Weelicious: Back to School, for Mommies

{When you put a little sunshine on it, it goes a long way! ~ Catherine McCord}

{photos by Maren Caruso}

As soon as I got pregnant, people began asking me when I was going to write a cookbook for babies. I love the topic of food and kids, but too often I secretly thought, there’s not much to it. Put cooked fruits and veggies in a blender and poof, baby food. Um, sort of. And then your curious, compliant little baby becomes an opinionated toddler.

For the first year or so of eating solids, Greta would eat anything-- I mean anything (spinach, mussels, herbs, stinky cheese). Until one night this month, the very night my friend Catherine McCord’s book, Weelicious: One Family, One Meal arrived in the mail, Greta pushed back.

“I don’t like it,” Greta said, super, duper proud of her ability to communicate this fact.

I’ve been schooled.

At the age when a babe is able to express her likes and dislikes for everything from the flavors on her plate to the color of shoes she’d like to wear, it’s helpful to be armed with the kind of cooking Weelicious is all about. There is an art, and strategy, to feeding a family. Catherine’s mastered it. She has 5-plus years and two kids of mothering under her belt and a vibrant recipe-video-a-day website, 10,000-follower’s strong, where’s she’s shining a light on just how to raise a good eater.

Full disclosure—it could be said that I am biased. Catherine and I went to culinary school together about a decade ago. And believe me, when I first saw her—all legs and that gleaming smile, I had to wonder if she really did eat. Trust me, she does.  And I’ve seen first hand just how joyfully she’s taken to the task of feeding her two young kids, Chloe 3 ½ and Kenya 5 1/2.

This book has smarts. Take this bit of advice for example:
            “Since your baby is completely dependent on you for his exposure to different kinds of foods and opportunities to develop a taste for them, if he rejects a certain food today, put it aside and try again tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that. I guarantee that one day, you’ll see your baby reaching for that same food you thought he rejected permanently.”

Catherine is just the kind of mom that makes us feel up for the challenge—and that the challenge might even be fun. Because watching her embrace this duty with reckless enthusiasm is seriously contagious.

Catherine and I chatted on the phone today about feeding babes and toddlers, how to get inside the head of a picky toddler, why olives can be baby food, and the one thing she won’t do when cooking for her kids. Here’s our Q & A. 

 Catherine + Chloe. How darling are they? {So darling I'm running this photo big and into the gutter.}

SC: Okay, first, I don’t know when I have been so excited about a book. And I truly think it’s because we just hit this crossroads with Greta.  I have the impression she should love and devour everything I make, but now that I’m not making purees anymore, I feel like every day is hit or miss with textures. I felt like reading your book was like peering inside her little brain about what she might be thinking when she sits down a meal. I literally read it cover to cover. How did you find your way to Weelicious and this mission to help the rest of us moms?

CM: After culinary school, I worked at restaurants and catering companies. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I really didn’t want to work 16 hour days. When I had Kenya I was searching the internet, and making homemade baby food. I was teaching myself and blogging about it. I became obsessed. How do people become good eaters? Why are some kids bad eaters? How can we as parents keep them focused without beating them over the head?

SC: What was the biggest obstacle with feeding Kenya? And how did you overcome it?

CM: I don’t think I realized how hard it was going to be. With food, I thought I make this beautiful meal and he’s going to love it and eat it. I didn’t realize how you have to keep trying over and over again with babies and with toddlers. And that their preference change all the time.

SC: Now that you’re a veteran mamma, what did you do differently the second time around, with Chloe?

CM: I learned that you have no idea what your kids are going to like. I never was a big olive eater, and one day my father-in-law brought over a whole container of them. I was going to be that mom who said “oh, she won’t like that.” But then there Chloe was, eating them by the fist-full. It was an aha moment for me that kids like things we don’t like. 

Of course, with your second child, they have to go with the flow a little more, too. I couldn’t be as patient. I was like this is what you’re eating. But I do try to always give them a little choice. Like, do you want honey on your yogurt, or granola?

