Dining de Laurentiis

The Everyday Italian star dishes on eating healthy with kids.


By Joanna Batt

Giada de Laurentiis, a.k.a. the reason your husband watches the Food Network, recently visited Chicago to promote her new line of products at Target stores. During her visit, she went grocery shopping with Lincoln Park mom Noelle Toney and her kids Joe, 4, and Maggie, 2, to inspire Toney with fresh ideas for helping her family eat healthy. Afterward, we talked about de Laurentiis’s own two-year-old daughter, Jade, and why you need to start good eating habits young.

So is Jade ever exposed to non-Giada approved snacks?
[Laughs] She just started preschool in September. She’s been introduced to yellow cheese, [and other] things that I don’t normally feed her. Snack time is a bit of an issue, with bagels, muffins—filler food. If you fill their tummies with that, then kids don’t eat lunch. I don’t want to teach her that she can eat as much as she wants. So I say, “There’s your Dixie cup. There’s your portion of whatever it is—orange cheese, crackers, Goldfish,” all the stuff that has zero nutritious value. Then she learns to have some.

I’m not a big snack person. I don’t believe in snacks. I believe in meals. Kids snack too much, and they never eat meals. And they snack on junk. If they were snacking on carrots and good stuff, I wouldn’t care, but they never are. So, those particular snacks need to be portioned. Jade can have all that stuff, she just doesn’t have too much. It’s not all-you-can-eat. What I don’t like is to teach children from that age that they can eat as much as they want. No. Because that’s the No. 1 asked question for me, “How do you eat all that great food and stay thin?” How do I do that? By portioning out what I eat. And we don’t learn that young enough. In Europe we do, but here in America we don’t. It’s all about bigger is better, and eat everything you can possibly eat. It’s like I said to Noel, it’s not bad if you open a bag of chicken nuggets, or if you go to McDonalds, or if you go to Pizza Hut. I’m just saying it’s bad if all your meals are eaten there and you’re eating it five times a week. One day a week, start assembling some fresh groceries.

Noelle said that she and so many parents make separate meals for themselves and kids—what kinds of meals work for everyone?
I didn’t grow up in a family where my mother made one meal for the kids and one meal for the adults. We all ate the same thing, and if you didn’t like it, I’m sorry but guess what, pretty quickly you’re going to learn to like it, ‘cause you’re going to be hungry. Kids are a part of your unit. They aren’t the unit. In Europe, you don’t grow up with parents focusing every ounce of attention on their children. Children are within the confines of the family, the framework. We’re too busy wondering if our kids only want chicken tenders. That’s not how life works. You need to start young, because if you don’t, it will be hell later. Buy fresh produce—as much as you can, even if it’s just once a week. Get your kids used to eating fresh things. I don’t care if you go to a farmers’ market, your local grocery store or a Target. Mix produce with pasta—easy and inexpensive, you can add anything to it. It’s really and truly just as easy as ordering in, and much better for your kids. Less fat and less sodium, those are the two things that are killers for children these days. And they’ll probably have fewer food allergies because they’re eating fresher foods. I was telling Noelle, get whole-wheat pasta in different squiggly shapes, kids love that. Then all you need is some ground beef, or canned tuna to mix into the sauce, and you’ve got dinner, fresh and fast. There isn’t a better feeling for a mother or a wife. The smell when the kids walk through the door, they’ll remember it forever. You’re really starting a tradition.

Speaking of tradition, any Thanksgiving tips for busy families?
Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday for me, because I didn’t grow up with Thanksgiving in Italy, but being married to an American boy, a Michigan boy [laughs], we’ve sort of re-created it. It’s really fun. Instead of corn-bread stuffing, we’ll make polenta stuffing, butternut squash lasagna. And of course we make mashed potatoes.

Any advice for having kids help out in the kitchen without a natural disaster ensuing?
What I think is fun, that I do with my daughter, I pull out cookbooks. It doesn’t have to be mine. It can be kids’ cookbooks. It can be any cookbook. I let her flip the pages, because most kids love to look at pictures. So find cookbooks that you like and that have lots and lots of photos, and let the kids pick out what it is that they might want to eat for dinner, from the photo, and then shop for it and make it. Get them involved as much or as little as you like. I encourage it, but I do realize that some parents feel really overwhelmed in the kitchen and can’t take having a kid there. But have them help you pick out the recipe, because that will encourage them to like what they’re eating. So that’s one step.

You were saying that teaspoon by teaspoon you took yourself off sugar, but most kids aren’t that well trained. Do you have any ideas for “good sugar”—giving kids what they crave without giving them too much?
Ideas for good sugar. Is there even such a thing as good sugar?

I thought if anybody had an idea it would be you.
[Laughs]. I don’t know if there actually is good sugar, but there are healthier choices. If you’re going to choose between a cupcake and a muffin you’re probably better off with the muffin. My daughter loves banana muffins. Bananas are very sweet on their own, especially if they’re super ripe, so you can put less sugar in there. Carrots are another great thing to use. A lot of kids will enjoy carrot muffins because carrots are extremely sweet when cooked down. Again, less sugar. There are ways to change it up a little bit, but again, you need to start pretty early or you will be stuck with those other things.

