With epidemic rates of diabetes and obesity, Eeyou Istchee desperately needs healthier eating habits. Whapmagoostui chef Nelly George’s solution targets the early stages of a child’s life -when he or she develops their taste for food at the local daycare.
“I learned a lot from my mother, she taught me how to cook healthy food,” George said in explaining her penchant for greens.
“There was also a chef who came here, Chef Hop, who showed me other ways to cook healthy food. He showed me low-calorie snacks for the kids and ways to use less sugar. He also introduced me to more nutritious foods.”
George cooks for children who don’t usually get a chance to eat this healthy at home. Sometimes George admitted that she has to trick them to eat the good stuff.
“When I try something new, they don’t eat it right away,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll blend in vegetables with other foods and they don’t know what they’re eating, but it’s good for them. When I make spaghetti sauce I blend the vegetables in.”
Traditional food also gets a health-minded preparation, she pointed out. “I cook goose with vegetables and whole-wheat dumplings. I drain the fat from the broth as well.”
George said she uses dips with fruit or unsweetened applesauce to expose them to new things and the children eventually come around to liking it.
She used work as an early childhood educator, but decided many years ago to become a chef. She has held the position at the daycare for six years.
“I noticed when the kids eat healthy food they’re less hyper,” said George. “And it’s important to cook healthy foods for the kids to promote a healthy lifestyle.”
She posts the daily menu at the entrance of the daycare so parents always know what their kids are eating. She even got thechance to cook for her two youngest kids at the daycare a few years back, continuing the healthy cooking they received at home.
Her trick, she says, is to consult the Canada Food Guide daily and to use a component from the four major food groups in each meal. She also uses whole-wheat flour instead of white and is constantly trying new things with a healthy twist.
Whapmagoostui Daycare Director Linda Masty is ecstatic over the new menu, especially since she also has a two-year-old grandson at the daycare.
“It’s a great menu,” she said. “Also the way she keeps the kitchen clean, it’s very important for the health of the kids.”
Masty borrows tips and recipes from George to use at home. “It will help my grandson be strong,” she said. “If I know that my grandson likes it, I try to cook it at home.”
The community is also pleased with what George can do to make their meat healthier. People routinely donate caribou or geese or other kinds of wild game.
There are spaces at the daycare for 80 children and 70 of those are filled.
A typical day for George includes a 10 am snack, which could consist of whole-wheat pancakes and milk, followed by a nutritious lunch with veggies, game, whole wheat bread and then another light healthy snack at 3 pm.
Amelie Sabourin, Nutrition Activities Coordinator in Whapmagoostui, has only been in her position for a few weeks, but she knows the positive effect healthy cooking can have on the community.
“It’s good, especially at daycare because they are kids and they’re growing,” said Sabourin. “If you put good ingredients, you’re supporting good growth and development and healthy habits which can prevent, in the long run, diabetes and different sicknesses.”
Many Eeyouch have settled into a rather sedentary lifestyle. Fewer people live off the land, while bad habits of buying pop and other unhealthy foods at the grocery store have drastically increased.
It’s an uphill struggle, but Sabourin tips her cap to George, who is making a difference one meal at a time.
“It’s important when kids are young to make them try different foods and ingredients. When they’re young they develop their taste and it’s good for them to try different things. Children can be very open,” she said.
Sabourin coordinates cooking classes and grocery tours to get the healthy word out in Whapmagoostui. The community is holding an eating habit challenge on the local radio called “Try it, do it, keep it,” which Sabourin helped to coordinate.
“Families have to choose between three different challenges,” she said. “For one week they would drink only water. Then for another week the whole family could walk together for 15 minutes after dinner. Or for one week they should try not to eat fried food,”
Although Sabourin said it is still too early to give the community a passing or failing grade on healthy living, she sees hope for the future with people like Nelly George leading the way.
“Nelly is an inspiration and example to others that it’s possible to cook healthy and to have the kids try and eat new things.”