SC: I read that in your book last night, about giving even the littlest kids a choice. I actually tried it with Greta this morning. She loves making pancakes, and every day this week she’s woken up and said, “Hungry! I want pancakes!” Today I said, “Not today, we’re having hot cereal. But would you like apples or bananas on your hot cereal.” And she immediately said, “Bananas!” Proudly making her choice. It was major revelation for me and we avoided a yes-no scenario completely! It goes along with so many of the philosophies I read about when I was pregnant that I love—about talking to your child like a person from day one, and I admit I sometimes forget to follow through on that.

CM: Exactly! I brought passion fruit to Chloe’s class. I talked to them about it and answered their questions like where it comes from. How it grows. Is it sour? Is it sweet? As opposed to, here you have to eat this.

SC:  That’s such a great approach. Speaking of learning, what did you learn from your mom that you think is really smart, and what do you do differently that you’re also proud of?

CM: I think moms in her generation saw cooking as such a chore. The one thing I try to do is to add a little fun in every meal. I’m talking a little bit. Like giving your child a shaker of cinnamon to sprinkle on hot cereal. Making a meal fun. Eating together. Cooking together. When you put a little sunshine on it, it goes a long way!

SC: You say in your book, “Once you become a parent, the subject of food never goes away.”  It’s so true. When you’re just two, and you run out of milk or eggs or vegetables—the basics—you can just eat pasta and call it a night. When you have kids and there’s no fruit or veggies in the house, it’s like—“Shoot! I have to go to the store right now!” How do you deal with the endless need to keep the fridge stocked?

CM:  I’m all about Sundays. We go to farmer’s market as a family. We roll by Trader Joe's. I’m all about the basics and a well stocked pantry---things that don’t go bad. Rice, pasta, yogurt....and a well stocked freezer. When you cook, make double. And keep a list of your top 20 things you buy and always look at it before you go shopping.

SC: That’s a good one! So, I read a great article about picky eaters on the New York Time's blog that said to parents, it’s not your fault. I appreciated the points about not judging parents, but we can’t give up either. Babes will eventually put up a fight and express their interests, but we are still the guiding forces until they are old enough to know what’s best for their bodies—like 12, at least. Right? Or 18? What’s your take on that?

CM: I think it helps to make a commitment that you’re always going to be positive. If you’re offering balanced nutritious meals, even if your child has a narrow range of variety, you’re doing your job. If they are incredibly picky, think outside the box. Take them to a you-pick farm, plant something in the garden. The more you can, continue to be positive, as frustrating as it is. It’s a breakthrough when you’re child learns to like something—even once every month or two months. That’s a breakthrough! That’s amazing!  

SC: Speaking of breakthroughs, I think my biggest breakthrough from reading your book is that we really do have to think like kids. It doesn’t mean we need to dumb down food, but we can make an effort to put it into shapes, sizes and even colors that are particularly appealing to them. And make it fun. Beet Hummus? That was clever. You balance meeting kids at their level, without being gimmicky. Is there anything you won’t do?

CM: I’ll let my kids try anything. They’ve chosen not to eat food coloring. One day I just said “food coloring isn’t good for your body,” and now they avoid it on their own, but everything else--chocolate, sugar--they have had and will have. Everything in moderation.

SC: What about hiding vegetables in other foods?

CM: Yah, I’m just not a sneaker. I’m the opposite. I’m all about empowering kids. If you get kids that didn’t know they had black beans in their food all along, you’ll end up with 15-year-olds pissed off for being served black-bean brownies all these years.

SC: I laughed out loud when I read that quote in your book.  So, how did you come to this rich understanding of kid's relationships with food?

CM: Kid's relationship to food changes all the time. Just like with behavior and other parts of development, there are stages. You have the easy child, and now he’s the super cranky child. And we don’t always know why. Maybe he’s teething. Maybe Daddy’s out of town and that’s a stress.

Food is one thing they can control, so we need to be thinking about what’s really going on when they respond to it a certain way. What is that child feeling? We tend to take it for granted, you’re fine. But they are little people. Their little systems are going through things. My kids are very different eaters. Chloe’s such a good example. She will eat and eat and eat and one meal, she just won’t eat. And John and I are like, you need to eat, you need to eat. And then two hours later she takes the poop of the century. OH, your body was telling you that you weren’t hungry. As parents, we need to be detectives--and find out what’s really going on.

