Interview – Mairlyn Smith

Born in Vancouver (BC), Mairlyn Smith wears a variety of hats that include home economist, teacher, cookbook author, actor and comedian. Her cookbooks are renowned for highlighting her signature comedic flair, an approach that allows readers to feel both entertained and educated.

Mairlyn’s latest book (released April 2011) is titled Healthy Starts Here! It includes over 140 recipes to help guide you through adopting a healthy lifestyle that is meant to be more of a long term commitment rather than just another diet fad.

A firm believer in eating seasonal and locally grown foods, Mairlyn is also a strong supporter of educating youth and helping them to establish healthy eating habits and good nutritional choices from a young age. In fact, it is her hope that home economics will one day be mandatory in all Canadian high schools.

While on tour promoting her book, Mairlyn took some time out of her busy schedule to chat with me about her new cookbook and all things healthy!

For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us in your own words what this book is all about?
Basically I looked at the foods that give you the biggest bang for your nutritional buck, and wrote a chapter around each ingredient. Every recipe includes a nutritional breakdown, which works well if you’re diabetic, following the Weight Watchers program or just want to be more aware of what you’re putting into your body. But not only does the book provide you with recipes, I also included helpful information on how to buy food, how to store food, and why you should be eating particular foods. So it’s not just a cookbook, it’s an informational guide that puts fun back on your plate!

Seems like we are constantly being bombarded with new diet fads. What’s your advice when it comes to weeding through the numerous options we are faced with and adopting healthy eating habits?
I think it really comes down to moderation and common sense. Let’s put it this way; if all of those crazy diets work so well why are they always coming up with new ones? I think we just need to really simplify our eating habits. Personally, I follow the Canada Food Guide and I look at how many fruits and vegetables I need, how many servings of meat and alternates should I be consuming. Moderation and common sense…that’s the ticket to healthy eating habits!

You include some advice for what you term “master hunter-gatherer” grocery shopping. Michael Smith once mentioned the best thing you can do is stick to the outer aisles and don’t even venture into the middle! Do you agree?
Oh yes that’s a hard and fast golden rule! Forage around the edges and only go in the center if you really, really need to do so. Another good tip is to never go grocery shopping if you’ve only had a coffee all day and your kid needs a snack and nap. It’s just not worth it…you will want to die. Trust me!

In your book you organized recipes by ingredient. What was your inspiration to take this approach?
I thought it was important to inform people of the foods that would give them the most nutritional value, so rather than taking a more traditional approach to organizing the recipes I decided to dedicate entire chapters to a particular ingredient. This approach just seems logical to me! For example, if you want to start including more mushrooms into your diet you can browse through the mushroom chapter for some inspiration.

You mention in your book that you and your partner tested each recipe seven times! Can you describe your recipe development process to let our readers know a little of what’s involved in putting together a cookbook?
That’s a great question! I tend to approach writing a cookbook like having to solve a problem, and I’m really good at solving problems. So for example someone might ask me how to include more quinoa in their diet, and that becomes a jumping off point for my recipe development. Then begins the trial and error phase of the recipe testing until I get it just right, after which I try it three more times to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, and then for this particular cookbook I got a group of individuals to test the recipes on their own. I then took their feedback and tweaked some of the dishes. Overall it took two years to write!

Do you have a favourite season for veggies/fruits?
Asparagus season and berry season, heirloom tomatoes…I’m in heaven when those fruits and veg are in season!

I’m often asked by moms and dads for ideas on how to get their kids to stop being such picky eaters. Any advice for parents struggling with fussy eaters?
With younger children it’s not usually about the food, it’s more about them wanting more control over their life. So it’s more of a psychological issue than a food issue. One way of surviving this stage is to involve them in the grocery shopping and offer them choices. That doesn’t mean asking them to choose between a Ding Dong and an apple! Instead, try asking them to pick between a Granny Smith or McIntosh.

