Eleven-year-old Regan Strehl went to her first day of middle school with two backpacks and a lot of apprehension.
One backpack was filled with notebooks and pens. The other had food and glucose-level log books, glucose-monitoring devices and a glucagon emergency kit — items foreign to most youngsters.
In November, Regan was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which means her body doesn't produce insulin, and she must monitor her blood glucose levels and administer the appropriate amount of insulin.
Other youngsters eat their lunches without much thought to the nutritional value of each item, but Regan has to track each carbohydrate. She even pulled out her carbohydrate guidebook at a formal luncheon she attended last month as a guest at a "kids' state dinner" at the White House.
Regan was the Kentucky winner of the second Epicurious Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, which encourages healthy eating among America's youth. Fifty-four youngsters and their parents or guardians joined first lady Michelle Obama for a luncheon and a visit to the White House kitchen garden.
Each child was introduced to the first lady and was allowed to ask her a question. Regan wanted to know about her clothes closet, while her mother, Debbie Strehl, told Obama that Regan had recently been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and what a big adjustment it was for her daughter.
The first lady told Regan "to stay healthy and stay strong. And she gave me that 'mom' look. It was priceless," Debbie Strehl said.
"It was amazing what they had planned for us. We spent almost five hours in The White House," Strehl said.
The recipe that won Regan the trip to Washington was for raisin bran muffins, a family recipe that they had to adjust for Regan's diet.
"We made it healthier, not having all that bleached flour, and we added some wheat flour," Regan said.
Her entry was a little last-minute, and at one point the mother-daughter team didn't think they had made the midnight deadline.
Regan started typing the recipe onto the website when she realized that the entry form needed a picture.
"Mom got that ready while I was typing," but the photo her mother tried to upload was too large, she said.
"It was about 10 'til midnight, our cutoff," Regan said. Her mother then tried to upload another photo only to erase the entire entry when she hit "send."
"We never dreamed we made it," Regan said.
The winning trip was a bright spot this summer for Regan, who was nervous about entering sixth grade at Edith J. Hayes Middle School.
'All the signs' of diabetes
In November, the news of Regan's illness frightened the whole family.
"We knew something was wrong with me," Regan said. "I kept getting skinnier."
Regan went to the doctor.
"I was expecting to have to eat some pills for a week. The doctor said, go straight to the hospital."
A day or two before the doctor's visit, Regan and her mother were snuggling when her mother smelled something really sweet.
"That triggered something in my memory" about indicators of diabetes, Debbie Strehl said. "I Googled it and she had all the signs."
Regan joins about 130 youngsters in the Fayette County Public Schools system who have Type I diabetes, according to the Fayette schools' website. Over the years, the joint program by the school system and the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department has provided about 30 registered nurses to look after student health needs in the county schools, but recent funding cutbacks have decreased that number.
"There's a problem in Fayette County just now because of funding cut for school nurses. I'm going to be basically on my own," said Regan, who needs a health professional to make sure she has given herself the right amount of insulin after eating.
"She's not 7, she's 11, and very mature. I think we'll be OK," her mother said.
She said, however, that her daughter has some anxiety about how other middle school students and teachers will react to her illness.
"Regan is very concerned about peer relationships and wants everyone to know that she is not different than they are; she is just extra sweet," her mother said.
"She wants people to ask her questions if they are curious about the disease she has. She will do her best to explain it and help them understand the new direction her life has recently taken.
"She wants to be a child psychologist when she grows up so that she can help children that have been diagnosed with health issues," Debbie Strehl said. "She also believes that someday there will be a cure for diabetes. We pray that it is during her lifetime.
A diet good for everyone
Anita Courtney, registered dietitian and chairwoman of the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition, said Regan's diabetes-control diet is good for all kids.
"With her notoriety as an award winner, she can become a role model," Courtney said. "I encourage teachers to talk with Regan to see if she would feel comfortable telling about her experience at the White House and also telling about how she eats to keep herself healthy. Perhaps Regan can cook for the class and share why the food she is making is good for everyone."
Regan's first day at middle school went well. Her take: "Middle school is like entering into a different world. No, living with diabetes has been like living in another world; middle school is like entering into another galaxy."
Bran raisin muffins
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup sugar substitute (baking blend)
1/2 cup brown sugar substitute (baking blend)
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons salt
5 large eggs, slightly beaten
1 quart low-fat buttermilk
1 cup canola oil
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 (17.3-ounce) box bran flakes cereal
2 large carrots, grated
1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line cupcake pans with liners.
In a large bowl, whisk together the all-purpose and whole wheat flours, along with the sugar substitute and brown sugar substitute, baking soda, cinnamon and salt.
In a second large bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, oil and applesauce. Gradually fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, then add the bran flakes, carrots, raisins and walnuts, and gently stir until incorporated.
Divide the batter in half. Fill two pans with half the batter and bake the muffins until a toothpick inserted in the center of the muffin comes out clean, 15 to 20 minutes. Once the pans are cool, remove the muffins and line both pans with new liners. Fill the muffin cups with the remaining batter and bake the muffins and repeat the baking process.
Makes 48 muffins.
Nutrition information per serving: 170 calories; 4 g. protein; 24 g. carbohydrates; 7 g. fat (.8 g. saturated fat); 335 mg. sodium.