4:10 pm EST, November 5, 2019

Misha Collins on creating ‘The Adventurous Eaters Club,’ a food field guide for families

Supernatural’s Misha Collins spoke with Hypable about The Adventurous Eaters Club, the family cookbook that’s the latest of his many creative and charitable endeavors.

Penned by Misha Collins and his wife Vicki Collins, a writer and historian, The Adventurous Eaters Club: Mastering the Art of Family Mealtime is a cookbook and guide designed to help families to broaden palates and embrace experimentation with food. Drawing on their own personal experience as they unexpectedly faced difficulties with resistant eating from their son West and daughter Maison, and backed up with research pertaining to child psychology and food behavior from across the globe, The Adventurous Eaters Club shares the Collins family’s journey towards eating erudition. The key takeaway: play with your food. It’s not only fun, it’s necessary.

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With over 100 recipes for families to make together, all of which are perfect for helping children to gain a sense of autonomy and familiarity with ingredients, spices, smells and textures, The Adventurous Eaters Club encourages freedom within structure for cooking and eating as a family, all with the end goal in mind of building trust and eliminating fear between kids and their dinner plates.

Full of funny stories from Misha and Vicki, tips and insights from West and Maison, appetizing menus and the family’s worst food failures (sorry about the Breakfast Popsicles, Misha) and adorable photographs by Michéle M. Waite, the book is an accessible and enjoyable read that fans of Misha Collins and his family – particularly those who enjoy the weirder and wackier food-based tasked on an average year’s GISH list, and those who followed along their original food adventures on Cooking Fast and Fresh with West – will appreciate this book whether they have kids to feed themselves or not.

It’s obviously and most predominantly a resource that any parent could gain something from, so fans of Supernatural should spread the word about – or better yet, gift – this book to other parents, colleagues, and family members – anyone with little ones who would relish the chance to strengthen their kids’ relationship with food.

And there’s another group of people who should check this out – those adults who are so-called picky eaters to this day, who have ended up with a limited palate, perhaps due to the Western societal food culture that the book addresses. The principles that the Collinses have discovered, applied and documented are cartoon-lightbulb-coming-on levels of enlightenment, and reading about the psychology involved in the formative years of food exposure could be at the very least extremely interesting to identify in your own experience and at the most, if you wanted to do a kindness to the child you once were and adapt some of the tactics to suit your own experience, potentially life-changing.

The Adventurous Eaters Club by Misha Collins and Vicki Collins is available today from book retailers, with 100% of author proceeds being donated to non-profit programs that help underserved children gain access to healthy food. (It ironically shares a book birthday with Supernatural: The Official Cookbook, but if you can imagine the furthest apart that two cookbooks relevant to the same fandom could possibly be, go further. But you should add both to your collection for very different reasons.)

Misha Collins spoke to me last week about his family’s motivation behind creating The Adventurous Eaters Club, and how it feeds into the charities close to his heart, as well as the deep-seeded biological instinct that causes kids to have such difficulty trying new foods.

Hi, how are you? Thanks for taking the time to do this today.

I’m good! How are you?

I’m good. I’m speaking to you through a few different channels of connection here – I’m actually in Israel right now with my family, using my Australian data roaming to dial into Zoom online to call you on your phone, so it’s crossing a few lines of, I don’t know, sea cables, or however it works. So sorry if it cuts out a bit.

Oh my God, that’s amazing. Yeah, it’s probably going through some sort of underwater conduit and then up to a satellite and then down to a cell tower and then through my decoder ring.

I say this because it’s kind of a cool point to kick off with – talking about Mastering the Art of Family Mealtime. Because tonight here in my brother’s house is the first time in 15 years that my father has been in the room with all four of his children, who are living all throughout the world, and having a big family meal together, with six little grandkids as well, so it’s been quite an interesting day.

And reading your book in sight of that – this family in particular has dealt with a lot of the issues that are in the book over a couple of generations and in different environments so it’s just been an interesting juxtaposition.

Oh wow, that’s amazing. I hope that guys get to relish that experience, that sounds really cool.

Well, I had to exit out for a few minutes to talk to you so, you know, you can feel special about that.

Well, now I feel guilty.

No, no. You first started mentioning this book – I think that you mentioned doing a cookbook to us at San Diego Comic Con a couple of years ago. How long has this been a project that you and and Vicki have been working on exactly?

About that long, yeah. We probably started really working on it in earnest about two years ago, maybe a little bit more I guess? It takes a while to write a book, it turns out! I have this pathological problem of always – I always think everything is gonna be quick and easy and then it turns out it’s like, long and arduous. I have a tendency to be like “Yeah, let’s do that!” and then two years, two plus years later I’m like “Oh, I’m so tired!”

But it also makes it, you know, I think I’m also – and Vicki, my wife, is the same – we’re both sort of perfectionists. So when you couple optimism with perfectionism, it’s a recipe for a lot of work. But the nice thing about it is that at the end of that process, I feel like we have something that we’re really proud of and hopefully will be helpful to other families.

