"I think that some of the limitations is how people talk about food. So we'd like to classify things as being good or bad, where we celebrate fruits and vegetables and whole foods, and we vilify our goodies, and our chips and cookies... which makes these conversations about food really confusing for our children." - Dani Lebovitz, MS, RDN, CSSD, CDE
Shireen: Dani Lebovitz is a registered dietician, nutritionist, author and experience based educator dedicated to growing adventurous eaters through her whole food guidebook series that tells the story of food from farm to fork, while encouraging steam activities for food exploration. She's the author of where you've been in as come from a book of fruits. And where does broccoli come from a book of vegetables. Dani holds a master's degree in health communications, as well as a certification in diabetes education, and sports nutrition. Welcome, Dani.
Dani: Hi, thank you so much for having me here today.
Shireen: An absolute pleasure. So diving, right in Danny, you have to tell us what led you to work within nutrition? And then more specifically, what led you to focus within children's nutrition?
Dani: Absolutely. So when I started school, I thought, Oh, I really want to help people, how can I help people and I thought the only way to do that was to be a doctor. And my first year of college, I took an intro to nutrition class. And that switched everything. And from then on, I knew that I could make a difference with food. I am a strong believer that food is medicine. And so that is the way that I practice my professional career, and also home life. And how did I get into children's nutrition? Well, I am fascinated by the intersection of science and education. And I know that active learning sensory experiences and positive engagement with food helps cultivate an environment that empowers children to experiment with new cuisine and a pressure free environment. And so, after working with lots of kids in lots of different environments, I saw how learning about food really could transform the picky eater to an adventurous diner. And I love the excitement and motivation for taste testing and trying new things that you see in children rather than adults who may be a little more apprehensive. So that is what has driven my passion to really work with children, because they’re a lot of fun.
Shireen: That's interesting. So one of the things we do at yummilicious, we talk about the correlation between food and diabetes, as it relates to people with type two diabetes, mostly seen in adults. I'd love for you to give your take on why it is important to sort of have that conversation early on and what it means for this, this, you know, problem with diabetes that we have widespread in our society.
Dani: Absolutely. So I think that's another piece that I didn't mention about why I love working with children and why I made that shift to work with children. And it's because I spent many years working in different hospital settings, and also in the dialysis unit, educating the very sick, and I saw the impacts that intervention can do. And then if you back up a bit, you think about prevention and how you can prevent that sickness from getting into the hospital. And then backing up even more how you can combine that idea of prevention and really educating from a very, from very early on in life, to prevent illnesses that are completely preventable, as in type two diabetes type one, not so much. So after working years in this very clinical setting, and seeing all these very sick people in addition to loving working with kids and recognizing how much fun it could be, and the food adventures that we could have. I also compare that with the idea of, I don't want to just help the sick, I want to prevent the sick, and I want to inspire that change in our youth so that we can raise a healthier future. I think there's a statistic by the CDC and I don't recall the exact statistic, but it was something along the lines of this generation is the first generation that will not outlive their parents based on how sick we have been becoming. And so for me getting to the root of the problem, and really getting kids excited about eating and eating well could really transform our future and prevent type two diabetes.
Shireen: Interesting. So what are the current challenges within conversation around children's nutrition? And so what are those relevant challenges? And then why is this focus on children's nutrition specifically so important?
Dani: That is a very complex question, and it is multifaceted, you know, it can come from anything from busy working parents, we're always on the go, we always have places to be and things to do. And so we need simple, we need quick, we need easy. We are trying to avoid fights, and tantrums. And so we are catering to do things that make our lives a little bit easier. And not necessarily focusing on the quality of how we are nourishing our bodies. And then, for those who are really focusing on the food, and childhood nutrition, I think that some of the limitations is how people talk about food. So we'd like to classify things as being good or bad, where we celebrate fruits and vegetables and whole foods, and we vilify our goodies, and our chips and cookies, or whatever. And so it gives these characteristics of food a life of their own, which makes these conversations about food really confusing for our children.
Shireen: Interesting. And so you have this approach of food explorers, I love that. And so how and why did you develop this approach?
