Wide-eyed Lulu, 8, tosses flour onto a cutting board with one hand while rolling gnocchi pasta dough with the other. She then cuts the snakelike form into bite-sized pillows. Her dad, chef Jonathon Sawyer, adds the gnocchi to boiling water, removing them after just a few minutes as they rise to the surface. He gently sautés them in a pan heated to medium-high and pours Bolognese sauce over them. Voilá, dinner is ready.
While restaurants mean business for Sawyer, and his wife, Amelia, who co-own several around Cleveland, including the French-inspired The Greenhouse Tavern, Noodlecat, the Italian-themed Trentina, and food stands in the Browns stadium, he’s equally passionate about inspiring kids — including his own — to eat healthy, whole foods. And not just for the sake of nutrition — it’s more about understanding where food comes from, preparing it together, and enjoying the meal as a family.
The chef’s home kitchen — and those in his restaurants — have offered Jonathon and Amelia, both raised in Strongsville, a chance to pass along their food philosophy to their two children, Catcher, 10, and Louisiana (Lulu). Sawyer hopes to spread the word to other families, too, about how to fit whole foods into their busy lives. If you’re looking to nudge your family toward better habits in the new year, he provides plenty of realistic, fun solutions for the dinner table.
Take Small Steps
“Start with incremental changes,” says Sawyer who first became interested in cooking while watching his mother and grandmothers craft dishes in their kitchens using food from their gardens.
The Sawyers introduced their own kids to new foods and cooking skills early.
“I think Lulu was about 2 when she started helping in the kitchen,” Amelia says.
The kids began by cutting tofu into chunks with a butter knife. They graduated from dull knives and soft foods to steak knives and harder vegetables and meats with some help and assistance from mom and dad. Parents can follow the same idea: opt for easy recipes with few preparation steps, especially for kids who are new to cooking, and build on those skills.
Prepare Meals Together
“I know for me as a mom, there are days when I come home and I think it’s just easier for me to say [to my kids], ‘Go do something else while I make dinner,’” says Amelia, who’s quick with a smile. “But ultimately, you’re going to have more work for yourself in the end. Kids can become good helpers. If they’re helping you then they’re also trying the foods as you go and they’re going to eat the food since they helped make it.”
Amelia and Jonathon are both big believers in the idea that if kids help prepare food, they’ll eat it, too. Kids can handle easy tasks like putting together a tossed salad, cutting up softer vegetables, and other duties until they’re able to help out in other ways, including cooking.
What about those busy days when your kids have three different after school activities, work stretches into the evening hours, and life gets hectic?
Sawyer says he understands how tough it can be to fit in quality mealtime. “Look at our life. Lulu has cheerleading practice, there are tennis lessons to take them to, there’s homework. I’m working on two more cookbooks and managing the restaurants. I can’t remember the last time I spent less than 70 hours at work in a week. We’re still able to have every breakfast and every dinner together. We try to make eating together a priority. I figure at the end of the day, do you really need to answer all those emails right when you get home? That can wait.”
Let Your Kids Shop
Getting your kids engaged in cooking often starts with shopping.
The Sawyers frequent farmers markets, including the West Side Market, along with various ethnic grocers around town. Sometimes, Amelia will give the kids each $10 at the farmers market and ask them to each pick out a protein and a vegetable to use to make dinner. She’s found when her kids pick the ingredients for dinner, they’re more interested in helping make the meal — and eating it.
Sawyer does the same at the grocery store. When they used to pack their lunches, he’d tell them to pick out two fruits and two vegetables, telling them, “That’s what’s going to be in your lunch for the next week.”
Raise Label Readers
“I’ve taught the kids to look at food labels,” Amelia says. “If they can’t pronounce the ingredients, then we don’t buy them. Sometimes Catcher will pick up some kind of food that looks fun, maybe it’s a bright color, but then I ask him to read the ingredients. If he has a tough time pronouncing them or there’s a list of 40-plus ingredients, it freaks him out a little bit. He begins to understand that’s just not something you want to put in your body.”
As a general rule, the Sawyers encourage their kids to stick with foods that have five ingredients or less. And of those foods, if they can’t recognize the ingredients, they usually pass.
They also don’t shy away from eating butter, cream and other full-fat ingredients. “It’s about eating whole foods and meals that you make, not about low-fat or other foods that have chemicals or fake sugars to cut down on calories,” Amelia says.
Don’t be Sneaky
Tossing spinach into a fruit smoothie or pureed carrots into a cookie batter may be a good way to get a little more nutrition into your kids’ diets, but it’s a missed opportunity to teach kids how to make healthy food choices on their own
“I don’t believe in tricking kids to eat healthy. It’s about teaching kids to be willing to try new things,” Sawyer says. “You might need to add a little extra butter or cheese to the broccoli the first few times you’re trying to get your kids to eat it and then use less and less the next few times. And then maybe you introduce them to broccoli rabe.”
Sawyer laughs as he cautions parents that even his kids (including Lulu, whose first food as a toddler was pig’s ear) go through phases when it comes to eating certain vegetables. “If Lulu likes edamame and peas, then Catcher doesn’t. If Catcher is really into asparagus, Lulu isn’t. They’re siblings. It happens.”
He urges parents to be patient and to keep trying.
Even around the Sawyers’ house, not every meal would impress a restaurant critic.
“My advice is just to cook,” Amelia says. “Sometimes my dinners aren’t that great or a recipe turns out terribly.”
She stresses that kids will learn with you that it’s okay to try and with repetition, they’ll get better at cooking. You can learn and laugh together.
“So sometimes you’ll have mushy carrots or you’ll overcook the green beans — let’s be honest, when you’re cooking with a 5-year-old or a 13-year-old, they’re not going to notice. It’s more about getting them engaged with food,” says Sawyer, who notes that he’s terrible at making pancakes. “We laugh about it, but pancakes are just not my thing.”
More About Sawyer
As a trained chef, Jonathon Sawyer understood the importance of fresh food and quality ingredients to turning out a memorable meal. After attending culinary school, Chef Sawyer built a reputation for himself at prestigious restaurants in Miami and New York City. Sawyer and his wife, Amelia, decided to return to Cleveland before the birth of their first child, Catcher. Sawyer became the chef de cuisine at well-known celebrity chef Michael Symon’s restaurant, Lolita, in Tremont.
Yet food and cooking took on a new meaning when his wife, Amelia, was pregnant with their oldest child.
In utero, Catcher was diagnosed with a kidney disorder. The condition doesn’t affect his day-to-day life and is generally non-life-threatening, however, the experience spurred conversations between the couple about the importance of whole foods and raising healthy kids.
Sawyer explains that noodles have only a few ingredients, are quick to make, and are easy to make in a variety of dishes. Even better, kids love them. Noodles are the perfect starting point for introducing your kids to kitchen skills and homemade food.
Northeast Ohio Parent will be giving away a signed copy of “Noodle Kids: Around the World in 50 Fun, Healthy, Creative Recipes the Whole Family Can Cook Together” at this week’s Freebie Friday giveaway on Facebook.com/NEOhioParent
How to Host a Noodle Party
Get your kids excited about eating a variety of foods by throwing a ramen party for them — and maybe even a few of their friends. Here’s how to pull it off from Chef Sawyer:
Step one: Prepare broth in a saucepan.
Step two: Let the kids fill their bowls with ingredients.
Step three: Add cooked ramen noodles and broth to each guest’s bowl.
For ingredients, offer a variety of fixings like:
Shredded, cooked chicken or pork
Diced hot dogs and/or tofu
Sliced green onions
Chef Sawyer has just one rule – kids need to pick at least two veggies for their bowls.