After surveying nearly 600 moms who identified “picky eaters who whine and complain” as the number one obstacle to getting their children to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, moms Liz Weiss and Janice Bissex, both dietitians, went into action, establishing themselves as two of the nation’s leading experts on family nutrition. Between their two cookbooks, The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeover and No Whine with Dinner, and their website, MealMakeoverMoms.com, they have tons of kid-tested recipes and food strategies to offer parents! Enjoy this transcript from our Jan 17 fitsmiForMoms Radio Show with the Mealtime Moms.
Linda Frankenbach: Hello everybody, welcome to FitsmiForMoms Radio. I’m Linda Frankenbach, the founder of FitsmiForMoms and Fitsmi which, as I hope you know, is an online community of parents of overweight children. We at FitsmiForMoms hope that we can provide valuable support, professional help, education, and particularly help parents know what to do and what to say to help their overweight children. FitsmiForMoms has a companion site for overweight teen girls, Fitsmi.com. And at Fitsmi, teen girls find a very supportive community of other girls like them. They get professional advice, help on how to feel good about themselves, how to look good, and easy tools to get healthy.
Today on our show we are delighted to be interviewing the Meal Makeover Moms. The Meal Makeover Moms are two terrific dietitians and moms who started their website, MealMakeoverMoms.com, to help parents get kids to eat healthy, and to eat well balanced meals. Their site provides a whole array of support for parents including recipes, blogs, and they also have a radio show. These two gals are very busy; not only do they run this site, but they have written two books, The Moms’ Guide to Meals Makeover, and No Whine with Dinner. That second book provides 150 healthy and kid-tested recipes. We do a little bio of each of our guests; Janice Newell Bissex, who is a registered dietitian, has been a number of things in her career, the nutritional director for the New England Heart Center in Boston, she was a nutrition consultant for four years to the US Senate, an interesting job I’m sure, she spent ten years at the Boston Harbor Hotel where she was consulting on nutrition. She wrote a monthly meal makeover column for Nick Jr., and she has appeared on CNN, PBS, New England Cable News, Fox, and been covered in Newsweek, Boston Herald, Readers’ Digest and Parent magazine, a lot having to do with the books that she has teamed with Liz in writing. She is a member of the ADA and she is a trustee of a local charter school where she has gotten very much involved in what gets eaten there. She has degrees in Food and Nutrition from the University of Maine, a Masters from BU, she trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and she is the mom of two daughters, 18 and 11. Welcome Janice.
Janice Bissex: Thank you.
LF: And Liz, also an extremely impressive and broad resume. Liz is also a registered dietitian. She is an award-winning journalist and speaker. She is the co-author of the books that I mentioned earlier with Janice. She has written and reported on nutrition and health for CNN, PBS, The Health Network, Time Life Medical, ABC Boston, she has appeared on the Today Show, and she hosts the Meal Makeover segment for Everwell Video Services which runs in physicians’ offices. I think both she and Janice have won awards for Best Mom Food Bloggers and Best Family Food Blogs, from respectively Babble.com and—I’m sorry, this one I missed, I think it’s The Food Blog, and she received the American Heart Association Howard Blakeslee Award for Health Journalism while at CNN. And she is the winner of the American Dietitic Association President’s Circle Award for Nutrition and Education. She has a degree in Nutrition and Dietitics from the University of Rhode Island, a Masters from BU, she also studied at a culinary arts school in Cambridge, and she also has two children, and she has two sons, one who is 11, and the other who is 16. Again, welcome Liz and Janice, and we are so happy to have you.
Let me start with a question about what you’ve been doing and how you got to this. You have—as I’ve just talked about, you’ve done many things together. You’re running a website, you have written books—how did you two decide to pursue this path and pursue this path together.
