November 15, 2023
“Eating Together, Being Together”
Featuring Julian Clauss-Ehlers and Dr. Caroline Clauss-Ehlers, moderated by Laurie Freeman, PhD
By Himani Dixit
Moderator Laurie Freeman, PhD, introduced Julian Clauss-Ehlers and Dr. Caroline Clauss-Ehlers, authors of the book Eating Together, Being Together: Recipes, Activities, and Advice From a Chef Dad and a Psychologist Mom. Laurie asked the authors to introduce each other and talk about their book.
JCE (Julian Clauss-Ehlers): Dr. CC Ehlers is a full professor at Long Island University, and a wonderful wife, mother, and author.
Dr. CCE (Caroline Clauss-Ehlers): Julian Clauss-Ehlers is an amazing chef and has been the executive chef at many popular restaurants. Our book is about the psychology of how food can be integrated into healthy eating and building family relationships and connections.
LF (Laurie Freeman, PhD): How does the kitchen fit into your life as a family?
Dr. CCE: The kitchen provides a very natural way to connect in a central place. People intuitively go to the kitchen. If our kids are cooking with us, it creates opportunities for connection organically. It’s a low key way to set the stage for doing just that.
LF: Do you think a part of that easy connection is how relaxed it is in doing a task like cooking rather than the pressure of a sit down conversation? Do you have any stories about how that has played out either with your kids or other kids?
Dr. CCE: Our oldest was going to be going to college and she had been doing the last year online due to Covid, and she hadn’t interacted with kids in a while. She was baking chocolate banana bread for her grandfather, who we took care of during Covid. We ended up having a deep conversation about leaving home for college and what her fears were – she really relaxed into the baking and opened up to us.
JCE: The kids feel like they are in a safe space and the focus isn’t on the conversation but the baking – other concerns and topics of conversation come out organically.
LF: Can you talk a little about the research surrounding food choices that you discuss in the book?
JCE: Time spent in the kitchen is important in many different ways – one of the main ways is obviously nourishment. We try to involve the kids in planning out the meal – the menu, shopping for ingredients, how to pick out good produce, preparing the meal, and then enjoying the meal with the whole family. The clean-up is also important. Overall, there are many life lessons to be learned from cooking a meal together. Learning about food is a really important part of existence.
Dr. CCE: Mindfulness is a concept that we apply to eating in the book. Being transparent about food choices and kids being mindful about what they are eating is invaluable for them to learn at a young age. It can also open up conversations about preferences, and why they like or dislike certain ingredients, for example.
JCE: When everyone plans, shops, and cooks a meal together, kids tend to take ownership and pride in that meal. They’ve been part of the process, so they are invested in trying it.
LF: It sounds like you are saying that there is a tolerance for kids not liking everything, and that’s ok, but at least cooking gives them some ownership in the process. Do you have other ideas for parents whose kids are picky eaters?
Dr. CCE: We would have our kids’ friends come over and eat things that they would normally never try (like Julian’s salad dressing, for example). Parents would call us later and ask for the recipe. If you think about what happened in that situation, one is this idea of positive peer pressure. In other words, if the child’s peers are all doing something, it makes them more likely to try it. The other idea is the concept of choice. Giving kids several choices and letting them pick what to try takes away the power dynamic aspect of forcing kids to try a specific new food. Let it be about exploration.
JCE: One of the key ingredients to my salad dressing is maple syrup! (Laughter)
LF: What are your thoughts for parents whose kids are concerned about gaining weight or have body image issues?
JCE: What I think is really important is balance, and emulating this for our kids.
Dr. CCE: There is some really interesting research around how limiting certain foods can cause the opposite response by making it like a forbidden food that children will crave even more. In our book, each chapter is tied to a theme. The dessert chapter is around the theme of perfectionism – this idea of being perfect isn’t realistic.
LF: I think it’s the idea that if kids are baking something, it’s ok if it doesn’t turn out perfectly. It’s ok to make mistakes in baking and in life. It’s ok to have something be imperfect and still make it work.
