Educating Teens About Food, the Most Important Subject of All: Interview With Foodprints Author Paula Ayer

Paula photoAs an Associate Editor at Annick Press, Paula Ayer knows a good book when she reads one. And she sure knows how to write one too. She recently penned an outstanding title for teens called Foodprints, and it is one of the best written and most important nonfiction titles for kids I’ve ever read. Paula takes teens on a journey of discovering the history of our food, what we eat, how the bulk of it is grown on megafarms, how it is marketed, consumed, wasted and so much more. I was so impressed with Foodprints, its usefulness and the important messages it conveys, I wanted to learn more about what went into the making of this comprehensive book and ask Paula what mealtime is like in her home, since she and her young daughter are vegetarians and her husband is a meat eater.

“I didn’t know any other vegetarians, but on a shallow level, I thought it was a cool thing to be, and on a deeper level, I didn’t like the idea that animals had to suffer for my food.”

Growing up in a family that made sausages, can you tell us what inspired you to become a 1420664306-2vegetarian?

I became very interested in food as a teenager and started doing a lot of reading about diet and health, and about how animals are treated in the factory-farm system. This was pre-internet, so I was discovering things through books and magazines. John Robbins’s book Diet for a New America was a big influence. I didn’t know any other vegetarians, but on a shallow level, I thought it was a cool thing to be, and on a deeper level, I didn’t like the idea that animals had to suffer for my food. I don’t know if I made a conscious decision to stop eating meat altogether, but I started eating less and less, and by the time I was 15 I was completely vegetarian. My mom had no idea what to make for me so I started doing some cooking at home, and after a couple of years my parents and brother went vegetarian too! Everyone probably thought we were crazy. It wasn’t so mainstream at the time.

That’s fantastic that you started cooking your own healthy meals as a teen.

I should mention I wasn’t always a healthy vegetarian. For a while I was very concerned about eating only “correct” things, and in the way of many teenagers, I went totally overboard. It took a while to find the right balance.

From what I read it, your husband was raised in a vegetarian family, but now eats meat. So how do you cook at home to please everyone?

10857749_10152950909916151_1074058350431513331_nYes, it’s funny how our diets have followed contrary paths. He was born in India and his family’s background is Hindu and Jain, so he grew up vegetarian. He started eating meat in his teens, right around the age I stopped. There was probably an element of teenage rebellion in both decisions, or at least wanting to step outside of our cultural comfort zones! We cook vegetarian at home and he eats meat mostly when he’s out, and he does make an effort to find organic or free-range meat. Our daughter, who’s five, has so far chosen to be vegetarian, so he’s outnumbered.

© Image of Paula and her five-year-old daughter

What inspired you to write Foodprints for kids?

The preteen and teen years are when many people start to make their own decisions about food. It’s also a time when kids are bombarded with information; so much fast-food and snack-food marketing is targeted at kids and teens, and then they’re seeing stuff on the internet, and hearing scary things about obesity and what they should and shouldn’t eat, and so on. It’s overwhelming, even for adults, and so much of the information out there is misleading or has an agenda (like getting you to buy something). I wanted to help kids make some sense of it, and equip them with the skills to think about information critically, whether it’s a fast-food ad or GMOs or a new diet they hear about. I also wanted to write the kind of book that I would have found useful when I was a kid curious about these things.

The book is so comprehensive and informative. How did you decide what to put in the book?

I had a very clear idea right from the start about what information I wanted to include. Food is a huge topic, and there’s an almost unlimited amount of information you could use, but I was trying to hit on the basics, to give kids a grounding in the big issues around food production, how it’s sold, how it affects our bodies and the planet. I also wanted to include stories that were positive and empowering, and then there are things I threw in just because I thought they were interesting or funny!


© Copyright – Image courtesy of Annick Press

Was it difficult for you to organize all that information into cohesive chapters that flow?

