Family Dinner

Jenny Mollen shares stories about making food for her family and her new book "Dictator Lunches"

Jenny Mollen Packs Healthy Lunches & Lets Husband Jason Biggs Do Everything Else

On feeding tiny dictators as a busy working mom, why lunch is the best time to get your kid to try new things, and why Jason is never allowed to read Fair Play.

Family Dinner

Jenny Mollen’s warmth and humor is completely disarming — it only takes about two minutes for our recent call to feel like a chat with an old friend. As the food-loving parent of an extremely picky 4-year-old, seeing balanced, nutrition-packed, adorable lunches like the ones in her new book, Dictator Lunches, usually makes me want to break out in guilt-hives. But Mollen — in all her candor and charm — somehow presents the idea of making super cute, thoughtful, healthy school lunches feel genius and no-pressure. Like a note from a friend who cares saying simply, “Here's what works for me. Maybe try it.”

Mollen somehow makes it look — dare I say — almost fun to pack a healthy lunch for your kid. Whether or not it is realistic to create the gorgeous lunches shown in the book, bite-for-bite, without the kind of domestic help that she and her husband, Jason Biggs, are lucky to have is not the point. My takeaway from Dictator Lunches was more philosophical-reset than prescriptive how-to. Her outlook inspires me to both push my kids and have fun with it — whether or not the result is as picture-perfect as what she (and her team) produces. Her lively spirit permeates the book, and is totally invigorating.

A mother of two — Sid, age 9, and Lazlo, age 5 — Mollen understands that, as parents, our metaphorical plates are full — often overwhelmingly so — and getting an interesting, meaningful meal onto our kids’ literal plates can feel positively daunting. She is not here to pressure us, not one bit. “I am just a latchkey kid and a working mom trying to sublimate my anxiety and guilt into something my kids and possibly other parents will find useful.”

Mollen’s book, Dictator Lunches, is out now from Harper Collins.

Her kid food ethos is driven by three primary goals. As she explains in the book, school lunch can be a sweet spot, because “when you aren't around, the power dynamic can make great strides in what your child is willing to try...lunch making boils down to the holy trinity of nutrition, exposure and story.” Story! Yes, I realized, story is what I really want to give my kid. Do I care if he likes cucumbers or not? Not particularly. But, I do want the food I give him to feel like it tells a story — of the farm it came from, or of our family life — and feel imbued with meaning.

I talked with Mollen all about the challenge of feeding tiny dictators as a busy working mom, why lunch is the best time to get your kid to try new things, her go-to Halloween treat, and why Jason is never allowed to read Fair Play.

So, I was just looking through your book, and I love it so much because it's super relevant to me personally. I have a very picky 4-year-old.

Ohhhhh. You're in it.

I'm in it. I would love to know about your experience with picky eaters, your own food background, and what sparked the idea for this book?

My son was 2. He was starting preschool and I knew that I had to send him to school with lunches. But, I didn't want to just give him a sandwich every day because that wasn't what he was eating at home. I had a Guatemalan nanny, and he was eating rice and beans and pupusas at home. We were eating zucchini noodles all the time — you know, more adventurous stuff. And my son Sid, my first son, is a dictator. He controls us. He definitely rules the roost. I said to Jason, “If I'm not careful, this kid could turn into one of those kids that just wants pasta with butter, and I can't let that happen.”

I longed to have a parent that would cut the crusts off my sandwiches, and send me to school with a handwritten note.

So, I started with just with leftovers from dinner. Like how can I make it compelling? How can I make him feel like he has the best lunch at the lunch table? In so many ways, it was me sublimating my own guilt because I'm not the mom that does pick-up and drop-off all the time. I'm working. And I wanted to make sure he felt this sense of constancy. That even if I'm not there, I'm still there with him. And then it just evolved, you know, people resonated with it online. And at some point I said to Jason, “I think this could be a book.”

Dictator Lunches takes ants on a log to the next level.

What did meal time — especially lunch time — look like in the house that you grew up in?

Well, my dad writes books on diet and exercise. So, I grew up not eating red meat. I grew up thinking that like every kid came home and got on the treadmill after school. I mean, there was dysfunction all around, but it also set me up to have pretty healthy habits. For me, my favorite indulgent sort of thing is like, a tub of peanut butter. Like, I don't crave the sh*t that Jason grew up with because I just never had it.

My parents weren't around. I was a latchkey kid. I was always tasked with making my own lunches. Nobody was doing it for me, I didn't have the handwritten notes. I longed to have a parent that would cut the crusts off my sandwiches, and send me to school with a handwritten note. But that was not my life. So, on some level, I think the book is me parenting my children, but also reparenting myself.

Yes! I always had jealousy about the kids who had notes in their lunches. OK, so, who cooked at home with both of your parents working? Did anyone cook?

There wasn't a lot of cooking. There was a lot of takeout.

And what about now, in your own home? Since both you and Jason work, do you try to cook dinner every night?

I never go by what I think the kids will eat. I do believe that it's like breaking a horse.

Even if I'm not cooking dinner, I'm the one that decides what dinner will be. I have my nanny, Mike, prep the coconut rice. And then I'll go home and do the final thing, whatever it is — roasting something or making the tacos or you know, depending on what it is. But yeah, I usually have either my nanny or my assistant help in the morning to decide what we’re going to make that day.