LW: Well, thank you again for having us on the show. And this is Liz, I have to go back into our website and update the website because my kids are 16 and 13, so wow, talk about having a house full of hungry teenagers. But when Janice and I connected back in 2000, a long time ago, we connected as many moms do; you know, at the playground, over lunch, talking about all the challenges parents were facing feeding their children. And as dietitians and moms we were starting to get very concerned about the growing rate of childhood obesity and overweight—we were getting very concerned about just the overall poor nutrition in the American diet. You know, parents would say to us, Hey, you’re a dietitian. How do I get my child off chicken nuggets, or how do I break free of the mac and cheese rut? And so we felt like there was a need for well tested, kid-friendly nutritious recipes, and there weren’t many at the time. So we decided to write our first book, The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers, and we became the meal makeover moms, because we love nothing more than taking family favorites and giving them a healthy makeover. Not necessarily to be fat free and sugar free, but to have great flavor, to be nutrient rich, and to be moderate in all those things that we’re supposed to eat less of. And so we were very driven by just a community of moms on the playground. Now of course it’s a community of moms on the internet and community of interested teens and kids, and it’s all about social media as well as the real life playground, and so we’ve had a great time connecting with moms virtually and in person, and really tailoring our recipes to meet their needs.
LF: Terrific. Really valuable. What year was it that you wrote the Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers?
JB: It came out in 2004, early 2004. We started working on it in 2001. It took us a couple years.
LF: Right. And No Whine with Dinner is more recent, yes?
JB: Yes, No Whine with Dinner came out last year, 2011.
LW: And we really wrote that book because, you know, we had done the makeover book, and then we decided, after hearing from so many more moms that their kids were picky and just wouldn’t eat a vegetable, we decided why don’t we come up with a book that really is targeted more at the picky eater crowd, although the recipes are terrific and they’re great for everybody. My husband’s not picky and he certainly loves every recipe in the book. So things change and adapt, but you know, we really do love the whole just tailoring recipes to meet everybody’s taste bud needs, which is good flavor.
LF: Terrific. What kind of research went into your books?
JB: Well for No Whine with Dinner what we decided to do was send out a survey to our mom community. And we had some dads reply to the survey as well, but a couple of the questions that we asked them—first was, What is the number one obstacle to getting your children to eat healthy, well balanced meals? And the number one was picky eaters who whine and complain. That was 51% of moms said that was their number one obstacle. You know, we also asked—it takes too much time, or it’s too expensive to eat healthy, and those were a very, very distant second and third. Which is how we really focused the second book on this whole picky eater concept. So what we did was we made sure that every recipe in the book was tested by moms and their kids across the country, and we actually had some testers in I think Germany and Australia as well. So we sent all the recipes out, and we said, Okay, here’s a recipe, test it. And they’d test it with their children and they would send us feedback. They would say maybe it needs more flavor, it’s too spicy, it’s not spicy enough. We’d go back to the kitchen, we’d tweak the recipe, and then we would send the recipe back out to families. And we did that until all the feedback that we got was, Wow, my kids loved this recipe. So that’s some of the research that went into this book. We also asked them, which foods do your children refuse to eat the most, and you might guess that number one was vegetables; 57% of moms said their kids refused to eat vegetables often. Beans were number two, 48%, and then seafood was 43%. So we especially tried to get these foods to taste really, really good in the book so that we could increase the consumption in kids and families.
LF: You surveyed a large number of parents, over 600, yes?
JB: Yes, we did.
LF: That’s a significant sample, which is really terrific. Did you find that the parents of younger children and older children had the same issues, or were they really different issues when you got into the teens.
LW: Yeah, you know, that’s a great question. Kids tend to be pickier when they’re younger, because just like it takes a long time to learn how to ride a bike, or a long time to learn how to read and write, for some kids it takes a long time to learn how to eat a variety of foods. That’s why if you do have a picky eater, you have to persevere. You’ve got to hang in there, don’t give up, because eventually children do learn. If we’re patient and we really work at it, they do learn to love a variety of foods, and so hopefully by the time a child is a tween or a teen they’ve worked their way out of it. But the problem for many teens of course is that they have a very busy, on the go, independent lifestyle today, and so many are making choices based on what’s at the local convenience store, and even for my son, my older son, when he was in middle school and really asserting his independence, he would stop by the donut shop on the way home. He went through a big donut phase, and so we just hope that all we can do is lay the foundation when they’re younger, and then even if they stray to the donuts, they’re going to come back to the fruits and veggies because you laid the groundwork.
