Health begins at home

Dr. Senbagam Virudachalam is working to get parents to cook at home and instill good-food habits in their kids.
Dr. Senbagam Virudachalam is working to get parents to cook at home and instill good-food habits in their kids.
Posted: August 21, 2014

WITH ALL the tempting choices out there, most, if not all of us, struggle with cooking at home. Home-cooked meals from scratch are likely more nutritious and better for overall health. But these days, with our mainly sedentary, round-the-clock lifestyles, it is increasingly difficult for people to carve out the time to plan, shop and prepare nutritious meals at home.

Budgeting, planning, shopping and preparing healthy meals can be particularly challenging when resources are slim and money is tight. These factors, along with other stressors such as food insecurity, food deserts and lack of access to nutritious foods, put low-income American families at an even higher risk for obesity, disease and overall poorer health.

In an effort to tackle this problem, two Philadelphia leaders - Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and Aramark - have embarked on a new partnership called "Home Plate," an ambitious health initiative designed to improve family health and well-being.

"It boils down to having parents feel they can get into the kitchen regularly, and feel like they can make something out of whatever is in the fridge," said Dr. Senbagam Virudachalam, a pediatrician and health services researcher at CHOP's PolicyLab. "[Our goal is to] help parents make cooking a part of their day-to-day lives and make it enjoyable and healthier."

Historically, home-based cooking was passed on from generation to generation, but today many people feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and availability of food choices and feel less confident about cooking from scratch. The Home Plate team endeavors to help families overcome their cooking anxieties.

Another unique feature of this program is its approach. Instead of the customary top-down model, this initiative is peer-to-peer based, believing that the community is the best champion of its own change. Sixty parents and 30 mentors will participate in the three-year study, which will consist of two years of weekly cooking classes over six weeks, and the final year for refining and analysis.

Aramark's $750,000, three-year grant will likely give Home Plate a chance to take root, and determine if it is a sustainable model that can be replicated throughout the nation.

"At Aramark, we care about our communities, and we are committed to enriching and nourishing lives in our business and in the communities we serve," said Bev Dribin, vice president of community relations.

The cooking classes are hosted at the Enterprise Center's Dorrance H. Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises, in West Philadelphia, and participating families are from various community-based organizations.

According to research, as many as 70 percent of the meals that children younger than 5 eat at home are processed, and this potentially sets them up not only for obesity, but for a host of other poor health and social issues. Undoubtedly, all the Healthy Plate participants will be striving to reverse that trend.

"By ensuring that parents of young children have the skills and confidence to regularly prepare healthy food at home, we hope to positively impact children's food-related habits and routines from the earliest ages," Virudachalam said.

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