The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

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

In the Kitchen with Lynn Fredericks and Mercedes Sanchez

In the Kitchen with Lynn Fredericks and Mercedes Sanchez

In the Kitchen

December 30, 2013

Lynn Fredericks is the founder of FamilyCook Productions and an award-winning pioneer in the field of obesity prevention and family nutrition. A leading advocate for hands-on food/nutrition education for all, she is a popular lecturer, television personality, and cooking demonstrator. Mercedes Sanchez, RD, MS has been Director of Nutrition Education for FamilyCook Productions for more than ten years. A registered dietician, Sanchez specializes in pediatrics and family nutrition. We talked to Fredericks and Sanchez about their new book and about taking a practical and creative approach to cooking healthy dinners and making healthy food choices for life.

What is the main focus of your cooking? 

FamilyCook Productions was founded in the mid 90s to address the challenge of encouraging children’s willingness to accept new healthful, fresh foods at the height of the obesity epidemic and food marketing to children.

We developed innovative curricula for different ages with a multi-cultural food focus, which we have rigorously evaluated to guide the content for maximum results. Through recipes inspired by traditional diets around the world, we encourage families in our programs to explore new foods and their rituals and traditions that are woven within these respective native cultures. This creates an adventurous attitude – like ethnic dining but at home!

Guided by our research (published and unpublished) and the professional literature, we engage children in a hands-on cooking experience that appeals to all their senses. By touching, tasting, smelling, and observing the colors of the foods they are cooking, we support what neuroscience has revealed is best way for the brain to learn and build these positive associations. 

Our research has also confirmed that introducing new foods through hands-on cooking and within a cultural context creates a higher tolerance and acceptance rate of the food than when they are introduced by mere association of their nutritional value. By emphasizing the importance of these foods to their indigenous societies, they take on more meaning and value to students in the program. 

Our book, Get Your Family Eating Right, is a compilation of our best recipes and most successful strategies used with thousands of children and families over 18 years.

Is there a particular nutritional focus of your menus?

Absolutely, we carefully design our recipes promoting plant-based foods. They always include not only plenty of colorful vegetables and fruits, but also a wide variety of grains, legumes and nuts which creates balanced meals – often in just one pot. We add minimal animal protein to some of these recipes to add flavor and more protein as an option. Nutritional studies have shown that variety is key to a healthier diet; eating a variety of foods within each of the food groups is best. We include recipes from around the world with many different ingredients and herbs. That by itself takes care of most nutrients needed to be healthy. 

Throughout the entire book, we emphasize and encourage eating real food and cooking at home from scratch. Following these strategies reduces consumption of soda, junk foods and highly processed foods with minimal nutritional value. 

What is your relationship with local farmers?

Co-Author Lynn is one of the early adopters of CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture, where you pay a local farmer in the spring for a weekly share of their harvest for a family from spring through Thanksgiving. Our book explains this concept well to the readers and dedicates two chapters to list the benefits of shopping in local farmer's markets and establishing a relationship with the actual farmers. 

Additionally, part of all our educational programing that we disseminate through FamilyCook Productions includes sourcing from local farmers and providing lists of farmers markets in the area to the local program participants.

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

Our entire book is about eating within the rhythms of the earth, through the seasons. No reason to eat asparagus in December and January or cherries in February. We encourage seasonal meal planning, shopping locally for fresh ingredients and changing recipes as the seasons change. We also provide step-by-step strategies to make it feasible for people to slowly adopt these practices. We present over 20 recipe strategies as concepts that are intended to be altered by the season and locale. Quesadilla in spring with asparagus or peas will become quesadilla with tomatoes and zucchini in the height of the summer harvest. Same goes for soups, stews, frittatas... the list goes on and on!

What are the major concerns today of your readers when it comes to preparing healthy family meals? And how are you addressing them?

Many American parents are struggling to provide a healthy diet for their families in their own home. We live in a society that does not support family meals cooked from scratch. Parents are expected to work longer hours and are pressured to over schedule their children with extra activities. Our children are rushed to eat a school lunch in less than 15 minutes. This has taken a toll.

Sacrificing sit-down family meals and a reliable mealtime results in a poverty of food culture and inhibits valuing the nourishing role of food. It becomes something that simply keeps us going; eating inside the car is a ubiquitous part of American life. 

Contributing to this has been the prevalence of food marketers messaging to assure families that they don’t have time to cook and the answer is fast and convenience foods. Hence, many Americans have forgotten how to cook. We are becoming more and more dependent on food corporations who are prioritizing profits over health.

We support and inspire parents to make this values shift, and then provide the tools to accomplish it. We don’t pretend it’s super easy, but we do break down the process into 30 steps so it’s not intimidating. The recipe concepts make it possible to quickly prepare a meal based on what parents have on hand, eliminating the need to always have to shop for “special” ingredients.  

We also work with parents to help identify savvy strategies from food marketers and encourage them to use these tricks to entice their children to eat healthy food. We provide games and advice to undermine and filter advertising messages. 

For example, familiarity is an important strategy used by food marketers. Their ads and logos are displayed everywhere – phones, Facebook, school, TV, movies, computer games, etc. Children can recognize them at an early age and recognize most junk/fast food logos. 

We advise parents to spend some energy advertising healthy food. Even if their children don’t like certain foods, make sure they are familiar with them. Use beets to make food coloring, let them touch it and have fun with it. A positive memory will be left for a future beet eater. Don’t be afraid to frequently serve the healthy foods you want your children to eat without pressing them to eat them. These foods should always be in your cupboards and refrigerator. Turn on the Food Channel and watch programs that show chefs cooking real food. Plant a vegetable garden so veggies are familiar and exciting.

How important is sustainability?

Sustainability is extremely important for the feasibility of our long-term ability to feed future generations healthful food to sustain a healthful population and a safe environment for individuals to live in. Yet the word is often misunderstood and even considered elitist, e.g. only relevant to people who can afford to pay more for organic food. Luckily things are changing. The national conversation about food has grown and now includes the issues of food justice, the right to healthful food, the right to a healthful environment (now and in the future) and much, much more. This is all a good sign but the fuel for ensuring this dialogue continues and grows stronger is education. That’s why we offer realistic ways for families to use the best information about healthy, sustainable food production practices to help them prioritize how to spend their limited budget for food (we assume most families have some budget limitations) by prioritizing which food products and their health benefits or detriments are most important to enjoy or avoid. We also help them to consider this when shopping and point out the economies of choosing more plant-based proteins and eating foods only when they are in season and most affordable. 

What steps do you take toward conservation in your meal planning?  

We teach families to cook from scratch, which reduces the environmental impact by not adding to the millions of plastic containers in landfills from fast and convenience food packaging. For 18 years, our nutritional cooking education programs – which involve lots of children preparing and enjoying delicious, freshly cooked meals each week – have been using reusable, sturdy, washable tableware. Additionally, we support our schools that can to compost (we provide access to resources in how to do this) as well as to grow as much of their food supply (herbs and other kitchen garden vegetables) themselves. Growing food is empowering for students to learn and then continue at home with their families. We share ways to utilize leftovers and use up odds and ends in your refrigerator too.