New York Times bestselling author Jenny Mollen returns to talk with Zibby about her new cookbook, Dictator Lunches, which grew out of the popular Instagram where she shares the lunches she prepares for her children. The two discuss their kids’ eating habits, hacks to make lunches more interesting without making them more complicated, and why food is Jenny’s love language. Jenny also shared the main ways working on a cookbook differed from working on her memoirs and novel, and what she’d consider writing next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jenny. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Dictator Lunches. I can’t believe we’re back here already. I feel like I just released your last episode about City of Likes and everything. Amazing.

Jenny Mollen: I know. I’m thrilled to have another excuse to get on your podcast.

Zibby: Seriously. We should just be doing this every couple months.

Jenny: I’m just trying to shnorr in to get some face time with you.

Zibby: It’s all a ruse. Dictator Lunches, I loved your introduction all about your mom. You said something funny like, for everyone else whose parents were either not available or dating at night.

Jenny: Yes, exactly, who worked days and dated nights.

Zibby: Thank you. Worked days and dated at night. That obviously goes back to your amazing childhood, which you’ve written about. As you know, I love the memoirs that you wrote about your childhood. The fact that you have ended up making these ridiculously amazing things — I know you said you’re not trying to shame other parents, but oh, my gosh, how are you doing this?

Jenny: I think it’s just because food is my love language. For me, making the lunches, it’s a fun activity. It’s also a way to communicate with them. It’s a sublimation of my guilt. It’s a way for me to be with them when I’m not with them. I’m able to kind of have a dialogue with them when they are off at school, to give them this sense of constancy that I, as you know, did not have in my life. For me, it’s really been all about the food. There are so many other ways that I’m failing as a mom. There’s no way anybody who knows me in real life could think that I would be shaming because those people know what a hot mess I am. I have to make it clear from the jump that I’m and a theater major. If I can make these lunches, you can too.

Zibby: For listeners who do not have Dictator Lunches in front of them, let me just say that this is a beautifully photographed book with recipes, pictures, little tips, and massive inspiration. What I was not expecting is how international the cuisine in your lunch boxes is. You have everything from an Israeli day to the Mediterranean to Korean food. Do your kids eat all this stuff? My kids eat nothing.

Jenny: Jason’s an insane foodie, but he didn’t grow up that way. He didn’t know what romaine lettuce was until he was probably twenty-two, twenty-three years old. Then he got famous and got a little bit of money and started eating better, I guess. I don’t know what happened to him. He’s obsessed with food and has always been all about, we have to push the envelope. We have to make sure our kids eat everything. We want to make sure that they appreciate other cultures and aren’t always ordering off the kids’ menu. That was super important to Jason. I grew up in a family where nutrition and exercise and all of the pros and cons that come with that, that was my childhood. Together, we decided we’re going to raise these kids eating like they’re adults. As long as we kept a poker face, especially when Sid was younger, he didn’t really know any better. He was eating Guatemalan pupusas and zucchini pasta. He didn’t really have a clue.

I remember I had this brilliant idea when he was a baby. I was like, what if we just took a date and put it in a KitKat wrapper? Would he really know the difference? He’s never had a KitKat. Forever, I was like, this is genius. The minute I gave it to my sister’s kid, he’s like, “This is a goddamn date.” I was like, okay, so only our child. Now it’s backfired in some ways because now he’ll go to certain people’s houses — my sister called me. She’s like, “Jenny, he asked me if he could keep the Dorito package.” I said, “Sam, this kid has Mister Softee every other day. He’s not deprived. He’s just a hoarder.” , “I think you’re fucking him up.” Now it’s all about intuitive eating. Now that he’s eight and a half, he eats everything. He likes so many different things that I don’t feel like I need to — it’s called Dictator Lunches not because I’m the dictator. He’s the one who’s giving me the thumbs up or thumbs down. I’m just purveying. He picks and chooses, some days better than others.

Zibby: I feel like with my older kids, I gave them all sorts of foods when they were little, similarly. Let’s just pretend that this is all they’re ever going to eat, and they’ll like it. What if they had been born in some other country? This is what they would eat. How are they to know? I feel like they got to a certain age and were like, no, thanks. We’re not eating this. I don’t know what I did wrong. Even now, we have all this wonderful, healthy food, but they don’t take it. They don’t eat it. They’ll put it on their plate, and they don’t eat it. I can’t force it down their throats.

Jenny: That’s why I love not being around. I think that lunch is such an interesting time to wage war because we’re out of the dynamic. There’s a power struggle that goes on at home where Sid’s like, “I’m not going to eat a Brussel sprout.” Then one day, I came home, and he had a Brussel sprout. He’s like, “I had one. Don’t tell anybody. I’ll kill you if you tell anybody, but I liked it.” It’s interesting. Again, food equals love. There’s so much other stuff attached to the food that when the parent is around, the dynamic changes. Lunch is a fun time to experiment and say, okay, if you’re hungry enough, if you did throw that tantrum at breakfast and refused the oatmeal I gave you, how hungry do you have to be to try this quinoa pasta or whatever it is?

Zibby: Your kids are — I don’t know. Anyway, this is not about my —

Jenny: — The younger one won’t. The younger one throws shit. He’s the harder sell. He’s a harder sell for me, but then, the things he does are odd.

Zibby: Your level of creativity with these lunches — are you literally doing these every day? How often are you making the lunches? Are you doing it all yourself, really?

Jenny: Yeah, but oftentimes, there’s a lot of leftovers. The pasta will usually be like, what did we have for dinner last night? I’m throwing that in. We have leftover Barbuto chicken. That’s getting recycled and put into a pita. It’s more curation than it is a lot of prep most of the time. I have so much fun doing it. For me, I’m a storyteller, so I love coming up with the story. Since I don’t know how to turn the TV on in my house, there is some downtime after the kids are asleep where I’m sort of lost. That’s usually when I get into it.

