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Sandi Richard Interview

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By Malcolm Jolley

They're in your vegetable crisper. They've been there for two weeks. You bought them because they were leafy and green and obviously good for you, but now they're a half liquid of sludge in a plastic bag waiting for you to shamefacedly throw out as you wait for your frozen dinner to warm up.

Sandi Richard wants you to know that this happens to everyone, but it doesn't have to. Like many successful people she invented her job: 'meal planner'. And now through her books, television show, website and personal appearances she spreads the word on how any person or family can change their life and start enjoying dinner through her no-nonsense approach. I spoke to Sandi recently as she promoted her fourth book The Dinner Fix.

Gremolata: How did you get into the business of planning other people's dinners?

Sandi Richard: I was overweight - I have problems genetically in my family with weight - and I had adopted every diet. Every trendy diet that's on the planet: I've done it. I'd read the science and go "whoa, so that's it! I get it now!" So I'd try each new diet and like every other human being in North America, statically, I would last for three to three and a half weeks. [Laughs.] And then I would gain weight again. So, then I had a really bad day where one of my kids got sick and I got called out of work to take her to the doctor and I kept thinking to myself, 'don't cry, don't cry, don't cry...' I was going to have a nervous breakdown, I was sure of it.

So, I got there and started to read an article in a magazine in the waiting room written by a psychologist and it said that suppertime is the most stressful part of the day. And for the first time in my life it clicked, something just went "poof", a light bulb came on and I just said that's it! North Americans are crazy and I'm one of them. I don't know what I'm having for dinner until dinner. And it's making me mad and resentful...

Gremolata: You talk about this: that everyone gets resentful about what to eat.

Sandi Richard: Right. I do a lot of conferences and I always get the same response. There'll be a thousand people and I'll pick up the phone [Richard begins a mime] and say, "So, what's for dinner?" And then I ask the audience, "What's the answer?" The entire crowd replies: "I don't know." So we all know that means "Fine, I'll decide myself and make what ever I want." Then I ask the audience, "What happens when you serve it to your kids?" and the whole audience says, "Eeeewww!" And that's what I was doing at the time.

I didn't want to think about dinner, it was a chore. I didn't want to make it because it was something I had to do. And, I mean, I did like to cook. My mom was a great cook and she taught me. But it's not fun if you must do it - you're not sitting down with a glass of red wine. You've got to get somebody to their baseball game, or whatever! It's just not fun. You want something quick and easy. So I fell into that trap. I used to call myself 'The Chicken Finger Queen": anything that came out of a box and onto a cookie sheet in the oven. Like any parent, I just wanted something my kids wouldn't complain about.

Gremolata: 30 to 35 minutes at 400 degrees!

Sandi Richard: Yeah. So, I knew there had to be another way. Especially because I love good food so much.

Gremolata: You say in your books that you should always be looking forward to dinner.

Sandi Richard: When I look at all of our success - the TV show, the four books - Part of me can't believe it but part of me also knows that I believe passionately that people need to know that it's actually easier to eat at home than it is to go out all the time. As the norm - I love to go out, but as the norm it's actually easier to eat at home. It's healthier, you feel better, you're in control of what you're eating, the ingredients that are going into it. It's just my mission, I think, to tell people that dinner does not have to be stressful.

G; Your book and your method are very organised.

Sandi Richard: Oh, yeah.

Gremolata: Is it like boot camp? Do you have to forget everything you know?

Sandi Richard: [Laughs.] It is and it isn't. It's trying to change people's frame of mind, but sometimes we think that to get back to basics, we have to cook like grandma and that's not true. And, you know what? It's easy.

When we do the show we pre-interview families and whenever I go over to meet them I always find that bag of green sludge at the bottom of the refrigerator. And we all do this. We see the veggies in the store and think we should buy them and then we forget about them. Why? We don't know what to do with them. We don't know how to make it easy. The world is full of cookbooks and it's full of really good ones. The difference with meal planning is that you can shop for five meals worth of groceries per week and you're going to know what to do with them.

Gremolata: The idea is to plan around what you have to do that week, right?