Dr. CCE: Yes, and we’re not implying that every meal has to be cooked or even eaten together, because that is not the reality for most families. We do Sunday night dinner in our house. It’s really about creating a routine.
JCE: In the book, we made a conscious decision to not have photographs because we didn’t want to create an expectation of having something look perfect. We have illustrations, but no perfect pictures. It reminds me of a time when we were invited to a dinner party, and we had our teenage daughter make a recipe from our book for the party. She had made this dessert, and quite honestly, it had no resemblance to what I had pictured in my mind. We took the dessert anyway, and it ended up being absolutely delicious and everyone loved it.
Dr. CCE: That story really resonated with people because it gave permission for people to be imperfect.
LF: Parents often say that they end up feeling like a short order cook. Do you have thoughts about how parents can manage that?
Dr. CCE: One way to handle it is to ask the kids what is one thing we can all agree on? Think of creative ways you can combine a few different favorite foods into a meal that everyone will eat, maybe as side dishes for example. If that feels like a lot of coordination or work, invite the child to make (or help make) whatever it is that they want to eat. Ownership and partnership is one strategy.
JCE: Our oldest daughter decided to become vegetarian. We will now incorporate some vegetarian meals at home, and it has really helped our whole family expand the way we eat and think about our meals.
LF: This is interesting, and a very different philosophy from a parent saying, “This is what I made, and this is what we’ve got. Take it or leave it.” Thoughts?
Dr. CCE: You are not alone, and we do the best we can. These are just other ideas and strategies to expand. It’s never too late to start.
LF: There is room for different philosophies here. What was it like for the two of you, as husband and wife, to write a book together?
JCE: My wife did the heavy lifting of the writing and editing, and she would ask me for recipes. I was the lucky one!
Dr. CCE: I’m a non-cook while Julian is a gourmet chef, but we were able to combine our interests and talents. We really wanted the recipes or techniques to be simple, accessible to everyone.
LF: What ideas do you have for snacks for kids?
JCE: It’s really important for kids to be able to have snacks to maintain their energy levels. We have a whole chapter on snacks. Trail mix, veggie dips, guacamole, and all sorts of fun things.
Dr. CCE: Some of the recipes like for dips, for example, require almost no cooking and just combining a few simple ingredients. Other recipes that are very kid-friendly are things like homemade popcorn, which are easy and delicious. The recipes are very economical and healthy.
LF: How do you know when a child is ready to use a knife or cook at a hot stove, for example?
JCE: I started pretty young with our kids when they were allowed to chop veggies. Maybe even 3 or 4. The reason for that is because I’m right there, and I can show them the right way. It’s good to allow them to learn these skills early with supervision.
LF: This can help kids gain a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence. One of the questions from the audience is, “If your kids have no interest in helping out or participating, how can I get them more involved?”
Dr. CCE: So one of the recipes we have in the book is a simple tomato soup that requires squashing tomatoes. That activity can sometimes be off putting to kids. So I suggested to my son that he could do his homework in the kitchen while I cooked. That can also be a good way to create some organic conversation or connection – just being together in the same space.
LF: So the message there is that the camaraderie and connection is possible without actually doing the same activity. We had another question about breakfast for dinner – is that a good, fun thing or is that something that shouldn’t happen?
JCE: I think that is fabulous – breakfast items can be very healthy. The cooking shouldn’t be a chore, it should be fun and a creative thing that the family can explore – that’s really the takeaway.
LF: We had one question about sneaking vegetables or other ingredients into recipes. Thoughts?
Dr. CCE: Our book is really about transparency, so we recommend honesty around ingredients. It empowers kids to see that certain ingredients in a different form might be ok and palatable to them, and encourages them to see foods they might not otherwise like in a different way.
LF: One final question for each of you is, what is your favorite thing you like to make and eat with your family?
JCE: Well it depends on what time of year it is and where we are. My favorite recipe in the book is the beef short ribs because they are so delicious.
Dr. CCE: Anything that Julian makes, but aside from that, it would be the tomato soup. It’s very easy and cozy.
Dr. Freeman thanked both the authors and ended the call.