Veggie PR Spokesmom Tanya Steel on Julia Child, Snickers, and the Home Chef

10/16/2009 03:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tanya Steel, editor-in-chief of and co-author of the new book, Real Food for Healthy Kids, mourns the lack of humor in today's food shows, fights for daily indulgences, and dishes on brioche French toast and British accents.

LM: You were born in London and raised here in New York. How old were you when you moved?

TS: I was 6. My first memory of being here is that I was made fun of for saying the word "tomato," and they were so mean to me. "It's not tomato, it's tomato." So I adopted an American accent very quickly.

LM: What British dish do you miss the most?

TS: Apple crumble with custard. My parents very wisely shipped me off every summer to England to my grandparent's house, so I grew up eating all of that tasty food. As a result of me spending so much time there, I feel 50% New Yorker and 50% English.

LM: What American dish were you happiest to be introduced to?

TS: French fries. Not that I didn't have them in England, but my mother was a model and she tried to encourage us to eat healthily growing up, so that meant no chips.

LM: With your mother, you said she didn't really know how to cook.

TS: She's a terrible cook, God love her, but no one can make better tea or coffee than her, and that's a skill many people don't have. I remember coming here and watching Julia Child on PBS in the early to mid-70s. I remember thinking, 'This is so cool.' Julia was so entertaining. The thing that I loved about her, and that I think a lot of food programs in our culture now lack, is humor. She made mistakes. She wasn't a professional and sometimes chickens flew off the counter and she'd laugh. Nowadays, people are just so serious about food and I feel sometimes these shows can get a little tiresome.

LM: Do you feel that has to do with the fact that health standards are so strict? Earlier in the year, Inside Edition investigated health violations at top TV chefs' kitchens.

TS: No. At home, hopefully everyone knows about things like keeping cutting boards clean, but there is a little amount of sanctimonious behavior that goes on now in food culture. I think food is a very important part of our culture, but we're not talking about nuclear arms.

LM: We just had Halloween, the night of roller coaster sugar surges, and on your blog, you admitted to having fun-sized dark chocolate almond Snickers. Is candy your favorite indulgence?

TS: I indulge myself every night because I feel like it's very important to treat yourself -- in a moderate way. Every night I have a big bowl of Edy's low-fat, peanut butter ice cream. Then, I put a Reese's peanut butter cup on top to add insult to injury. On the other hand, I do have a spinach salad for dinner, a high-protein lunch like tuna, and fruit for breakfast, so I feel like I'm allowed to do that. Eating that bowl of ice cream -- that's my moment of relaxation.

LM: A New York Times article talked about the popularity of different websites like Do you think those websites have changed the restaurant world, or the lives of home chefs?

TS: I do. It's changed the home cooks' lives because they're much more sophisticated in what they cook at home. They're not throwing frozen food on the table, or something highly processed. It's made their palate much more sophisticated and involved. They appreciate freshness. I think this has helped educate diners in the restaurant world. For instance, there is so much more information on Japanese cooking, Thai cooking, Vietnamese cooking, and wine so people really know what they're doing when they dine at restaurants. Now, someone at a restaurant like Pastis knows what brioche is and also knows that it makes great French toast.

LM: With highbrow, there is also lowbrow. I've seen Tang listed as a substitute for orange zest. Do you come across any crazy home cook recipes on Epicurious?

TS: Not so much. Our database has 75,000 home cooks' recipes (along with the 25,000 ones from Gourmet, Bon Appetit, cookbook authors and chefs). I try to look through our amateur recipes often and generally, I'm very impressed. We're going down to Tampa to the Super Bowl where we're going to do a Tailgating Recipe Contest cook-off to benefit Taste of the NFL (which raises money for hunger relief). I've been looking at all of the recipe entries for it in the last twenty-four hours and they're very impressive. Some I don't even believe a regular home cook could've made because the recipe is so sophisticated.

LM: What is your definition for a home cook?

TS: I guess someone who's not professionally involved in the restaurant or food industry.

LM: What about someone who went to a cooking school?

TS: I wouldn't call him or her a home cook either. For this contest, I'm looking for the talented home cook. Many of them have children. I'm always so impressed with the fact that they're holding down busy lives, but they still find time for cooking.

LM: What are your children's favorite recipes from your new book, Real Food for Healthy Kids?

TS: They love just about every single recipe in the book, and they tried two or three iterations of some of them. We also had over 80 kids -- from one and a half years old to twenty-one years old -- from around the country try the recipes to make sure they really were going to eat it.

We found these families by word of mouth. Whenever people said they like to cook, and have kids, I'd say great, and we'd send them a recipe. They'd cook it and they would tell me if the family liked it, or if they didn't like it, and they'd give me quotes. They would also tell me if something wasn't written straightforwardly, which is important because I wanted this book to be for people who didn't necessarily know how to cook. We don't have any fancy terms in the recipes and they have as few ingredients as possible. We stripped down the pieces of equipment because even though the kids should clean up, you don't always have someone to clean up.

My kids love the Extreme Granola. The Mini-Whoopee Pies are addictive. The Peachy Keen Chicken is really good. They love vegetables and Pop's Spinach Pie. A big point of my book is teaching kids how to love vegetables. Parents need to say, 'Oh my God, these vegetables are so good.'

LM: What do you think about Jerry Seinfeld's wife's cookbook disguising vegetables?

TS: That is very much the opposite of our philosophy. Our philosophy is you need to be a PR person for vegetables, adding vegetables into their diet from the second they eat solid food. Otherwise, you're setting them up for a lifetime of bad eating by saying vegetables are so bad they need to be disguised. You're teaching them to eat things that are unhealthy in order to eat things that are healthy.

LM: It's great to give your kids a healthy lunch, but kids love trading and bartering. What do you do about that?

TS: It's important to give your kids a well-balanced healthy lunch, but it's also important to give them healthy treats because they will trade. You give them fortified whole grain bread with sprouts and they will just trade it for soda and French fries. You need to encourage kids to participate in the lunch planning. If they get to choose what they eat, they're much more likely to eat their healthy food. Lunch is not the time to encourage your kids to eat new foods though. That needs to start when you're with them.

LM: Do you have any thoughts about the current food at public schools?

TS: I'm worried that with the economy little is going to change for a long time. California is by far the most forward-thinking state on this subject, but I'm heartened that a lot of states have taken steps in the last year to ban sodas and junk food vending machines. Even in a state like Mississippi, where more than one in three kids is obese or overweight, more and more kids are planting vegetable gardens at their schools and the kids themselves are becoming aware because you now have the calories on many menus. For the first time people are saying, 'Wow, that doughnut has 250 calories and 15 grams of fat.' Part of the reason we include the nutritional information for all our recipes in Real Food for Healthy Kids, except for baby food, is I want people to see how many calories are in different dishes and decide for themselves if that recipe is right for their family. People aren't aware how much calories and fat are in items, and I think that is why so many people are obese or overweight.