Dani: So I will actually back up because I, I started this approach with an idea about a children's book. And so in, we're a military family. So every time my husband would go on a long deployment, one thing we would do is we would plan a trip or something to look forward to, when he would come back. And so we went on a trip to Santa Cruz, and one of the stops was in Belize. And while we were adventuring, we stopped at a pineapple farm. And as a dietitian, and a person with a degree in food science, I could tell you everything you wanted to know about pineapple, how to pick it, how to cut it, all the enzymes that a pineapple had in it, and what it could do to your body, but I had no idea how it grew. And that day, I learned that one enormous pineapple plant only grows 123 plant fruits in the lifetime of this plant. And in addition, it takes anywhere from one year to two years to grow one fruit. So taking that into consideration, it really put into perspective, well no wonder pineapple costs $5 at the store, it took all this time, love and energy to be put into that. So my idea came from this aha moment, learning about our food literacy, where our food comes from, how it's grown, and then putting that into a packable way to educate youth, and help them learn about food and get excited about food. Because at the time, I had been working with a lot of parents with picky eaters. And so it was a way to inspire my picky eaters to get excited and explore new foods without having to worry about the taste test. So that is how that's how my idea of food exploration began.
Shireen: So what are some of the mistakes that people are making in terms of developing these food explorers? And then how do you recommend people change their approach?
Dani: So I think it really stems from a lot, two things, a lot of push of what our expectations of a child is. And so our expectation what a child should eat versus what they're actually going to eat. And then the way we talk about food. So what I like to do is create a fun food experience. So, and also honor and listen to tiny food preferences. So part of my work really focuses on fostering an interest in, in food itself, and never pressuring them to try something. And when they do, taste test or try something. It's really pausing and listening and allowing them to talk about their preferences and empowering them with the words that they need to identify and, and articulate those food preferences. Instead of saying, Oh, this broccoli is really good, you should try it like that you… That is one form of pressuring, because a child may not be ready or willing to try it imagine something, for example, trying to think of something, oh, there's a, there's a, I think like a little squid or something that moves that people eat in, in Asia, and I just try and relate to this, this food that I don't know if I would ever put that in my mouth, because that movement, and it's not something I have tried before. So I just try and think like, if I'm a kid, and this is something completely new to me, and it looks repulsive, and somebody telling me, Oh, it's so good, you have to try it. I can't imagine that it would taste good on my taste buds. But if somebody is sitting and eating a bowl of will go back to broccoli, because I'm comfortable with that. eating a bowl of raw broccoli, or roasted broccoli, and I take a bite, and I tell you, it's so good. It's crispy, and it tastes a little bit buttery. And I love the crunchy edges. And it's salty. A child is going to be much more enticed to try something because one, I didn't force that upon them. And two, I have piqued their interest with my descriptive words of what I am enjoying about it. And I think a mistake that people make is that they have an expectation. Or they feel as though they have prepared something for their family. And they don't want food waste. And this is healthy. And this is good, free. You know, this is good, it tastes good, you should eat it. And it's, it really turns a lot of kids off. And so I think changing the way we talk about food and in a positive light, not vilifying foods that we deem as unhealthy. I think it, getting kids excited, and empowering them with trying new foods is a great way to get kids interested to at least start experiencing food, whether you are in the kitchen, out of market or reading out of a book.
Shireen: And so you utilize and as I'm even talking to you, you have a beautiful poster in the back with my five senses. So one of the things you use are these, this five senses and understanding and exploring foods through that broccoli example. Can you walk me through what that, what that will look like?
Dani: Absolutely. So I think if, if you're a parent and you want to have your child try something new. I think that exploring with your five senses is a great way to start. And it depends on the age of your child, I actually, I'm going to, I'm going to do with two forms of broccoli because, for example, you might hate raw broccoli, but you love roasted broccoli, or myself. I don't particularly care for steamed broccoli, but just about any other kind of broccoli sauteed. You know, I really enjoy. So basically taking the five senses. This is I'll just take you through what I would do. So can you describe the flavors and textures of something you eat? Each food and new preparation method can change the experience. We can use our five senses to discover what we like and don't like about foods. So let's use our five senses to explore broccoli. Let's take a look. What colors do you see? Does the broccoli remind you of anything? A lot of people say that broccoli florets look like miniature trees. Do you agree? Can you see the stem and the leaves of the tree? Feel, how does broccoli feel? How does it feel in your hands? Is it texture bumpy, smooth or bow? What about when you put it in your mouth and take a bite? What do you hear when you run your fingers over the raw broccoli? Is it squeaky or isn't silent? Now pick a bite. Did you hear anything? Keep chewing? Are there any sounds? each bite is each bite allowed crunchy or quiet to take a whiff? Have you ever sniffed broccoli? That might sound silly but smelling gives us an idea of how we are going to experience the food on our taste buds. How does it taste? What is the flavor? Can you describe it? Is it bitter or mustardy? Is it sweet? So just really taking a minute to be mindful to pause and letting kids tell you what they experienced because I promise you it's going to be very different than what you experience. I have these four Go ahead. No, please, please. Um, I have these my food explorer mat on my Etsy shop. And basically it's a, it's like a printable placemat. And my kids are a little bit younger, I have a three and a half and a one and a half year old. So I laminate them. And we use dry erase crayons. And some kids use dry erase markers, but mine are littler. But basically what you do is you put a piece of food in the center of your plate. And then you can go through how is it prepared? What color do you see, what shapes? Does it mind, remind you of what do you see, feel and everything is image related. So they can really relate to the image even if they can't read and then I also have a comparison that one. So you can either compare raw broccoli versus roasted broccoli, you could compare an, a granny smith apple versus a gala apple or you could compare apples and oranges. So it just gives me these come lucky little lesson plans that it's about a 20 page guide and, and a couple of lesson plans, with dialogue to help you introduce and talk to your kids about using their five senses with food. I think a big key that I use is positive dialogue. I don't say I don't talk badly about ice cream. I love ice cream. Do you like ice cream? Are you an ice cream fan?
