It’s lunchtime at Kartini Clinic, and patients in our partial hospitalization program are settling in for their midday meal. Joining them at the table is Nutrition Counselor Annastacia Weiss. Annastacia came to Kartini Clinic with decades of culinary experience. She studied at Western Culinary Institute and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City, interned at farms, founded the much loved North Portland cafe SweeDeeDee, and incorporated her knowledge of food as medicine while teaching in the Masters in Nutrition program at Portland’s National University of Naturopathic Medicine.

Throughout her culinary career and in her personal life, she has wanted to help people gather with their families, slow down, and enjoy eating together. Kartini Clinic’s emphasis on parents preparing meals for their kids and eating with them felt like a natural extension of her own philosophy about the importance of food in our family lives.

Families arrive at our doorstep from all walks of life, and with different circumstances and routines. While each family is unique, we prescribe the Kartini Meal Plan to all of them. Annastacia is instrumental in helping our families make the adjustments necessary to follow their meal plan at home. She meets with each new family to learn the basics about their eating habits and rituals.  She finds out if they eat together regularly, if they have a dining room table that they use for meals, and about what the family typically does after mealtime. She works with them to address their individual challenges such as addressing the needs of siblings and adapting a menu that fits with their food culture.

Children in our partial hospitalization program eat breakfast, lunch, and snack at our clinic daily and dinner once a week. Annastacia adapts the meals offered at Kartini to take into account each child’s food preferences, allergies, and other dietary restrictions. While the meals adhere to the Kartini Meal Plan, Annastacia notes, “We’re not offering heavy duty gourmet food here. We are feeding kids, after all.”

Annastacia also eats meals with our patients. Typically, there are several sandwiches and high protein salads to choose from. Parents are sometimes surprised that even the humble peanut butter sandwich, served on whole grain bread with fresh fruit or vegetables, fits within a meal plan. “Really,” Annastacia says, “all food in our meal plan looks pretty normal. It’s all about getting the right amount of healthy carbs, protein, fruits and vegetables, and some fat on a plate.”

At home, some families rely on a recipe book that Kartini Clinic provides to prepare meals. Others are able to adapt their own family food traditions to the plan. To Annastacia, the meal plan is both medicine for our patients and a means by which their families can turn away from the many health problems that stem from our society’s current approach to food.

“We have seen food evolve to a place where it is making people unhealthy. It’s processed food, unconsidered eating, and then the fad diets. These diets create ‘food police’ in these kids’ heads. As a society, we create a lot of craziness around food.”

As a child moves through our program, much of Annastacia’s work involves preparing them and their families for life beyond their time at Kartini Clinic. The meal plan can – and often is – a bridge of continuity for our patients after they graduate from the program.

“As our patients leave our care, their meal plan is a safe set of rules to follow to get them back to health, and it greatly reduces their anxiety. Of course, it’d be great if they could get back to the ability to eat with hunger, when they need it, and to eat well, but the meal plan is something they can use until they are there. They don’t have to think about it, because they know intellectually they are getting what they need right now.”

In her daily interactions with patients, Annastacia thinks back on times in her adolescence when the adults in her life kept her on a healthy path. She didn’t always appreciate it at the time – and knows the patients she sees don’t always appreciate what happens in treatment. But her hope is that one day they will look back with a greater understanding of what it took to get them well. In the meantime, Annastacia invites them to the table and to give food a chance, one sandwich or salad at a time.