Page 2 of 2   <      

'Hungry Girl' Has Found the Way To a Snacking Nation's Heart

Lisa Lillien, also known as Hungry Girl, puts Pop chips to the test in her kitchen, where she tries out new foods to recommend.
Lisa Lillien, also known as Hungry Girl, puts Pop chips to the test in her kitchen, where she tries out new foods to recommend. (Jonathan Alcorn/Post)
  Enlarge Photo    

"It's a pink Web site, but it's not too girly-girl," Lillien says. "The copy isn't written in that 'Hey, girlfriend' stuff."

Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor, author and proponent of the never-shop-the-center-aisles approach to food, took a look at Hungry Girl's site the other day and was not thrilled by all the pink freneticism and exclamation points. Nor could she hide some of her skepticism: "Really? A pizza with only 400 calories?"

But then she thought about what we all know about food consumers in America: There are two kinds. More than half of them are more like Hungry Girl. The rest (and Nestle includes herself here) can often be snobs.

"I'm glad people are interested in food and in nutrition," Nestle says. "If this helps them reach that point, then okay."

Lillien knows she has critics out there. "People are hypocrites," she says. "They say 'shop the perimeter of the store, never eat anything that's not organic,' but it's B.S., because people can't live like that forever."

She insists she will not expose her readers to any product she doesn't run through her own standards: How does it taste, and will it make me fat? She imposes her own simple, Internet-age ethic, walking a line between editorializing and advertising. She says she won't accept payment for any brand mentioned in her editorial content and won't sell advertising space on her Web site for products she wouldn't eat herself.

In an online cacophony of self-started Web sites offering strong opinions about what to eat-buy-do, Lillien is one of those rare profitable breakouts. Hungry Girl occupies a new frontier between consumer news and retail sales, blowing past traditional media. The site does for a new yogurt what Chromewaves does for new music releases, or Naturally Curly does for a new hair conditioner, or Net-a-Porter does for the newest shoes.

Lillien grew up on Long Island. Her mother was (still is) a yo-yo dieter who did Scarsdale, grapefruit, Nutri-System, Optifast, losing the same weight over and over. Her sister went to fat camp one summer. Her brother ate all he wanted. ("Like, an entire box of Lucky Charms, in a salad bowl, with a carton of whole milk," Lillien recalls, with envy. "And he was a stick with a big head, who never gained weight, wearing a swimsuit with a belt on it.")

Young Hungry Girl loved the commercials for Dolly Madison Zinger snack cakes that aired with Charlie Brown TV specials. (It was an off-brand Twinkie.) "You couldn't get Zingers where we lived," she says. "We had to wait until we went to our summer house."

It was that sort of life. It was that sort of food. It was many up-and-down pounds ago.

Lillien is married with no children. She and her husband, Daniel Schneider, the creator of Nickelodeon's "iCarly," go out for sushi three nights a week. When grocery shopping, she likes to peek in other women's baskets, a never-ending quest for likeminded Hungry Girls who are looking for healthful options. She always reminds her readers that she isn't a nutritionist -- she's just bossy. "I think of myself as everyone's crazy best friend," she says, "who will go get the answers to what they want to know but don't have time to get themselves."

Last month, she added a video studio in an apartment down the hall from her office. A Hungry Girl television show, at some point, is not out of the question. Neither is a line of Hungry Girl grocery items. "And I still have people from my life who ask me what my day job is," Lillien says. "They have no idea how big this has become."

The Cap'n Crunch Chicken is done. But is it -- to use one of Hungry Girl's favorite words -- yumtastic?

Lillien examines a piece, squints at it, nibbles, considers it, then frowns. "Did you mix the spices first?" she asks her aide. "The Cap'n Crunch is still too chunky. It needs to be smoother. But it's a good start."

The research team begins anew.

<       2

© 2009 The Washington Post Company