In addition to having a clear understanding of what information I wanted to cover from the start, I also had a vision of how I was going to structure it. I think I sat down to write a chapter outline and did it all in one go in a couple of hours. It probably helps that I’ve worked with kids’ books for years, as an editor and behind-the-scenes person, so I had a pretty good sense of how a book like this needed to be organized. Of course there was some fine-tuning along the way; I think we switched the order of two chapters at one point in editing, and there were things that were added or taken out to make it flow better.

Can you share with us how you went about conducting research for this book?

There were a few books I relied on for information about particular aspects, like the history of food, or factory farming, or food marketing. For specific examples, I found news articles and scholarly journals online. Wikipedia articles, if they’re well sourced, can be great for getting the basics on a subject, and then I’d follow the article links to primary sources. There’s a huge amount of information out there, so I felt my purpose was to bring it together and present it in a teen-friendly way.

You did an amazing job with that! The “Infobites” in the book, with their statistics, are truly staggering. While compiling information for these were you often surprised by the numbers yourself, and which ones did you find most astonishing?

DSC_0058Oh, absolutely. I had an idea, but some of the actual numbers were shocking. The amount of food wasted is one that’s unbelievable to me—about a third of all food worldwide goes to waste. I also found the numbers on food insecurity incredibly depressing: 1 in 4 kids in the US don’t have regular access to enough food, and in Canada it’s only slightly better. There’s no way those kids can have equal chances in life if they’re in school hungry, or worrying about not having enough to eat.


© Copyright – Image courtesy of Annick Press

It’s really shocking and sad that so many kids don’t have enough food, and yet we waste so much of it. Did you find it challenging to write about food science for a younger audience?

One nice thing about writing for younger readers is it forces you to really take apart things you think you know and say, “Okay, in the most basic terms, what is happening here? How does it work?” You can’t rely on the shorthand you might use with adults, where you just assume your readers understand something. I found I had a much clearer comprehension of things after trying to explain them to kids, whether it was biodiversity or the difference between simple and complex carbs.

“If we have kids graduating high school who don’t know how to cook something from scratch, and don’t know how to shop for groceries or prepare food, that’s a major failure.”


The statistics on the volume of sugar we eat on a daily basis are staggering. Do you think nutrition and healthy eating should be part of the curriculum in schools?

 Image of sugar in the Public Domain

I do think we need a big cultural shift when it comes to sugar. We evolved eating very tiny amounts of it, and up until very recently it was an expensive luxury. All the research is telling us it’s an addictive substance and it’s a big reason for kids and teens becoming pre-diabetic and developing other health problems. And yet we practically mainline it in sodas and Frappucinos, and we push so much of it on kids. It’s a hard thing to talk about without sounding like you’re head of the Temperance Union and you want to ban all fun. And I’m a hypocrite on the subject because I can barely go a day without chocolate! But we’d be better off treating sugar as more of an occasional, special thing, not an ingredient in every food we eat.

If we have kids graduating high school who don’t know how to cook something from scratch, and don’t know how to shop for groceries or prepare food, that’s a major failure. It’s one of the most important life skills you can have! I think there’s more of an awareness of that now, and some schools are teaching cooking and food literacy, starting garden projects, and such. But of course there needs to be much more.

“Don’t talk about how eating something will make you fat, or teach them to associate food with guilt and shame. Show them that eating well makes you feel good.”

What else can we do as parents to encourage healthy eating habits?81DonyBOD8L

As for what we can do as parents, one big thing is to set good examples by showing kids we enjoy healthy food, and that cooking and eating is a pleasure, not a chore. Involve them in shopping for and preparing food—even young kids can help wash veggies or get out ingredients from the fridge or whatever. Talk to them about where their food comes from. I think it’s also important to model healthy attitudes about food and body image. Don’t talk about how eating something will make you fat, or teach them to associate food with guilt and shame. Show them that eating well makes you feel good. And try to sit down and have meals together, even if you can only manage once or twice a week.

© Copyright – Image courtesy of Annick Press

Excellent advice! Do you think it’s possible for teens who grew up eating fast food, drinking soda and eating sweets to successfully change their eating habits? And what would it take to do that?

I think anyone can change his or her eating habits. And teens can change their entire fashion styles, musical tastes, and personas pretty much overnight, so they are probably the most adaptable to change!

