Cheryl’s cooking and nutrition summer camp comes too late for Doña Quixote’s brain health, but is perfectly timed for your brainy tweens and teens

Since I was diagnosed with microvascular disease, many people have told me about one or another supplement, diet, or miracle cure purported to slow down dementia or even reverse it. On the scientific front, however, no evidence  has been found “that any vitamin or mineral supplementation strategy for cognitively healthy adults in mid- or late life has a meaningful effect on cognitive decline or dementia” (Cochrane Dementia and Cognitive Improvement Group, a 30-country research initiative).

While some experiments showed some improvement in cognitive function, the effects disappeared after about 6 months, even though patients continued the supplements—it seemed that the excitement, attention, stimulation, and inclusion that people experienced during the trial was likely the cause of the apparently beneficial but short-term results. Science, then, has found no benefits in topping up in mid-life or old age on single elements from the range of food substances we need to keep both our bodies and brains healthy.

Image from article “Brain Boosters a Gold Mine for Supplements Industry But Benefits Are Hotly Disputed

Across the board, however, scientists—whether they study the brain or the heart or the gut—unanimously embrace the benefits of a real-food nutrient-rich diet, particularly one that has lots of fruits and vegetables, omega 3 oils, and low amounts of salt and saturated fats. (Note that this type of diet does not include any cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup—the only sugars allowed are those that come from fruit and vegetables). As far as the brain is concerned, the Mediterranean Diet, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), and the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet are thought to best maintain good health, especially if combined with exercise. There is a strong connection between the health of your heart and that of your brain. By keeping your heart in good shape with healthy food and regular exercise, you also lower your risk for brain problems such as stroke and dementia.

While a healthy lifestyle will in many cases lead to a higher quality of life for people with dementia, healthy food and regular exercise are of course recommended not only for people who already have cognitive difficulties, but for everybody who still has a healthy brain, whether you are young or old.

So long, pyramid. Welcome, MyPlate!

Most of you probably already know the information given above. Many of you have likely tried one or another of these healthy options or actually live them day by day. But how many of us who have the knowledge and means to follow a healthy lifestyle have managed to move from a temporary make-over to a way of life? That is, exercising 3-4 times a week, eating fresh fruit and vegetables, consuming only a small amount of animal proteins—or none—and selecting wholegrain foods. More importantly, how many of us have succeeded in having the children in our lives adopt the same healthy habits?

Many of you—and me too—have friends and family where parents have succeeded in raising kids to eat healthy food and LIKING it. I have been lucky in my family that both my children’s households have taken healthy eating seriously and are raising children who willingly eat a MyPlate-style diet. All of them eat broccoli and a range of other vegs, and Dante has been known to gobble brussels sprouts so fast that Ouma has to remind him that other people like them too, other people being mainly Ouma. They have learned to monitor their sugar intake to the point that an eleven-, nine-, and six-year old have been heard  to say about a sweet treat, “No thanks, Ouma. I have already had my sugar for the day.” (Of course all bets are off at Easter or Halloween…)

Left, Aliya with Halloween loot. Middle, Kanye sorting all the hard candy our of his Halloween spoils to sell back to the dentist! Right, Dante picking the piece of his birthday cake with his name on it. On the far side of the table, the healthy snacks common to Saunders family gatherings.

While I tried hard to stick to healthy foods when my kids were small—and teenagers!—I happily concede that my children’s households have far surpassed me in the cultivation of healthy food habits in their children. Whatever food savvy my children apply in their households, they have developed it in their own ways in adulthood. My daughter Marissa  and Newton’s wife Cheryl have each worked out a healthy eating style for their own family; both households have cut down drastically on animal proteins and frequently have totally vegetarian meals.

For Aliya’s 9th birthday, she asked for a party where everybody could make their own food. Left: Aliya and her friends making pizzas topped with fresh vegetables. Cheryl made the pizza dough from scratch. Left photo: Aliya’s on the left in an orange shirt under a vest, Cheryl wears a turquoise top. Right: Kanye and his friend were invited to participate in the food-events of the party. They were, however, banished from the karaoke room downstairs, dimly lit with a rotating halloween spider lamp transformed into a glittery disco ball.

Exercise is also embedded in both my children’s families’ daily routines.

