This Former White House Chef Wants You to Stop Stressing About Eating Right
During Sam Kass’ six years as chef to the first family, he also became an advocate for child nutrition in America. His first book, Eat a Little Better, aims to change our health—and with small, conscious choices, maybe it'll help save the world.
DEBBIE KOENIG: Your Twitter bio says you’re an "investor and strategist for a healthier climate and smart food." That’s a long way from the White House kitchen. How did you end up with this job description?
SAM KASS: What motivates me every day is to have an impact, and what I did in the White House was basically figure out where we could make the most progress to move the country forward around health as well as sustainability issues. Over the next 10 years, change will be driven largely by the private sector. So to make change, you have to change the businesses that are producing our food. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.
What does the title of your book, Eat a Little Better, mean?
People get overwhelmed hearing that they have to change their diet and overhaul what they do. We need to try to do just a little better, and step by step, over time, we can fundamentally improve our diets and have an impact on the environment. But it starts with one decision. Then you build on it and make the next decision. Meanwhile, if you eat a Twinkie, I still love you, you know?
We've got to try to eat more vegetables, so my book has a bunch of simple recipes to make more vegetables. We dramatically underconsume whole grains, so here are some really simple recipes so you can take one grain and turn it into a bunch of different dishes. It's a road map for how you can eat a little better and have an impact.
You make an interesting distinction in the book about eating better versus eating right.
I don't believe in eating right. There's a million rights, but we all eat junk, too. It’s part of what it means to be an American, and it’s great. I love a Buffalo wing. I can’t not eat one if it’s near me. People get discouraged because they’re given this idyllic vision of what they’re supposed to do, and when they fail, they feel bad. So much of what we focus on is what we should be doing—we should be eating vegetarian or local, yet nobody actually tells us how to accomplish it. The how is a key piece, so that’s what I try to focus on.
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Your book has a lot of recipes, but it’s a call to action as much as a cookbook.
I wanted to write a book that put the basic pieces of change together in a way that people could actually execute. Right now we’re sort of paralyzed by too much information and conflicting information. People want to eat healthier and know what that means on a plate.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned from your time in Washington, D.C.?
I learned that we have to be relentless in our efforts and not get discouraged by setbacks. Being positive in our outlook is super important. A lot of what informs the book comes from hearing from parents and from kids about their struggles and how we can engage in an inclusive conversation. Hopefully readers feel and hear that and also get a sense of how politics plays in our foods in ways we don’t fully know. One part of the book dives into the white-potato lobby. Because we eat so many potatoes, it translates into a significant political power in Washington. They’ve used it to skew nutrition policies. For instance, fried potato consumption beats out even soda as an indicator of obesity. When we tried to place a twice-a-week limit on French fries in schools, the lobby pushed back, and Congress gave in to Big Potato. Today, lunchrooms can serve French fries every day. I don’t think people are aware of that.
We’re talking a lot about making informed, incremental changes. If someone gets excited to start making changes, what’s their first step?
It starts in the home, setting up your house for success. That’s really ground zero because you want your home to be a place of peace and calm, where you’re not obsessing over every choice. That means putting in plain sight the kinds of foods you want to eat most and putting less healthy options out of sight. Then you’re only eating those things when you really decide, “You know what? I want that.” When you go to the grocery store, that should be when you’re really conscious, really thoughtful about the decisions you’re making. The rest of the week, you want not to worry about it that much— just know that whatever’s around you is OK.
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I saw pictures of your adorable baby boy, Cy, on Instagram. How has your eating and cooking changed since becoming a dad?
I still cook a lot. The White House gave me speed: I’d be in a policy meeting and realize I had 20 minutes to get dinner on the table for the president and first lady. That helps when you have a newborn, to be able to whip something up—but I also keep it really simple. That’s the most important advice I would have for new parents: Keep it simple.
How do you define healthy?
I would say it’s a state of mind. We’re not freaking out about our food. So relax, and eat foods that are largely plant-based, lots of vegetables and whole grains, not a lot of refined starches, some good lean protein, and a lot of water. It’s not some crazy dissection of nutrients. Flavor’s a key part of health. Enjoyment is also key. Eat food cooked with love and ingredients that are good for you. That’s an approach to health that most people can get behind and accomplish in their lives.