Most people find if they get in the habit of eating healthier food, as long as it’s tasty and nutritious and they’re eating enough of it, then they enjoy eating that way and they don’t crave greasy or sugary things all the time. So it’s a matter of building those habits. Of course it helps if they have support from families, and if there’s a culture of healthy eating around them. Fast-food places need to have some truly healthier options, beyond boring salads—it’s getting better, but there’s still a long way to go. And schools and communities need to help too. It’s very hard if you’re on a school trip or at a sports meet or whatever, and there’s nothing to eat but hot dogs and donuts.

“…livestock production actually contributes more CO2 to the atmosphere than transportation!”

I so often think about that fact that the volume of unhealthy foods readily available to kids and the lack of healthy choices, are the biggest parts of the problem. What concerns you most about the future of our food supply in North America?

25275vClimate change is a big worry. The way we produce food is a huge contributor to climate change—livestock production actually contributes more CO2 to the atmosphere than transportation! And we’ve already seen how a changing climate affects our food supply—look at the droughts in California, which supplies about half of all our produce in North America.

Image of farm in California in the Public Domain

All those facts are certainly eye-opening. What do you hope readers learn most from the book?

What inspired me most while writing was how many stories there are about young people who have made a difference. Like the two Girl Guides who said, “No, we don’t think it’s right that orangutan habitats are being destroyed so we can get palm oil to make cookies,” and they actually got major companies to change their policies. Kids who stand up and say, “I don’t want animals to be treated that way to get my fast food,” or “There’s nowhere to buy fresh food in my community, and I’m going to do something about it,” are inspiring others. So I hope readers take to heart that there are things they can do, that there’s more awareness than ever before about many of these issues and they can find networks and organizations to help.

It’s amazing what kids with a passion can accomplish! Do you have any advise for someone who might want tofarm-animals-13800419412Sq write a sophisticated nonfiction book for older children like you did?

Kids and teens are smart, and they can handle more complex issues and ideas than we adults sometimes give them credit for. You don’t have to talk down to them or try too hard to sound like their buddy, because they can sense that phoniness a mile away. And nobody wants to be told what to think—your readers are the ones who get to decide how to think and what to do with the information you’ve given them.

Image of the cow in the Public Domain

No one else could have said that any better!

indexOf course, you do have to keep in mind how much information kids can take in without becoming overwhelmed, and you want to create something that’s appealing and fun to read. I was lucky to have great editors and readers who helped me find that balance. Presentation helps, too—Foodprints really benefits from having lots of colorful illustrations, photos, and graphics, which can help draw kids in to more complex or serious subjects.

Image of produce in the Public Domain

 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Paula, I am so thrilled you wrote this outstanding, comprehensive book for teens. We’ve got to do a better job as  a society educating our children about not only what they are eating but also where their food is coming from, and your book is an excellent resource for them. If only every middle and high school had a course utilizing this book, the world would be a much better, healthier place!


 Buy Foodprints: The Story of What We Eat here






Clueless in the Kitchen: A Cookbook for Teens

FB Like our Facebook Page and leave a comment on the post about this book (today only) for a chance to win it!


Cover image courtesy of Firefly Books

Clueless in the Kitchen: A Cookbook for Teens

•        Targeted Audience: Middle School & High School (Ages 13 and Up)
•        Genre: Cook Book
•        Author: Evelyn Raab
•        Illustrator: George A. Walker
•        Publisher: Firefly Books
•        Publication Date: August 11, 2011 – Third Printing 2014
•        Binding: Paperback
•        Dimensions: 7″ X 10″
•        Printing: Black & White
•        Length: 216 Pages
•        Retail: $14.95
•        ISBN: 978-1554078240

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Hilarious Intro to Cooking

I’m an avid cook and baker and I credit my skills to reading Bon Appetit Magazine while soaking in the bathtub a few nights a week when I first got married many years ago. If only I had a copy of Clueless in the Kitchen when I was a teen, I’d have had a great foundation for cooking at a much earlier age. Author Evelyn Raab uses wit and humor to hook teens and make them want to learn cooking basics. Who knew a cookbook could be so funny and entertaining?