Left, Kanye, goalie in yellow, kicks the ball back. Middle, Dante(curly head) at jiu jitsu. Right, Aliya (in blue, closest to the ball), playing soccer.

Cheryl’s interest in healthy living has in the last year or two extended to her career. She is a Certified Health Education Specialist and has a bachelor’s degree from Weber State University in Nutrition Education, Health Promotion, and Children and Family Studies. She is currently a coach at a Salt Lake City elementary school under the auspices of Playworks, an organization that uses recess to get kids active, build social skills, and increase school safety. The coaches play together with the students, all the while modeling their own enjoyment in the physicality of their bodies. Along the way they teach sportsmanship, problem solving, and common human decency. Cheryl is at her job four days a week from the start of school to 1 pm. In addition to getting kids to play actively during every recess, she also trains a group of 5th and 6th-graders as “junior coaches” who help promote play and keep the peace during outside activities as well as helping to solve problems between kids inside the building. Here is an article that includes a video of Playworks activities at Cheryl’s school, posted by KSL earlier this week. Sadly Cheryl is not in the video, because her manager came to the school that day and was the spokesperson for the organization.


In addition to promoting exercise at the school, Cheryl also educates her students in every way possible about eating healthy foods. The school where she works—and the elementary school Kanye attended and Aliya still attends—are both “Title I,” which means the student base consists of a large number of lower-income children who consequently qualify for a reduced or free school lunch, and in some cases breakfast too. As elsewhere in the country, obesity is a huge problem in Utah. It is particularly endemic in lower socio-economic families. The Journal of the American Dietetic Association helps explain why the highest rates of obesity are seen among people in lower-income groups: calorie for calorie, junk foods not only cost less than fruits and vegetables, but junk food prices also are less likely to rise as a result of inflation. 

Over the past three decades, childhood obesity has become one of the most pressing public health and medical problems in the United States. Before the obesity epidemic, Type 2 diabetes was practically unheard of in people under 30. That explains the former name for the disease: adult-onset diabetes. Not long ago, almost all children with diabetes suffered from the Type 1 form of the disease, which means their bodies couldn’t produce enough insulin. And Type 2 diabetes, in which the pancreas may produce normal insulin levels but cells become resistant to it, typically took decades to develop. Over the past 30 years, childhood overweight and obesity have tripled. The lifetime risk of Type 2 diabetes for children born in 2000 is estimated at 30% for boys and 40% for girls (Narayan et al. J Am Med Assoc 290(14): 1884-1890, 2003).

In 2015, a three-year-old girl from Texas became the youngest known person to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.  The toddler weighed in at 35 kilograms (77 pounds) and presented to her doctor with tale tell symptoms of extreme thirst and frequent urination. Her family was asked to change the types of food they most often ate and to eat smaller portions, and to encourage the girl to be more active. The treatment worked. The girl lost weight and the drugs were gradually reduced over six months, at the end of which she was 75% of the weight she had been when she first arrived at the clinic. Her blood glucose levels had returned to normal and she no longer had type 2 diabetes (The Guardian, 2015).

Even though Playworks  in Utah mainly focuses on exercise through play, Cheryl’s concern about the dire state of childhood health has prompted her to start teaching healthy eating habits at her school whenever possible. During the spring semester, for example, she taught a course in preparing healthy foods to her junior coaches. Her first lesson, needless to say, was on knife safety! The kids loved every step of chopping vegetables or fruit for a salad or another dish—when it came to sampling the dish, though, they were skittish at first. For example, “I made a lemon custard that they could dip strawberries in,” Cheryl says. “They were hesitant and some didn’t want to try it when I offered. But once I got one junior coach to try it, they all wanted it. The actually fought over the last few drops.”
More examples of Cheryl’s students developing better notions about health:

“I hosted an after school community service project and when I asked them what snacks they wanted, they told me ‘carrots, apples, broccoli, and raspberries.’ This was after my nutrition lessons ended. So they learned and changed behaviors.”

“Yesterday, I’d asked them to brainstorm some ideas about what we could do to help the next year of school. Like a “pay-it-forward” activity. One of my coaches suggested that we write letters and petitions to get healthier school meals. She also said, “How can we eat healthy if the school only gives us sugary cereal and chocolate milk for breakfast?”

