A year and a half ago, six months before Davin entered kindergarten, at Greenfield Elementary, he, like more than 5 percent of American kids aged 6 to 12, was diagnosed with ADHD.
"He couldn't stay still," said Schulson, who cited Davin's most prominent symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as "impulse control." He also exhibited other typical ADHD symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention.
In school, Davin frequently acted out, received daily "red light" warnings about his behavior and eventually had to eat lunch in the principal's office. "His kindergarten teacher had him sit on a [fitness] ball, and he'd just bounce and bounce," recalled the chef.
Schulson took his pre-kindergartener to the Center for Management of ADHD, at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, for evaluation. Davin began taking a prescription to control his symptoms.
Schulson, who is divorced and has primary custody of his two kids, wasn't pleased with what he observed in Davin, post-prescription. He described his eldest's medicated state as "in a whole different world." He recalled, "I was like, 'Where's my son?' "
A cure in the kitchen?
The chef resolved to find another, drug-free approach. He came upon the Feingold Diet. Born in the 1970s of a West Coast allergist, Feingold is based on the idea that eliminating foods with petroleum-based dyes (those FD&C colors named by numbers) and other synthetic additives can be good for you. Feingold proponents claim that in some instances the regimen can minimize symptoms of ADHD.
Schulson took a closer look at the foods Davin ate. He was shocked to learn just how many kids' staples - even kids' toothpastes - contain dyes like Yellow No. 5 and Blue No. 1. "Eggo waffles, Kraft macaroni and cheese," the chef rattled off. "Even juice boxes and Lunchables," two of Davin's school-meal favorites.
"We don't even realize" how many foods contain artificial ingredients, said the chef. Other Feingold no-no's: the man-made preservatives BHT, BHA and TBHQ. The chef also decided to place strict limits on foods with refined flour or sugar, and cut out high-fructose corn syrup.
It wasn't long before Schulson and his girlfriend, Nina Tinari, were emptying out their Rittenhouse Square condo's cabinets and fridge and going shopping at Whole Foods. There, they realized, artificial-ingredient-less mac and cheese was much, much pricier than Kraft's version. "The mac and cheese that has the dye is 99 cents," said Tinari. "The mac and cheese that doesn't is $3.99."
Still, it was worth it.
"After a week - literally, a week!" of eating differently, Schulson said, Davin's behavior was "like night and day."
He could stay still. He could focus. He came home from school with all "green" and "yellow" lights.
Davin didn't become symptom-free. He still needs to be reminded to pay attention and still makes regular visits to his pediatrician at CHOP's ADHD Center, where his diet is supervised, and where he and his family learn behavior-based interventions. But his symptoms are much more manageable.
Recipes for success
Aside from cost, Davin's diet is no sweat. Schulson said there are three simple tricks to getting his kids to stay on the plan.
First, he takes the boys grocery shopping, where they learn about ingredients. When Davin or Jordan picks out something on the "no" list, their dad tells them, "This has X, Y or Z in it. I'm not going to put that in my body. Do you still want to put it in yours?"
Next, he lets them make what they eat. Even little Jordan can slice, squeeze and sauté with his dad's help. Davin, who described himself as the "better chef" of the two brothers (a claim his younger brother proudly disputed), likes to open the refrigerator and ask, "What can we make?"
Last, Schulson keeps Feingold-friendly substitutes on hand. "If I'm gonna take something away, I have to have something else for them." So when their building's doorman gives the kids lollipops, dad trades them for naturally flavored and colored gum balls from their pantry.
Schulson also doesn't deprive Davin of desserts. The youngster loves homemade frozen pops and is allowed chocolate on weekends. Recently, at a birthday party, Davin took it upon himself to scrape the colored icing off his slice of cake.
"I don't want my son to be afraid of food," Schulson said.
Mostly, though, the chef-dad believes that cooking itself makes his boys proud to eat their meals. Said Schulson, "Any time a kid makes something himself, he automatically likes it better."