When we first saw Melissa d'Arabian, one of the 10 contestants on Next Food Network Star, she seemed a bit lost. This stay-at-home mother of four young children—ages four, three, and two-year-old twins—was a huge underdog competing against professional chefs. But after nine weeks of exhausting challenges, she triumphed over her competitors and earned her very own Food Network show, Ten Dollar Dinners. We sat down with this rising star to talk about her new career, raising four little girls and how she manages it all.
iVillage: [Here at] iVillage, we're all about women, we're all about moms. So when we found out that you won, we were so excited.
Melissa: When I found out you wanted to talk to me, I was so excited too! Because I love women. I mean, my mom raised me, the most important people in my life have been women, and so it's amazing that I have four kids and they are all girls. When I got pregnant with the twins I already had the two big girls and everyone was saying, "Are you hoping for boys?" And of course you don't hope for anything, you really just hope that everything goes ok. And secretly, I was hoping for more girls! And you know, my husband loves them too, he just loves girls. He was secretly hoping for girls too.
So it's a huge gift for me to be able to raise these four little women. I really like to think of them as women, not as little girls because I want to model for them behavior as a woman because that tucks in the back of their minds. And these little girls, yes—they're little girls today—but someday they're going to be women. And so that's sort of my perspective on it. Women are very important to me.
iVillage: It must have been really hard for you being away from them while you were doing [Next Food Network Star], and now having this new show. How do you deal with that?
Melissa: It was tough to be away from them, and my husband and I, we gave a lot of thought to what this would mean for us as a family. My husband and I are very much about having a family mission and a family vision and kind of having core values. Can you tell that...I used to be in strategic planning? That's what I'm sounding like, a corporation. But I really do think that it enables us to get on the same page, and also having that set of core values, it enables us to make decisions, to really make sure that we're doing things that will support what we want to get done in life. So it was a tough time, but we made the decision knowing that it made sense for our family as a whole.
Cooking for Six
iVillage: What kinds of things do your daughters like to eat? How do you get them to eat their vegetables and all those mom-type things?
Melissa: You know what? I think I've determined that just toddlers are picky eaters. Certainly my twins are less picky than my big girls because I actually made their baby food and I would put in flax seed and brewer's yeast and all sorts of crazy stuff. Making baby food, as a side note, is much easier than I thought it was going to be, and much faster. Making baby food, I'd highly recommend. It makes for a much less picky eater later.
So for getting them to eat vegetables, first of all I have a rule in our house which is called the "no thank you bite." The kids are allowed to not like anything, but they have to have had a bite of it first. And to me that strikes the right balance between getting them to try things and also teaching them that their opinions count. Because if they are just required to eat something on their plate, one I think it sends the wrong message, which is that you're full when the plate is empty, which is not a message that I personally want to send to my own kids. And the second thing is I think it also subtly teaches them that their opinion doesn't count. And so it's a balance, because I want my kids to eat vegetables, but I also want them to develop their own opinions. So we have the "no thank you bite" rule and that strikes the right balance in our house.
To me, teaching my children the willingness to try is much more important than teaching them to gobble down a piece of broccoli and swig milk after it. I can get vegetables into my kids if I need to, in sort of secret, sneaky ways... But I also want them to be able to look at a plate and try everything on it. So I focus more on the willingness to try things than on, "Are they eating a full thing of broccoli?" I do have some favorite [tricks for sneaking in healthy ingredients]. I do these protein veggie muffins, which we call "cupcakes" in our house. I've discovered anything in a mini-muffin form is very popular. So I put lots of flax seed and soy flour and zucchini and vegetables in it and they will eat a bunch of those, and let's just say it cleans out everybody's system and everybody is much happier. They're slightly sweet because there's fruit in them too, but there's lots of protein and fiber. I've got one other little trick that is really great for getting vegetables into my kids...I puree up spinach and I put it in almost everything. But my favorite way to serve pureed spinach is I mix it with vanilla yogurt, and it's this green yogurt and my kids eat that up in the morning. They love it.
iVillage: Do they love that it's green?
Melissa: They think it's fun that it's green, and here's the thing: Kids are hungry in the morning. They'll eat almost anything. But it's tricky to serve your child a plate of broccoli at 7 in the morning. But some green yogurt, vanilla yogurt, next to their cereal or whatever, they love it. It's a good day when everybody has spinach in the morning. Pureed spinach, you can get a lot of spinach in a little space. You can get a good serving and a half of spinach in the kids before 8 a.m.
iVillage: What kinds of things do you make for your husband? Do you make a kid-friendly version and tweak it for you and your husband?
Melissa: A little bit. I will not do full-fledged versions. But for instance, if I'm making chicken curry, I certainly will do a more mild version for my kids. I would add our spice when I serve it. But I'm not going to make two pots. I'm not going to make the same thing twice. One with garlic and onions and spice and one without, that's not going to happen. I'll do tweaks.
And the other thing that I'll do is if I know that there's something that I'm making that I'm thinking they're probably not going to like, I will just make sure I'm serving something that I know they do like. So that they can do the "no thank you bite," and then at least they've got something to eat. It works—I have to tell you, I do it out of necessity. There are just too many people, it's too crazy, I can't make multiple meals for everybody.
Melissa: The right answer to that is yes, I always have wipees, I always have baggies with nutritious snacks and I never have to get fast food for them and I always have everything made up for them in advance. That's what I should do. But the answer to that is no, I don't always do that. I have actually recently... rebelled against the diaper bag just because I found that the diaper bag, my purse, two kids, the babies, it was too much... So I'm definitely not that "super mom."
