Food is medicine

Published Aug. 3, 2016: Dr. Partha Nandi knows how important it is for children to be active and eat nutritious meals. That's why he supports United Way for Southeastern Michigan and Meet Up and Eat Up.

Photos by Bruce Unwin. Video by Charles Ashley. Story by Dave Phillips.

Good nutrition is an essential part of a healthy childhood. But don’t take our word for it —Ask Dr. Nandi.

Dr. Partha Nandi, gastroenterologist and host of the “Ask Dr. Nandi” show (shown internationally and seen locally on WXYZ-TV Channel 7), visited a recent Meet Up and Eat Up Block Party at Chandler Park in Detroit. He was there to get a closer view of the childhood nutrition work that is near and dear to his heart, and he explained why it’s so important to him.

“Food is medicine,” he said. The fact that 20 percent of children in Greater Detroit struggle to regularly access nutritious food concerns him.

“We’re all a couple steps away from being in this situation,” Dr. Nandi said. “It would be difficult to imagine that. That’s why I ask, ‘What can I do to make it better?’ ”

That’s also why Dr. Nandi supports United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Meet Up and Eat Up work, which offers all children free, nutritious meals each day at more than 740 sites throughout Greater Detroit. He makes sure his own kids know the benefits of a healthy diet, and he has some tips and tricks for parents trying to instill that knowledge in their children.

“Every kid is different,” he said.

“For our kids, I try to incorporate them into making the food. Here’s the thing about kids: if they make the food, the end result is the best meal they’ve ever had, right? So if you have healthy food that they’re making, they’re going to eat it.”

Dr. Partha Nandi knows childhood nutrition is important. That's why he supports United Way for Southeastern Michigan and Meet Up and Eat Up.

Dr. Nandi’s children are already on a healthy food path, counting various vegetables among their favorite foods. His youngest son, 2-year-old Shaan, enjoys green beans, while 4-year-old PJ likes broccoli. His daughter Charley, 13, prefers quinoa over rice and happily eats kale.

“It’s not an accident that happened,” he said. “As parents, we are the guiding light for our kids. Whatever we do, almost always, the kids do, especially if they know that you care.”

Dr. Nandi suggests teaching children about the foods that are going into the meal they are preparing. It’s also important to discuss why nutrition matters.

“While you’re teaching them how to cook, give them the why, give them the goal. ‘You want to be a better athlete? Guess what, if you eat that candy bar, that’s not going to do it.’ ”

Kids dance on stage during a Meet Up and Eat Up Block Party at Chandler Park in Detroit.

United Way understands the importance of nutrition in a child’s diet. That’s why every Meet Up and Eat Up meal meets federal standards for nutrition and includes two fruits or vegetables, a grain, protein and milk.

Sarah Reinhardt, a certified dietitian for United Way for Southeastern Michigan, emphasized the role Meet Up and Eat Up is having on children’s' health outcomes.

“We’re providing key nutrients for the kids that can help them grow and develop and be healthy, and what we’re also doing is teaching them how to make healthy choices,” she said of United Way’s healthy kids initiative.

“We know kids start developing their food preferences as early as before their fifth birthday, so by exposing them to a variety of foods between the ages of 0 and 5, we can help make sure they develop those food preferences that make them choose healthy foods throughout their whole lives.”

Meet Up and Eat Up sites offer foods like vegetable pasta, turkey subs and taco salad placed in colorful, vibrant, kid-friendly packaging. The menu changes daily in order to prevent boredom.

“One of my favorite healthy eating phrases for kids is ‘Eat the rainbow,’ ” Sarah said.

“A diverse diet is a healthy diet. Teach your kids to notice the colors on their plate – the reds of beets and berries, the greens of kale and spinach. It becomes a really easy way for them to look at their plates and know they’re getting a lot of nutrients.”

Sarah said she understands the challenges parents face around healthy food choices for their children.

“A lot of parents will approach me saying ‘I really want my kids to eat healthy, but they just don’t seem to like healthy foods,’ or ‘My child is a picky eater, they won’t try anything,’ ” she said.

“The first thing I tell these parents is ‘You’re not doing anything wrong.’ That’s totally normal. Kids tend to go through these selective eating habits. The second thing I tell parents is ‘Stick with it.’ We know that it takes between 10 and 15 repeated exposures to a new food for a child’s palate to start developing a taste for it, so remember, you’re playing the long game.”

"I think it's a great cause," Dr. Nandi says of Meet Up and Eat Up.

Community coming together

“This is what a community is supposed to do,” Dr. Nandi said, pointing toward children playing soccer, dancing and eating hot dogs on whole grain buns during the block party he attended.

“What I love about Metro Detroit is a variety of cultures, a variety of people that share the same goal,” he said. “We all want what’s best for our family. We all want them to do better than us. We want them to thrive. Even though we may look different, even though we may have different backgrounds, we come together for a purpose, and we are resilient.”

Another important aspect of Meet Up and Eat Up is the fact that it gets kids active, participating in games and activities with their neighbors. Dr. Nandi says summer activity is key to avoiding a summer slide during the weeks away from the classroom.

“The main thing is get off the couch. It’s an epidemic. Our generation doesn’t move,” he said. "My biggest, biggest goal is to get children off their devices so they can go outside and do anything.”

Dr. Nandi’s children range in age from 2 to 13. Each enjoys a different activity.

“My 2-year-old, we run around and he tries to chase me. My 13-year-old, she actually loves to do gardening. She waters, she plows. My 4-year-old loves to play basketball. He likes to play soccer."

Dr. Nandi poses with family during a Meet Up and Eat Up Block Party at Chandler Park in Detroit.

Parents play an important part in getting children active, beginning in early childhood.

“It’s a challenge for all parents,” Dr. Nandi said, but he warns them not to take the easy route.

“It’s so easy to just hand over the tablet. You get an automatic babysitter. Please don’t do that, because what you’re doing is you’re setting them up for failure. Studies have shown that even at a young age, if you do that, you’re setting them up for obesity, heart disease and strokes.”

But parents don't have to do it alone. They have community resources, like Meet Up and Eat Up, to help.

“Meet Up and Eat Up is where the community comes together and teaches kids that they have a community that can help them, to give them food and other life skills,” Dr. Nandi said.

“Support your local United Way so we can make this happen all throughout (the year), not just this summer, but every summer.”

Community support is key to Meet Up and Eat Up’s success, and so is entertainment.

“You’ve got to make it fun, right?” Dr. Nandi asked. He couldn’t help himself from snapping his fingers and shimmying while a DJ played old-school classics from artists like Michael Jackson and Rick James.

“It’s a party. Once you introduce the concept, the entire community comes in and it becomes almost infectious and you do it more and more. I think it’s a great cause.”