Ontop of a Potato…all covered with Cheese (read to the tune of ‘On Top of Spaghetti’)

I’d like to begin this post with a quote from the band Guster, “step on a kid he’ll grow up hating you” from their song Either Way, is a real summarization of how kids are most vulnerable to influencers and role models in the early parts of their lives.  As adults we meet people all the time who influence our life.  But the difference is, as adults we’ve already established a foundation for who we are based on the people from our childhood.  And by human nature we surround ourselves with people who are similar to us.  So the hope is by the time you are an adult you are being influenced by good people.

With that in mind, every year I volunteer as a counselor at Camp Happy Times.  This is a week long camp for kids ages four to eighteen who have survived or are going through cancer treatment.  I’m going to make a very bold statement and say that for some of these kids Cancer saved their lives.  Many come from rough neighborhoods of New Jersey and their ticket to life outside the chain link fence and cracked pavement is behind a hospital wall where they find people who care about them and instill the will to survive not only for the sake of living but for the chance to make something of themselves.  The role models at the hospitals have a different job from us camp counselors.  Our week with the kids is an insight to their social lives.  Each year my range of problem-solving skills expands.  But the real skill comes in how you build trust and negotiate with these kids so they trust you.  Which in turn will make you a role model and influencer.

The skill that was added to problem-solving file cabinet this year was a mix of body image and nutrition.  One of my food fantasies is to have an army of Top Chef constants come into the challenge of making a healthy meal out of camp food.  The food needs to be rich in vitamin c, as many of these kids are still sick,  while also delivering protein, energy and hydration.  Oh yea and it has to taste good and be fed to about 200 people.  For me each meal was a personal Top Chef challenge, to dig out some nutrition from the meals presented and also be subject to the poor eating habits of thirteen-year-old girls.   While camp is a time for these kids to let loose I felt I looming responsibility to influence their eating habits.

By the middle of the week the baked potato bar was really taking its toll on their energy levels, and they were all starting to develop little baked potato beer bellies.  It wasn’t until I explained that their friend Mr. Potato Head while rich in vitamin c and potassium was not giving them any nutrients by day three especially when topped with a man-made river of cheese whiz.  With a cliff notes version of complex carbs and high glycemic
index I explained this is why you feel exhausted by 2:00 everyday.

Other mealtime characters included salt-shaker-Sally and two-bite-Betty.  There were some kids who were trying to eat healthy by going to the salad bar.  But I just cringed at the sound of them chomping down on Iceberg lettuce swimming in Ranch dressing and Bacon-bits.  I was faced with a moral dilemma to hide the salt shaker, shove a chicken finger down a kid’s throat and begin preaching Michael Pollen style about knowing where your food comes from.

Making a healthy version of Sesame Chicken with the girls in the kitchen.

My best advice to these girls was as follows:

At the ripe old-age of thirteen your little bodies have already had some pretty toxic chemicals to deal with.  Between school lunch and mall food courts it’s not easy for you to find healthy choices.  Food will fool you into thinking it’s giving you nutrients when it’s not.  And you might not think eating a cheesy baked potato covered in Bacon-bits and a river of cheese three days in a row will matter much right now, but I promise you it will come back to visit you later.  Your body is precious, it’s already been through a lot, feed it what it deserves.

On a lighter note, here is a link to Sesame Street singing ‘On Top of Spaghetti’

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