When Annemarie Chelius was about 7 years old, she discovered if she held her nose, she couldn't taste cauliflower.
"I have this funny, very vivid memory of being seven and it was cauliflower (for dinner). My sister and I must have sat there for two hours and we weren't allowed to get up until we ate it," Chelius, 49, of Ocean City, recalls. "Don't ask me how I figured it out."
But she doesn't tell the kids she visits at Ocean City Intermediate School about her discovery. Instead, she uses her ingenuity to try to make a connection in their minds between good nutrition and a healthy body.
She does that by bringing fruit and vegetables donated by local farms such as the Leipe Family Farm in Mays Landing, Hamilton Township, and introducing them in a fun way - such as making savory gingerbread houses out of Triscuits, with asparagus trees, broccoli bushes and raisin cobblestones. She may develop a simple and fast recipe for tomato soup at Valentine's Day to teach kids about eating for a healthy heart. Or show them how fun spaghetti squash can be, and then season it with parsley, basil or dill instead of salt, which has a lot of sodium.
"If you ask them what they had for dinner, 75 percent say they won't eat one vegetable. But they always love carrots and ranch dip," she says. "We do what we can, here."
Chelius is a chef educator at Atlantic Cape Community College's Academy of Culinary Arts who volunteers her spare time to teach kids about nutrition. She just won the National Spirit of Women Award for her work with Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign to fight childhood obesity.
That's another thing Chelius doesn't say to the kids - obesity. She's not qualified to talk about eating disorders, as her friend Linda Spengler is. Spengler teaches family and consumer sciences at Ocean City Intermediate School. Spengler lays the ground work for Chelius' visits by candid discussion with her students.
"I absolutely do say that word to them. I'll ask them 'What's the latest topic in nutrition?' and they know it's childhood obesity," says Spengler, who at 57 has been teaching for 31 years. "We discuss why kids are obese and what they can do about it. A lot of them will say it's because we're no longer physically active. They're on the Internet or texting on their cellphones, they know they need to get up and ride their bikes or play ball or jump rope."
Spengler uses the new "My Plate" diagram to teach her students how to fill their plates with "a rainbow of colors" with half being fruit and vegetables. Corn tacos loaded with ground turkey, tomatoes, lettuce and cheese, for example, make a complete meal. But a hearty-egg breakfast - basically a fun take on the classic egg-in-a-hole, only using a cookie cutter to cut a heart-shaped hole for the egg yolk out of a slice of whole grain bread - with apple juice still needs a stick of celery and maybe a cheese stick to make it a complete meal.
She teaches about serving sizes. A pancake should be about the size of a CD, she tells them; a serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards. A postage stamp is all they butter they need, and a serving of cheese is only about the size of two dice.
Then comes the fun part.
"The kids love Annemarie, they get so excited, 'The chef is coming, the chef is coming'," she says. "She gives a chef's hat to whoever comes up to help her with stuff and the whole school thinks it's just the cat's meow."
Neither one remembers the exact circumstances of their meeting. The two teachers say they simply gravitated toward one another and teamed up to teach kids about good nutrition for healthy bodies and minds.
"I believe food should be enjoyable," Chelius says. "But the job of good food is to energize mind body and soul. You just feel good when you eat well and your body is at optimum energy level."
About five years ago, Chelius began to notice her culinary students often were overweight, "not five, ten pounds overweight, I'm talking 30, 40 pounds overweight." As rising chefs, the students would need to be quick on their feet, she says, and they certainly were cognizant of the cause-and-effect relationship between food and our bodies. But their poor eating habits already were set.
"I thought if I got involved in high school, when they were younger, maybe I'd be able to get them excited about learning to eat healthy," she said.
So, she "adopted" Absegami High School in Galloway Township and began demonstrating simple yet healthy snacks and meals and talking to students about healthy choices. Later, her daughter, Victoria, asked Chelius to come to OCIS, where she was a student, and talk to her class about the healthy foods they eat at home, such as croutons made from shredded wheat and high-fiber popcorn instead of greasy chips.
As a mom and educator, Chelius tries to stay current with the trends - and language - of her young audience. She started a business called Classy Chef to combine her talent for education and nutrition. She uses acronyms to teach teenagers to "text in a healthy way" at the Ocean City Library. "LOL" becomes love of lettuce, while "BFF" reminds kids of best finger foods.
She also writes "rap songs" about nutrition and posting video clips on YouTube of herself and Spengler performing them. Those videos are what got her un the running for the national award, and she's hoping to get an "honorable mention" in the competition to have them posted on Michelle Obama's website. She won't get any money out of it; she just wants to reach a larger audience.
"I don't want to sound like a know-it-all, because I'm not," she says. "I always tell people, 'If you come to my house, you'll see Kraft mac 'n' cheese in my pantry, I'm just like everybody else. I just don't let my daughter live off of it."
Instead, she eats a little junk food with her daughter every couple of weeks. That way it becomes an occasional indulgence, not forbidden fruit. As a single mom, Chelius understands it's often easy to grab fast food in between extracurricular activities and sports commitments. But to make sure her daughter gets the calories she needs so her brain and limbs are in top condition for those activities, she simply sets priorities - Sitting down to eat being a major one.
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