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Pediatrician and PreventObesity.net Leader Nimali Fernando has always been interested in creative ways to help her patients achieve better health through lifestyle changes.
From her practice, Yum Pediatrics, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Nimali began to understand that for many of her patients suffering from conditions like constipation, chronic urinary tract infections and ADHD, their conditions could be improved or eliminated simply by focusing on a healthier diet.
“Over the course of my career I was dismayed by what a toll diet-related illness was taking on my patients,” she said. “The problem was so much bigger than just obesity.”
Nimali also begun to recognize that many of the families of her patients “didn’t have basic cooking skills or a level of comfort in the kitchen.” This realization led Nimali to start a recipe and parenting website in 2011. She recruited kids in the community to be her “Tiny Testers,” who would try the meals and snacks she created with fresh, local foods and then rate the recipes.
Through social media, Nimali began to direct her patients to the recipes online, and started to see real results in the health of her patients. These results encouraged her to expand her work with her Tiny Testers to include hands-on cooking classes. Now larger than the idea Nimali originally envisioned, her project is now called The Doctor Yum Project and is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Since obtaining their 501(c)(3) status, Doctor Yum has made great strides. Among other victories, Doctor Yum has created a preschool nutrition curriculum that is now taught in 16 Virginia schools and daycares; expanded the hands on-cooking classes to include topics like canning and how to make healthy baby food; and developed partnership programs that bring cooking instructions to kids at the highest risk for diet-related illnesses.
“Yum Pediatrics is a full-service pediatrics practice where many of the ideas for the nonprofit are born from real-life patient experiences,” said Nimali. “We can take those experiences and translate them into programs and classes that are offered to the greater community.”
In 2014, Yum Pediatrics opened in a new space that included a teaching kitchen and garden utilized by The Doctor Yum Project for programming.
“Opening our teaching kitchen in 2014 was a tremendous personal achievement which was made possible by my family and Doctor Yum Project team,” Nimali said. “We have a beautiful and joyful space where kids are just naturally motivated to cook and eat healthy and delicious food.”
The new garden and kitchen have been great assets to Nimali’s pediatric practice and Doctor Yum, as well as parents and children in the community.
"We have spent a lot of time in the Doctor Yum Project Kitchen. My two daughters have taken classes and my husband and I have too,” said Courtney Smith, a participant in Doctor Yum’s programs. “It's very colorful and there's lots of fun energy.”
But for all the results and energy, Doctor Yum still faces challenges trying to convince parents that they actually can find the time to prepare healthy food.
“That’s our biggest challenge,” said Nimali. “But with the help of a fantastic holistic health coach, Jen Miller, we have developed very effective class called Parenting for Wellness where we not only teach meal planning and cooking skills to families, but parenting skills that help them navigate their children through the world of food.”
“We have a real problem that people think junk food is the only fun food,” said Courtney. “I think they are doing a really good job at showing that healthy food can be fun, too!"
Even if local parents and children can’t attend events in person, the Doctor Yum website offers online resources about childhood obesity, feeding toddlers and school-age kids healthy foods, and more. And soon, the team behind Doctor Yum will be making updates to the website that include an easier-to-browse recipes section, features that will make it easy for families to come up with recipes for any night of the week, and information on dietary issues like food allergies.
Nimali has also recently co-authored a book called, with Melanie Potock, a feeding specialist from Colorado, called “Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater-A Parent’s Handbook: A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating,” which will be released in October.
“I really hope this book will help to prevent and guide families through many of the feeding issues that can eventually lead to obesity and diet-related illness,” she said.
Next on the agenda for Nimali and her staff is the Doctor Yum’s Veggie Challenge. The team is challenging adults and children to try a new veggie, or find a new way to eat one you already love. To get involved, submit a video clip of your trials on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, and be sure tag Doctor Yum’s profile and use hashtag #DoctorYum.