Another great strategy is to bring your children into the kitchen and get them engaged in the cooking process. Yes things will be chaotic, yes there will be major mess…but it’s important not to get mad. You want kids to be comfortable and involved in the cooking process, because at the end of the day they will be less picky. Also, remember that children have an oversensitive palate and so they might not like something at first but don’t give up! Keep getting them to try different foods as their tastes continue to develop and evolve.

We’re seeing a real movement taking place in terms of getting the younger generations back into the kitchen and cooking. Is this something that you see as being a worldwide phenomenon?
I’m hoping it’s not just a trend because to be honest I’m really afraid for the next generation. Statistics show that they continue to develop heart disease at a really rapid rate, and it’s a direct result of having been raised on fast food and packaged food with limited physical activity. There’s an entire generation of parents out there who have been raised this way and are now passing along their bad habits to their own kids. Teaching our youth to cook is a means of empowering them, and I truly believe that making home economics mandatory in our high schools would be a good step in the right direction.

In terms of heath and our current eating patterns, what are the biggest challenges we face?
I think we eat way to much sugar and as a result we crave too much sugar. I don’t think we eat enough fruit and vegetables (aim for 7-10 servings per day).

How do health issues and eating habits differ for the aging population vs. younger generations?
When we look at people over the age of 60, most of them no longer cook for themselves and as a result there is a decline in healthy eating habits. And then we see my generation (45-55 years) who are really trying to make a change and adopt a healthier lifestyle. We realize that our efforts can make a difference. But if we look at my son’s generation, they have terrible eating habits! It’s so sad and something needs to change. I see the generation of mothers who are in their 20’s and early 30’s being really proactive with their kids’ nutrition, so I’m hopefully that this change will come. It’s a matter of making choices and truly believing that you have the power to change your long term health.

Awareness of nutrient breakdowns is becoming more front and centre with many restaurants now providing this information on their menus. You include this info in your book. Is this something you believe should be mandatory for all cookbooks?
Absolutely…yes, yes, YES! I think people would be really shocked when they saw the nutritional breakdowns of a dish they made that was delicious but oh wow there were 47,000 calories and 16 million grams of fat. No wonder it tasted good! Education is really powerful when it comes to food, so I was really adamant about including this information in my book. The diabetes food choice values was another element I felt was really important to list, as so many people have family members suffering from this disease.

You say we need to retrain our sodium taste buds. This scares me as I’m a bit of a salt freak! What are some steps to help with the 12 week retraining process?
I tend to use salty tasting ingredients in my food for flavour rather than salt. Feta cheese, olives and capers are all full of flavour and hold that saltiness so we don’t have to reach for the salt shaker. One of the biggest ways of reducing your salt intake and retraining your sodium taste buds is to stop eating out! Fast food, processed food, and frequently dining out are the habits that have really affected how we taste because the more salt you consume the more you crave.

If you could tell our readers to change just three things right now in terms of their eating habits, what would they be?
Stop consuming fast food, processed food, and eating out! Eat more fruits and vegetables, but be sure to slowly increase the amount of daily servings you get otherwise it will just seem too overwhelming. Start measuring your portion sizes so you become aware of what 2.5 oz of protein actually looks like, or what a single serving of pasta should be. Most people would be shocked to see proper portion sizes!

I am preparing to dive into Healthy Starts Here! as one of the next reviews for our site. If you could only pick three recipes for me to test, which ones would they be?
I love my Triple-Chocolate Brownie Cookies so much that I want everyone to make them! It’s a whole grain treat, there are three forms of chocolate so it’s flavonol rich, I call for using canola oil which is a heart healthy fat, and there is less sugar than with most cookie recipes. It’s amazing and I’m really proud of that recipe. The Breakfast Grab-and-Gos are another one of my favourite recipes. I’m a big believer in a sit down breakfast but not everyone has the time, so this is a nutrient packed alternative that works really well (and tastes great!) My Family-Style Meatless Chili is perfect for small children or elderly people as there is very little spice but lots of flavour. It’s always easier to add spice than to take it away!