Magazine makes cooking a tool in fight against child obesity

Free issues will be distributed at doctors’ offices across area

The debut issue of ChopChop includes 11 recipes, as well as cooking tips. The debut issue of ChopChop includes 11 recipes, as well as cooking tips.
By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / March 23, 2010

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As any parent of a finicky eater knows, children are more likely to eat something they made themselves. Yet until now, no one has thought to make cooking part of the battle against childhood obesity, says Watertown cookbook author Sally Sampson.

But Sampson believes that her new, free 32-page quarterly magazine will lure elementary school children into the kitchen.

Copies of the inaugural issue of ChopChop were mailed out yesterday. Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone of Somerville ordered enough to put in every elementary school backpack in his city, and copies will soon be “prescribed’’ at most of the major pediatric practices and hospitals in the region.

Sampson started off thinking she would just deliver a few child-oriented recipes to Boston-area hospitals and doctors’ offices. But she said the idea stirred so much enthusiasm that the first printing of 150,000 copies will be distributed to more than 30 states, and she hopes to move to monthly publication quickly. The magazine’s nutrition advisory board is packed with local luminaries. A companion website is expected to go live this week.

“Our goal is to reach every kid in America in this age range,’’ she said.

The debut issue includes 11 recipes, as well as cooking tips, explainers about kitchen tools, a food-related word search, and a short profile of a Newburyport seventh-grader, Orren Fox, who raises chickens and dreams of starring on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.’’

What Sampson made sure it doesn’t include is any mention of the obesity epidemic or lectures about what to eat and what to avoid.

“She’s created a kind of Trojan horse here — a stealth, fun way to eat healthy,’’ said Gary Hirshberg, chief executive of Stonyfield Farm, which is an adviser to and sponsor of ChopChop. Childhood obesity “is serious stuff,’’ Hirshberg said, “but that doesn’t mean we need to be serious all the time. We can have fun. And frankly, if you want anyone under 22 involved, then it has to be fun.’’

Stonyfield Farm and other sponsors have no say in the content, according to Sampson, but they do get attention. The first issue, for instance, does not feature advertisements, but there is a coupon for Stonyfield Farm yogurt, an article about growing a garden in a box that features a picture of pansies in a recycled Stonyfield container, and a small promotion for OXO cooking tools, another corporate sponsor. Other early backers include Boston Medical Center, Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, MassGeneral Hospital for Children, Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, and Children’s Hospital Boston.

Sampson said she intends to keep a tight rein on which commercial products appear in the magazine, and won’t accept financial support from companies that don’t fit the healthy food message.

The magazine has raised about $100,000, she said, money that went into printing and shipping the first issue. Writing, editing, photography, design, and promotion were done pro bono, though all involved expect to be paid for future work.

Hirshberg said he hopes other companies will see the wisdom of investing in ChopChop, even if they can’t quantify their return on investment.

“The calculus we make is ‘is it consistent with our values?’ ’’ he said, and “how many people will it reach?’’

Pediatrician Margaret Coleman, of CHA Cambridge Pediatrics, who was not involved in producing the magazine, said she’s looking forward to giving it to patients — and their parents.

A major reason children don’t eat well is that parents don’t eat well, Coleman said.

“Parents don’t cook. They don’t know anything about cooking,’’ she said.

About 17 percent of elementary school children are now obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up from 6.5 percent 30 years ago. According to one recent study, the vast majority of overweight children grow up to become obese adults.

The magazine offers very basic, simple instructions — such as “throw the shells away’’ after cracking an egg — and inexpensive ingredients that can be found even in small urban grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods.

“ChopChop is providing much needed alternatives to Ronald McDonald for meals that can be fun and healthy at the same time,’’ said Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. As a member of the magazine’s nutrition advisory board, Willett reviews all recipes before publication.

ChopChop also has a children’s advisory board, which includes Orren and 9-year-old Julien Alam from Cambridge. The fourth-grader said it makes him “feel pretty cool’’ to be part of the magazine, testing recipes and offering his opinions to Sampson. He even has some ideas about future editorial content.

“I think she should make an apple crumble,’’ Julien said. “I’d like to test that recipe.’’


Kids in the Kitchen

Kids in the Kitchen

Recipes for easy and fun dishes you can make with your kids.