Interview with Cynthia Lair :: Feeding the Whole Family

Cynthia Lair is the author of “Feeding the Whole Family”, a cookbook interspersed with really Cynthia Lair Feeding the Whole Family Foodrelevant parenting advice about food. My favorite pages are 43-48, “Parents as Role Models and Setting Boundaries.”

“Its not fair to have a strict no-sugar policy and then stay up late for some adults only Godiva chocolates!”

Obviously as parents there’s much thought in how our actions are viewed by our children. Have you always felt it was important to set food rules for children that parents also follow or did you come to this through your own experiences as a mother?

When I read research that babies as young as three months old pick up non-verbal cues about food from their parents, I realized that what parents DO around food choices is more important than what they say. If a parent hates vegetables or grabs breakfast at McDonald’s, the child will notice and want to be like daddy or mommy.

One of the primary functions of a child’s caregiver is to lead the way toward healthful foods. By designating poor quality foods as “baby food” or “kid’s menu food”, or even “adult foods” (with some exceptions) we don’t construct a bridge but create separation. Good leaders don’t talk about what their subordinates should do, they lead by example.

It is challenging as a parent when your young child won’t eat the food you’ve painstakingly prepared for them with love. Your section on “Setting Boundaries” applies to children between the ages of 3-10. What can parents do if they have a child under three who is eating solids but refusing certain foods such as vegetables?

Toddlers have a biological need to separate from their parents and begin the discovery of their selves as individuals. Some choose to exert that independence by refusing certain foods. At this age, any painstakingly prepared food should be for the parents with tastes of it offered to the child. If they refuse, so be it.

We place too much importance on (and generate fear about) toddlers eating vegetables. Let it go. Let children see you eat many different kinds of vegetables with enjoyment. Don’t force or be concerned if they don’t want any. Wait for them to ask for a bite. Many fruits contain some of the same nutrients as vegetables (like vitamin C and vitamin A) and most children are willing to eat fruit.

Always look at your child – are they growing, rosy-cheeked, smiling? Those are the best signs of adequate nourishment.

My copy of you book “Feeding the Whole Family” was published in 1997. With the popularity of sugar free diets, gluten free, paleo, vegan, raw cold pressed juices, fermented food and other similar ways of eating, has your cooking changed any, or have you adapted any of your recipes?

In the new fourth edition of the book (which will be available this November) I spend some time talking about our need to place foods in the categories of good and evil. All restrictive diets, including paleo, vegan and gluten-free, advocate this black and white thinking. The truth is that nutrition is a very young science. Few declarations can be made with certainty. Often “experts” cherry-pick weak research to make their case for a new diet. I continue to trust simple whole foods that have not had much done to them from field to table.

That said, I have spent a fair amount of time studying the microbiome (gut bacteria) and the impact of diet on it. I’m impressed with the jurisdiction that the health of the microbiome has over many processes in our bodies, including the brain and the immune system. Because of this I have emphasized utilizing more fermented and cultured foods in the diet. The microbiome thrives on the fiber found in our food, therefore my dedication to whole grains and beans remains steady.

Because local ranchers are doing such an admirable job of raising healthy livestock I have developed more recipes using meat. I still believe that the amount of meat we eat can be reduced significantly, but now see some of the environmental benefits that raising animals on land (not in factories) can have.

Santa Monica Farmers Market

What is your first food memory?

I was a champion picky eater and a sugar-holic as a child. I refused almost everything I was served and held out for candy and ice cream. I think this gives me an insider track into the mind of the picky eater. For me, part of it was the vibe at the family dinner table. Mom and Dad never seemed happy together. I preferred Mom’s company. She rarely ate much. My first memories around food are being uncomfortable at the dinner table. Quite a turnaround that I became a Nutrition and Culinary Educator and a cookbook author!

The first thing I learned how to cook was Cherry Cheesecake that utilized crazy amounts of sugar. Makes some (sad) sense.

If you could teach children one thing about food, what would it be?

Taste it! Have your child act as “official taster” when preparing food. Ask them to tell you what the dish needs? What would make it yummier? Honor it if they think it’s yucky. Developing your child’s palate in this way will help them become a better diner and a better cook!


The recipes I’ve cooked most often from your book have been Asian Noodle Salad with Toasted Sesame Dressing and the Red Bean and Quinoa Chili! Both of these recipes are very different, but equally delicious. What is your favorite go to breakfast when you’re in a hurry?

One is a recipe called Be Bop Breakfast that is in my second book Feeding the Young Athlete. Leftover brown rice is sautéed with scallions and put in a bowl, greens are sautéed in the same skillet and added to the bowl and finally an egg is fried and placed on top. Add a few tablespoons of kimchi and you are well-fueled for the morning.

Another favorite is cooking millet in coconut milk and adding seasonal fruit (apples, peaches or mangoes) to the pot. This is also quite satisfying.

Profile Photo courtesy of Cynthia Lair