MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) – On television, Melissa d'Arabian teaches families how to stretch their food budgets. At home, she stretches the definition of cooking with kids.
Sometimes, her young daughters help her with elaborate recipes that evolve into arts and crafts projects of sorts where they aren't "counting on that food to actually eat," she said.
Other times, it's all about getting dinner on the table quickly, so she'll hand them a bowl of applesauce to stir while she does all the real food preparation.
And there are even subtler ways to teach the value of cooking with healthy, whole foods, she said during an Associated Press interview Saturday at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival.
"We have baskets of produce on our island, they are decorative, but the kids can walk by and see a beautiful red pepper," she said.
As host of the Food Network's "Ten Dollar Dinners," d'Arabian focuses on teaching families to stretch their food budgets.
But she said she's willing to spend more on produce from a farmer's market because she can turn a shopping trip into a family – and educational – outing.
"Think of it as taking your kids to the movies. If you can reframe it as the entertainment for the day ... even if I'm $10 over on produce, we've had hours of family time and entertainment," she said.
She lets her daughters pick out any vegetable they like at the grocery store or farmer's market, and she then comes up with a recipe to use it at home.
Not all of them are winners, she said, but she'd rather see her children get excited by bok choy or some other exotic vegetable for a few hours and then reject it than choke down a bit of broccoli just because it's healthy.
"Sometimes they eat it, sometimes they don't," she said. "But I focus on what is the relationship I want them to have with food?"
D'Arabian, who had a career in finance before winning the "Next Food Network Star" competition in 2009, said the twin problems of hunger and childhood obesity are local problems with national implications, so they will require involvement by parents, the public, the private sector and politicians.
Though she's never worked in the public policy arena, she said politicians should do a longer term analysis of how spending more on school lunches, for example, will save money down the road.
"It's very difficult for us as a society to invest in something that has a payoff many years down the road," she said.