Stirring the pot: a conversation with author/chef Mollie Katzen on food, women and aging

Posted by on Feb 8, 2010 in diet, menopause | 14 comments

Just about anyone who’s interested in cooking and whose formative years took place in the late 60s and 70s knows these names:  Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen. Personally, both of these volumes occupied prominent places on my bookshelves for years. That is, until worn from overuse and stained with food and memories, I reluctantly let them go.

So, what do cooking and midlife and menopause have to do with each other? And what type of insights can chef and author Mollie Katzen lend to the conversation?

I originally approached Mollie in search of nutrition advice for women going through midlife and menopause. Although I realize that she isn’t a dietician or a nutritionist, as someone who’s immersed herself in food for decades, she seemed quite capable  to lend a perspective. But as our conversation took hold and we found our rhythm, I realized that the focus had shifted: what I ended up with was a mini-instruction manual, not only for eating healthy but also for forming and maintaining positive relationships with food and with ourselves.

A champion of “keep it healthy,” Mollie entered the scene when cookbooks were largely geared towards the typical American meat and potato diet.  When the Moosewood Cookbook first hit the shelves, “there was barely even a cookbook section in the bookstore, let alone, a ‘healthy eating’ or  ‘vegetarian’ section,” explains Mollie.  Yet, she is not what many of us classify as “vegetarian,” and  although she  primarily skews the dinner plate towards greens and veggies, she consistently includes small amounts of animal protein.  “My diet in my 30s and 40s could have been classified as practically vegan,” she says, “even if I wasn’t orthodox about it.” (At that time, she was also keen on a low-fat diet, which, coupled with the lack of ample amounts of protein, spelled trouble.) “It was almost ‘remorse cuisine;’ I’d eat this way and by mid-afternoon I’d almost be fainting, depleted, irritable. I had no focus. I found that I wasn’t functioning and would wonder what was wrong with me because I thought I was eating the purest diet on the planet. I felt like I was falling apart.”

If you are familiar with the earlier editions of Mollie’s books, they concentrate heavily on whole grains and legumes. However, age has paved a path for a significant alteration in what she eats.  Emphasizing that the amount of bulgar and beans she’d have to eat to obtain the amount of protein that she needs for her blood sugar to stay stable could easily translate into an extra 50 pounds, Mollie says that she has changed her diet to include grass-fed animal protein and raw milk cheese, milk and butter.

What about aging and diet? “I think that women get really frustrated,” she says, pointing out that as we age, even if we change nothing about our lifestyles, e.g., if our lifestyle is reasonable, we are of fairly normal weight, exercise moderately and eat pretty well, we still gain weight. “Our bodies become an inefficient machine and our metabolisms slow,” she says, adding that one of the most consistent things she’s observed amongst her friends is the “oh my god, what happened to my body” moment. The ‘I’m minding my business, doing the same things I’ve always done and all of a sudden, I’ve got this spare tire, I’ve got the fat” epiphany. Sound familiar?!

Although challenging, the answer to this common dilemma is fairly intuitive. And while we’d love to fool ourselves into believing that declining hormones are the primary culprits, they aren’t. Rather a decline in physical activity and lack of dietary restraint are the key players.  Mollie agrees that while women can’t do a whole lot about the fat redistribution, the “one thing [they] need in order to keep the [weight gain] at bay is to keep muscles toned as possible with resistance exercise and also, eat less.” New flash! This actually works; Mollie reports that she currently weighs the same as she did in her 20’s!

Of course, what works for one woman might not be exactly what works for another. We all need to forge our dietary paths and strategies that work for both our individual metabolism and our bodies.

“Health is trial and error,” Mollie explains. “So much of it shows up in how you feel a few hours later. For example, do you feel sleepy after you’ve eaten? Do you feel sluggish or irritable later in the day? Do you have trouble sleeping at night? For me, these were all symptoms of what was going on when I was eating almost no fat or protein.” Much in line with health and nutrition experts, Molllie’s strategy has been to reduce her daily caloric intake while at the same time increasing the percent of calories in her diet that are fat. “I get a good 30% of my calories from nuts, olive oil, avocado and fatty fish.” And when she snacks, its the good fats that she reaches for: “avocados and nuts, especially walnuts. When I am hungry, I have a handful of almonds. I just think that for people as they get older, they should lose the pretzels and eat almonds or guacamole or something with good fat in it.”

We also need to slow down. Bet you’ve heard that before! Mollie says that the most radical transformation we can make with food isn’t so much changing what we eat but how we eat it. Her advice? “Don’t even pick up the fork for the first minute that the food is served. Breathe deeply, look at it, admire it, thank the cook, be grateful. Then pick up your fork, take a few bites and put your fork down. Swallow your food. Women simply don’t have the metabolic ability to do a good job with all that food.”

Food heals. As women, our love-hate relationship with food is complex. We not only use food as fuel, but also to feed our emotions. Or on the flipside, we deprive ourselves in ways that are counterintuitive and sometimes, downright unhealthy.