There are also a lot of things on the market these days, boxed mixes that do have less sugar or are gluten-free items for kids who can’t have that kind of stuff, so there are actually a lot of options. You do have to read labels. And a lot of times store brands will be better. They’ll be less expensive and use better ingredients and less sugar, but you have to read those labels.

What about picky eaters who run from anything green?
Picky eaters. [Sighs]. I was talking to Noel about this, because her son is a bit of a picky eater, he won’t eat vegetables, but her daughter will. I found that girls tend to eat a little bit better than boys. I told her when she makes meatballs, because they both love meatballs, whether it ‘s chicken, turkey, or beef, or a combination, first make the meatballs really small so the kids can kind of pop them into their mouths. It’s a lot more fun than giant meatballs. And then what I like to do is grate or food process a ton of different vegetables. Carrots, onion, celery, zucchini, spinach, broccoli—you can put all that stuff in a food processor or grate it and mix it into the meat. And it all cooks together and actually keeps the meatballs very moist. And then of course you add some cheese. You can add an egg if you want, you don’t have to add an egg, you can add breadcrumbs, just make those meatballs really small. You can even cook them in the oven; you don’t have to dirty up your stove. You can top them with sauce, or not. It can be a tomato dipping sauce, or a vinaigrette dipping sauce. It doesn’t matter. Whatever they like. They pop them in their mouths, and there’s so much meat and cheese that they don’t know they’re eating vegetables.

So get creative with food.
At least for a little while. But if you take them shopping and let them pick the broccoli and the carrots, they will learn. And eventually they’ll start asking you for it. It’s a slow process for picky eaters, but it’s a battle that can be won—with a little creativity.

What’s that one thing you make for your daughter that she just loves?
Lamb chops.

Lamb chops! Oh my God, you’ve done a good job with her.
My daughter loves lamb chops. She’s like her father, both big meat eaters. He’s from Michigan, grew up on red meat, and my daughter loves her red meat, and I mean loves. And lamb chops happen to be her absolute favorite. Her face lights up when I tell her she’s having lamb chops for dinner. Again, they’re good for her, but obviously I don’t give them to her everyday, because nothing is good for you if you eat it every single moment of every single day.

I think the most important thing I’d say to parents is to rotate what your kids eat. Don’t give them chicken everyday. Don’t give them anything that’s the same every day. Rotate their vegetables, their fruits, their meats, everything. Eat everything in moderation, and change up the foods as much as you can. Make it as colorful a dish with every meal as possible. And stay away from sugary breakfasts, because that is the downfall—the spiking and dropping of insulin.

What does your daughter have for breakfast?
She rotates a breakfast on a five-day week. Oatmeal with fruit. She does do a little 100% pure maple syrup, about a teaspoon. Again it’s all portioned for her. And then she’ll have pancakes another day, a whole grain pancake that has flax seed in it— which she loves.

Does she ever refuse to eat something?

And how does mom deal with that?
When she refuses to eat something, I usually just say to her, “Okay, so you’re done eating?” And she’ll say, “Yes mommy. I’m done eating.” And I’ll say, “So you’re done eating for sure?” “Yes, I’m done eating.” And that’s it. I try not to make a big deal out of the fact that she doesn’t want to eat something, because I feel like the more drama I add to the eating process, the more that sticks with her.

I don’t want her to ever associate eating with horrible memories. My parents made us sit at the table regardless. I was a really good eater, but my sister was very finicky, and my parents would make her sit here. They didn’t care if it was midnight or dark. She sat there with her food. My sister, to this day, is not passionate about food. So what I’ve learned from that is, I will not make it a big deal. If Jade doesn’t want to eat her dinner, that’s fine. I know she’s not going to starve. And trust me, the next morning she’ll eat everything I put on her plate. She’ll be like a starved animal— I promise, if it’s oatmeal she’ll have three bowls of it. She eats everything, every nook and cranny that’s in front of her. It’s a tough thing for parents to say, “My kid is going to bed without dinner,” but trust me—she’s not starving.

So what happens if you’re eating dinner and Jade eats everything that’s in front of her? Do you give her more?
She usually knows when she’s done. If she asks for something like another lamb chop, I’ll cut half. I’ll portion it for her, and usually she’ll be done after that. But as the kids get older, you do need to portion it out. You need to teach them when they’ve had enough food.

So no self-serving?
Kids want to have a structure in their life. They don’t want all the choices that we give them. They really don’t. They really do want to be taught how to do things.

I probably already know the answer to this, but does your family ever eat in front of the TV?
Not often. No. It’s mindless eating. Unfortunately, when we eat in front of the TV, you eat a lot more than you think you’re eating. I try never to turn on the television while she’s eating. I know a lot of parents do it to control their children, but it’s a really, really, really bad habit to start. Of course, I’m on TV so I can’t totally outlaw it, but why are you trying to take away from what they should be paying attention to, which is the beautiful thing on their plate?

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