Shireen: I am but I'm trying to stay away from it.
Dani: Okay, but with and so I might be thinking that with my kids. I'm trying not to eat as much ice cream. But they asked for ice cream yesterday. So for our snack after nap time we had a little ice cream social with rainbow sprinkles and chocolate chips on top. And what was really, this is, this is a true story. What was really interesting to me is I don't talk about foods being healthy or unhealthy and home in the home. They're all just foods, and we have some foods more than other foods. And so sometimes we have ice cream when they ask and sometimes we don't. But I don't give that food power by saying this is a unhealthy food or this is a healthy food. It's just another food. And so my, my three and a half year old goes well. I know ice cream isn't good for you. And I was like Why do you say that this is not something that's come out of my mouth. And she said well, because it has a lot of sugar. And I said oh well it does have a lot of sugar but it tastes good, right? It's okay for us to have it's just we have lots of other foods too. And sometimes we have Melon and sometimes we have sugar snap peas and she said okay, so it didn't give even though that might be our taste but preference it didn't give that food the same power by saying oh that's an unhealthy food we shouldn't have that or saying I'm trying not to eat that I just had a little bit less
Shireen: interesting. So you, you just in for you know folks listening to this you as you were talking about your placemats Of course you sure showed it on here very, very colorful to look at. You also have your children's books. So talk to us a bit more about those books, how you got the idea how your books help nurture and really inspire food explorers.
Dani: Sure. So the, as I, as I mentioned before, the books really are what started this idea of food exploration and, and food literacy. So getting in touch with where our food comes from, and fun facts along the way, you never know what's gonna inspire a kid to want to try something. So I've had parents messaged me, I have an acquaintance who had purchased the book for her at the time two year old who was literally obsessed with, I called vitamins and minerals good for my body nutrients and this two year old would correct the mom about what the different good for my body nutrients were. And then you have my, my girls who literally look through the book and love the fruit and vegetable characters. So what my books my whole food guide books do is they take the reader from farm to fork and the fruit book where do bananas come from has 108 different fruits and varieties and the vegetable book has 102 different vegetables in varieties and it tells you how to pick how to store how to eat what it looks like with photography, cute digital illustrations over the top to make them fun and relatable characters. Fun Facts I have. I have had another mom who messages me and their child just likes to regurgitate facts so that really relates to them. Also we talked about when a food is in season, and then also simple recipes so you can really go to the, the farmers market. Pick up a new food to try. And if you follow me on my social media the last week and half in the next week or so we are focusing on Mango because they are fresh and delicious right now. And so what we do is we learn more about that food in its entirety. For example, it is a stone fruit, much like your peach or your plum, it has a seed in the middle that needs to be removed before you eat it. And that is specifically called a droop. So these are all things that you learn on your adventures in discovery of new foods. And I have a new book out, it's called 101 words for food explores a visual guide for adventures in food. And that book specifically came about because I wanted a way for young children to older children to be able to talk about what they like and don't like about foods. So I have a little rule at my table. We can't say, yeah, or I don't like this. I think those words are hurtful. And there's a little quote, I don't know who it came from. But it's don't yuck, my yum. So we could both be eating the same thing and have very different opinions and experiences about that food. And we know that small children really feel peer pressure. So if one child at a table says I don't like this, then the other child is probably going to say I don't like this. So the dialogue we use is, it's not my favorite. I'm still exploring it. And you don't have to eat it. You never have to eat it. But you can't say yes, or I don't like it or anything negative about it. And this new descriptive word takes that idea a step further. Well, why isn't it your favorite? Or what do you love about it? And so that you can start to talk about the different flavors and texture preferences. And this is really something else that got me started along this path. For example, I had parents come in to me and say, my child's so picky. They love pizza, they love pasta, I cannot get them to eat tomatoes. And so then when you really talk to a child about tomatoes and help them connect, what their sensory experience is in their mouth to what they're actually tasting, or trying is that you might find out Well, it's not the flavor of the tomato, that's fine. But it's the texture they, they find the seeds to be slimy. And that slimy texture really turns them off. But they didn't necessarily have the words to share with you, I think the tomatoes are signing. So by giving them a visual guide or cue to connect those words, language, art skill, to how they're experiencing something, you are empowering them and giving them the skills to articulate their likes and dislikes. And that was really important. In our own home. For example, my daughter hates mushy, so she doesn't like soft eggs. I couldn't get her to eat avocado, which I actually didn't mind because I love avocado and it meant more for me. But now I know if I overcook eggs, she likes them. If it is a firm avocado, she asks for seconds. And so I know now what her texture and flavor preferences are because we are able to talk about them. And I can make sure that when I'm preparing foods, I will prepare them in a way that is more accepted to her. She loves crispy and crunchy if I have made any veggie crispy and crunchy like with some panko and some parmesan cheese, you know that kid's gonna eat it.