“This sounds so obvious,” says Mollie, “but I really want people to turn towards cooking and not away from it. To me, the more hands-on and proactive we are about food and cooking, the more we heal whatever issues or concepts we have around food. I’ve actually seen people healing their relationship with food by diving into it.” Make food one of your favorite hobbies. She suggests that rather instead of shunning away from the grocery store run, step back and make it a trip to pick up something beautiful to be celebrated. “Diving into a more positive, deliberate relationship with food gives you something nice to do,” she adds.

What are the take-away messages?

  • Tailor it uniquely: keep it healthy.. for you.
  • Move towards healthier choices and use food in a healing, more positive manner.
  • Embrace yourself with beautiful food, whether it’s a perfect tomato from the Farmer’s Market or some kick-ass, green-as-grass guacamole.
  • Take it slow, and breathe.

Wise words, from a wise woman who knows her way around a kitchen or two.

p.s. Mollie has shared two of her favorite recipes. Check them out, try them out and please, comment and show some love!

About Mollie:

Mollie Katzen, with over 6 million books in print, is listed by the New York Times as one of the best-selling cookbook authors of all time. A 2007 inductee into the prestigious James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame, and largely credited with moving healthful vegetarian food from the “fringe” to the center of the American dinner plate, Ms. Katzen has been named by Health Magazine as one of “The Five Women Who Changed the Way We Eat.”

In addition she is a charter member of the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Roundtable and an inaugural honoree of the Natural Health Hall of Fame. An award-winning illustrator and designer as well as best-selling cookbook author and popular public speaker, Mollie Katzen is best known as the creator of the groundbreaking classics Moosewood Cookbook, and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Her other books include the award-winning children’s cookbook trilogy, Pretend Soup,Honest Pretzels, and Salad People; Vegetable Heaven (winner of the International Cookbook Reveu Best in Category award); Sunlight Café; Eat, Drink, & Weigh Less (with Walter Willett, MD of Harvard), and the best-selling The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without.


  1. 2-8-2010

    Liz, thank you so much for this great post. If not for Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook, I (and my husband) might’ve starved to death way back when. I think I’ve cooked every recipe in it, and I continue to use my original, stained and smeared copy. I could write my own book about the stories surrounding the recipes in Moosewood – a Zuccanoes dinner party on NY’s Lower East Side during a snowstorm in the 80’s, the Spinach-Ricotta Pie served at Christmas last year in West Virginia (I later had to email the recipe to dinner guests who ate more pie than turkey). Mollie’s vegetarian lasagna recipe remains unbeatable, and it’s made me famous is small circles, seriously. This interview is nourishment for body and soul. So glad to see that Mollie is still going strong.

    • 2-8-2010

      Diane – thank you! Mollie has inspired legions of cooks for decades. I too, cooked many of her recipes. I am happy to have gotten a chance to speak to the legend herself. She’s terrific!

  2. 2-8-2010

    Mollie is full of common (uncommon) sense about food and eating, and it’s great that she’s still toiling in the vineyard so many years after “Moosewood” first appeared.(She looks absolutely beautiful in the photo.)Super post, Liz!

    • 2-8-2010

      Thank you Camille. She is a sensible soul who really paved the way for so many others. Glad that you enjoyed the post!

  3. 2-8-2010

    Very enjoyable post! I collect all of Katzen’s books and I look forward to using her children’s cookbooks with my little guys as soon as they’re old enough.

    • 2-8-2010

      They will have a great time! Thanks for commenting!

  4. 2-8-2010

    Liz, Thanks for sharing, I have used so many of Mollie’s recipes over the years, lucky you to have gotten to meet her! Still Life with recipes is my favorite! All her advice is spot on. I went pretty much vegan in the last year and it has not served me well, so I, like Mollie, added the grass fed meat and local raw cheese back into my diet in moderation and it has been better. Make nuts your friend! Homemade almond and cashew milk is sooo delicious! Moderation, exercise and knowing your farmer/food producers and buying from your neighborhood will do wonders for us all- at any age!

    • 2-8-2010

      Hey Sue! Sounds like it was a case of not enough protein, eh? Wholeheartedly support the message of moderation, exercise and keeping it local. CSAs rock!

  5. 2-8-2010

    so where does my dark chocolate fit in? ; ) Great article as always. Thanks for sharing these insights with us all

    • 2-8-2010

      Thanks Kim! We’ll have to ask Mollie!

  6. 2-9-2010

    LOOOVVEEE this post. I have been a Mollie groupie for years and don’t be jealous but I still have copies of both Moosewood and Broccoli Forest. My daughter has a love affair with the mushroom barely soup. And there is nothing like Cheesy Bean Casserole now and then.

    The how to eat message is excellent. Kind of like be present with your food; very zen. And who could resist a post that uses the phrase ‘kick ass guacamole’

    We women have such a tortured relationship with food. This post gives sound advice on how to keep that in perspective and enjoy.

    Thanks Liz, and Mollie!

    • 2-9-2010

      Thanks Amy! Yeah, I am jealous that you still have the copies. But I would presume that Mollie would be thrilled.

      Glad that you embrace the message. And thanks for commenting! Kickass guac – can’t beat it!

  7. 2-10-2010

    This is the first time I have heard about her. Thanks for sharing this wonderful interview!

    • 2-11-2010

      Thanks Cascia. Check out her website – there are some wonderful books on cooking with children that you might enjoy!


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