Sally Sampson has 21 cookbooks to her credit yet still felt she wanted to do something with food “that mattered.” In 2009, with the aim of addressing childhood obesity in America and with input from the medical community, she shopped around an idea for an illustrated pamphlet about cooking that could be distributed at pediatricians’ offices during wellness checkups.
She got such a positive reception that instead, ChopChop launched as a primarily hospital-backed, nonprofit quarterly magazine in March 2010. First printing: 150,000. Six issues later, its circulation has grown to 530,000, with a Web site at www.chopchopmag.org, greater sponsorship and an unusually interactive readership. It has earned the endorsement of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Its slogan as “the fun cooking magazine for families” seems apt. ChopChop’s pages contain food-related word games and math puzzlers, tips on manners, suggestions for physical activity and a monthly profile of a Healthy Hero. They feature kids ages 5 to 12 who demonstrate the recipes, which come with information about how the nutrition satisfies MyPlate, the government’s refurbished dietary guide.
Sampson, 56, is head of a “pretty lean team” that she directs from her home in Watertown, Mass. In June, the team and five students from Harriet Tubman Elementary in the District met at the White House to spend kitchen time with executive chef Cristeta Comerford, assistant chef Adam Collick, executive pastry chef Bill Yosses and assistant pastry chef Susie Morrison; the visit fills the pages of the current issue.
Not surprisingly, a proposal for a ChopChop cookbook is in the works.
Sampson recently spoke with deputy Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick. Edited excerpts follow:
Tell me about the motivation for ChopChop.
My daughter was born with a chronic illness [pancreatitis], so I spent a lot of time in pediatricians’ offices and hospitals and on various advisory boards over the years. And researching. I kept feeling like I wanted to do something that mattered more than writing cookbooks.
I approached Lisa Simpson, who was then at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and Barry Zuckerman, chief of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center. We talked about basically prescribing cooking during doctor visits. They helped me flesh out the idea.
Now we’re in over 10,000 pediatricians’ offices, in schools and even on Indian reservations. It’s spreading, and that’s really exciting.
What makes ChopChop different from other kid-focused cookbooks and such?
We’re really trying to teach but not have a kid feel like it’s homework. We don’t do funny faces or recipe titles. We don’t “hide” foods. All that just dumbs food down, and then you’ve defeated the purpose. And, you know, we have lots of 20-year-olds who read ChopChop. Our recipes are for any beginning cook.
Do you get feedback from parents or children?
Both, plus doctors, government agencies, schools. I think the magazine gets better with each issue because we listen to the feedback. For example, a group of teachers in Philadelphia went through our recipe ingredients and told us their kids didn’t have access to particular foods. We’ve added frozen vegetables as a result.
For the section we added on physical activity, we had been shooting those photos in gardens and back yards. Residents in Chelsea [Mass.] said, “There’s nothing here that looks like that,” so now we also photograph kids on a basketball court or a sidewalk.
The published recipes seem to contain very little or no salt.
That’s right. Walter Willett [from the Harvard School of Public Health] is on the advisory board, and he’s very concerned about sodium.
How involved are the heavy hitters from your board of directors in each issue?
Walter and David Ludwig [at Children’s Hospital Boston] vet all the recipes. Walter requested a low-sugar beverage in each issue. But we have a deal: He can offer up changes, but the recipes still have to taste good.
After six issues, have you discovered anything surprising about the way kids eat?
At the second or third photo shoot, to show a kid making a recipe, the 9- or 10-year-old younger brother of the girl who was cooking made a face when I told him we were doing a dish with tofu. I told him, “That’s okay! You don’t have to like it. You can give a thumbs down.” That got him excited, I think, that he could be dramatic.
I got a phone call and left the room. When I returned, he was asking her to make more. He was conflicted, because the tofu had been coated in sesame seeds and he said that was his favorite food. I found it fascinating.
Pairing favorite food with dreaded food really works. For a column I do called Ask Sally, my job is to come up with something a kid will like. When a kid said, “I hate eggs,” I used them as a binder with spinach to make a cross between a frittata and a pancake. She loved it. Sent me a photo of her eating it.
Another girl didn’t like eggplant. It took me three tries, but a ratatouille did the trick, with input from the girl. She made it with half the amount of eggplant I called for, so it wasn’t as “eggplant-y.” A great solution.
When kids cook, their palates widen, and they are interested in what they’ve made.