The Mommy Chef Who Saved Dinner


Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 10.10.42 AMYesterday as I was spreading cream cheese on the 100th plain bagel of the month, I started to lecture Nate on the benefits of at least trying a different spread. There is butter and jelly, I argued. There is butter with jelly. Peanut butter and jelly, sliced cheese. There are all sorts of new combinations and foods to try. Life is rich and varied and food should be too!

Nate took a bite. “Mommy,” he said thoughtfully. “Is god real?”

So that happened, but it was an interesting time for this question because a small miracle has recently occurred.

My second kid, Mack (pictured on the right), is a terrific eater. I didn’t think it was possible after Nate and his plain-yogurt-only years but then along came Mack and the boy can eat. And the funny thing is he eats perfectly. He prefers eggs (usually “sunnystideup”) to bagels and cantaloupe to cake. He shuns carbs, consuming most fruit, vegetables and healthy proteins like fish and seaweed. Honestly.

Again, I have nothing to do with this little guy’s taste—he is a take-no-prisoners three year old. Mack eats what Mack wants to eat and on his birthday he wanted to eat cucumbers. When Michael explained the real point behind the Super Bowl: chips, pretzels, dips, salsa and Velveeta queso. Mack chimed in, “and carrots!” It’s weird a little.

Anyway, I now have a terrible eater and a perfect eater who only wants to eat whatever the terrible eater is eating. When we sit down to dinner Mack joins in the  “ew gross” chant even though he loves salmon. Usually I give Mack a separate plate in addition to the pasta/hot dogs/mac and cheese plate that I give Nate because he will inevitably ask for whatever he sees on Nate’s plate even if he doesn’t want to eat it. Basically I’m still cooking for a picky eater despite the fact that Mack is not one.

This winter I’ve tried to combine Nate’s core food groups (eggs, bacon, pasta, bread) in new ways. For example, my breakfast pasta. These pizza bagels and my DIY egg muffins. But I’m still not getting veggies or grains into my kids. Plus I’m tired of these same old ingredients. I want to make one creative, interesting, healthy meal for all of us. I want to be inspired. And that’s why I called mommy chef Paula Hankin.

Paula Hankins and her son.

Paula Hankin and her son.

Paula’s son Max and my Mack are buddies so we’ve spent lots of mommy time together—you know, in windowless rooms full of crying toddlers throwing pretzels. But what Paula really does is cook interesting, healthy food for celebrities like 50 Cent and also for kids, especially her kid.

Years ago she was working in mortgage banking when she met celebrity trainer Jay Cardiello at a charity event in the Hamptons. They fell in love, married and she started cooking for his clients. Everyone loved her creative take on good-for-you foods and Jay encouraged her to start her own business, Clueless in the Kitchen. Paula took a few classes at ICE and then started doing small catering jobs and dinner parties.

“Then I had Max and it changed me.” Although she never got into making baby food—too much work for too little reward—she did start catering kids birthday parties with genius inventions like fruit skewers, quiches, mini chicken and waffles.

Cooking was a far cry from finance but it wasn’t entirely out of the blue. “It’s always been about the food. I grew up in an Italian Jewish household in Long Island. When my friends were at softball practice I was home making caprese salads.” She says she was always the one giving advice to friends about recipes or what to buy for their kitchen.

“I know it sounds cheesy but all of a sudden the universe is clicking.”

Not only is she a brand ambassador for KIND snacks, she has worked with celebrities including Vanessa Lachey, Ryan Seacrest, Alex Rodriguez, 50 Cent, Val Kilmer and The Real Housewives of New York’s Kristen Teakman. She has been featured in Men’s Fitness, OK, Shape and

Her forte is making “diet” food—paleo, vegan, low fat, etc—fun and delicious. For one client, she makes a quinoa-crusted cod with a vegan tartar sauce. Another client likes quinoa fried rice. She uses Miracle Noodles for mac & cheese, and calls it all “vegan junk food”— comfort food for people who have limited diets.

Although Max is a good eater, she has encountered many picky kids. “You gotta do what you gotta do” is her general motto. For example, she has no problem hiding veggies (and does it exceptionally well in her green eggs and ham recipe—pureed kale makes it Dr. Seuss-like.) She’s great at cute, colorful presentations or calling healthy food by another name…like “superhero food.“ She does restrict sugar and preservatives but she’s totally against force-feeding. “If they’re not going to eat it, it’s fine but there is nothing else waiting.”

Engaging kids in the process is crucial. She lets Max choose which vegetable he wants for dinner, brings him to the grocery store and lets him play Veggie Circus on the iPad. Most importantly she tries to make healthy food fun and inventive. For example, Max likes to help her make whole-wheat tortilla pizza. “Every kid is different and will go through a different phase. Parents need to remember that it’s not their fault!”

I love this woman. And then there is her brilliant take on chicken nuggets—with a crust made of quinoa and a kale/cheese filling. Mack, my little foodie, helped me make them and to my utter surprise, Nate ate six. For Easter, Paula makes a cute, and healthy, treat—bananas rolled in peanut butter and crunchies with two pretzels as ears—which my boys found hard to resist.

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