Getting back into the swing of a busy work and school routine can make it challenging for families to put together a home-cooked dinner most nights. And then there is the common misconception that cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients is more expensive than getting take-out.
Ten Dollar Dinners (Clarkson Potter 2012), the first cookbook by Melissa d’Arabian—Food Network star and busy mom of four young girls—provides a blueprint of 140 recipes and 100 tips for creating fresh meals any night of the week. Each recipe is carefully calculated to serve a family of four for less than $10. With time, convenience and financial excuses eliminated, one really can’t afford to not at least give these recipes a try!
d’Arabian recently met with IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips’ editor in chief Sandy Todd Webster to talk about philosophies for cooking, raising children to appreciate and understand food and what the food celebrity calls “living responsibly and with purpose” through food.
d’Arabian, a petite blonde with a smile as quick and bright as her MBA mind, sees her recipes as part of a bigger story that shows people how to eat well, be responsible consumers and spend purposefully. Saving money can be incredibly empowering, she says—especially when you know that you’re putting a healthy dinner on the table for your family every night of the week. Her no-nonsense, authentic approach is refreshing in a world of fancy celebrity chefs who can wax on about obscure ingredients and complicated techniques that regular people can’t relate to. d’Arabian simply wants to feed her family good, healthful food and not spend a fortune, a message that many viewers seem to relate to, based on her popularity.
Be sure to check out these videos of Melissa preparing three of her recipes:
Orange-Scented Carrot Soup
Fish en Papillote
Roasted Broccoli with Parmesan.
Do you live within commuting distance to New York City? Catch d’Arabian in person at the New York City Wine & Food Festival (Oct. 11-14) sharing her philosophy that food doesn’t need to be costly or complicated to be good. Learn more about the NYCWFF and Fun & Fit in the City, an adjunct of the main festival that aims to educate kids and families about healthy food and fitness, as well as when d’Arabian is scheduled to present.
IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips: Do you still plan meals and cook the same way you did before you became the Next Food Network Star a few years ago?
d’Arabian: The assumption is the financial picture changes when you’re on TV. The answer is yes, I do still cook the same. Because yes, the practical result is that you save a lot of money but it’s really almost a collateral effect of living responsibly and with purpose. It’s feeling good about what we’re spending, what we’re making and what we’re serving our families. It’s how we’re living, the choices we’re making and how we’re interacting with this world. It’s really a much more holistic philosophy.
IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips: So many people use lack of time as a scapegoat for why they’re not cooking fresh foods for their families. How do you respond to that?
d’Arabian:: First, I think sometimes we’re too hard on ourselves. I think we think that if we can’t do it perfectly—if we can’t make a home-cooked meal with all fresh-cooked ingredients from the perimeter of our grocery store, every single day, then it’s not worth doing at all. So my first tip is to start slowly. It’s amazing how things take on traction and momentum if we just start slowly.
Regarding time being the issue: It doesn’t really take any longer to cook healthy food than it takes to cook unhealthy food. In fact, when you’re eating more whole foods, often you’re doing less to them than if you were making some big, long, complicated recipe. The freshest food sometimes just does the best the less you do to it.
I don’t think home cooking takes more time. It may take a different frame of thought. We have to have our “go-tos.” If your “go-to” is “Oh, I’ve had a long day. I can’t even deal with dinner,” and your solution is to hit the drive-through, then that’s what you do. The strategy is to change what your go-tos are. What have you set up as your habits to answer that question? What do I do after a long, crazy, busy day when I’m exhausted? A lot of that answer comes from the recipes you have in your hip pocket to pull out. Everyone needs to have 3 to 5 quick, easy, healthy recipes in their repertoire. They should be able to make those, usually, with the stuff they have in their home and then keep their home stocked that way. Let’s not underestimate the importance of having a pantry that supports your goals.
Here’s the thing: The notion that we will just magically eat in a way that overall supports our goals without having to give it any sort of thought is just a little bit silly. You’re not going to be able to create health-supporting foods in your home if you aren’t willing to take 5 minutes every week to write out a list and go and buy the foods that will enable you to do that. Don’t forget that no choice is a choice. Once you get that, you realize it doesn’t take any more time to make smart health-supporting choices than it takes to make unhealthy choices. It doesn’t take longer to pick up a head of kale in the produce aisle than it takes to go pick up a package of chips in the middle aisle. They are both one grab. The difference is what your mindset was before you walked in the store. It’s more about the planning and then having “smart feet” that execute the plan. Success in anything is having smart feet—feet that execute what supports you.
IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips: You’re a mom of four young girls (the two youngest starting kindergarten this year). How important is meal planning for the week? How much time does it all take?
d’Arabian: I think too often we rely on inspiration to plan a meal. The “5-minute meal plan” is one of the best techniques for getting rid of the 5 o’clock stress of “What do I make for dinner?” or at nighttime when you’re packing the lunches for the next day. I’ve got a plan in our cupboard with a week’s worth of lunch and dinner ideas.
IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips: How does the 5-minute plan work?
d’Arabian: Its super simple. Once a week (usually on Sundays), I open up my fridge and check for anything that’s going bad before I go grocery shopping. I take a glance and sort of see what’s floating out there and what needs to be used up. I literally will sometimes even just come up with a one- or two-word menu plan for each day. It can be “chicken with tomatoes for Tuesday.” Maybe I will make roasted chicken and then a tomato salad. Maybe it’s chicken in a tomato sauce. Whatever it is, it’s enough for me to assign sort of the broad strokes on my white board. I have found the 5-minute plan to be the right level of detail for me. I have tried everything from Excel spreadsheets to more detailed plans, but the quick check seems to work for me.
I also check my freezer to ensure there’s nothing lurking in the back or something that’s just taking up a lot of space that I kind of wish I could use. Also, I like to stay in touch with what proteins I have. I buy my proteins in advance when they are on sale and freeze them. So, quick glance in my freezer, and I also glance in my cupboard, write out the simple plan for the week and I’m on my way.
IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips: What about lunches for school? Do you get your kids involved in making their lunches, or is it easier for you to just do it?
d’Arabian: No, it is so much easier for me to just not have them involved in lunch prep. Because here’s the problem: I get opinions from the gallery. I believe in raising young women who know that their opinions matter. They’re allowed to taste foods and not like them. They’re allowed to participate in the conversation about what they eat, for sure. But I just can’t get into the space of making four different lunches based on what they want or don’t want. That being said, it doesn’t sound as harsh as it is because I know my kids’ tastes and I don’t do anything crazy. I’m really about keeping it practical, nutritious and easy.
IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips: How do you engage your children to learn more about food?
d’Arabian: While I don’t get them involved in packing the lunches because it becomes too much about opinions, whims and moods, in general I do believe in grocery shopping with my kids. Not all the time, but I do believe in taking them to the grocery store with me and letting them have free rein in the produce aisle. For instance I will say to them, “Okay, girls, I need two bunches of cilantro—who wants to be in charge of picking that out?” And then they go and get it. Or, I’ll say, “I need a bunch of kale. Here, why don’t you take this bag and one of you go get the kale.” “Mommy, which one’s the kale?” So they’re learning what produce looks like and how to select it.
My kids are very involved in choosing and touching the produce. I feel if they spend a half-an-hour having positive feelings about produce and feeling great about picking and buying the food that, number one, there’s a greater chance they’ll eat it; but more importantly for me, they have now spent a half-an-hour having positive feelings about healthy food—whether they eat it or not. I have one daughter who makes our salads all the time. She loves to spin, wash, toss, dress and serve the salads, but she doesn’t like salad. And I feel like that’s okay. I feel like it is more important for her to understand what the salad is and what the benefits are.
IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips: What are some of your strategies for developing positive food relationships in your kids?
d’Arabian: I think it’s especially important with girls and the mixed messages they get about food. It’s important for everybody, but since I’m raising four girls, that’s what I think about. I want to set them up for positive feelings about healthy food. I want them to understand it’s not about being skinny, it’s really about what the food and the nutrients do to fuel your body.
So we do a couple things. One is involving them in the selection of food in the grocery store. Another is for one of them to “present” the meal each night. This means they explain to everybody at the table what’s being served. So it’s not just “We’re having chicken and pasta and salad.” It’s “We’re having chicken and it’s yellow because of the turmeric and it’s called chicken tagine.” Then we talk very briefly about the food. It takes maybe a minute or two. We also quickly categorize that chicken is a protein and that the carbs on the plate will give us fiber and energy, and the vegetable and the fruit will give us a lot of vitamins. I want them to understand that it’s not just “good food” but that they’re getting different benefits from different foods so they can appreciate the need for variety. The other thing we do is serve more than one vegetable every night. That way, it’s fine you don’t want carrots but you want green beans. You don’t have to have both. We talk about eating a rainbow of colors and different vitamins for different colors.
Finally, sitting down for dinner as a family is important.
IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips: So eating as a family is a pretty hard-and-fast rule in your house?
d’Arabian: I would say yes.
IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips: How many nights a week?
d’Arabian: Six. My husband and I go out every Friday and the girls have their own movie night with the babysitter. One night a week, usually, we’ll do a movie night where we do a picnic. We put down a tablecloth on the floor and use paper plates; sometimes that’s when I’ll make pizza on the grill. But it’s still family meal.
IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips: Let’s talk about importance of breakfast. American breakfast, by and large, is pretty unhealthy considering all of the refined sugars and refined, processed grains in cereals and breads. Then there are the fast-food items with fatty meats, sauces and cheese. How can we get a good breakfast?
d’Arabian: Breakfast, by far, is the easiest meal of the day to manage with my kids. First of all, they wake up and they’re a very hungry crowd. So breakfast is a no-brainer for me.
You can always serve a whole-grain, low-sugar cereal with low-fat milk. That’s a reasonable back-up. Something like Cheerios or Shredded Wheat—with 1% milk is a good start. The whole trick there is with whole grains versus refined grains. We’re just not big white bread eaters in our house. My kids have grown up with a taste for whole grains and that gritty texture.
IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips:What other breakfast foods do you have on hand?
d’Arabian: In terms of kids, I love making whole-grain pancakes on the weekends and then freezing extras. Love that! You can always put in a tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder and turn it into a chocolate pancake—it couldn’t be any easier. I also like making whole-grain, double-fiber French toast. I feel like it fills the kids up. We also make green smoothies; the recipe and mix-and-match system is in my cookbook.
IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips: Can you also freeze the French toast?Yes. The other thing you can make ahead and freeze are mini muffins. That’s a great breakfast strategy, especially for busy moms. I make a fruit and vegetable version with apple and carrot. Those are actually in my new cookbook. You can easily swap out different fruits and vegetables. The mini muffins have so many of the nutrients you want—especially protein and fiber—in one small, convenient package. You can pull them out of the freezer and they are thawed in four minutes. If you need a breakfast to go, get out three of them. If you’re walking out the door at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and your kids are just a little bit hungry, give them one. It’s a great snack. You can do all sorts of different flavors; you can use up your bananas and make banana muffins; I love a zucchini muffin with lots of flax seed; add a little wheat germ—there are so many options.
IDEA Food & Nutrition Tips: Childhood obesity is more pervasive than ever. If parents are in control of the dollars and the food choices that come into the home or that go into their children’s breakfasts, lunch boxes and dinners, shouldn’t it be a non-issue? Why do you think it’s such a problem?
d’Arabian: A lot of times we think as parents we can control what our kids are eating. “You will eat this.” While you can’t control what passes through their lips, you can control what’s in your house and what the options are. I control what goes on the table because I’m the cook. But that’s where the control ends for me. I don’t go through the battle of “This has to go through your lips.” I just don’t. But I can control what is going into the food.
So why is childhood obesity a problem? I think that it’s probably reflecting the fact that we are dealing with obesity as a larger societal issue.
The food supply chain has gotten more complex. The number of people who touch the food has widened and become further removed from the farmer—even when we’re talking about plain old farm goods. So, in other words, there’s more processing, more people touching, more people getting money. And I can’t help but think that this separation between the farmer and the consumer is a big driver in why we’re having this obesity problem in both adults and kids.
What can we do about that? I think we can try our best to reconnect to the food, and not necessarily to the farmer. Yes, go to farmers’ markets, buy local—those are great ideas. But I think the notion of feeling like we’re part of this earth, which brings up our food and feeds us, is more important. We need to connect with the sense that there are seasons for things, so maybe eating peaches in January doesn’t make good sense. Accepting that we’re part of this planet called earth, understanding that it has cycles and it has seasons, and sort of submitting a little bit to that, I think, just seems like a much more holistic way of eating and of respecting what is given to us.
We seem to ignore everything, including things as simple as a breeze in the trees. We are desensitized to everything around us and I think this obesity problem is part of all that. So, I think doing what we can to reconnect with where we fit into this seasonality, and into this cycle is part of the solution.
For me, just going to look at the ocean is very humbling and right-sizing. And you might ask, “What does that have to do with obesity?” Well, it’s hard for me to really get into a space of appreciating the ocean and my role on the earth and then go and feel great about buying a packaged product with artificial sweeteners. To me those things are not congruent. So if I’m in touch with the earth, I’m going to be more thoughtful about the choices I make.
I feel like maybe as a society we need to get more in touch with that. Post-9/11, culturally speaking, we might be prepared for it. We just need to do it. It’s really about a bigger paradigm shift, which is valuing things other than “things.”
For more information about Melissa, her two television shows, her new New York Times best-selling cookbook and her recipes, visit www.melissadarabian.net; follow her on twitter @melissadarabian.