school year begins. Packing lunches does not need to be one of those dreaded tasks. Here are some helpful tips for putting together a delicious lunch in advance: No “surprise” lunches Try out new recipes on your kids at home first, rather than surprising them with a new lunch. As a food blogger, I do this all the time. Use Sunday to prep When I find something they like, I’ll make that dish on a Sunday night. I make enough so I can pack individual lunches for a few days during the week. My kids’ lunch favorites are Banana Muffins, Hidden Zucchini Muffins, Bourbon Chicken and Crispy Corn Flake Chicken (see below for recipe). Also on Sundays, my boys and I will bake S’mores Brownies. Then we’ll wrap them individually so they’re ready for the lunch box for dessert throughout the week. Eat in season My go-to fruit is the small individual bag of organic apple slices from Costco or Trader Joe’s. Of course, a fabulous autumn activity is apple picking. If you have picked them fresh, make sure to cut them up in the morning so they don’t turn brown before lunch. If stored properly, freshly picked apples will last up to two months in the refrigerator. Keep it cold Freeze a box of yogurt squeezers (my favorite is Stoneyfield Organic Strawberry), and include one in the lunch box. By the time lunch rolls around, the yogurt will be defrosted but still cold. And it will keep the other lunch items cold, too. You can find dozens of quick and easy kid-friendly recipes on my blog at www.mommachef.com. All use no more than six ingredients and are under six minutes of prep time. Momma Chef’s Cornflake Coated Chicken (makes 6 servings) 6 boneless chicken breasts 4 cups cornflakes 2 large eggs 2 tbsp. water 1 tbsp. salt 1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. 2. In a large bowl, mix together eggs and water. Set aside. 3. In a large Ziploc bag, add the cornflakes and salt. Then crush the cornflakes. 4. Dip each chicken breast in the egg/water mixture and put them in the Ziploc bag. Shake to coat all sides of the chicken. 5. Arrange the chicken in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for 40 minutes.

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