LF: Right, you know we also did a lot of research when we were developing our websites, and we heard a couple of interesting things that make me stop when you say that too much time, or don’t have the time to cook good meals was a distant second to the whining and complaining. I mean, we heard from moms about their busy lives, but we also heard that teenage kids social lives would often be based in fast food restaurants.
LF: Which was interesting. It’s kind of like your son going to the donut shop, but for many of them it’s like sort of that’s where they’d meet, whether it was a Starbucks and drink a thousand calorie latte, or a McDonalds. In your research and your coming up with these recipes, did the fast food culture play any role in what you thought about or what you heard, or what you did?
LW: Probably moreso in the first book, because we did makeovers of all these sort of classic recipes, but getting back to your point of the fast food hangout, you know, our kids today don’t sort of run and around and play as much as they used to, just running around the neighborhood, getting on their bikes and going, and we don’t have sort of these neighborhood rec centers as much as we used to, and I think that’s fueled this too. And then because there are more restaurants than ever before, kids do tend to gravitate and hang out, which really puts the pressure on these restaurants to have healthier offerings, certainly, so that when kids do walk in they can make some sensible choices hopefully. You know, I know Starbucks has fruit and yogurt and granola parfaits. That’s a terrific choice if you’re out at a fast food type of a restaurant or a coffee shop for example.
JB: And most of the places do have healthy choices, it’s a matter of educating the kids. So that’s something the parents can do. They can say, hey, let’s go on the website. I know you like to hang out at—whatever, McDonalds with your friends, and you know, that’s okay, that’s fun to do. Let’s look and see what are some of the healthier choices to eat there.
LW: Right, good point.
LF: It seems to me that parents have a particular obstacle when it comes to the fast food culture. You know, we read much about the fact that that magic combination of sugar, salt and fat, as exemplified by a Snicker bar, as talked about in the wonderful book, The End of Overeating is such an attractive thing to our taste buds, that those kinds of combinations, when they exist in fast food, and so on, kind of lure people away from some of the more nutrition dense, healthy foods. So it would seem to me that your recipe book kind of bears the burden of that a little bit, because you are in some ways, in terms of the kids’ taste buds, competing with those kinds of things. Is that right?
JB: That is true. And that’s why we test our recipes so vigorously and we have a lot of different kids try them, to make sure that they do have that taste. It’s not the taste of a fast food burger, and hopefully, you know, we can get the kids away from thinking that that’s the norm, that that over-salted, over-sugared fatty food is really good. I think we’ve veered in the past few decades.
LW: We need to really wean their taste buds, and I think we do that with No Whine with Dinner. If you look at our Grab and Go Granola Bars, which is our homemade version of a granola bar, we had that—that one, we tested probably the most because we really had to get it right. It relies on ingredients like nuts and dried fruit, whole grain cereal, we use a few little mini chocolate chips, we use some honey in their, and so it all holds together, everything is chopped up into fine little bits because, you know, kids don’t love all those chunks and lumps, and this bar is so flavorful, it’s so satisfying, but it’s not this extreme of this high sugar, fake-o granola bar. It’s real, it’s hearty, it’s nutrient rich, it’s homemade, and best of all kids love it. I’d say that’s probably one of the most popular recipes in our book. It’s a great snack, it’s a great grab and go breakfast. It could even be a dessert, and nothing like a glass of low fat milk to wash that down. And so that’s the kind of thing we do. We know that flavor is key, we use sugar, we just don’t use a ton of it. We use white flour, but we also use whole wheat. We don’t use a lot of butter, we use canola oil, a heart healthy oil, instead. So these are all substitutions we make, but they are terrific when it comes to working well in recipe development. Adds flavor, adds nutrition, helps to lighten things up.
