This interview was contributed by Kerry Truman of The Huffington Post.
Food products created just for kids are a relatively new phenomenon; back in the day, children ate the same foods that grown-ups did, only in smaller quantities.
In recent decades, however, we’ve witnessed the rise of ‘fun’, kid-centric cuisine–i.e.,those processed foods plastered with cartoon characters that enthrall tots and appall their mothers, turning the center aisles of the supermarket into a minefield (or, more accurately, a whinefield). Weary parents routinely cave in and buy the real-life equivalent of Calvin and Hobbe’s chocolate frosted sugar bombs to defuse an exploding toddler in the breakfast cereal aisle.
Of course, during this same period, we’ve also seen a dramatic increase in childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes, a disease once seen only in adults.
Coincidence? Consider the astonishing success of Kraft’s Lunchables, which are “loaded with saturated fat, salt, and sugars,” as NYU nutrition professor Dr. Marion Nestle notes in What To Eat. She adds that “they are not about nutrition; they are about sales and profits, as made clear by Kraft’s nearly $26 million advertising expenditure on Lunchables in 2004–and the $500 million in revenues that it generated.”
Sure, there are plenty of parents who’d rather send their kids off to school with a more wholesome, less processed lunch. But how does your average mom or dad compete with cartoon characters and action figures?
If you’re Jennifer McCann, the answer lies in becoming a kind of homegrown superhero yourself. McCann is a veggie-loving blogger who began documenting the delicious and delightfully inventive plant-based lunches she created for her son on his “first day of school in 2005,” as the New York Times recently reported. Thousands of parents desperate for a healthy alternative to the lamentable Lunchables began flocking to McCann’s website and trying her recipes, launching her on a new career as a cookbook author.
McCann’s cookbooks may be geared towards children, but they’re perfect for anyone–kids or no kids–who enjoys simple, eclectic dishes featuring fresh takes on familiar foods. Her stated goal is “to inspire others to eat more healthy, plant-based meals and move more.”
I interviewed her recently via email to find out more about how this “bento blogger” became a publishing phenomenon:
KT: How did you first become interested in making bento boxes for your family?
JM: When my son started first grade. I had never packed lunches before, and at first I couldn’t come up with any meatless ideas beyond peanut butter and jelly. Then I asked my son what he wanted for his first day of school and he said “Sushi!’ It opened up my eyes and I started thinking of all kinds of dishes I could pack. They looked so cute in his colorful lunch box, I started taking pictures and blogging and doing more things to make his lunches little works of art.
KT: Did you ever imagine when you first began blogging about your son’s lunches that your website would find such a wide audience?
JM: Not at all! I thought there would be some other moms looking for healthy ideas for their kid’s lunch boxes, but I never imagined that it would grow so big so fast, with thousands of people checking in each day to see what my son had for lunch!
KT: Your cookbooks offer a culinary whirlwind world tour, with recipes inspired by just about every cuisine under the sun. I know you’re partial to Japan, the birthplace of bento, but what other countries’ cuisines are among your personal favorites ?
JM: Oh, so many! I’m very partial the cooking of Mexico and Africa, especially West African and Ethiopian cuisine.
KT: You are a fearless promoter of such under-appreciated veggies as kohlrabi and kale. Is there any vegetable that you couldn’t persuade your son to eat regardless of how entertainingly you presented it?
JM: Absolutely, all kids have their own tastes. Some veggies, like onions and peppers, my son won’t try in any form. Others, like salad or kale, he’ll only eat occasionally or if I make it a certain way.
KT: Your profile on your website suggests that you’re an avid gardener. How much food gardening do you do? Was there anything you planted that wasn’t worth the trouble, in retrospect? What’s grown especially well for you?
JM: I do like to garden! I have a large vegetable garden in my backyard. Tomatoes grow wonderfully here; I usually can enough tomatoes to last us the rest of the year. I also have great success with zucchini, melons, winter squash, okra, raspberries and strawberries. Brussels sprouts and broccoli have been a disaster — they get buggy.
KT: Have you ever contemplated working that McCann magic with breakfast or dinner?
JM: Well, we often eat something for dinner and then feature it in a lunch the next day — leftovers make great lunches! But breakfast almost never changes — it’s always a smoothie made exactly the same way. I guess none of us are ready for an adventure first thing in the morning!