COLUMBIA — After years of frozen pizza and Hamburger Helper, Anne Matchell took a fresh approach to grocery shopping.
When her older brother, 46, died of a heart attack, she decided to work toward a healthier lifestyle. Since then, she has cut salt out of the family’s diet and has incorporated fruits and vegetables into meals.
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In order to avoid a fight with her kids, she has included her 11-year-old twins, Megan and Devin, in the decision making. She hoped they would work with her to improve habits, and they eagerly accepted the challenge.
“We were going to get healthier, and I totally had them on board,” Matchell said.
The changes in the Matchell home are similar to those the advocacy group Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods hopes to encourage throughout Columbia. The initiative began earlier this year as the result of a $400,000 Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The group plans to promote policy changes that would encourage healthy living.
In the next year, the group plans to plant fruit trees on public lands, improve public transportation and create a food policy council. In the far future, it might attempt to remove unhealthy foods from the eye level of children in grocery stores and campaign for a tax on sweetened beverages to lower the costs of healthier foods.
Now, the Matchells look for produce they’ve never tried before at the grocery store. The twins take turns picking out vegetables such as spaghetti squash, eggplant and zucchini. At home, they search websites for interesting ways to cook the unfamiliar vegetables.
“Devin loves to try new things; he’s tried sushi and everything,” Matchell said. “Megan is a little leery about stuff, but I can usually get her to try it without much prompting.”
Matchell prefers to shop at a farmers market or Hy-Vee, but as a single mother sometimes prices at Aldi and Walmart are more affordable. She buys fresh produce when she can, and she stocks up on frozen vegetables, fruits, leaner meats and spices.
“I quit buying cans,” Matchell said. “I can’t buy totally fresh. I do a lot of frozen, which is a little more cost-effective."
As a mother, a part-time MU student and a bus driver for Columbia Public Schools, Matchell’s time is limited. Before the changes, her kitchen functioned on fast and easy meals.
“I’ve been watching the Food Network for years, but then I’d come home and make Hamburger Helper,” she said.
To save time, she does most of her prep work in advance. She’ll cook chicken and freeze it for later use. When it's time to prepare a meal, Devin and Megan act as their mom’s sous chefs. The family tries new healthier ways to cook old favorites such as corn and green beans, and Matchell likes to spice up dishes with cumin, pepper and a variety of Mrs. Dash seasoning blends.
“The more I have them involved the better,” Matchell said. “It’s not just, ‘OK, I guess I’ll try it.’ They’re actually excited about it because they get to help pick out the food, and then they get to help me cook it.”
If her children don’t like a vegetable the first time, Matchell searches for a different way to prepare it. When Megan first tried zucchini, she hated it. The second time, when her mother prepared it a different way, it became a new favorite.
Part of the change involves watching Guy Fieri and Alton Brown on the Food Network, and making homemade smoothies instead of eating ice cream.
“The kids loved it because they’d mix and match fruit and see which one tasted the best,” Matchell said. “It was so much better for you than ice cream or a shake.”
The twins have fully embraced the healthy switch. When the family is at the grocery store, Megan and Devin will ask their mom if something is healthy before they ask if they can buy it.
“They’ve been wanting the healthy cereals and not the sugary cereals with toys in them,” Matchell said. “They love shredded wheat. We switched to skim milk. They totally don’t have a problem with it.”
If Matchell’s budget allowed it, she’d happily switch to only buying organic food.
“I would totally go organic and fresh vegetables and everything if I could afford it, but it’s expensive,” Matchell said. “Especially with being a single mom, I can’t always afford to pay $2 for something when, maybe, I’ll pay $2 or $3 for fresh vegetables and 75 cents for a can.”