LF: So you talked about your granola bar, which I think I’m going to have to get your book and get that recipe, but what else are some healthy snack strategies for busy families?
JB: Well, you know, we look at snacks as sort of a great way to fill in the nutritional gaps in a kid’s diet. So you don’t look at it as a treat. You want to have a lot of mini-meals throughout the day because kids really need their calories, and they need them sort of spaced out throughout the day. So you want to look to fruits and vegetables, and whole grains, to kind of try to get more of those since most kids don’t eat enough. Smoothies, that’s a great way to get some extra fruit in the diet.
LW: Oh, tell them about the Mom’s Mango Smoothie.
JB: Oh yeah. Mom’s Mango Smoothie; my 12-year-old daughter, that’s her favorite smoothie, and it’s got some frozen mango and some mango juice and yogurt, and it’s just a really delicious, frosty treat. So you don’t have to tell kids that it’s actually good for them. You can just say, Here’s a special treat when you get home from school. You can do things like peanut butter on bananas. That’s something that, you know, if you’re going out to a sporting event, or you’re going to be working out, you know, you need some calories, some good quality calories. Things like hummus, hummus with carrots, guacamole or salsa with some nice baked tortilla chips. You know, things that kids like. Kids like crunch, they like sweet, so you really need to look to see what would appeal to a kid but also, again, what will fill in some of the nutritional gaps in their diet.
LF: And I know one of the big issues we have today is understanding appropriate portions. How do you advise mothers on that, when it comes to snacks? Is it, you know, two bananas with peanut butter on it? Is that good? Or is it 25 carrots with hummus? How do you…
LW: Well, you know, it really depends on the child, and it depends on the child’s age certainly, and it depends how many hours ’til dinner. I will tell you, when Josh and Simon get home from school they’re starving, and so I will give them quite a substantial snack, but I know that dinner is a few hours away and they’re going to be hungry. That’s so important, you know, just in general, we do live in this nation of portion distortion—you’ve probably heard that term before—where everything has been super-sized. And by the way, watching the movie Super Size Me is not a bad idea because it really is a documentary and it really does put this whole super-sized portion issue in perspective. You can have smaller plates; that sort of tricks the eye, you think you’re having more food, if you will. I always start with smaller portions at dinner because I like to have seconds. But if I were to start with huge portions, but I still like to have seconds, that would be a problem. So start small, and then when you take seconds it equals a normal portion, and then slow down. You know, so many families sit and eat dinner in front of the television, or they eat on the go. And they’re not eating mindfully. So we really want to slow down, put on that soft music, focus on the family, focus on conversation, savor and taste and enjoy the flavor of your food. Slow it down, take a breath, and by slowing down people will eat less. Soup is another great way if you’re concerned about portions. We have a recipe in No Whine with Dinner for Tuscan minestrone soup. I just made it for the kids the other night, and my husband and myself, and it’s got cannellini beans, and sautéed carrot and onion and zucchini, and you cut the vegetables up small and they cook down and they caramelize—it’s really yummy, and so this soup is so full of volume because it’s a liquid. It really fills you up, but the calories aren’t that great. And so it’s a nice way to keep, you know, portions and calories in control.
LF: Right. So you’ve created a book with 150 recipes and you offer them on your website. Can you give us a sense, from everything you’ve done, what are sort of like top five favorites? Do we know that?
JB: Boy, let’s see.
LW: Well, we said the granola bars.
JB: Yeah, the granola bars definitely.
LW: How about the Black Bean Brownies?
JB: Yes, we have a recipe for Black Bean Brownies that are by far the number one searched item on our blog, Meal Makeover Mom’s Kitchen, and people absolutely love these Black Bean Brownies. They’re delicious, they’re fudgy, you would never know that there was a can of black beans in these brownies.
LW: All pulverized in there.
LF: Great. So have you substituted black beans for flour?
LW: Well, it’s really a fat replacer more than anything and Janice is turning to the recipe now to refresh her mind.