Ohhhh, that’s really nice.

I'm lucky. I'm so lucky.

Back to your book. I really loved it. I have a background in food, and I love food, and so it is confusing to have a picky kid. Often, books that are prescriptive about what to feed your kid feel overwhelming. But, the tone of your book is so warm and inviting, and I love your concept of “story” being as important as “nutrition” and “exposure”. It sounds like nutrition was a big part of your upbringing. Was “story” part of that as well? Or is that all you?

That’s me! I'm a writer, so at the end of the day, I wanna make everything into copy.

It's really relatable as a parent. What you want to give your kid is a warm feeling. I'm curious about how you learned to cook — are you self taught?

Self taught completely. I had a fibroid thing happen with my second child, and I had to do an autoimmune protocol and that's when I learned about all these alternative flours. It was like, can I cut the sugar out of that? What are the substitutes? What are the alternative milks? I think, while I'm not technically a great chef by any means, I do have a pretty dense understanding of what’s out there.

Let’s talk about meal planning. What does that look like for you?

I never go by what I think the kids will eat. I do believe that it's like breaking a horse. Like the more you show it to them... for example, falafel. My kids were not gonna touch falafel, especially because it's green on the inside. But truly, I found that when I just keep doing it and exposing them, they eventually end up eating it. I really go by what's in season. You know, we had pizza and cake for Lazlo's birthday yesterday. So I need to think about what I can give them for dinner that's actually nutritious and kind of balanced.

Do you guys do takeout?

Tons of takeout! What I do is get the cauliflower or another side from someplace, and then I'll make the chicken. I really just cut and paste everything.

What is your go-to meal when everyone is tired and cranky and you have just a few minutes? Let's say you've got 20 minutes — what would you do?

I would probably do like rice. Like a fried rice or something like that with eggs and like whatever vegetables are in my fridge. If I have more time, and I want them to have a really great dinner that I know everybody's gonna eat, I'll do a Hainanese chicken rice where I boil the chicken and serve it with ginger-scallion-garlic sauce. I'll actually steam the rice in the ginger, garlic, and broth of the chicken. It's so easy, and really soothing.

I'm always broiling everything. I’ll broil any vegetable.

If your kids could pack their own lunch, what would they pack? Do they comment on your packed lunches? Do they say, like, “I loved it Mom?”

Mollen in her kitchen.
Scary good snacks from Dictator Lunches.

Sometimes they’ll will be like, “my mom is the best.” But, no, they're not that impressed by me. I mean, they really aren't. If they were packing lunch, they’d definitely put dried fruit, granola. They love an avocado sandwich. They love a tuna sandwich. It really depends on what we had for dinner the night before. If there's pizza, of course they want the pizza. They love a Babybel cheese.

When your kids are grown up, and they're remembering their childhood, and food from childhood, what is the feeling that you hope that they have? What are the food memories that you hope you’re building for them?

I hope that they think about food as such a great way to understand different cultures. I want them to be really well-versed in the difference between Korean and Chinese food, and understand that just because something doesn't look familiar doesn't mean it doesn't taste delicious. I want them to have that sense of adventure. And I obviously don't want them to eat anything that has a shelf life longer than two weeks.

What does the division of labor in your home look like? You said once that Jason — when he's home he's home, but sometimes he's gone like for extended periods of time. How does that work? Do you have expectations for the balance of labor? Who does the dishes? Does Jason ever pack the lunches?

He doesn't pack lunch. But, he is the only person that does the dishes. Like I don't do the dishes at all. He is pretty specific about how he wants it done. So I don't even try. He does all the trash. Dishwasher, all the clothes. I don't even know how to work the washer and dryer. I mean it's all Jason. That's great. But it's therapeutic for him. So, I lucked out. I never want him to read the book Fair Play. A friend of mine sent a copy of the book over, and I was like, “Get this outta my house.”

[Mollen laughs]. I don't want him to know that I'm not doing as much as he is.

Ha! I’m sure you're doing plenty.

I’m the documentarian. And I'm the neurotic one about, like, the kids. I must pick out all the after school activities and decide where they go to school. And I force them to speak German. So, that's me.

Um, that's amazing. I mean, that sounds like the great division of labor.

It's kind of interesting.

What is your absolute favorite food of all time?

Favorite food ever? Just like, a loaf of challah bread. Like, I would want that instead of a birthday cake.

Ooh agree. That’s a great one. And do you have family food traditions? We're heading into holiday times — are there certain food traditions that you’re looking forward to?

Yes! For Halloween, I will make a rice crispy treat thing that looks like candy corn. For Christmas and Thanksgiving, Jason cooks. He's doing two turkeys this year for Thanksgiving, and I like to do off-the-wall, random sides, because I don't like Thanksgiving food. I think it's weird. So, I'm gonna probably do a roasted eggplant and tahini thing. I like more Middle Eastern, or Asian flavors. That's where I go.

This year, I have so much family coming. It's gonna be my dad, my sister, her three sons, my stepbrother, my sister-in-law and her boyfriend. My in-laws. It's gonna be crazy. And my apartment isn’t that big! There are not enough seats. I don't know what we're gonna do. It’s going to be crowded.