Your next prescription from your doctor just might be a recipe.

Until recently, pediatricians and primary care doctors were missing one very important element in their medical school education. They weren't taught nutrition-based science, which is knowledge they can use to improve their patients' lives.

In a country where being overweight is the new normal, and junk food is an everyday snack, nutrition is no longer taking a back seat and is finally being recognized by medical schools and doctors for its importance in keeping patients healthy.

One pediatrician in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Dr. Nimali Fernando, noticed that most of her patients' concerns could be improved or eliminated, not through a prescription, but through eating a healthy diet.

She learned that poor food choices can often be the root of many seemingly unrelated issues.

"With so many processed and convenience foods available, so many families have lost sight of the connection between food and health. While many of these foods seem to fit in our busy schedule, they may be setting us up for chronic diseases later on. Diet-related diseases like coronary artery disease often start in early childhood," says Dr. Fernando. "It's important for families to make their health a priority through healthy eating and being physically active. Parents hold the key to making this happen by being role models and providing a culture of wellness in the home," she adds.

Dr. Fernando began teaching her patients how to cook and prepare healthy foods in a church kitchen, and in 2014 opened Yum Pediatrics, a nutrition-based pediatrics practice that includes a 600-square-foot teaching kitchen. "I needed to do more than just give patients a pamphlet. I had to have a kitchen in my office. I try to give a lot of prescriptions that are just recipes to see if we can fix an issue with food," says Dr. Fernando.

She says that a benefit to having a kitchen next to her office is that during the appointment she can show her patients how to incorporate foods into their diets that they may need. For instance, if

she suspects a child's condition is the result of not eating enough fiber, she can demonstrate to the child how fiber can easily be incorporated into meals by grinding flaxseed. Her practice also has an instructional garden where she can teach kids and families about growing healthy foods.

One of the worst health offenders in children's diets is sugar. It's estimated that on average, 16 percent of a child's daily calories are from added sugars, which are sugars not found naturally in food, but are added to it. Eating too much sugar can lead to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Doctors can educate their little patients on the various ways they can add sweet taste to foods in a healthy way.

Dr. Fernando is also one of the founders of the Dr. Yum Project, an organization with the mission of transforming lives by providing people with an understanding of the connection between food and overall health, and empowering them with tools to live a healthy life. The nonprofit offers healthy cooking and child nutrition classes, cooking camps for kids, hands-on cooking instruction for families, first foods classes, a teaching garden and online tools to help families make healthier meals. The Project also offers a preschool nutrition program that has about 600 participating preschoolers in 40 classrooms.

One of the nonprofit's free online tools, the Meal Maker Machine, allows people to enter ingredients they have in their pantry and then produces healthy recipes within seconds. It gives parents the ability to easily and quickly create their own unique recipes, and allows kids to have fun creating a recipe they can make. Another benefit to using the tool is that it allows families to take food allergies and dietary preferences into account when creating recipes.

"Many people just don't know what to cook, which is why this tool is so important for families to check out," added Heidi DiEugenio, a director at the Dr. Yum Project. "It takes the guesswork out of what to make for dinner, and uses the ingredients you already have in the kitchen. In addition to the Meal Maker Machine, we also created Doctor Yum's Meal Planner, a free tool from which families can build a weekly menu and shopping list, based on prep time as it aligns with evening activities. With the click of a button you can even get a shopping list sorted by the grocery department."

Dr. Fernando isn't the only one incorporating nutrition and cooking into her practice. Doctors and medical groups around the country are seeing the impact that diet has on overall health, and are creating food pantries and kitchens right next to their practices as a result. Medical schools are also beginning to introduce nutrition science and culinary curriculums into their programs.

To learn more about The Doctor Yum Project, visit doctoryum.org. Dr. Fernanado is also co-author of the book "Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating," which can be found in bookstores online.


Jennifer Poole is Assistant Editor at Washington Parent.