With this book, it’s a little bit of a field guide for families to develop, not only to sort of cultivate healthy joyful eaters in children but also to help use food as a force that knits families together, that bonds families. And a lot of that, a lot of what we have in the book, is stuff that we just stumbled upon and our own trial and error.

But a lot of it is also the result of a great deal of research that went into what the experts say and what the literature says about how to cultivate those things in families, so in totality – I say this not as a salesman, but just truthfully – I feel like I wish we had found this book when we had our first toddler, because it would have saved us a lot of grief and brought us a little bit of joy. But yeah, anyway, I’m rambling.

No, no, you’re allowed. It seems like something that, I guess generationally – like as times kind of change – there have been different ideas about what’s right and wrong in health, both for children and everyone and I feel like there’s some generations of adults who are in the same boat now that you’re trying to avoid your kids being in.

I was really shocked to read the food exposure thing being 20 or more times for a child to be feeling safe about trying a food, and this is very interesting to me because I suffer from these problems personally myself very severely – I have this issue to the extent that’s called avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.

Oh, fascinating.

So reading this book was really sad for me in a way almost, because I kind of can see some stuff that was clearly not right for me in that process as a child.

Do you mean like your parents trying to – or caretakers trying to coerce you into eating things that you were resistant to?

I guess it’s a – I think it’s a control thing, like I think it’s a control and, you know, fear thing.

Totally. Totally.

And there’s several people in my family that have this in a severe way, and some of the kids do, and some of the kids don’t, and it’s just a really strange thing to watch through the generations. So what was kind of the biggest red flag, with your kids, about it needing to change? I know The Adventurous Eaters Club describes a lot about what you were trying to avoid and when you’d kind of realize the rut that you’d got into, but was there a particular moment that was like a really, really severe worry?

That’s a great question – let me think on it. I don’t know that there was a specific – I’m sure that there were lots of specific moments, but there’s not one that is popping into mind. But I remember more… it’s almost like a feeling tone of the experience of trying to feed our son West when he was young, and him resisting, and us fighting him in different ways about that resistance, and him fighting back.

When he didn’t want to eat something he would just pick it up and throw it, and there was a lot of throwing of food, which is a really unsettling and unpleasant experience – even at the hands of a toddler – especially when it’s in the context of trying to coerce him into eating that food, and that was his sort of way that he was displaying resistance or defiance, you know? That was his “eff you” – he was like, “I’m just gonna throw this food that I don’t wanna eat.”

But he was also responding to us not knowing how kids learn about new foods. We came to the table, literally, with a whole host of expectations about our children just eating the way we ate. We just wanted them to sit down and have a grown-up palate right away, and that’s not how things are a lot of the time. A lot of the time you need to be patient with children and let them explore new foods by degrees. Sometimes it takes, as you mentioned, 15 times or 20 times of being exposed to a food in some way for a child to feel safe about that food – and we as a culture tend to be incredibly impatient around that.

So we as a culture – and Vicki and I were guilty of this too – when we saw our son throwing a Brussels sprout, we were like “Oh, okay, he doesn’t like Brussels sprouts. We’ll check that, we’ll put that in the column of foods that he hates.” When in fact, he just hadn’t yet been patiently enough exposed to Brussels sprouts. They need to see that food on their plate, and not in a big mashup with other foods. They need to smell it repeatedly. They need to see you eating it. And this is just natural – it’s a natural response to a child learning about new foods.

And there’s a true biological imperative for that, which is that kids, young children, are very historically – in the human family chain – young children are susceptible to disease and poisoning, much more than adults, and so they have to make sure that the food that they’re eating is safe, and if they can trust it, and that’s something that we literally come into the world programmed to do.

And yet we as Western parents are having this really unrealistic expectation of our children, and then when the child doesn’t like a Brussels sprout we just take that off the menu, and we start feeding them exclusively these bland, processed, un-nutritious foods, and then we have all these cultural reinforcements for that behavior, which come from food manufacturers, and come from children’s menus which offer nothing nutritious typically – like, the most nutritious thing that you can find on most children’s menus are factory raised carrot sticks.

You know, it’s like – we’re just not… We’re not exposing kids. We’re not giving kids the opportunity to broaden their palates, and for us, we were really frustrated because we were buying into a lot of the same cultural party lines, and seeing the result of kids who just didn’t want to eat anything.

For me particularly, as somebody who… You know, I had a somewhat rough childhood in some respects, and we were poor and homeless at times, but food was the thing that held us together, and so when I came to the table with kids who were fighting me about food, that was actually kind of traumatic for me, and I was like – I have to find a way out of this, I have to find a solution to this problem.

And so… it’s a long-winded answer to your question, but I think that there was a little bit of panic from a lot of different angles about having a difficult time feeding our kids, and mercifully we had the time and the patience to explore solutions to those problems, and kind of lucked into a few of them, and ended up discovering that if you give kids agency in the kitchen, if you allow them to take a lead in some of the cooking and preparation, and they have pride – they take ownership of the process, and they will be much more adventurous when it comes to eating, but also that process helps bond the family.

We were enjoying being in the kitchen together because we were all invited into that experiment of cooking together, and so those things were really… I don’t know, it felt like a big breakthrough for us in terms of family dynamics, and something that we wanted to share with the world, so we have, in the form of this cookbook.

It’s so interesting, because a lot of what you recommended in the book just felt so sensible once it was explained that I’m surprised that we’ve had like, decades of years of these problems, but I wanted to talk about the charity aspect as well.

You’re donating 100% of author proceeds from The Adventurous Eaters Club to various organizations providing healthy food to families, including The Edible Schoolyard Project, The Garden School Foundation, and the Whatcom Farm to School Fund. Obviously these past twelve months at Random Acts you have had such a focus on combating childhood hunger as well, and so I was wondering about the connection of that campaign to this book. Which came first, the chicken or the egg, with the childhood hunger fundraising and the concept of the book?

I think that the interest in helping underserved families came first. In spite of the fact that family meals were a coalescing force in my childhood, we also had a hard time getting food sometimes. We were lining up at soup kitchens from time to time, and scarcity was an issue for us, and I guess – because I actually had some of those experiences, I’ve always been particularly empathetic to the plight of, you know, homeless moms and their kids, and the incredible difficulty of having your basic human needs not met, and my heartstrings have always just been really tugged on by that particular issue.

So I was interested in, and raising money for charities that do work in that space prior to the inception of this cookbook, but once we started writing the cookbook – which for me is not a vanity project, and it’s not a for-profit endeavor – it’s really about trying to help shift our cultural narrative about family food, a desire to share some of what felt like the epiphanies for our family with others, and it felt like a really natural fit to take the proceeds, the profits from that, and send them to nonprofits that do work in that space as well.

One of the things that’s actually been really lovely is that we’ve been meeting with and talking to people running charities that help bring access to healthy whole foods to communities and families and kids who don’t have access.

It’s kind of heartbreaking to see, there are a lot of places – obviously there are places around the world where starvation and hunger are real issues, but there are places in the United States, in cities around this country, where people literally don’t have access to vegetables. Where if a family doesn’t have the money for a car and for gas, or the time to get on a bus to go to a grocery store, then their only option in a lot of places in the U.S. is to go buy food at a convenience store.

If you’re buying groceries at a convenience store, you are not ever going to be able to introduce your children to broccoli, and your children are going to grow up thinking that Cheetos are lunch. And those kids are gonna grow up to have heart disease and diabetes, and that is both tragic and wildly unfair, so we found these incredible organizations that are working in that space, and can’t wait to collaborate with.

That’s a point I think is important. With the processes and tactics that you’re experimenting with throughout the book with your family, you very openly admit that you’re in a position of privilege with time and money. What would you suggest to families who can’t necessarily afford either the time or money to make the efforts that you and Vicki have been able to make in The Adventurous Eaters Club, who are also experiencing this problem with difficult eaters, who want to combat that, but who maybe do have to shop at places like convenience stores?

Well, our book does not present a solution to the convenience store problem. The proceeds from the book hopefully will make a dent in that, but our book does presume a certain baseline of access. Like, you have to be able to buy a vegetable in order to make some of the items in our cookbook.

But that said, every step of the way we tried to be as conscious as possible about not making elitist assumptions, and not having any complicated grocery items in there that could only be found at Whole Foods. None of the recipes mandate organic foods. There are a lot of advantages, if you can afford it, to buying organic, but if you can’t, a fresh vegetable is better than no vegetable, and we try to be as clear about that as possible in the book.

And we’re also aware of the fact that we have the luxury at times of allowing the kids to make a huge mess in the kitchen, and maybe even to, you know, to spill some flour on the floor in the process. But if you are a single working mom, and you’re stressed, and you’re coming home from work and you’re staring down the barrel of a double shift, and you’re trying to make your kids food, you don’t have that luxury.

So there’s a lot of toggling that is embedded in the book where it’s like, if you have the resources, if you have the time, and by resources, mostly I mean time – you can do this, but if not there are simple solutions and there are shortcuts, and a lot of what’s in the cookbook is something that is accessible to most everyone.

But then again, you know, there are people out there who can only shop in convenience stores, and unfortunately those are also people who probably aren’t going to be able to afford a hardback copy of this book, and that sucks.

So we’re actually – the weekend after next [November 9 and 10] trying to go down to South Central LA to do a cooking demo in a community that really is one of those communities that I’m talking about, but this community has got the city of Los Angeles to donate vacant land to build a community garden, and in that community garden they’re growing fresh broccoli, and then they’re introducing kids at the public school there to broccoli, and not only that, their parents – some of whom also have never had broccoli.

So, you know, we’re not solving all the problems, but we are certainly being conscious of the fact that there are a lot of problems.

Thank you, that’s fantastic. I think that people will really appreciate hearing that.

The Adventurous Eaters Club: Mastering the Art of Family Mealtime is available now from a variety of book retailers. Signed copies and merchandise are available on The Adventurous Eaters Club website.

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