“How you ended up with this book is not important. Maybe your parents gave it to you. Maybe you bought it yourself. Maybe you found it in a ditch. It doesn’t matter. The thing is you have it, and now you have to use it. But how?”

Everything You Need to Get Started

Clueless in the Kitchen includes three intro chapters to teach the important basics. 1) Starting from Scratch. Here you’ll find tips on cooking and the key to recipe types – Cheap Eats, Mom Food, Vegetarian, Cooking to Impress, Dinner for Family. 2) The Kitchen-A Guide to Alien Territory. This chapter provides you with a list of essential cooking tools, directions on storing food and basic kitchen sanitation. 3) Shopping. From supermarket strategies to selecting fresh produce, shopping for meat and choosing the right herbs and spices, you’ll get the lowdown on how to stock your pantry and fridge.


Real Food Without the Fuss

fresh-produce1From soup and salad to dessert, every type of delicious recipe is presented, some with cheeky titles, all with witty intros, ingredients, of course, and very easy to understand and thorough directions on how to prepare them. How do Whole Wheat Blueberry Yogurt Pancakes sound? Or Thermonuclear Buffalo Wings? Maple Glazed Salmon? The author makes sure there are a lot of healthy food choices here, while at the same time shows young chefs how to make them so they taste delicious. There’s Gazpacho, Unfried Chicken, and even an entire chapter of Vegetarian food. There are no photos of food in the book, but the directions are so thorough, they really aren’t needed. There are sketches in the book only at the beginning of each chapter.

Image of produce in the Public Domain

“Oh sure you can slap a slice of baloney between two slices of white bread and call it a sandwich. And technically, it is. But is it a great sandwich? Not likely. A great sandwich is a creation. It’s a thing of beauty and it goes so well with a bowl of soup.”

Why You Should Buy This Impressive Book

By the time your teen is done reading and experimenting with the tips, tricks and recipes in Clueless in the Kitchen he or she will no longer be clueless in the kitchen and will be well on his or her way to becoming a well-rounded home cook. The recipes offer a wide range of tastes and represent every day food we all love to eat. They’ll even learn how to make a great cup of coffee!! Cooking is one of the most important skills we can teach our children, as they will learn more about proper nutrition while preparing their own dishes. The skill of being able to cook is the best way to ensure a healthier lifestyle. It also makes kids more aware of where our foods come from, so they’ll appreciate our farmers and markets. And what about the fact that your own child will be able to cook delicious meals for you from start to finish? Add the humorous, witty writing to all these other benefits of Clueless in the Kitchen and you’ve got a great book here.  The only downside is that you may have clean up duty after your child does all that wonderful cooking.

About the Author

Evelyn Raab‘s popular “Cooking With Kids” column has appeared in Today’s Parent magazine. In addition to Clueless in the Kitchen she has written The Clueless Vegetarian: A Cookbook for the Aspiring Vegetarian and The Clueless Baker: Learning to Bake from Scratch. She attributes her culinary expertise to her sons.

About the Illustrator

George A. Walker is an award-winning wood engraver, book artist and illustrator who teaches book arts and printmaking at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, Ontario. He regularly exhibits his wood engravings and limited-edition books internationally. He is the author of The Woodcut Artist’s Handbook: Techniques and Tools for Relief Printmaking, Second Edition Updated and Expanded, which is also published by Firefly Books.

Make a Chocolate Cornucopia Centerpiece for Thanksgiving

A few years ago I made a Chocolate Cornucopia Centerpiece for Thanksgiving, spilling out Homemade Chocolate Pecan Turtle Candies and Chocolate Truffles. It’s a showstopper of a centerpiece that your guests will remember and you’ll be proud to display. This is definitely an adult cooking project, but your kids will love helping you out! It’s quality time together you’ll treasure for years to come. Why not read a Thanksgiving book together before making your centerpiece? It’ll make your project extra special.


