TWIN FALLS — Siew Guan Lee likes to eat. She really likes to eat. Sensory cues such as flavors of food ingredients and how a food feels in her mouth are an important part of her eating experience.
While some may have turned those loves into a career as a chef, Lee found herself more interested in dietetics and nutrition. That led her from her home in Malaysia to the University of Idaho and eventually to Twin Falls as the new Family and Consumer Science Extension Educator.
Lee chose to attend UI on the strength of its dietetics and nutrition program. After graduation, she went to work at the Spokane, Wash., hospital as a registered pediatric dietician. A job she loved but after a couple of years she realized she would rather help people with their diets and nutrition before they got sick enough to be hospitalized.
“I would rather be more proactive,” she explained. “I like to do disease prevention.”
She contacted her major professor for advice and her professor suggested attaining her master’s degree in family and consumer sciences with an eye toward becoming an extension educator who could work with children to develop good eating habits early.
“I’ve always been interested in this age group,” Lee said.
Her master’s project included feeding young children, ages 3 to 5, yogurts with different textures to identify what they preferred. Children rated the test products as yummy, yucky or just ok.
Texture plays a role in taste preference. Look at apples. Some people like nice crisp fresh apples, others prefer apple sauce. Some like creamy mashed potatoes, others want some lumps with the skin still showing. Texture is much more important in determining whether a person will like a new food than previously thought.
Lee also took part in another larger project within the department where students traveled to other countries to study family dynamics and food. Students visited families in their homes to see how they purchased food items, prepped meals, ate together and then cleaned up afterwards. She traveled to Mexico and Taiwan as part of the project.
“We were very fortunate to do a focus group setting in people’s houses,” she explained. One common theme that developed across the the countries is that parents and grandparents try their best to fed children well.
“Children are the main core of the family.”
Kids are often more willing to try new foods than adults are, Lee said, especially when given an opportunity to touch, smell and taste the new item. She hopes to give kids more opportunities to do that through education programs at area schools and 4-H clubs. She is also working with a national program that is helping change the atmosphere in high school cafeterias to be more fun and appealing.
Lee also hopes to work with a child care center to provide healthy food choices and then involve parents by inviting them to join their children for some meals. Trying new foods in a group setting with friends can help make the trial more fun.
Eating in a social setting is important to helping both kids and adults stick with healthy meal plans. It’s easy to eat the entire bag of chips or tub of ice cream if you are alone; sharing with others naturally limits your portion size.
“Eating alone just isn’t any fun,” Lee said.
One misconception she has encountered as a dietician or nutrition education is that people assume she only eats super healthy food. That’s not true. She loves chocolate as much as anyone. She has just mastered the willpower to eat just one piece when she needs a pick-me-up, not the entire bag.
Lee is a firm believer in eating whatever you like, just eat it in moderation. If you are craving a cookie, then break off a piece of the cookie and savor that one bite, she said.
She loves all kinds of food and is fortunate not to have any food allergies so she has been able to explore new foods since coming to Idaho such as meatloaf and seafood tacos. When her clients mention a food they love but she hasn’t tried yet, she will try to buy a small portion to try herself. “Even if I don’t like it, at least I know why someone likes it.”
Better eating habits comes down to behavior modification, Lee said. “I see what you want to do and then I help you set goals to get there.”
Although Lee is willing to try any new food, she draws the line at one fruit — durian, also known as stinky fruit. It’s a tropical fruit from her homeland and is one thing she does not miss at all.
The smell is so vile and strong that if one was brought into the Twin Falls Extension front office, Lee would be able to smell it in her office at the far end of the office complex.
“It’s awful,” she said.
Don’t worry kids, it’s the one food she won’t ask you to try.