That being said, there is a place in this world for that "super mom." That "super mom" has bailed me out more than once at the park with a wipee. Yes, I do try to be prepared and a little planning goes a long way. I try to come up with healthy snacks for my kids. One tip that I do have about taking my kids out to dinner is, if we are going to be taking them out to dinner someplace that I don't know for sure that there's going to be food that they're familiar with, for instance if we're going out for Thai food...I will sometimes give them a later snack [in the afternoon], so that when they go they're not so hungry and crabby that they can't get through the meal.
I always have sort of a technique and a strategy for kind of everything, and then I always have an emergency bailout plan. My emergency bailout plan is, and don't judge—order them ice cream while we're eating dinner, because I know that that will buy me the 15 minutes I need to quickly finish up, get the bill and it won't disturb the patrons. I figure when I'm in public, my number one goal is to make sure that we don't cause a scene. I know what it's like to be out to dinner and not have kids, so I get it. That's my emergency strategy—ice cream for everybody.
iVillage: [Since your new show is about ten dollar dinners], do you have any budget tips that you can share?
Melissa: Absolutely. I have a million techniques that I stack one on top of the other and it cuts my grocery bill dramatically. But I also know that not everybody has the time or the inclination to implement all of these techniques. My favorite shopping tip is to buy the protein loss leaders. In the grocery stores, they pretty much all have one chicken, one beef and maybe one pork item on major loss leader sale. And you can identify which one it is because it is the protein that is like 50 to 75 percent off. So you know, a steak that is normally $14.99 is now $4.99.
The idea is, of course, the grocery store puts this great offer out there, gets you into the store, and then you buy all of your groceries there, and it will more than make up for the difference. But the smart consumer will buy several packages of this protein and freeze it... And your proteins are typically the most expensive part of your meal. So a high percentage off the most expensive part of your meal equals a lot of value for that one tip.
Beating the Pros
iVillage: So what was that like for you, being the stay-at-home mom with four kids, competing against these professional chefs?
Melissa: Well, it was a little bit overwhelming at first. I think that first day, everyone thought, including me, that I might be going home because people around me had such amazing resumes and had such culinary talent and experience. But I think for me the key was to leverage my experience as a stay-at-home mom to four little girls. My experience as a career woman who works 80 or 90 hours a week and still throws dinner parties for her girlfriends on a Thursday night, and my experience as a working parent. And I needed to access that experience, embrace that, and bring it to my performance on Next Food Network Star, and that's exactly what I plan to do with Ten Dollar Dinners, is bring my experience and celebrate that in the kitchen and share it with viewers.
Melissa: There was a turning moment for me, which was the Iron Chef America Red Lobster Challenge. I think that something about cooking outside there with the ocean behind us, it just really connected me into who I am as a person and it really sort of encouraged me to trust my own experiences and trust that...35 years of cooking, with kids around me and not kids around me and different environments, would be enough and that I would bring enough to the table.
iVillage: And why did you decide to do the show to begin with? I mean, here you are, you've got these four little children at home, and I'm sure you have plenty on your plate already, and one day you're just like, "Hey, I think I want to be the next Food Network Star."
Melissa: I actually didn't do it because my days were empty and I was looking for a hobby! Before Next Food Network Star was even on the radar, I did a lot of speaking with moms' groups in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and the topic that I would get asked about over and over again was how to do household budgeting and how to cut grocery bills, because I am the woman who gets $300 worth of groceries for like $72. That's me. So I would share with these women my tips and tricks and savings techniques.
And as a part of that I also did a little segment on my own homemade yogurt that I would make in the garage in Texas without a yogurt machine. So there were so many women, so I actually would host women over to my house...and I would show them how to do it. Well, there just were too many women to be doing this in just my little kitchen, so I had this idea to put together a video and e-mail it out to these women who requested to learn how to make yogurt. Well, at the same time, there was the Food Network, and I love Next Food Network Star. And then I saw they were casting and that you could submit a video. So I was like, two birds, one stone, now's the time to do it! So that's how I ended up doing it.
Balancing Her New Role
iVillage: So I know you used to be a working mom, then you were a stay-at-home mom [and now you're working again]. We see a lot of discussions about that on our site on the message boards. Since you've been both, what are some pros and cons of each?
Melissa: I never imagined I was going be a stay-at-home mom. I met my husband late in life and I never thought that I would have enough kids to sort of justify leaving the work force. But becoming a stay-at-home mom was absolutely the right decision for me at that time, especially with 4 little ones [who] all came within 2 1/2 years. So I don't want to say I was forced into it, but it just really made sense for me. I felt like I would just be missing out so much.
I think that the job hosting Ten Dollar Dinners is a perfect job for me because I can come in, fly in, do some work, stay for a few days, get things done—a crazy few days—but get things done, and then fly back. And then I can be there for my kids. So I'm really lucky. It's all about a balance. I'm sure I won't do it perfectly, but as long as I keep my priorities straight that my kids and my family are my priority, I think I'll manage it day by day.
I love my days with my kids. I wouldn't give them up for anything. I would rather cut corners on my financial end, which is what we had to do [when I left my first job]. At the time, I was making more money than my husband. So it was a pretty big sacrifice for us to make, but it was the right choice for us. I know that not everybody has that choice, and I admire women who do what they have to do to make ends meet for their family. And I'll tell you what, I think that the woman who's going out there and is forgoing the stay-at-home mom experience because she needs to make ends meet for her family, I think she is also putting her family first. In a very different way, [it's] is also putting your family first. And I say, good for her for putting her family's needs in front of her own desire to not miss out on those milestones.
Ten Dollar Dinners airs Sundays at 12:30 pm ET/PT
Make Melissa's easy budget recipes: