interview with happy girl and foodnetwork.com star, melissa d'arabian



November 1st always feel like a clean slate to me. The Halloween decorations are tucked away until next autumn and thoughts turn to cozy moments revolving around family and food. Recently I caught up with "Next Food Network Star" season five winner, television host, NYT best-selling author and mom of four, Melissa d"Arabian to talk about happy things, moving forward and her series "The Picky Eaters Project" on FoodNetwork.com.


The Happygirl: Good morning, Melissa! It's so good to meet you! I'm so excited to talk with you. You've had a pretty amazing life and career.

Melissa d'Arabian: I won't complain! I do like my life!

The Happygirl:  I'd like to just dive in, if we could. Reading over your biography, you've had some dark periods in your life and yet you have the most ebullient personality. How did you maintain your faith and your strong belief system when things weren't in the brightest space?

Melissa d'Arabian: Are you referring to my mom?

The Happygirl: Yes.

Melissa d'Arabian:  I will tell you this. My mom died by suicide when I was twenty and that sent me into a decade long bit of a faith crisis. That was a very difficult time but I think I came out of that with even a stronger faith and with a more personal connection to my faith. I think the result is that I rely on my faith for everything and it is such a deep integrated part of who I am. I think that going through a decade like that, in that moment, that loss put a lot of things into perspective. Also losing someone dear to me via suicide really proved to me that happiness is an inside job. I think that has carried with me into how I am now. People say “Oh, you have such a cool job. You’re on TV and you won Food Network Star. . .” Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for all of that and what a huge blessing it was to have won. Was it exciting? Of course it was but the truth is I am not happier now than I was five years ago. The message isn’t that I’m not happy now. It’s that I am happy now and I was happy five years ago. My level of happiness has not changed and that is the gift, if you will, from of that dark phase. Happiness is an inside job. I really believe that in my gut. I really truly believe money doesn’t buy you happiness. I wish there was a way for everybody to believe it too. 

The Happygirl:  Recently I wrote a blog post about whether to tell or not to tell someone about something you may have gone through. In my case, it was losing a baby which impacted my life greatly but I always pause and think “Do I tell this person?” because from that point on that person will look at me differently.  Do you ever feel that way about what you have been through?

Melissa d'Arabian: I find that very interesting. I am going to look that up because I had that similar experience of to tell or not to tell. I have that a little less now at 45. I am now in the company of people who have lost their parents. When you’re twenty and raised by a single mom and then you lose her, there was a lot of that feeling of “to tell or not to tell?” Do you tell them she died because then they want to know how she died.  It changed the conversation. 

The Happygirl: Switching gears. . . You won season 5 of Next Food Network Star and you remained so calm in the face of crisis when things were thrown at you. How did you maintain your calmness when things weren’t so calm around you and even today how do you do that?

Melissa d'Arabian: You know, for me it really is about trusting in that things are as they should be. My job is to get up in the morning, get ready to face the day, do my best and let the results fall where they may. That doesn’t mean I’m not ambitious. It doesn’t mean I don’t want the best. It doesn’t mean I don’t get disappointed but I see my role in this world as less of one where I need to be the director but rather I am an actor in my movie. I need to do my best and do what I think I am intended to do and that’s it.  

Melissa d'Arabian: Things happen. We all have stressful moments, don’t get me wrong. I use a phrase that helps me. When things don’t go my way I really try to stay in the terminology of “I prefer” as in “I would prefer to not have missed my flight. I would prefer not to be stuck in Miami waiting for my flight to San Diego for seven hours. I would prefer that.” It can be a loving way to acknowledge my inconvenience as well as sort of say “You know what? I am not in charge of the world.” I use that phrase a lot. (laughs) 

The other thing I do when things are hectic is that I really try to look at “Is this really the price I pay to get something else I really value?” For example I live in a beach town and in the summertime it gets really packed. Even to go five blocks to go to the grocery store, if you take your car instead of your bike you get stuck in traffic and I find myself like ‘Ugh, there is all this traffic!” but I have to remind myself that this is the price I pay for living near one of the most beautiful beaches in the United States or the entire world and that people want to come visit it. So, I am welcome to pick up and move somewhere where tourists don’t want to come in the summer where I would be able to go five blocks without traffic.  I am really trying to view inconveniences as: Is this the price I pay for something I value more? That also helps me reconcile when the world isn’t aligning exactly as I want it. 


