Tackling obesity

Michael van de Elzen. Photo: Supplied
Michael van de Elzen. Photo: Supplied
Celebrity chef Michael Van de Elzen is on a mission to tackle New Zealand children’s high obesity rates. He tells Rebecca Fox it is time to stop talking and do something about it.

He will forever be the ''Food Truck man'' but chef Michael Van de Elzen does not mind the moniker.

''It's fine. It doesn't worry me.''

He rose to fame with his television series The Food Truck, which was based on making healthier versions of fast food and takeaways.

It is his popularity with children since the series that has inspired his latest cookbook - The Good From Scratch Kids Cookbook.

''Ever since the food truck days I've attracted kids. They're constantly coming up to me asking what to eat, what I eat or cook. I'm always fielding questions.''

Added to that he has children of his own, Hazel (7) and Ivy (5), who are always keen to get into the kitchen with their father.

But the main reason is his drive to do something about New Zealand's growing childhood obesity rates.

''We can't deny the childhood obesity rates in New Zealand and more needs to be done.''

Programmes teaching children how to grow food is great, but they also need to be shown how to cook it, he says.

That is where his cookbook tour comes in. Van de Elzen is travelling around New Zealand visiting 45 schools and organisations, with a focus on going to the regions.

Talking from his fourth stop in Kaikoura, Van de Elzen says children in smaller centres are amazed to see someone like him in their town.

He is also determined for the tour to go one step further and is stopping in Wellington to meet the Minister of Health to advocate for further cooking programmes in schools.

The need was there, as more than 200 schools applied for him to visit.

''It shows schools want to show kids better food and how to cook it.''

Van de Elzen thinks having the message come from a ''celebrity'' like him helps get it across more effectively, than say, if it was from a teacher.

''You can't preach to the kids. You have to sell it to them. They see this guy off the television and they start listening.

''I can't go anywhere without kids saying 'there's that food truck guy'.''

The book has a similar message to his food truck days, where he has taken normal Kiwi food like meat pies, sliders, pasta bakes and meatballs, and made them healthier, using simple, easy-to-buy ingredients.

''It had to be what kids wanted to eat.''

To make the book more attractive, Dunedin illustrator and graphic designer Annah Taggart was brought in, providing colourful illustrations to go with the recipes.

''It was lots of fun.''

It was also a bit of challenge for the illustrator as she does not eat much meat, so she had to look up pictures of raw meat.

''It's good to do stuff for children as you can go crazy with colour.''

In his tour Van de Elzen gets children involved and one of his exercises is showing them the difference between a bought soda and a homemade one.

He then hopes the children go home and share the messages with their parents.

''I've had photos and messages come through with the kids plating up food the next day.''

Van de Elzen admits letting children in the kitchen is not without its challenges - there are plenty of safety tips in the book - but the rewards are worth it.

''It's such an important thing but you need patience, it is going to take longer, there is going to be a mess to clean up but the end result is so worth it.''

There is even a chapter in the book dedicated to recipes children can cook for their parents.

''Going to buy food helps them understand the value of food and the cost.''

He also urges a little ''tough love'' when it comes to children not eating food by encouraging them to cook a food and taste it before deciding they do not like it.

There is also nothing wrong with the old ''if you don't eat it you'll get it for breakfast''.

''You have to be firm, within reason. We've had leftover dinner for breakfast before.''

In Dunedin, Van de Elzen is being hosted by Sport Otago. Its active families co-ordinator Eve Coltman says it strongly believes in his philosophy ''that it's possible for everyone to eat food which is fast, healthy, innovative and can be made at home''.

The proceeds from the event are going back into the active families programme.

To see
Good from Scratch Kids Cookbook Tour, King’s and Queen’s Performing Arts Centre, Tuesday, October 30, 7pm.

Photos: Supplied
Photos: Supplied
Berry walnut shortbread

Serves 6

Prep time 25 mins

Cooking time 30 mins

1 cup plain flour
6 Tbsp icing sugar
zest of a lemon
few drops of vanilla essence
1 cup walnuts, crushed
250g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 cups frozen berries

1. Preheat the oven to 180degC on bake. Line the base of a square 20cm baking tin with baking paper.

2. Combine the flour, icing sugar, lemon, vanilla and walnuts in a large bowl.

3. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until it resembles crumbs.

4. Press about two thirds of the shortbread mixture into the tin. Be sure to press firmly.

5. Scatter the berries across the shortbread, followed by the remaining shortbread mixture.

6. Bake for 30 minutes. Allow to cool before cutting into pieces.

Poppyseed chicken

Makes 4 boxes

Prep time 10 mins

Cooking time 15 mins

2 free range eggs
1 tsp mustard
pinch salt
2 chicken breasts, skinless
2 Tbsp poppy seeds
2 cups panko crumbs or wholemeal crumbs
2 Tbsp avocado oil (or substitute with sunflower oil)

1. To make eggwash, whisk together the eggs, mustard and salt.

2. Mix poppyseeds with crumbs.

3. Slice the chicken breasts into thin strips and coat in the eggwash, then in the crumbs.

4. Heat oil in a large frypan and fry chicken pieces until golden and cooked.

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