Indiana native's cookbook tackles kid-related kitchen challenges
The author profile appearing in Sally Kuzemchak's cookbook, “Dinnertime Survival Guide,” pegs her as a “kid wrangler, mealtime heroine, nutrition whiz.”
But Kuzemchack, 42, is just a mom trying to get her kids to make better choices when it comes to food.
She and her husband, Joel Husenits, both are originally from the local town of Indiana. Now they live in Columbus, Ohio, with sons Henry, 9, and Sam, 5.
After she earned a bachelor's degree in English from Penn State University, in 1994, Kuzemchak moved to New York City and began writing for various magazines.
Once she relocated to Chicago to be closer to Husenits during his college studies, she switched her focus in 1997 to writing freelance features about health and nutrition for periodicals such as Family Circle, Prevention, Women's Day, Parenting and Weight Watchers Magazine.
Those topics struck a chord with Kuzemchak. She so enjoyed the research she was doing for her articles that she decided to pursue formal training in dietetics, achieving certification in 2004 and earning a master's degree from Ohio State University in 2006.
Three years later, she started writing her blog, Real Mom Nutrition, as a way to to take creative control of her writing and to help other parents find ways to inject nutrition into their family's meals.
“I wanted the freedom to write whatever I wanted,” Kuzemchak said. “I started it after I had kids because I felt it was really difficult to feed myself and my kids in a healthy way.”
She was frustrated by some of the information being circulated about families and food.
“I felt when I went online to seek solace, other blogs painted a rosy picture about motherhood and about feeding kids,” she said. “It's not easy. I wanted to tell the truth and pull the curtain back a little in a funny, engaging way.
“I wanted to let people know that people with letters after their name have a hard time, too. And I felt like it did end up resonating with a lot of people. It was gratifying to hear from people who felt they weren't the only ones.”
Kuzemchak's “Dinnertime Survival Guide” was published in conjunction with Cooking Light magazine, which issues several cookbooks and recipe compilations each year.
The book addresses several parenting challenges in the kitchen including making home-cooked meals on tight budgets, crazy schedules, finicky eaters and food ruts. There's even a chapter titled “I Can Barely Boil Water,” full of easily implemented recipes for cooks who may not have much experience.
Each chapter includes tips and strategies meant to help readers tackle a particular mealtime obstacle.
The recipes are a mixture of those from Kuzemchak's own kitchen, some from her favorite food bloggers and others developed in the Cooking Light test kitchen.
“I cooked these recipes for months for my family,” she said. “My kids were my recipe reviewers.”
Some family favorites made it into the book, including baked garlic fries, which her older son loves. Both boys are partial to the barbecue chicken kabobs and the tilapia tacos that can be found in their mother's book. Letting them put their own toppings on the tacos adds an element of choice to that meal, she noted.
“My kids never really liked fish, but all I had to do was wrap it in a tortilla and let them put whatever they want on them and they loved it,” she said.
Scattered throughout the cookbook are boxes with a “Crazy Trick That Actually Works,” such as exploring the ethnic spice aisle at the grocery store to create new flavors in one's kitchen, and “Real Mom, Real Smart” tips from other food bloggers.
Kuzemchak suggests that one of the easiest ways to enforce change in eating habits is to have healthy food choices visible and at hand. She keeps fresh, washed fruit in a bowl on the counter, easy for small hands to grab.
“There are so many places that kids see junk food,” she said. “You can't always control those things, but you can control your own home, helping kids make those easy choices.”
Many of the strategies included in the book are ones Kuzemchak developed from experience, like when her youngest was 3 years old and went on a dinner strike.
“He wouldn't eat anything, or when he did, it would be just one bite or a lick of ketchup,” she recalled. “I learned there's no point in getting frustrated — you've got to keep your cool and keep doing what you're doing.”
As a dietitian, Kuzemchak said she is not a big advocate of sneaking healthy foods into dishes on the sly, but she does advocate healthier substitutions such as whole wheat pasta and breadcrumbs. She said grating carrots into sloppy joes adds some color and texture, while substiuting whole wheat flour for half of the all-purpose white flour in a baking recipe is another good option.
Rebranding foods also has worked for her. For instance, spinach in smoothies was never a big hit until she told her youngest it was an “Incredible Hulk” smoothie.
“He took a sip — and was sold,” she said in preface to that recipe in the book.
But her sons continue to reject broccoli and salmon. In such cases, she suggests, “Don't force your kids to eat it or try it, but eat it yourself.”
Her sons' tastes are an important factor in Kuzemchak's blog, as the pair have given their seal of approval to many of the recipes she features there.
Some of the blog posts that have received the most attention from fellow parents are ones dealing with making foods from scratch even when the schedules of both kids and parents are close to bursting.
“Those things really resonate with readers,” she said.
One of her most championed food causes — and one that has caused some strife with other moms, she acknowledges — is the issue of snacks fed to young athletes at sporting events.
After her sons got involved in youth sports, she said she was a little taken aback when she saw what the kids were being served during breaks in action.
“I saw all of the junk that was all over the sidelines,” she said, noting that doughnuts were a popular choice.
“Now, I encourage people to bring healthier snacks,” she said — whether their child is at summer camp or in preschool. “I try to inspire parents to encourage positive change when they can.”
Through her blog, she has launched what she calls “snacktivism,” with the intent of promoting better snacking choices for kids.
“Snacktivists,” she said, serve as a model for healthy snacking, bringing foods that have more nutritional value to sporting events and other activities.
Another key food lesson for parents, she said, is to never punish or reward their children with food, which can lead to a negative perception of food. She also suggests serving meals family-style, which provides parents with a teaching moment about portion control.
One of the most significant things parents should take from her blog is that they should “walk the walk and talk the talk,” she said.
“If you want your kids eating in a healthful way, don't be drinking soda every night at dinner,” she said. “Modeling your own eating habits is very important.”
Kuzemchak continues to freelance for health and fitness magazines. She also does a bit of teaching at the college level, leading an Intro to Nutrition class at Ohio University branch campuses and at Otterbein University.
Right now, she's focusing on promoting the new cookbook, having completed interviews for a radio show and a morning TV news program in her local market.
Kuzemchak comes back to the Indiana County area often to visit family, including her parents, Ron and Lucille Kuzemchak, who still live in Indiana. Her in-laws, Mike and Kim Husenits, now live in West Lebanon. Kuzemchak said she'd be game to promote the cookbook in her native stomping ground with a book signing or other publicity event.
So far, she's gotten all positive feedback about the book.
“What I'm hearing is that people feel it's very real and relatable, and that's very gratifying,” she said. “I just tried to write a cookbook I thought my own family would like.”
The Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide is available through Amazon and at most major bookstores.
Kuzemchak's blog, Real Mom Nutrition,” can be found at www.realmomnutrition.com.
Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or firstname.lastname@example.org.