Here’s how Dr. Nimali Fernando is fighting childhood obesity through The Dr. Yum Project

“If you look at preschoolers on WIC in the nation, Virginia has the highest rate of obesity.” Learn how The Dr. Yum Project is tackling the issue by cooking with kids.

Dr. Nimali Fernando (Photo courtesy of The Dr. Yum Project)

It’s a common occurrence: Walking into a doctor’s office, meeting with the physician and hearing the words, “Eat healthier.” It sounds like an easy check of the box, but many people, especially children, aren’t given the tools to do so.

Dr. Nimali Fernando is changing that through The Dr. Yum Project, which aims to teach a healthy lifestyle to kids and the greater community through cooking classes, providing schools with lesson plans on nutrition, publishing kid-tested recipes with all nutritional information on the nonprofit’s website and more.

Fernando launched The Dr. Yum Project in 2011 as a simple website with recipes and health tips. It quickly progressed into a nonprofit, spreading into the NoVA region, and recently, through the nation. She opened her pediatrics practice in 2014. The two endeavors now share a Fredericksburg office.

“I have become Dr. Yum,” Fernando laughs. “At my practice, I took out half of the building, knocked out all the walls and built a teaching kitchen. One side is my pediatrics practice, and the other is The Dr. Yum kitchen. I just have a hook on the wall where I’ve got a white coat and I’ve got an apron. It’s wonderful.”

After eight years, a staple of The Dr. Yum Project’s mission is encompassed by its Preschool Adventure Program, a formal curriculum available to teachers and day care providers, and also offered as a preschool camp.

“I always realized that we have a real problem of obesity in preschoolers in our community,” Fernando says. “If you look at preschoolers on WIC in the nation, Virginia has the highest rate of obesity. I wanted to do something with those kiddos to get them on a better start.”

The Dr. Yum Preschool Adventure Program teaches preschoolers basic cooking skills, how to be comfortable around age-appropriate kitchen gear and discusses the health benefits of fruits and vegetables by describing them as superpowers. “When you teach kids about how food helps their bodies, they’re more likely to try them,” Fernando says.

At each preschool cooking class, healthy food is introduced and explained, and then culminates with the kids making a healthy snack.

Preschoolers are given the tools and knowledge they need to embrace healthy eating through The Dr. Yum Project. (Photo courtesy of The Dr. Yum Project)

The nonprofit also provides local schools with lesson plans (about 22 in NoVA and central Virginia, most located in Fredericksburg, with a new school in Fairfax joining for the 2019-2020 school year). The Dr. Yum Project partners with participating schools, and trains the teachers on how to approach the kids, the methodology behind teaching children how to eat healthfully and making the lesson plans fun.

“We have recently expanded the program to include 24 lesson plans, so that teachers can use them for two years (one per month),” Fernando explains. The lesson plans are stretching beyond the parameters of Virginia and into the national landscape this year. The program had its soft launch in August and the curriculum is now being offered nationwide.

It’s not just about teaching kids the importance of vegetables, or getting them comfortable in the kitchen, it’s about educating their parents and family members, too. At the beginning of a curriculum, students’ parents are given a letter that explains the program, and all lesson plans are provided to guardians, as well. “We give the teachers a training manual, and the parents are also given a manual that’s very similar,” Fernando says. The hope is that the manuals, lesson plans and children’s enthusiasm will bridge the gap between knowing families should eat healthy and actually implementing a healthy lifestyle into the home.

For parents everywhere, Fernando reminds them to make cooking fun, and says that children will be encouraged to try new foods if they are included in the process: “The meal starts when your cooking starts.” So heat up the oven, gather the kids and, in the words of the nonprofit’s motto, “Eat well. Change your world.”

Dr. Yum’s Healthy Advice

Implement Dr. Fernando’s healthy-eating strategies in your family kitchen with these three helpful tips.

Don’t Call Kids Picky
When it comes to children’s development, words matter. Fernando says calling kids picky only has negative effects and is commonly seen as a permanent label. “We don’t use that word in our kitchen,” she says. “You’re an exploring eater, you’re a learning eater, you’re a practicing eater, but you’re not a picky eater.”

Use All Five Senses
During certain development stages, kids may not be ready to taste a certain food, but there are other ways to encourage them. “Give them the confidence to someday try the food,” through their senses, Fernando says. Have your children smell the food, feel its texture and identify its colors if they aren’t ready to taste just yet.

Cook Together
“There are a lot of lessons that can be shared and a lot of great experiences when you cook together,” Fernando says, adding that children gaining comfort and confidence in the kitchen is a big step in them trying new and healthy foods.

This post originally appeared in our September 2019 issue. For more health and family content, subscribe to our e-newsletters.

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