Cat Cora may be an Iron Chef on television, but off-screen she’s a parent who, like many of us, tries to get breakfast on the table before school and dinner on the table after.
It tends to surprise people that I cook a lot at home,” Cat shares. “We always have so much fun in the kitchen, and there’s no better way to teach your kids the love of healthy food.”
During National Nutrition Month, we sat back down with Cat to hear even more from her about eating and teaching healthy habits for life. Here’s what she had to say about incorporating good-for-you foods into every meal, getting the kids involved, and setting healthy intentions for your family–all while making things manageable and, of course, fun for everyone:
FOCUSING ON HEALTHY FOODS
We’ve talked before about your love for the Mediterranean diet. How do you incorporate Mediterranean diet foods into your family meals?
While I grew up in Mississippi, I also lived in a Greek Orthodox household, so Greek and Mediterranean food was everywhere. From those delicious, authentic dishes, I learned early in my childhood about the importance of whole foods and healthy fats. We used extra virgin olive oil, a variety of nuts, whole fruits, lean meats, and lots of seafood in our cooking. My mom even made Greek yogurt before you could buy it in the supermarket!
This kind of cooking is something Nicole (her wife) and I have passed down and practice with our boys today. We use citrus fruits such as lemons and limes to add flavor to dishes in place of unhealthy fats and added sodium. We also love grilling together as a family for the same reason. Grilling captures the flavor and retains the nutrients in foods without those unnecessary additions, too. When you have lean meat, nuts, whole grains and a mix of fresh vegetables and fruits, a full and flavorful meal can come together in no time.
Why We Love It: The Mediterranean diet is inspired by the eating patterns and coastal cuisines of at least 16 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea–and it’s considered one of the healthiest diets in the world. Its simple preparations and almost infinite blend of culinary possibilities are easy to apply to your daily meal-planning. Mostly plant-forward, this style of eating emphasizes deliciously heart-healthy foods that are high in nutrition AND great flavor.
INTRODUCING NEW TASTES
Your boys have very developed palates for their age. Do they ever still turn their noses up at mealtime? If so, how do you sneak healthier foods in?
I’m one of those parents who believes in being completely upfront and honest. If you decide to sneak in certain foods, then at some point you’ll have to explain why it tastes so good!
When introducing healthy foods the boys haven’t tried before, we try to make it creative without being time-consuming. For us, it’s all about approach-ability. If the kids aren’t crazy about spinach, then we’ll throw it into a really delicious smoothie that has mango and other fruit they already love and are comfortable with.
We also try to put a healthy spin on classics the boys love, one being pancakes. We’ll even have pancakes for dinner. It’s a great way to use up the leftover vegetables we always seem to have in the refrigerator. I’ll chop them up finely and add them to the pancake batter! The kids will get the sweetness they’re looking for, as well as all of the nutrients and fiber Nicole and I want them to have.
Why We Love It: Early exposure is key! People know and love the foods they grow up with. If you start kids off with healthy choices, they will be more likely to choose–and even prefer–healthier foods, and this fuels their potential for years to come. Putting a healthy spin on a family favorite like pancakes is a great way to start. Plus, an estimated 63 million tons of food is wasted every year in the U.S., so we’re big fans of creative ways to put leftover produce to work.
NAVIGATING THE GROCERY STORE AND WEEKDAY DINNERS
Shopping for healthy food can get pricey. Do you have any tips for purchasing nutritious items on a budget?
Shopping on a budget is honestly how I like to shop in general. My rule of thumb is to choose where you want to spend your money. For me, that means putting more behind items like unprocessed chicken breasts and cage-free eggs and less on items like organic onions or bananas that aren’t the centerpiece of our meals. It’s all about finding that balance. ”
Also, don’t be afraid to ask the grocery store staff questions. They’re there to help. Knowing where the produce came from – even being able to sample it – will help you decide whether to buy or not. Remember, you are investing in YOU and your family!
Why We Love It: From the produce section to the freezer aisle and everything in between, grocery stores present us with more options than ever before. While the endless options may encourage you to pick up unnecessary items, food shopping doesn’t have to break the bank. If you go into the store with a plan and start with a few common and in-season ingredients, you’ll have a healthy and budget-friendly meal in no time.
How do you keep your boys equally excited about the healthy lifestyle you and Nicole are so passionate about?
For family dinners, we let them play a role in the process. We’ve seen a lot of success with presenting them with a choice instead of open-ended options. “Do you all want chicken or salmon tonight? Edamame or carrots?” That not only helps us avoid arguments and make decisions quickly, but also helps us shop on a budget because we’re only buying what we need.
Another way to engage the kids is to have them plant something simple, like herbs or a tomato plant in a planter box. When they know where food comes from–not the “grocery store bush”–they can appreciate it more.”
Why We Love It: Getting the kids involved in the kitchen is great family-bonding time. Try to make family meals a priority and give the kids a mealtime role are two of our favorite ways to set a successful routine and to make healthy eating fun. Remember, they learn the most by watching you so be sure to keep the lessons simple and safe. Before you know it, the kitchen will become your family’s favorite room!
SETTING HEALTHY INTENTIONS
What’s the number-one piece of advice you have for busy parents who want their family to eat healthier?
Set yourself up for success with cooking at home. The kitchen is where you’re going to build the healthy lifestyle you’re looking for. You’ll get into a routine where it becomes two minutes to chop up all of the veggies, 10 seconds to drain the pasta.
If you deviate from the plan, don’t worry! It’s important to be flexible and have fun, like around the holidays or a family celebration. Acknowledge when you’ve gotten off track and do your best to reset–and, remember, you’re not starting back at square one!
Why We Love It: Healthy eating isn’t one-size-fits-all. Finding a routine that works for you and your family is key to establishing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Our weekend go-to is a trip to the farmer’s market to get family excited about incorporating a variety of healthy (and colorful) foods like fruits and veggies. Being introduced or interacting with healthy foods in a fun environment can make a big difference. All in all, remember that it takes some time to figure out what works so try to be patient and know that each nutritious meal you serve is a win!
Want to learn additional healthy lifestyle hacks to get your family excited for change? Check in with Cat [Website | Instagram] to see the new and fun ways she gets everyone involved in the process. For healthy recipes to help jumpstart your new routine, follow our chefs and dietitians on Instagram @Aramark.
Note: Since everyone’s health history and nutritional needs are so different, please make sure that you talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian to get advice about the diet and exercise plan that‘s right for you.