The Happygirl:  Let’s talk about “The Picky Eaters Project,” your new series. What is the secret to get someone (husband, child etc.) to not be so picky?
Melissa d'Arabian:  Here is the thing about picky eating. I think there is this myth that picky eating comes from parents who just fed their kids chicken nuggets all the time, that they just checked out and brought it on themselves. Of course, if we do feed our kids chicken nuggets every single night they probably will become picky eaters. (laughs)  At the same time, I suspected that there was more to it than that. As a mother of four girls, some are picky, some are not. I felt that I did all the “right things.”

What I suspected and confirmed by doing some research and looking at my kids' behavior is that  picky eating is very complex and has a lot of root causes. It isn’t just about the food and finding the magical broccoli recipe that is caramelized and sweet so your kids will like it. It isn’t as simple as the oft-given pieces of advice like "Get your kids to cook in the kitchen with you because then they’ll eat it.” These are good pieces of advice but they are random isolated tips and not a full program that looks at the problem as a whole. “The Picky Eaters Project” is an eight-week cumulative program with three activities every week. The first half of the program isn’t really even dealing with the food. We’re not bringing in new, healthy items. We are really developing a positive environment, an exploratory palate. There are a lot of root causes that go into pickiness and I think that the body of tips tends to deal with “How do you make a good recipe?” and yes there are tips in "The Picky Eaters Project” but it really is about the bigger context. 
Melissa d'Arabian: For a picky husband, I think someone could go through “The Picky Eaters Project," set up a pantry and a safe snack zone, making the default choice a healthier choice. There are a lot of things you can do and frankly you can implement them yourself and it will create an environment where an exploratory palate is implicitly rewarded in a sense. I don’t mean rewarded like a sticker chart. I mean it is easier to be adventurous than not. 
The Happygirl: Is there a go to meal that your kids and husband love?
Melissa d'Arabian: I’ll tell you what. I’ve got four kids and it varies. For a long time, the one dish everyone loved was lasagne which was super super easy. Everybody loved it and I could put in spinach and whole grain pasta. Suddenly, out of the blue Margaux decided she didn’t like lasagne. I try not to get too married into that one magical meal idea. That being said, part of the “The Picky EatersProject” is to identity meals that are huge successes. Make Your Own Taco Bar is something that is a huge success in our family. Everyone likes my baked fish, like fish sticks. It can really change though. I try to create a menu so that there is something for everyone on the table that they really like. If there is something that they don’t love?  That is OK. People are allowed to have opinions.  I want to raise girls who know that their opinions matter. If they don’t care for something, they are allowed to not care for something. When it turns into carte blanche for refusing to eat anything, then she is being picky. There is a fine line to be found between your kid’s (or husband’s) voices being heard and respected and allowing someone to just be picky and refuse to eat anything. It’s a balance, isn’t?
The Happygirl: It is. OK, Melissa, as we wrap, what five things make you happy? 
Melissa d'Arabian: I just got back from Bible study and that makes me happy. 
Melissa d'Arabian: Tucking my kids into bed at night. Smelling my kids when they’re sleeping makes me viscerally happy and full of joy.
Melissa d'Arabian: Time alone with my husband when it’s just the two of us. We have date night every Friday. It could be Home Depot or grocery shopping. It doesn’t have to be dinner and a movie or something fancy. Space alone with him makes me so happy. 
Melissa d'Arabian: Mornings. My husband and I will take the girls to school every morning. We buckle them up in their helmets for the ride to school on their bikes. That makes me very happy. 
Melissa d'Arabian: I love one on one time with the girls. There are four of them and two of us so that makes eight permutations! (laughs) I love having one-on-one time with the girls. I treasure that and protect that. I love being with the girls and letting them know how much they mean to me. 

