The Roots (and Grains) of Native Health

High school students participating in a Navajo Technical University STEM program help prepare a diabetic-friendly meal.

By Paul Boyer

It’s called the culinary arts, and for good reason, but cooking also involves chemistry, and what we choose to eat affects our health.

This past summer, Navajo Technical University’s well-regarded culinary arts program participated in a project that featured both the art and science of nutrition by serving a traditional Navajo meal prepared by high school students participating in a summer STEM program.

The project began when celebrity Chef Nephi Craig, who is of Apache and Navajo heritage, was contacted to lecture and create a menu for the Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project. Chef Nephi, in turn, contacted Chef Brian Tatsukawa, Navajo Technical University’s culinary instructor. Craig and Tatsukawa had collaborated in the past through the Native American Culinary Association.

“I informed Chef Craig that we would be working with a summer STEM program and would have high school students available, but they would have very basic skills, such as food safety and some knife skills,” Tatsukawa said. Chef Nephi crafted his menu around those skills and created a vegan compatible menu representative of pre-colonial contact Native foods. 

Nephi and other Native-food advocates promote greater use of indigenous foods in place of high fat, high sugar, and processed foods that are linked to obesity and diabetes.

The menu proved that healthy eating does not mean sacrificing flavor. The meal that began with hominy stew with green chilis and concluded with a desert of macerated berries over sweet quinoa.

Chef Nephi helped the students prepare the meal, which was served at the Dine Wellness Center.  “Overall it was very successful and the students got to see and learn about their own cuisine and history,” Tatsukawa said.

A six-minute interview with Chef Nephi summarizes the goal’s the project and explores the connection between the culinary arts and STEM concepts.

Here’s what those fortunate enough to attend the special event were served:


‘Ya’at’eehgo jiina’ Nutrition Conference in Crownpoint, NM
Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project luncheon

Psychology of Indigenous Food and Eating Series Menu

Action Station

Indigenous Cultivars
Summer Three Sisters Corn, Beans, and Squash

Hominy Stew with Green Chili
White Hominy, Green Chili & Grilled Mushrooms

Indigenous Seeds


Roasted Indigenous Vegetables
Red Peppers, Zucchini, Roma Tomatoes, Yellow Squash, Scallions, Chili

Ancient Indigenous Grains and Seeds
Quinoa, Amaranth, Shaved Red Onion, Tomato, Spinach, Pumpkin Seeds, Sunflower Seeds, & Pinon

Mixed Greens
Tomato, Cucumbers, Corn, Kidney Beans, Citrus and Sunflower Oil

Back to our Roots
Herb Roasted Potatoes, Parsnips, Radishes, Carrots, Garlic and Chili

Action Beverage Station
Minted Wild Tea with Agave
Melon Agua Fresca with Honey
Fruit WatersMacerated Berries over sweet Quinoa

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