When her preteen son was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Danielle Cook Navidi helped him heal with healthy food. Now she teaches others to do the same.
t is every mother’s worst nightmare to have a child diagnosed with cancer. Not only must she witness her child suffer, but she also feels helpless to alleviate the pain and sickness. But for one mother based in Washington, DC, losing control was simply not an option. When her son Fabien was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 11 and the treatment made it difficult for him to hold down food, Danielle Cook Navidi taught herself to cook healthy meals tailored to his needs. She also earned a master’s degree in holistic nutrition, published a cookbook titled Happily Hungry: Smart Recipes for Kids With Cancer and founded a program at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital that teaches other parents how to help their own children heal through food. Here, in her own words, Navidi tells RL Magazine how she did it.
Danielle Cook Navidi’s book, Happily Hungry: Smart Recipes for Kids With Cancer, features 41 nutrient-packed recipes, helping sick children eat healthy food
“Once Fabien’s cancer happened, I was at a loss for what I could do to make him feel better. So many of the foods he loved he suddenly couldn’t tolerate. I had to coax him to eat and drink. Things like homemade chicken broth and chicken soup with rice or small pasta were easy to digest. Some days they worked; other days nothing tasted good or stayed down. It was an exercise in patience as well as creativity. What worked was keeping foods simple and light on fats and proteins [and] adding complex carbohydrates to fuel his body with some energy. This is important for any cancer patient. If [the patient] becomes so depleted from their treatments, they risk having to slow their treatment schedule, are more prone to infections and may require additional hospitalizations. Nutrition becomes integral to the process.
“One of the beauties of my program, [Cooking for Cancer] at Georgetown University Hospital, is that when I go there and cook, even the youngest kids get curious about what’s going on at the table. Even at a young age, you can almost subliminally introduce good eating habits. I bring in lots of seasonal, colorful whole foods—that always starts a discussion. Kids like trying things and are more adventurous than we give them credit for. I hear regularly from parents, ‘There’s just no way. It’s too green,’ and I say, ‘Let’s give it a try. Let’s just see.’ And they’re often surprised, first of all, that the kids will try it. But then the kids say they like it. The younger you start, the more engaged they get. I see children in treatment for leukemia for two or three years. I meet them when they first go in for treatment, and they’ll be very resistant to trying anything—even a smoothie. And then they come around because I’m there regularly. They love it when I’m there. They love to push the buttons on the blender and taste-test.
Navidi and her son Fabien, who now boasts a clean bill of health after battling stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma
“One thing I do with children [at Georgetown hospital] is give them food with a balance of color and texture. Whether you dice or slice or julienne [a food] can have a big impact on a child and their response to it. Something that simple makes a big difference to them, but it doesn’t cross their parents’ mind a lot of the time. For instance, Fabien always loved pesto—regular basil pesto with garlic—but for some children, that flavor is too strong. I created an asparagus pesto that is very mild and creamy and almost nutty, and I put it in front of children, and they love it. That’s a good introduction to getting vegetables in foods. I like grinding things up in a pesto. In that particular recipe, which is in my cookbook, the spinach and asparagus are ground into a puree and mixed with the pasta. But it’s all trial and error. With color and texture, you’ve got to make it look appealing.
“Now, in the Cooking for Cancer program, I check with patients and families throughout the course of treatment, and then at the end of treatment, we talk about food and how to make better choices in the long term. I’d like to see this grow to other hospitals. I can’t find anything quite like it. I’d like to see what I’m doing become an integral part of the cancer protocol—to get the patient out of treatment and prepared for life beyond.
“There is such an enormous need for sound, practical nutritional help when it comes to cancer. When Fabien finished treatment, we were told, ‘OK, he’s in remission. Now go home and lead a normal life.’ We got home, and he couldn’t eat anything! Take charge of feeding your child; this then carries over to feeding your whole family. If I can do this on an 8-foot-long banquet table with a blender or a plug-in skillet—I don’t even have a functioning kitchen at the hospital—then you most certainly can go home and do this. You can make quick recipes. Get back to basics, and cook your own broth. Think about how every bite must count.