JB: My simple mind.
LF: This is really interesting, I’ve never heard of anything like this. So I’d expect our listeners would…
JB: Yeah, it’s got three large eggs, three tablespoons canola, three quarter cup of sugar, a half cup of cocoa powder, it’s got a can of black beans, a little bit of peppermint extract, baking powder, a little bit of salt, and some little mini chocolate chips. And it is just—it’s really good.
LW: Really good. There’s another food blogger who actually just made those and she blogs about it, and she said her husband was very skeptical and then in the next photo on her blog you just see a plate with crumbs on it. So people love it. And they also love our recipe—this is the second most searched recipe on our blog—which is Smiley Face Casserole, it’s also in the book, and it’s a makeover of tater tot casserole. So it’s got lots of veggies, and it’s very lean ground beef. You could use lean turkey if you would prefer, and we use smiley faced baked french fries on top. So instead of having those tater tots these are the smile fries. And you can find those in the market in the freezer section, so it’s cute, it’s playful, and we’ve got three or four veggies in there, carrots and zucchini and mushrooms, and I think onion. So it’s a great way to get more veggies, good protein from that lean meat, so it’s a nice makeover. And I think the original recipe calls for a stick or two of butter, which was ridiculous. So we use low fat cheese. We don’t go fat free, we use a reduced fat cheese, and that adds that nice creaminess to it that everybody sort of loves and expects.
JB: Another recipe that I…
LF: Go ahead…
JB: Layers of Love Ravioli Lasagna. I really like that recipe because it’s fast, it’s easy. You basically layer frozen cheese ravioli with some tomato sauce and cheese, and you put a layer in the middle of sautéed Swiss chard.
LW: Or you could use spinach.
JB: You could use spinach, you could use chopped kale, but you sauté it in garlic and olive oil, so it’s got some great flavor, so it’s like a lasagna but it’s very, very quick to assemble, and then you just pop it in the oven for 35 or 40 minutes and you’re good to go.
LF: And it’s really layers of vegetables. Is that what you were saying?
JB: Well, yeah, you’ve got Swiss chard which is just chock full of great nutrients, and yeah, it’s got some garlic and pasta sauce. It’s just great.
LW: Yeah, and you know, we used jarred pasta sauce. If you make homemade, then use that instead, but you know, we’re busy moms, we like the convenience. We just read labels and, you know, some products are better than others. Some are pretty salty, so you do want to compare labels and find a pasta sauce you like, and if you have a picky eater at home, make sure the pasta sauce you choose doesn’t have lumps and chunks in it, because that could be a big turn-off for kids. You know, texture is huge. Even for some adults texture is pretty critical, so if smooth is the way to go, then you need to buy a product that your family is going to enjoy.
LF: You hear lots of people talking about reducing the amount of white sugar that you consume. I heard you say that the black bean recipe had three quarters of a cup of sugar. Do you have any kind of rules, regulations around the use of sugar in what you’re doing?
JB: What we tend to do is use the least amount of sugar to still have a great tasting product. And I think the original recipe for these brownies had a cup and a half of sugar in them.
JB: And we cut that in half. So that’s what we try to do. We are not anti-sugar, because I think a little bit of sugar makes food taste good, some foods, so we just keep it to a minimum.
LW: You know, and I do find that a lot of so-called healthy recipes that are low fat are loaded with sugar. I’d rather add a little extra fat but use good fat, say canola oil or olive oil, and then not have to add so much sugar to compensate. Food’s a balancing act, and Janice and I spent a lot of time in her kitchen—we mess up her kitchen and we create lots of dishes. And we do lots of recipe testing until we nail it, and we say, Ahh, this is something we would like to feed our kids every week, and now we’re ready to share it with the world.
LF: So we just talked about I think your top four, your favorites. Are those top four the ones that you would suggest to a mom she use if she’s got a particularly picky eater, or do you have some others that you think are just the best when someone’s terribly picky.
