"Elmo loves wasabi," said an unmistakable voice over the phone. "Do you know what wasabi is?"
Taking an invisible squeegee to the brain, we realized that this conversation was actually taking place. Elmo was on the other end of the line, explaining the difference between sometime foods and anytime foods, one of the big lessons of Sesame Street’s new initiative Food For Thought: Eating Well on a Budget.
“Wasabi?” we asked, still stunned.
“Do you like sushi?” asked the iconic red monster, who has been three-and-a-half-years-old since the mid-Eighties. Of course, we said.
“Well, Elmo loves it,” he replied, “but it’s a sometime food. An anytime food is like broccoli or any kind of really good fruits and vegetables and stuff.”
Even poor Cookie Monster has gotten the message about sometime versus anytime foods and is now just as likely to be spotted with a fresh avocado than a box of Chips Ahoy, thanks to this bilingual (English and Spanish) multimedia program aimed at educating struggling families with kids aged two through eight on healthier food choices. A free kit sponsored by Merck and United Healthcare includes recipe cards with low-cost and well-balanced meal ideas, tips on broaching difficult topics regarding financial difficulties and healthy eating with children (such as what to say when food is hard to come by), and a DVD packed with songs and educational adventures with Elmo, Super Grover, and the charming new Super Foods (whole grain bread, broccoli, banana, and cheese).
Elmo and Super Grover pose with the four healthy food groups (Fruits, Vegetables, Dairy, and Grains) as part of Sesame Street’s Food For Thought initiative. © 2010 Sesame Workshop. Photo by: Richard Termine.
“We’ve always been involved with [healthy eating], but now we’re trying to get out there in a more major way to help families not only eat healthy but to find ways where it’s affordable for them also,” said Kevin Clash, executive producer of the DVD and author of My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love and Laughing Out Loud. “What’s exciting for us is that we get to send these out and it’s no charge, it’s free. We get send them to everybody who really needs it without them incurring a cost to get it. There are wonderful recipes in the kit and of course there’s the Muppet story — we always try to entertain at the same time that we educate.
“It’s such a major challenge for this country,” lamented Clash. “There are so many children under the age of four who are not eating healthy for a number of reasons. It’s the economy, unfortunately. I think all of us have to be more clever about how we get healthy food on the table for our kids because we don’t want them to go to school hungry.”
Elmo personally likes to start the day with a breakfast of oatmeal with orange slices or yogurt and orange juice.
“Elmo loves breakfast!” he declares. “Elmo’s mommy and daddy say it is the most important meal of the day. Elmo can’t wait to go outside and play with his friends after a really good breakfast.”
Elmo cooks with his mom all the time, which he loves, and his favorite recipe is a healthy take on the perennial kid favorite chicken fingers.
“We get to crunch up my favorite cereal and put the cereal all over it, and then we put it in the oven! It’s really good. My mom likes to use egg whites instead of the whole egg. We dip the chicken into the egg and then we put it in Elmo’s favorite cereal.
“It doesn’t have any sugar on it,” he giggled.
One of the DVD’s many highlights is “Try It,” a musical number that encourages children to take chances on new foods. In the song, Elmo discovers that he likes kiwi after trying it a second time. This is a key concept when food needs to stretch over thin budgets.
“What Elmo’s mommy and daddy does is that if Elmo doesn’t like it the first time then they try to prepare it a different way,” observed Elmo. “One time they chopped up Brussels sprouts and they put it in Elmo’s potato soup. And it was really good! Elmo didn’t know until after Elmo finished that it was in there, but Elmo got to love Brussels sprouts that way.”
Just as important is showing how economical preparing fresh and healthy meals at home can be.
“Elmo has a really good friend named chef Art Smith,” explained Elmo, “and he taught Elmo’s mom and dad that you could take a chicken and you could make four meals out of it! You can have four days worth of chicken but prepared different ways. So he grilled it, that’s one way. Then he took some of the chicken and he put it in salad, that’s number two. Then he took the chicken and he made a pasta dish with the chicken, that’s number three. And then he made a really cool soup with some of the chicken. And that was four meals! Elmo’s mommy and daddy say you have to be creative sometimes because food can be expensive. But you have to figure out ways of using it more than once.”
Elmo is no stranger to the world of culinary celebrity. In his short three-and-a-half years, he has collaborated with chef Emeril Lagasse on the Food Network special Emeril and Elmo’s Healthy Start (in, um, 2005), made eggnog on Emeril Live, and loosened up Martha Stewart on two of her shows. Now he’s revealed that he’ll be appearing on an upcoming episode of Top Chef.
“We don’t know what we’re going to do yet, but we can’t wait to spend some time with them,” said Elmo. “They’re really cool. And the chefs are so talented. We love watching it. Elmo watches it with his mom.”
Wait, isn’t Top Chef on a bit late at night for a young monster?
“We TiVo everything!”