Lidia Bastianich, the NYC chef, television host, and author, discusses the inspiration behind her new children's book, "Nonna's Birthday Surprise," and explains how we can help our kids connect food with nature.
Lidia Bastianich grew up on a farm in Istria (then part of Italy, it is now part of Croatia), where meals were always prepared with seasonal ingredients and farm-to-table was the only way of life.
Now a famous chef, restaurateur, and television host living in Queens, Bastianich has five grandchildren who constantly ask her to recount stories from her childhood, so different from their own. Their questions inspired her to publish her first children’s picture book, Nonna Tell Me a Story: Lidia's Christmas Kitchen (Running Press Kids, 2010), in which she intimately recounts her favorite holiday traditions.
This spring, Bastianich published the second book in that series, Nonna's Birthday Surprise, a beautifully illustrated tale in which Nonna ("Grandma") Lidia enlists the help of her grandchildren to cook a birthday feast for her mother, whom they call Nonna Mima. As they plan the menu, Nonna Lidia shares memories of growing up in Istria, where her family’s daily life was tied closely to nature and the seasons.
"As a child, I had a direct connection to the environment," Bastianich says. "I saw the whole process of how the vegetables and animals became our dinner. I was part of that cycle, and it made me respect the world we live in. Children today are kind of detached from that connection, and that’s what I’m trying to convey to them through this book."
Q: Your new book offers tips on how kids can help in the kitchen. Why do you think it's important to get kids involved in preparing food?
Lidia Bastianich: It's an opportunity to connect with your children. Food is soft and nurturing and giving. It’s a medium that sends the message "I want to feed you because I love you, because I want you to be well."
And they get a sense of accomplishment from it—when they see everyone sitting down and enjoying the meal together, the child can say, "I did that." It's important to find opportunities for children to do their own thing, whether it's cleaning all the carrots or toasting the bread. When my grandchildren were little, I put a chair next to the sink and let them wash the vegetables. They stayed there for hours, and when the spinach came to the table there was not a speck of sand on it. If they don't like to handle tools, children can set or decorate the table. What’s important is that they contribute to the meal and that you reinforce their participation by praising their accomplishments.
Q: Not many of us are able to live a farm-to-table lifestyle, so how can we help our kids connect food with nature?
LB: Bring the children in the store with you. Look for local and seasonal foods together, and explain why these are better: They’re cheaper, more nutritious, and better for the environment. Buying local foods in season helps support the neighborhood you live in. When you see strawberries in December, explain how they had to be flown in from another country and all the fuel and pollution used for that.
Take them to a farm and let them see the farmers’ hands, how cracked and weathered they are, how he works hard to put the food on our table. I'm not saying be a dictator. Just teach them these things and let them make the choice. When they're armed with knowledge, they have the power to feed themselves better.
Nonna’s Birthday Surprise (Running Press Kids, 2013; $16.95) includes 18 recipes featuring ingredients that are abundant during specific seasons of the year, such as pasta primavera for spring and savory potato broth for winter. Each recipe also has a “Kids Can” section with notes on how budding chefs can help out.
Q: In the introduction to your new book, you talk about growing up with a respect for food. Why is it important to you to pass down that respect to your grandchildren?
LB: Food is the basis of life and yet we waste it and do not respect it. I think it’s a basic respect for our existence, our planet, when you respect and appreciate food. We are connected—to the animals, to the Earth—and we need each other to survive. And unless we take care of our planet, it won’t be around to support us.
We have such commodities today, but it would behoove all of us to throw out less food—learn to recycle it, reuse it. Don’t just buy the chicken breasts wrapped in plastic, use the whole chicken—chicken necks and wings make the best soup. If you have slices of ham left over, put them in the freezer and use them in the stuffing next week. Most people throw out the leaves on celery, but they’re fantastic in salad. When there’s so much hunger, there’s a great feeling about not wasting.
Q: As a mother of two and grandmother of five, do you have any tips on getting kids to try different foods?
LB: Kids love certain things, and mine are no different. They love their pizza, and they like a good hamburger now and then. But they also love sushi. I love Asian food, especially Korean foods like kimchi, and they’re exploring those with me. If you begin by sharing your enthusiasm for a food, then kids will get involved. And answer their questions—kids have a wonderful way of asking questions.
For more information on Lidia Bastianich, visit LidiasItaly.com.