The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

In the Kitchen with Chef Mary Payne Moran

In the Kitchen with Chef Mary Payne Moran

In the Kitchen

September 24, 2013

Chef Mary Payne Moran is a chef and food writer with over 15 years of experience working at high-profile Los Angeles restaurants, catering celebrity events and food styling for print, TV and film. She also writes a weekly food column, “Hail Mary Food of Grace,” for The Communities at The Washington Times. Recently, Chef Mary has focused on teaching cooking classes to children and adults across the country, with a focus on healthy family meals. We talked to Chef Mary about the importance of including children in the kitchen.

What is the main focus of your cooking?

My cooking is focused on foods that make you feel good from the inside out. I like whole, fresh and organic ingredients and the style of my cooking is a combination of California and Tex Mex when I’m cooking for my family. 

What is your relationship with local farmers and why is this important?

A good relationship with a farmer, local purveyor or even the produce worker at the grocery store gives you insight into what the best buys – freshest, tastiest and best price for the product – are.  

Are you incorporating locally grown foods into your dishes? How?

As a Californian I’m very lucky, the local foods that are available are amazing. As we all know locally grown food that’s in season is the key to good cooking. When foods are local they have less distance to travel and therefore they can take more time to mature and reach optimum flavor.  

What are the major concerns today of your readers when it comes to establishing healthy eating habits for their kids? And how are you addressing them?

Parents are concerned about their child eating vegetables and eating variety. Adults are as guilty as children when it comes to eating variety. It’s easy to fall into a habit so it really starts with parents offering more variety and consistently offering it to their child.  

Vegetables can be added into a diet multiple ways. They can be pureed, and added to soups, sauces, braises, hamburger patties, sloppy joes, smoothies, and more. And they should also be offered as whole vegetables. For the whole vegetables, I like to cut them into cool shapes with miniature cookie cutters and for older children, I like to get them involved in the cooking process. 

A great experiment I like to do with kids is cooking three pieces of a single vegetable three different ways. For example, with broccoli cook one for three minutes, one for five minutes and one for seven minutes. I have the children try each version and then I have them add different types of seasoning to each – parmesan, salt, lemon – to see if that makes the broccoli tastes better or worse for them. To take the pressure off this experiment, it’s best done outside of dinnertime.

Variety can be added with patience and experimentation. The best way to introduce new foods is by having two things on the plate that you know your family will eat and then adding one new thing. This way even if they don’t eat it you know everyone will have eaten something.  

I hear parents say, “but my child doesn’t eat x and then I end up throwing it away,” and the truth is you probably will end up throwing some food away in the beginning – but don’t give up. Children need to be exposed to a food at least 20 times before it becomes familiar and then they may need to see it another 20 times before they are comfortable tasting it – and then another 20 times before they actually start eating it. It’s important for parents not to give up.  

Parents can start new habits for their family at any time. The key to making a new habit take root is to make the decision, create a plan, create a goal and then stick to it. 

How do you think the new school snack standards will influence eating habits at home?

Many parents don’t know what the standards are so it’s a great way to empower children with knowledge that they can bring home. Children are very observant and eager to learn so giving them good examples that are carried out at school is a great way to reinforce good eating habits that can be reinforced at home and for the rest of their life. 

How important is teaching children cooking skills?

Teaching children cooking skills is crucial to children becoming self-sufficient, healthy adults. A trend I’m seeing is many adults lacking the basic skills to cook. As parents we teach our children right from wrong, how to get dressed, how to do laundry and yet many parents never teach their children the basic skills of cooking, hoping they will learn it on their own when they are adults. The truth is many don’t learn these skills and wish they had. 

Parents are afraid of teaching cooking because of knives and fire, but cooking is so much more than that. A parent can teach without knives and fire. Children can wash and clean fruits and vegetables, pick apart lettuces, combine ingredients, mix ingredients, help make sandwiches and do other prepping tasks. As children get older you can add more challenging tasks. Also, the key to having children help is teaching them when you’re not in a hurry. 

What steps can families make toward healthier meal planning?

The best plan to get your family involved in making a healthier meal plan is to put the USDA’s Healthy Plate into action at home. Make planning fun for kids, keep the picture of the healthy plate where they will see it and let them help when possible. 

Next get the whole family involved in planning the meals for the week. Sit down together as a family, plan the meals on a calendar and then post it where everyone can see it. Use the internet, cookbooks and cooking shows to give your kids visuals too.