CM: So true! I’m really inspired to be more of am observer than a judge at meal time from now on.

So, like you, cooking with Greta is super natural for me. If it’s raining, or she has friends over, or we’ve exhausted our outside play—we make cookies or pancakes or just about anything in the kitchen. But how do we convince the mom’s who don’t think cooking is fun to get their kids in the kitchen with them?

CM: Treat cooking like an art-project. I don’t know many kids who don’t like art projects at school. They get that instant gratification. 

Kids are desperate for their parent’s time, that one-on-one connection time. If parents can carve out 15 minutes to make a recipe together, it’s a win-win. If you have the kid that just really won't, thinking outside the box---we do something on the weekend called garden detective. We take our magnifying glasses to the garden and it becomes like a treasure hunt. They love it. They go crazy!

SC: Michelle Obama said that her husband sits down to dinner with the family every night he’s home. When Greta was born, I wrote a manifesto on my site about eating together every night. That doesn’t always happen, but the meal we never, ever miss as a family is breakfast. You have a busy life and career, and John, your hubby does too. How do you make a priority of sitting down to the table together every day?

CM: The secret is it doesn’t have to be dinner. We’re together at breakfast more than anything else. We’re together like 4 or 5 nights, and one of us is always home for dinner, but we’re almost always together for breakfast. Anytime you can be in the kitchen together, it’s a win for everyone.

SC: So, I love your school lunch shots on Instagram. What always strikes me is not just all the amazing colors, fruits and vegetables in every one of Kenya or Chloe's lunches , but what a huge variety that is in every lunch. Do you, like me, totally obsess when something comes back uneaten?

CM: Yes of course, are you kidding me? I remember one day I sent Kenya a lunch and it came home totally full. I was like OMG, what happened. And this was such a good lunch, too! The next day I asked his teachers if it seemed like Kenya was feeling okay. And they told me about a cooking exercise they did in class, and that Kenya ate three grilled cheeses, which totally explained things. Other days it's as if he licked every compartment out of the box and I know, Oh, this kids is growing!

SC: Okay, now I feel more normal about this little habit. And now that your kids are old enough to ask them, do you drill the kids about what they didn’t eat and why? What’s your middle ground between insisting that they eat certain things and just going with the flow?

CM: Yes, I totally ask Kenya. He’s always super honest, or he’ll ask me to make something again if he loves it. The fruits and vegetables are almost always gone, but one day he didn’t eat the cookie—but it might be because his friends were ready to play, or something was distracting him. Once they get to school, there are so many outside influences. I think Mom’s shouldn’t take it so personally. But lunch is really an opportunity to pack something new. At school they might try something they never will at home.

SC: SO true! I found if Greta won’t eat something at night (lentil hummus, smashed sweet potatoes, or lately anything green), I pack it for lunch and her lunch box always comes home empty. When I ask about it, they tell me “oh she loved her lunch today.” I think she knows that’s what she’s getting, and she’s so hungry from learning and playing that she just sits right down to it. Often at night she’s had a snack at the park, or she wants to play or read, and dinner just doesn’t get her undivided attention like breakfast and lunch do.

CM:  I always make double duty dinner for lunches the next day. Leftovers should not be a bad word!

SC: Agreed! But let’s go back to what you said about mom’s not getting upset. I think you said in your book “It will help you if you’re prepared for disappointment (your kid will reject things you put lots of love and care into making) and practice your own ability to relinquish control (sometimes you’ll just have  to accept that your kids is not going to eat on your clock).” Smart. Smart!

CM: Thank you.

SC: So, last night when I was packing Greta’s lunch for today, I was thinking, I take a lot of pride in making sure every meal for her is delicious, nutritious and exciting. You want them to open up the lunch and say “yah, mommy loves me!” And, you’re sort of the icon for one of the daily mommy duties that could be a chore. Have you given any thought to what it means that so many mommies are looking to you?

CM: So many moms are really at their wits end and are just trying to find a solution. I hope that Weelicious offers a solution. If you get a few from the book that makes your life easier, that’s success for me.

