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Supporting Families to Focus on Healthy Eating

“When you put kale into a smoothie with some fruit, it’s very good!” says Sharon Callender, RN, MPH, Director of Family and Community Health Services at Mattapan Community Health Center (MCHC). Introducing families to new ways to include more fresh fruits and vegetables in their daily meals is one way the health center tries to change mindsets and behaviors to help children and families lead healthier lives.

Located in Mattapan Square, MCHC is one of eleven Boston area health centers working in partnership with Boston Children’s Hospital through the Fitness in the City Program (FIC), which connects participants to cooking activities, physical activities and other resources to make healthy eating and active living a regular part of life.

Primary care providers at MCHC refer overweight or obese patients ages 5 to 18 to the program — and providers are thankful to have this resource for patients. Participants first see a case manager and then meet with the nutritionist. They also get a three-month membership to the YMCA, access to a monthly physical activity class at the health center that is paired with a half hour healthy eating class, and the opportunity to join a six-week cooking class at the health center to attend with a parent or guardian. The cooking class is a new element that MCHC offers with funding through Kohl’s and the Kohl’s and Boston Children’s Healthy Family Fun Program.

women prepare healthy meals that include vegetables

MCHC is clear on one thing: engaging adults in the family is essential to integrating physical activity and healthy eating into daily living. Callender says, “It is important that the parents actively participate in the program, because most children follow what their parents do. It’s not the children going to the grocery store and shopping — it’s the parents.” The cooking classes engage adults and children together, and instructors seek to change mindsets about food and teach healthy cooking practices. They focus on encouraging families to cook old favorites with healthier ingredients, and to eat less unhealthy foods and more healthy ones.

Cooking class participants prepare dishes such as salmon with multi-color peppers, rice with coconut oil and broccoli, or quesadillas with vegetables and beans. Instructors emphasize using spices and minimizing salt and sugar, and also teach how to read food labels. Staff say that teaching families how to use applesauce instead of sugar, for instance, opens up a whole new world of healthier options. Participants are encouraged to at least taste everything. For the last class, participants celebrate with a formal dinner and put their new skills to use.

Sonya Williams, the FIC case manager, also connects participants to other opportunities for physical activity, like biking and tennis lessons, and healthy eating. Since Mattapan has only one main grocery store, community members have limited access to fresh produce. To address this, FIC clients receive information on healthy eating resources, such as the Mattapan Farmer’s Market, Fresh Truck, and $2 bags of fruits and vegetables distributed at health centers and food banks. When families need kitchen utensils or clothing the case manager helps families meet those needs through referrals to other local organizations.

It can be challenging for families to attend the classes consistently given work and other obligations. Some families perceive going to the park or riding bikes as unsafe. Staff work with families to address their concerns. For example, they might suggest that a family goes walking together or dances as a family at home before watching TV in the evening. This acceptance of existing rituals—and gentle encouragement to add in healthy behaviors — can make it easier for families to accept the changes.

Several participants have gotten their weight under control over the last year by exercising together as a family, and multiple young women report that they have more confidence and better self-esteem and now make healthier choices. Over 200 participants and their families have participated since the program started MCHC in 2016. Program staff feel that success is when families and participants try new things, and change habits one step at a time. At MCHC, this program is about making sure that the vision becomes reality.

Families can find more healthy tips and resources for local activities at or the Kohl’s Healthy Family Fun Facebook page.