LW: Wow, that’s a tough one. You know, I think one of the best vegetable recipes in the book is called Mommy’s Edamame, and edamame are soy beans. And so if you buy the edamame frozen, in the pod, you boil them up like it calls for on the package directions, drain them, and then toss in a bowl with some extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of kosher salt. Now the kids can pick up these pods and pop the beans out into their mouths and chew them, and they’re really playful and its fun, because some of the pods have one or two beans, some have four, and so you pop them out and it’s just so much fun. And if you have a child who’s a little skittish when it comes to green food, that’s your perfect entrée into the world of green food. Food’s so individual. I think the key is for people to visit our website, peruse our books, and see what appeals to them because every single person is different. There’s no one size fits all approach. You know, in my household we don’t really love green bell peppers, but we love red and we love yellow. My husband doesn’t like cucumbers so I just don’t give him any, and the rest of us eat the cucumber. You know, we give each other a pass. We cut each other some slack, and after a while you kind of get to figure out what the family loves and what the family doesn’t love. It doesn’t mean that, you know, I’m not going to try to give my kids certain foods that maybe they rejected before. With my husband it might be a lost cause. He’s, you know, in his forties, so I’m going to give up on that. But with the kids, you know, if there’s a certain food that they don’t like one day, I’m going to try it again. Believe me. Or I might change up the texture or the presentation. Never give up, but also accept it. At some point you have to accept it.
JB: And bear in mind too that some kids prefer raw vegetables to cooked. Which is always amazing to me. My daughter likes raw cauliflower and raw broccoli, and I don’t at all. I just don’t like that flavor.
LW: And she likes frozen peas and frozen blueberries, and a lot of kids like that, they like to eat the vegetable or the fruit frozen. Frozen grapes.
JB: So you want to try a variety of different things. In our book, No Whine with Dinner we have a chapter, it’s called 50 Mom Secrets for Getting Picky Eaters to Try New Foods, and these are 50 strategies that we got from our survey that we sent out, and they’re all very different. And so one strategy might work for one picky eater, and then another one might work for, you know, someone else, but certainly out of 50 I think people can find a few things to try if they have picky eaters.
LF: So for the really rushed family, does your book or your website offer some suggestions of those really, really fast meals that are healthy, and can you suggest one or two?
LW: Yeah, I mean we do have a lot that can be made in less than 30 minutes. Quesadillas is one of them. I always keep whole wheat flour tortillas on hand, and you can stuff those with any leftover meat, chicken, beans, we always add some canned beans, bell pepper, we sauté those a little bit. You can add a little bit of barbeque sauce or a little tiny bit of salsa, and you just make these quesadillas, and everyone loves quesadillas. And then you can dip them in a little bit of reduced fat sour cream or salsa or guacamole, or sliced avocado, and that’s always a big hit with my kids. You could make a simple cheese omelet. I sauté up, again, I love red bell peppers. Sometimes I’ll put a little spinach, maybe some feta cheese, and whip up an omelet. That takes maybe ten minutes. And also, boil up some water as soon as you get home, before you do anything. Before you feed the dog or unpack the backpacks, and boil water, and then just throw in either some tortellini or some pasta, and add a little bit of pesto sauce to it. You can add some broccoli for the last two or three minutes while the pasta is cooking, drain it, add some pesto sauce, add a little bit of parmesan cheese, you have a very, very simple but quick meal that’s healthy. We usually get the pasta that is half whole wheat and half white.
LF: Terrific. I’ve got to stop you there, unfortunately we’re about out of time, but I thank you both so much. These are great ideas. I think our listeners ought to go check out the Mom’s Guide to Meal Makeover, No Whine with Dinner, and your website, MealMakeoverMoms.com, because you guys have just great ideas. And we thank you both very much. We hope to talk to you again soon, and I’m going to go try to make that black bean brownie recipe as soon as possible. Can’t wait.
LW: Thanks for having us.
JB: Thanks, it’s been great.
LF: Thank you, okay, bye-bye now.
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