Shireen: So do you have any take home tips for parents listening on the podcast here today?
Dani: Absolutely, if I could give you just a few tips for you to implement today to help foster a healthy and joyful relationship with food and being open to trying new things. And again, all of these tools and things about talking about Whole Foods is to help parents introduce their kids to a wide range of foods so that we can reduce the incidence of picky eaters. And we are not giving power to our foods that we classify as unhealthy because if somebody tells you something's unhealthy, or you shouldn't have it, we always think that we want it. So the first one is to mirror, mirror that behavior if you hate brussel sprouts and you're not going to try them, don't bring them into home because your child's going to notice you're not eating them. But let's say for example you made brussel sprouts and you pan seared it with some bacon and it was crispy on the edges and really flavorful and you sat there and enjoyed it. Your kids are probably gonna sit there and enjoy it too. The next one is get your kids involved. You know, go take them to the grocery store or the farmers market or say, hey, let's look through the word of bananas come from book and try new fruit this week or Oh, I saw that mangoes are in season this week, let's let's should we would you want to explore mangos this week. And so let them help guide your decision and choose and then when you do get that food home, bring them in the kitchen and have them help prepare it or have them do something fun with it. If you're on my social media, we do lots of fun activities with food for example, with mangoes last week, we made a little skee ball game, and my 12 year old neighbor came over and was loving this game and determined to play it was with the, the mango skins. The, the next piece of advice is positive dialogue. We don't poo poo any food, we talk about food and a really positive manner. So if they're eating Cheetos, or you know, soda, well, you're the parent you get to choose what they have in the mouth in the house. But you don't say oh, that's unhealthy. Don't eat that, you know, say oh, that's you know, that's that the, that's a, it's a delicious snack, isn't it? It's so tasty and crispy and salty or isn't that soda sweet. And but I think we're gonna just start keeping some milk or water or maybe sparkling water or something else in the house, because that's also really yummy too. And then the last thing I can make if I can make one big recommendation is to make it fun. If you are talking about fruits and vegetables like this, then nobody's gonna want to try it. If you make it exciting and fun experience, nobody can resist. So mirror that behavior. Get your kids involved, create a positive dialogue around food and make it fun for everybody.
Shireen: I love it. And so with that, Danny, we're toward the end of the episode, it was an absolute pleasure having you on. And toward the end. We'd like our listeners to know how they can learn more about your work, connect with you after this episode.
Dani: Absolutely, you can reach out to me. I am very active on Instagram. My Instagram handle is at kid food explores there's a.in between each. And as I said, Before we do we learn about one new food every two to three weeks with simple recipes, fun steam science, technology, engineering, arts and math activities associated with that food. And you can also find me. I have a page on Facebook. And if you're looking for a little parents support. I also have a Facebook group. We have over 1000 active members who post questions and it's a community for parents, caregivers, educators, dietitians, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, where if you have a question about what's going on with your feeding situation at home, you can ask it there and you've got a lot of support to answer that too. And that is kids nutrish are growing adventurous eaters, kids nutrition made easy. And my website is www dot experienced delicious dot com.
Shireen: Lovely. And we'll link all of this up within our show notes so that folks can have access to this and connect with you. So with that, Dani, thank you so very much for your time. This is very interesting. In fact, you were talking about when you were talking about kids nutrition and how within your books, you teach them how to eat it and store it and I'm thinking my head man, there needs to be another version of this for adults so I can learn this.
Dani: I have a lot of adults. Fear towards I say four and up. And there are cute and fun images. But I, I've had several dietician professionals or other food professionals message me and say wow, like I didn't know this about food or I really love it for myself, even though it's designed to help you inspire your littlest food explorers.
Shireen: So with that, Dani, thank you so much for your time for sharing.
Dani: Thank you.