I got the directions from an episode of The Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network. I used a larger cornucopia mold than she did, so I had to increase the amount of chocolate I used. Before you begin, learn how to temper chocolate. If you do not temper it properly, it will become gray when it dries, and all your hard work (and money) will be wasted.


I topped my cornucopia with chocolate leaves. For the candies spilling out of the cornucopia, you can find a recipe to make chocolate turtles, truffles, fudge, chocolate mints or even just buy some of your favorite chocolates. A mixture of milk, dark and white chocolates looks best.

I displayed mine on a cake pedestal placed on top of a crystal tray I filled with autumn finds such as artificial gourds, corn, pumpkins, apples, etc.

Happy Cornucopia Making and Happy Thanksgiving!

These are the molds I used:. I sprayed mine with non-stick spray before pouring chocolate in them:

Large Cornucopia Mold Part A


Large Cornucopia Mold Part B


Chocolate Leaves Mold


Welcome Fall with Pumpkin Pie Toffee Chocolate Chunk Cookies!

Pumpkin Pie Toffee Chocolate Chunk Cookies


It’s first day of fall, and here in tropical Miami we’ve got to do something special to get into that fall spirit. What better way is there to do it than make pumpkin cookies with the children in your life?  My child is in grad school nine states away, but she’ll be getting these cookies in the mail in two days. If you love pumpkin pie, you’ll devour these. They’re like chocolate chip cookies with a fall twist – tender on the inside and crispy on the outside.

Pumpkin Pie Toffee Chocolate Chunk Cookies


Yield 24 large cookies. Recipe can be doubled.

  • 1 stick salted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree (save the rest from the can to make pumpkin bread)
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 4 oz. Heath English Toffee Pieces (half the bag)
  • 5 Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate 1.45 oz. bars each cut into 24 pieces


Preheat oven to 350º and set on convection if you have that setting. Otherwise just the bake setting is fine.

In a mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients and whisk. In a stand-up mixer, beat butter until soft. Add sugars and beat until fluffy, scraping down sides of the bowl. Add the egg and vanilla and beat for 3 minutes, scraping again as needed. Add pumpkin puree and mix just until combined.  Add toffee and mix for 30 seconds. Add chocolate and stir in by hand. Don’t over mix or you will get tough cookies!

Use Silpat liners if you have them or parchment paper to line cookie sheets so cookies do not burn. Use a medium sized ice cream scoop for even cookie sizes. Don;t crowd cookies in the pan, because they spread quite a bit. Bake for 15-20 minutes. The first batch always takes longer than the rest,, so keep your eye on them. They are done when the edges are golden, and the top is an even tan color. Do not over bake. Cool on a rack for ten minutes and then dig in with a tall glass of milk!



Good Eats Three-Book Giveaway

It’s Fabulous Food Friday!

I’m giving away three food-themed children’s books I reviewed and absolutely loved to one lucky winner! Scroll to the bottom of this post for book giveaway rules.

This giveaway is made possible thanks to the generosity of these publishers:

Candlewick Pres

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Pelican Publishing

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A book of 50 different paper placemats to color, doodle and draw!

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A fun and educational picture book about different food trucks and cuisines.

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A heartwarming folktale about a lonely baker in the New Orleans French Quarter.

Read my review

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Enter for a chance to win Three: Food-Themed Children’s Books

  1. Enter the giveaway by Liking our Facebook Page (if you haven’t already) and sending us an email to smartbooks (at) with your name and mailing address. In the subject line of the email put Food Books Giveaway. We will not share your email or address or use it for any other than purpose than this giveaway.
  2. Optional: You will receive one extra entry for leaving a valid comment on any post (a comment that makes sense about that particular post) on this website.
  3. One free copy of all three titles reviewed on this post will be given away to one winner, selected at random, residing in the USA. No books will be mailed outside the USA.
  4. This giveaway starts on Friday, June 13, 2014 and ends on Friday June 27, 2014 at noon.
  5. The winner will be notified via email on Friday June 27,, 2014 by 7:00 pm.
  6. Books will be mailed by Monday, June 30, 2014 via USPS Media Mail.
  7. Follow us on our Facebook Page to learn about more giveaways.