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Yolanda Banks' Game Plan For Healthy Eating



Growing up in East Lansing, Mich., Yolanda Banks would come home from school and tune in to cooking shows on television.

She drew inspiration from Julia Child's many cooking programs as well as and Graham Kerr's "The Galloping Gourmet."

Once Banks started cooking on her own, she discovered it was her passion in life.

She didn't really act on that passion until 2001, when she called Washington her home. That year, her husband Tony was the Redskins' starting quarterback.

"I used to cook for the teams that Tony played for and I used to cook for the players' wives," she said. "My first big group cooking session was at Jewell Green's house. (Jewell Green is the wife of Redskins great Darrell Green.) I remember I did Cajun food. And then I used to bake cookies for the players, too."

That year, the Food Network contacted the Banks about participating in a television show called "Home Food Advantage" in which NFL quarterbacks would film segments at favorite restaurants in the cities they lived in.

The experience opened the door for Banks to follow in the footsteps of Child and Kerr. Along with "Home Food Advantage," she has appeared on locally produced TV shows around the country – including "Redskins Nation" on Comcast SportsNet last season – sharing her recipes and passion for food.

In 2002, she started the annual Cook For the Cure Dinner to benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. She published a cookbook titled "Cooking For Your Man" in 2006. A year later, she launched her business Fresh Is Fabulous. And she has another book on the way.

Banks characterizes her food as "global, seasonal cuisine." She draws her influences from all over the world, from Mexican (tacos are a favorite) to Southeast Asian (her Thai potato soup has proven popular), because "you can coax a lot of flavor" out of those foods. She also recommends buying produce that's in-season.

As the wife of a professional football player – Tony played 10 seasons in the NFL, retiring in 2005 after four years with the Houston Texans – and a mother of a 4-year-old son named Deuce, Banks' recipes emphasize eating healthy.

"To me, it's about a lifestyle," she said. "Eating healthy is not about depriving yourself of food you enjoy. It's about being practical and having a little common sense. For example, if I feel like having a burger, I'm going to have a burger, but I'm going to work out a little harder that day or the next day I'll eat vegetarian.

"I don't have an all-organic diet. I don't believe in those constraints. It's really about making healthy choices." !

Banks makes sure her son is involved in the process of buying groceries and preparing food. It's a way of building a child's relationship with different kinds of food so that they are open to trying it.

"Kids are so much more willing to eat something when they've seen where it comes from and how it's made," she said. "If you start to develop their taste buds early on, then they're not going to be so against certain types of food."

Of course, food is an integral part of the NFL experience, whether you're at home or at the stadium. Banks wants fans to know that they don't have to sacrifice flavor by choosing more healthy food options.

"The biggest change you can make is using meats that have less saturated fat," she said. "You don't have to sacrifice eating red meat if that's what you like to eat. You can go to some of the healthier red meat options, like buffalo – you know, bison is very, very lean. Or you could make a vegetarian chili."

Banks admits that serving healthy food and using exotic ingredients can be a tough sell, especially for fans used to grilling burgers and hot dogs and munching on potato chips before games.

One way to get past it? Don't tell them exactly what they are eating, Banks said with a laugh.

"You know what? You overcome it when they taste it and see it's really delicious," she said. "I've cooked for a lot of big guys – football players who have to maintain certain weights – and they all thought my food was great. They didn't even realize it was healthy. And that's really the goal."

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