Sandi Richard: Yeah. I discovered this very quickly when I was starting out. It's not always about "prep and go", it's about "what's my life going to bring me tomorrow?" And I Think people understand that before you get into food prep, you need to think about the life part. Then, cooking at home's kind of fun and easy.

Gremolata: So it's part of a whole lifestyle thing.

Sandi Richard: That's the problem, honestly. It's no exaggeration. We get email, letters, you name it from people saying that they've lost weight; they've gained energy - all those things. They tell us they feel fabulous. Or we'll hear from moms and dads saying how much more relaxing and fun dinner is. Or couples without kids, they'll also use words like "life change".

Gremolata: Couples without kids? What are they complaining about?

Sandi Richard: I never understood it until a woman came up to thank me for changing her and her husband's lives and I asked her how many kids she had and she said, "None." Then she explained that with a double income she and her husband were eating out all the time and gaining weight, but felt so much better now that they were cooking at home.

Gremolata: How clueless are people, really? I mean I spend all day thinking about what to cook for dinner, it doesn't seem that hard.

Sandi Richard: Well, here's what's interesting. Most people don't know how to combine flavours at the same time as they're trying to get the kids to baseball, at the same time that they're rushing in from the traffic jam... I can speak for them. Now, after 10 years I really know how families work, how they function. I mean, I was there. I never forget that I was there and that was me and I was not functioning well. Now, did I know how to cook? I did. But when you walk in the door at five or six o'clock at night and you've got to get your butt out the door, all of a sudden your brain just turns to mush.

Gremolata: The food in your books is for a whole range of ages. You have a big family, right?

Sandi Richard: Seven kids.

Gremolata: That sounds like a lot of different tastes to cater to.

Sandi Richard: It is! A lot of people say, "weren't your kids picky?" and I say, "of course." When you've got seven personalities to cook for - some like vegetables, some like meat, some like sauce, some like it just plain - there's a whole range of what they like. But the bottom line is that I was the parent. Here's dinner and that's it. And if there's a part of dinner that you don't like, then just have a bit of it. I'm going to chill out, but that's it. You can plug your nose; you can close your eyes and wash it down with milk. That's cool. But you have to have a bite. That's just the way it is.

Gremolata: But what if you get into a real stand off?

Sandi Richard: [Laughs.] Unfortunately you need to put up with the stand off and get through it because that will pay off for the rest of your parenting career. Seriously. If you cater to the children's taste buds at that young age you will pay and they will pay for the rest of their lives. Big time.

Gremolata: You're very serious about this.

Sandi Richard: I am very serious about this. It's out of love. I feel sorry for parents who have a hard time. I mean, I was there. I know. And when you love your kid you don't want to get into a big fight, and screaming and spitting the food out and the whole thing. But you can't let them dictate what they put into their bodies at an early age. Kids will eat what you put on the table... eventually. And they'll get used to it.

Gremolata: You say that if they won't eat, you should put the dinner in the fridge and bring it back out again when they're hungry later.

Sandi Richard: Yup. I'll never forget the first time I made real chicken fingers from scratch. My son had a super-tantrum. He turned blue, kicking, screaming, yelling, "I want the real ones" He wanted the ones out of the box, the 'real' ones: how insane is that? We've gotten to a point where our children don't even know what real food is.

You know, I learned about this when we were doing the testing for the first book, Life's On Fire. It was shocking to us what people would eat and what they would actually not eat. Fish. They won't eat fish. I mean not everyone, but our data keeps telling us this, year after year. The fish recipes are the ones that keep getting booted.

Gremolata: Why?

Sandi Richard: For two reasons. One reason was that their kids didn't like fish (because they didn't serve it normally). If they ate it would be at a restaurant and their kids would order something else. Another reason was they didn't know how to cook it. They came from meat and potatoes parents. They had no idea how to prepare it, how to cook it, how to serve it.

Gremolata: So how do you get people to try it? I mean it's not that hard to put a piece of salmon under the broiler.

Sandi Richard: Not that hard, that's right. You show them, and then they say, "Wow, I get it."


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