An amazing school lunch, Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools Schools, Georgia. Notice the bright colors of green and orange  produce, along with the rich gold and brown tones of the roll, chicken and pasta. This Chefs Move to Schools lunch featured a local chef and local Georgia-grown vegetables – and probably tasted as good as it looks.

This summer, Cheryl will be branching out her teaching of healthy food habits to a cooking and nutrition summer camp for tweens and teens, ages 10-14. Her venture is called The Coaching Kitchen SLC. The camp will consist of 4 half-day sessions (Monday-Thursday) in the week of June 17-20. She will offer morning and afternoon sessions. Parents should sign up their kids for either a morning or an afternoon session, since the content for morning and afternoon is the same.

The venue for Cheryl’s cooking and nutrition camp for kids is the kitchen of the former Sur la Table store in the Gateway Mall

While Cheryl plans to apply for non-profit status for The Coaching Kitchen SLC  in future, the bureaucracy involved has too long a time span—six months—to have put it in place for the coming summer. (Besides, registering as a non-profit costs $300-500.) So, while The Coaching Kitchen is not yet officially a non-profit organization, that is how it actually functions: the registration costs from the kids are just enough to pay for renting a kitchen in the Gateway Mall (the most affordable kitchen in the valley) and buying the supplies. Because she is so deeply committed to health education and community service, Cheryl decided to go ahead with the camp even though she will not make any money out of it—she is not even charging for her lessons and labor. For her, this camp is a calling, not a business.
  • It will be great if you would pass the camp info on to households with kids who might be interested—or can be bribed to go!
  • If anyone is able to sponsor a child whose family wouldn’t be able to afford the camp, please be in touch with Cheryl via The Coaching Kitchen Facebook page, or send me a note.

So where am I in the family hierarchy of a healthy lifestyle?

While I am committed to most of the time eating as healthily as I can, I’m also aware of the fact that I do not have all that many years left to enjoy the foods, healthy and unhealthy, that I love: people with later-stage dementia often have little appetite and cannot, for example, distinguish food from the plate. “Changes in visual and spatial abilities may make it tough for someone with dementia to distinguish food from the plate or the plate from the table. It can help to use white plates or bowls with a contrasting color place mat. Avoid patterned dishes, tablecloths and place mats.”

Left, finger food for dementia patients. Right, It has been found that blue plates encourages appetite in the elderly, with hospital patients eating an extra forkful from them as opposed to white ones.

Before the blue plates are upon me, therefore, I will keep on taking advantage of the times when the universe surprises me with, say, an unscheduled ice-cream cone: I devour it with the same pleasure as I had when I was a child on a farm near a village that only had ice-cream one day a week—and getting to the cafe on those days was not a family priority.

Octogenarian eye candy

While I don’t want to go as far as saying that Doña Quixote and I have missed the nutrition boat, I do believe that the best time to nurture your brain is from your baby days onward. In elderly people with dementia, the gains made in cognitive function, behavior, activities of daily living, global clinical impression, dependency, carer burden, quality of life, use of resources, institutionalization, and survival are, calorie for calorie, far more expensive than the gains in overall health for children and young people. These days when people enquire about my position on brain foods, I say, “If I had to choose between a ‘good school lunch’ for a child or young adult—mine, my grandchildren, the children of my made-in-America family, and, ultimately, every child in the US—I myself would happily go for the ‘school lunch from hell’ any day.”

Left, school lunch from hell. Right, one of the spectacular salads that Peter makes for us. Viewed close-up, though, he seems to have achieved both the phallic and the obstetrical in his aesthetics.

I have been privileged on so many fronts all my life: my brain has had good enough material nourishment as well as better-than-deserved intellectual sustenance over my almost 70 years. My children and grandchildren—I fervently hope—still have decades of good brain time left. For now it is more than enough for me that when I cross to the living death of madness—that is, when people will rightly say “Gerda is no longer Gerda”— the pre-mad Gerda will be relocated from the diseased matter of her brain to the hale and hearty minds of her village kin, those to whom she had grappled herself with hooks of steely love, there evermore to dwell in their keep, evermore ensconced in “the Holiness of [their] hearts’ affections” (John Keats).

Wassily Kandinsky, “Yellow, Red, Blue.”