by Malcolm Jolley
“What if,” asks Sandi Richard, “diets were killing the family dinner?”
If anyone knows what’s killing the family dinner, it’s Richard. The Calgary teacher and mum turned meal-planning, cookbook writing, Food Network TV-show hosting food-media powerhouse has just published her sixth book: Eating Forward. Part cookbook, part meal planning manual and part “how-to”, Eating Forward coincides with a brand new website and a push to serve Richard’s 500,000 meal plan followers digitally. For a decade Richard, with the help of her partner, husband and behind-the-scenes man, Ron, Richard has helped North American families implement dinner time strategies that she used to raise seven kids “with seven different tastes”.
I met up with Richard in Toronto in late November as she prepared for a book signing at a large downtown retailer. She looked as fresh and full of energy as ever as she sipped a tea and explained her “mission to get people back to the dinner table.”
But, what does she mean about diets?
“I’d like you to show me a diet that says the first ingredient is life.” Richard explains that most diets take in no account of actual family dynamics and the demands made on modern parents. Worse, if one parent is on a diet, chances are the kids and their partner aren’t, creating a split between what the family eats. “It’s insane – what kind of message is that, when one person is eating ‘healthy’ and the rest are eating food that tastes good? It just ends with people getting mad at themselves.”
Richard is proud that her book and technique are endorsed by high-profile doctor and bestselling author Christiane Norththrup. But, she insists poor eating decisions aren’t about ignorance of medical science.
“It’s not a food problem, it’s an emotional problem,” she explains, “People make choices out of love.” She outlines the scenario: it’s late, you and your kids are driving back from daycare, or hockey practice, everyone’s tired and hungry and as you pass fast food option after fast food option the temptation to provide a quick and cheap meal loaded with the fat, sugar and salt the kids will love it’s hard not to opt for the golden arches or pizza delivery. “People think ‘I will be a hero’, and making their kids happy at that moment is more important.”
Richards solution is meal planning and strategic shopping, so that the ingredients for a well-balanced meal (that kids and parents both like) are waiting in the kitchen for a 30 minute prep. “If you know what you’re having for dinner at the beginning of the day, it takes away the emotional problem and you’ll be eating in a more balanced, healthy way.”
Eating Forward took Richards three years to write, mostly because of recipe tastings. She uses a broad section of friends and professionally recruited tasters to make sure her recipes are well received. Even so, she acknowledges that getting kids to eat everything all the time is a futile exercise. Her solution, which she says got her through raising her seven children, is the “one bite rule”. Insist on one bite of everything on the plate. What’s important is that the family shares a meal.
When I ask her about the recipes, the level of difficulty, whether she encourages local, seasonal ingredients, she addresses me directly: “Most of the information we receive about what to eat comes from people like you and me: we are people who are really passionate about food and health and read-up on everything we can. But that’s not the reality of most people. And it is really okay to use a can of tomato sauce once in a while.”
Even when it comes to getting people to sit around the table, Richard is not a fanatic. Her meal plans and shopping lists, which can be downloaded from her website, cover five days of the week: “Everybody needs a ‘grilled cheese day’ and everybody needs to go out once a week, if they can.”
Soon it’s time to wrap-up. Ron Richard appears to say hello and get Sandi ready for the signing. Knowing Richard, I assume that there’s another project on the go besides the new book and website. There is: she’s shot a pilot for a show called Let’s Do Lunch, which she hopes gets picked-up, extending her help with what to eat further up the day and making a few more people less upset about what they eat.