Navidi teaches children and adults alike how to create healthful meals in her makeshift kitchen at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital
“It takes a long time to rebuild what happens to them internally. And now Fabien, at 20, is really conscious of what he puts in his body in order to make himself feel better. He knocked out the cancer, and he’s healthy. That’s all that matters.”
DANIELLE’S FAVORITE RECIPES
“I love all my recipes in Happily Hungry and make them regularly,” says author Danielle Cook Navidi. Here, we present five of her favorite dishes to make at home. Each recipe is packed with nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits and whole grains, yet the recipes’ mild flavors make them ideal for sick children.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut each squash in half, put facedown on a baking pan and add about 1 cup water to the pan. Roast in the oven until soft, about 40 to 50 minutes. Cool, remove seeds, scrape flesh from each half into a bowl and set aside. You want to yield about 2½ to 3 pounds of flesh. (This step can be done up to three days in advance.)
Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot, and sauté the onions until soft. Add the garlic, ginger, curry powder, cayenne and apple. Stir well and let cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add the squash and vegetable broth, bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the coconut milk and honey, and continue simmering another 30 to 45 minutes, until all ingredients are very soft. Puree the soup with a handheld mixer, a blender or a food processor. Adjust the taste with sea salt. Serves 6.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two standard-size 12-muffin pans or two mini-size 24-muffin pans with nonstick spray or muffin wrappers.
Mix the first nine ingredients in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and the oil. Stir the egg-and-oil mixture into the dry ingredients, mixing well until everything is moistened. Add the carrots, currants, walnuts and coconut. The batter will be very thick and dense. Use an ice cream scooper to fill the muffin pans almost to the tops of the wrappers or cups. Bake 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into a muffin comes out dry. Cool thoroughly. Makes 18 to 24 standard muffins or 36 to 48 minimuffins.
The Carrot Coconut Walnut Muffins recipe in Happily Hungry calls for flavorful dried currants and a heaping pile of carrots
Bring two pots of water to a rolling boil—one large pot for the pasta and one medium pot for the asparagus. While the water is heating, place the pine nuts in a single layer in a large skillet. Heat on medium, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and lightly browned. Remove the pine nuts from the pan and set aside. You will use ½ cup of the pine nuts for the pesto paste and the remaining ¼ cup as a garnish.
When the water for the asparagus comes to a boil, drop in the spears and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until they are bright green and barely tender. Reserve some of the cooking water, then drain the asparagus under cold water to stop their cooking. Cut the tips off several spears and set aside for garnish. Put the rest of the asparagus and the spinach, garlic, Parmesan and ½ cup pine nuts into a food processor. Process and, with the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil until a paste forms. If the paste is too thick, thin it with a bit of the asparagus water. Add the lemon juice and sea salt, taste and adjust the seasoning. Add red pepper if desired.
Cook the pasta al dente according to the package directions or until desired. Drain and toss immediately with 1 cup of the asparagus pesto. Serve sprinkled with the remaining ¼ cup toasted pine nuts, the asparagus tips, a dusting of Parmesan and a light drizzle of olive oil. Serves 6.
Process all the ingredients in a blender until smooth. Makes 1 17-oz. smoothie.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the pumpkin in half, and place it cut side down on a baking sheet or in a glass baking pan. Add ½ inch of water. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until soft when pierced with a knife. Cool, remove the seeds, scrape the flesh from the inside and puree in a food processor or blender until smooth. Yield should be 3 cups or more. (This step can be done up to three days in advance; pureed pumpkin also freezes very well.)
Combine the eggs, honey, molasses, half-and-half and seasonings. Mix well. Add the pureed pumpkin, mix well and pour into the prepared pie crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes or until the custard is firm and the top is a glossy deep brown. Cool completely before serving. Serves 6.
DANIELLE NAVIDI is the author of Happily Hungry: Smart Recipes for Kids with Cancer and the founder of the Cooking for Cancer program at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC.
CARY RANDOLPH FULLER is the senior editor at RL Magazine.