SC: As a fellow work-from-home mamma, we’re fortunate that cooking for our kids is actually part of our job. But still, there’s a lot that needs to happen in24-hours in family life, especially if you have a career. There’s something a little I dream of Genie about how you get it all done and look positively radiant through it all. How do you do it all?

CM: I don’t sleep. Let’s be honest. That’s the honest answer. We all have different levels of energy. I try to spend as much time with my kids as possible, so I work every night from 8 to midnight. There’s no science to it. I try to set aside specific time to be with them, because I don’t want them to see me on the computer or the phone. 

SC: Okay, can we talk romance for a second? You and John have been married for how many years?

CM: 7 years! We’ve been together 12.

SC: He married a sexy model, and now you’re a mommy role model—which ought to make any many proud, but still, life changes once you have kids. How do you keep life spicy, and keep a separation between you as Mommy and you as wife. 

CM: We work really hard on our relationship. I don’t think you marry someone and you say this is so easy. We really try hard. We have date night. We try to do fun things, and not get too much into a pattern. We try to really respect each other. I think people change when you become parents.

SC: What do you see as the biggest change?

CM: It’s not about you anymore. You have to be selfless.

SC: Well said. I might just be becoming a sap in my old age, but I seriously have goose bumps watching you so in your element on your trailer with the kids and John. Adore. Adore. You are such a force for good and positive change in family living right now, and I am really moved by it! Did you ever dream you’d be on this path 10 years ago? 

CM: No! It was the opposite. I was really lost the year before I had Kenya. I was at such a crossroads in my life. I have always had the passion for children and loving food, and the love of my husband. But we do all these things in our lives (for me it was modeling, hosting TV shows) and everything now is sort of coming together and it makes sense. 

SC: And, what inspiration can you give for mom’s that are still finding their way to their dream jobs?

CM: I always say—take classes. You should always continue learning whatever you’re passion about, because hopefully you can turn that into something.

SC: That’s fabulous advice. Okay, let’s talk restaurants quickly. It’s all about cooking at home, but do you have any fave kid-friendly places love to go with your family in LA or in NYC?

CM:  WE love to eat out. In LA we love GingergrassMexico City, and a little restaurant Aroma, which is open kitchen so the chef lets the kids watch. In New York, we love Sarabeth’s kitchen.

SC: That’s the southern in you. I love your subtle nods to your favorite foods from your southern childhood, like bacon. So speaking of the past--do you remember in Culinary school when you called Chef Anne (our former culinary school instructor and Food Network's Anne Burrell of Secrets of a Restaurant Chef) Anne. And she firmly reminded you that she should be addressed as Chef Anne. I’ll never forget that. The whole room was still.

CM: I’m still scared of Chef Anne!

SC: That is too funny. If I think of you from those days, I can hear your laugh. I imagine there is a lot of laughter in your house. How do you keep the mood light?

CM: I'm the first to say it's intense having two kids with so many needs. I do my best to turn a challenging moment into a fun one through games or just being silly. Even when my kids become out of sorts I make every effort to listen to them and talk out what they're feeling. Who knew so much emotion could be balled up inside such small people!

SC: Last question: In your wildest dreams, what’s next for you, John, Kenya, Chloe and Weelicious?

CM: We're dreaming of going to Italy for a month next summer. It's a big dream! Fingers crossed we can pull it off. 

Thanks so much to Catherine for sharing her wisdom with some of us newer mamas. For more about her philosophies, check out her infectiously happy trailer for the Weelicious cookbook here (better than feel-good movies!) a pre-order her book, which goes on sale tomorrow! In the meantime, I’ll be trying out Catherine’s Spinach Gnocchi on Greta tonight. Come back tomorrow for the recipe, so you can try it on your littles, too. 


Unknown said...

What a delicious interview, Sarah! Oh, and I totally approve of you running that photo of Catherine and Chloe so large -- I think I have style envy of Chloe's awesome look!

Sarah Copeland said...

Ha, I'm so glad you approve of the extra large photo--aren't they so sweet? Beauties. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment--always appreciated!

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New York City, United States
Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.