The Happygirl: Thank you, happy girl, Melissa d'Arabian! Here's to many future happy meals!
About The Picky Eaters Project on FoodNetwork.com:
Mom of four Melissa d’Arabian takes back the family dinner in The Picky Eaters Project, an 8-week workshop she created to tackle picky eating - one step at a time. Melissa addresses the root causes of her own kids' picky eating with simple weekly activities that encourage the development of a more adventurous palate. Join Melissa and her family straight from their home kitchen in a web-exclusive series on foodnetwork.com that promises to make eating together and building nourishing habits less stressful and more fun.
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About Melissa d'Arabian

Mom of four, television host and cookbook author Melissa d’Arabian (www.MelissadArabian.net) embodies family home cooking at its finest. With a lifelong passion for cooking and varied life experiences, Melissa naturally connects with today’s diverse families as she shares empowering food and lifestyle solutions that are part of a bigger story about how to eat well, be a responsible consumer and spend with purpose — all while putting satisfying family meals on the table every day. Her distinctive ability to utilize tried-and-true techniques, smart grocery store budget strategies and superior resource management skills while creating approachable family-friendly recipes as flavorful and elegant as they are affordable have made Melissa a trusted, go-to resource for home cooks everywhere.

After winning season five of well-known culinary competition series Next Food Network Star, Melissa's relatable cooking show Ten Dollar Dinners premiered on Food Network in August 2009. Each episode delivers on her $10 promise: four people, ten bucks, infinite possibilities, and proves a delicious budget-friendly meal can be made without compromise. A natural extension of her popular television series, Melissa's first cookbook, Ten Dollar Dinners: 140 Recipes and Tips to Elevate Simple, Fresh Meals Any Night of the Week (Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, Inc.), debuted in August 2012 and became an instant New York Times best seller.

Melissa also hosts Cooking Channel’s Drop 5 lbs. with Good Housekeeping, a cooking and lifestyle series that premiered in January 2012 based on the magazine’s popular monthly column. The fresh, simple and healthy recipes she prepares further the show’s mission to make weight loss easier and more manageable. Additionally, Melissa has appeared on highly rated Food Network prime-time series including The Best Thing I Ever Ate, Chopped, Food Network Challenge and The Best Thing I Ever Made.

Raised by a single mother who was putting herself through college and medical school, Melissa grew up in Tucson, Ariz., with a coupon-cutter mentality and on a shoestring budget in a humble home where waste was frowned upon but where cooking together was a favorite pastime, life lessons that have always remained at her core. Melissa received her bachelor’s degree in political science from The University of Vermont, and then spent a year at sea as part of the entertainment staff on cruise ships before going on to earn her M.B.A. at Georgetown University. Her professional career began in consulting, and Melissa eventually worked in corporate finance at Disney in Burbank, Calif., and in merchandise finance at Euro Disney outside of Paris where she met and eventually married her husband, Philippe. After having four daughters in three years, Melissa quickly realized she was hardwired to streamline the family’s expenses (just like her mom had to do) so they could live on a single income. She could never have guessed that a home video of her making yogurt — a simple yet successful strategy that saved Melissa more than $1,000 a year — to share with local moms would also be her ticket to the newest chapter in her career and life path.

National and local media including the Today show, CNN, People, Food Network Magazine and iVillage.com, regularly feature Melissa’s recipes and tips. She is also invited to participate in top-notch industry events including the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival and New York City Wine & Food Festival, as well as to speak at engagements nationwide for a variety of organizations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a cause very close to Melissa’s heart after losing her mother to suicide at age 20.

Living just outside San Diego, Melissa and Philippe have four daughters — Valentine, Charlotte and twins Margaux and OcĂ©ane — who double as Mom’s official taste testers. Melissa believes in the power of the family meal, and always serves food with the goal of nourishing both body and soul — cooking for the person, not the plate. She connects closely to her Christian faith and strives to live her life with meaning and purpose. Fans can stay in touch with Melissa on Facebook and Twitter (@MelissadArabian).