Zibby: Wow. You have two different versions of a polar bear, which I noticed because one of my kids has a real affinity for polar bears. You had one with a bunch of black lentils or black beans or something in the middle. Then one was just all sushi rice or something. Tell me about, do you go for a given shape or a given animal? You’re just like, oh, this would be a perfect whatever? How do you come up with all of these things? There was one with teeth. What was the one with teeth? An apple.

Jenny: Oh, yeah, the apple mouth.

Zibby: I’m like, where is she thinking about this? This is amazing.

Jenny: Some of it is just, I’ll go online. I look at these Japanese bento artists and see the stuff they’re doing and think, I’ll never be able to do that. What is the Jenny/hack version of that? That’s where I found the Pokéball made out of the Babybel, which I found to be — that was a real crowd-pleaser. I’m trying to win my son over. On some level, I’m just like, I want all your friends to tell you how rad I am.

Zibby: It’s really about what other kids think about you as a mom. This is the approval you are seeking.

Jenny: I’m trying to flex with his friends. Yes, that’s the approval I need now. That’s who I’m onto as the next generation. Forget my Instagram followers. I want the kids.

Zibby: I’m grooming my future audience here.

Jenny: I need to stay relevant. Otherwise, they’re going to put me in a home. That’s what I’m onto. I’ll go on Amazon and search “rice molds.” It’s just whatever comes up.

Zibby: I have never searched “rice molds.”

Jenny: I didn’t go in searching for the pandas. They just found me.

Zibby: Then what do you do for your own food?

Jenny: For my own food, I’m usually eating whatever the leftovers are. I’m usually eating whatever scraps didn’t make it into the lunch box. Also, for me, I’m one of those people who, I can’t wait until dinnertime. I’m eating as I’m cooking. By the time I’ve plated stuff, I’m so full. My friends actually hate it. My best friend in LA, Allie, tells the story of the first time Jason came over to have dinner with me. I was living in this apartment across from Fox on Pico in Beverly Hills. She said I basically took a frozen bag of shrimp from Costco, threw it on the outside barbeque by the pool, and then proceeded to eat each one as they were ready before he even got there. That’s sort of still my method of cooking. I just do it with the kids now. I save a couple shrimp for the kids.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Cooking is one thing that I cannot fit into my crazy life. I’m very lucky that Kyle, my husband, cooks. He loves to do that. Sometimes we have someone help because I’m not good at cooking. I get very stressed about it. It takes so much time. I’m like, somebody else is better at this than I am. I have to use my time this way. You seem to be able to do all the things.

Jenny: No, I love giving somebody else my recipe. I will have my nanny, Sylvia — I’ll be like, “Will you make the coconut rice tonight?” Then it’ll just be there when I get home. I love doing that. My girlfriend, Jess, always says, she’s like, “The meal was made by my wife, but it was inspired by me.” It’s perfect because Jason’s a far better cook than I am. Jason could have a restaurant. He’s just very detailed oriented, which I am not. I love giving him one of my recipes and saying, “Make this for me.” Sometimes he’s like, “If you won’t let me put butter in it, then I’m not going to say that it’s my recipe.” He’s pretty particular about the ingredients he uses. That’s why it’s better to ask Sylvia to do it.

Zibby: For the average mom at home, or whatever, who’s trying to make a lunch box, just take it up a notch — maybe they’re not at your level of creativity quite yet. They have don’t leftover Korean food because they haven’t ordered it to begin with. How can you make lunch a little better than throwing in some cucumber sticks and maybe a bagel? What can people do with the resources that they have?

Jenny: There are so many easy hacks. One of the things I love to do is, I take a Benadryl syringe — everyone has a random Benadryl syringe at home with your kids.

Zibby: I’m like, you’re feeding your kids Benadryl. That is the answer, that I feeding my kids — .

Jenny: That is the key. You take a Benadryl syringe or any syringe. Let’s take a thing of plain yogurt. You pipe the yogurt into the little syringe. Then you can just fill little raspberries. You have these little tiny raspberry parfaits. You can throw either a piece of granola on top or a chocolate chip on top. They look so cute. Then you’re getting a little bit of protein. You can pop the raspberries into your mouth. You don’t need to send a spoon. It’s not a giant mess with the yogurt. It’s just fun. It looks cute. My kids go crazy for it. They think it’s candy. That’s a really fun one. I also love — I just posted about this. Everybody thinks they can’t send avocados anywhere because they will brown immediately. If you cover the top of the avocado in either seeds — you can use sesame seeds. You can use bee pollen, I sometimes use. Hemp seeds. Whatever you want. You just cover the top. Once you scoop into it, it’s as green as ever. The oxidation doesn’t have a taste to it. It just looks terrible. If you hide that, even from yourself — you’re taking a salad to work with you. It’s a great, easy hack. Things like that. There’s a lot of stuff that, I don’t know why, I’ve just stumbled upon and thought to myself, I’m going to adopt that. I’m not reinventing the wheel or anything.

Zibby: Although, I think it’s amazing. I’m going to totally try the raspberry trick.

Jenny: The raspberries are fun. You know what else is so easy that I always thought was so difficult? The Vietnamese spring rolls. It’s that rice paper. You get it, and it looks so hard and intimidating. Once it’s wet, it’s just a giant — it almost looks like a sheet mask made of glue. Anything you stuff inside, unlike a burrito that falls apart on me immediately, it just sticks to itself. That’s heaven for me.

Zibby: What do you put in?

Jenny: I’ll put in leftover roasted sweet potatoes. I’ll put in some kale salad if I have it. I’ll put in either almond butter for myself or if I’m sending it to school, usually a tahini hummus whatever. It’s an easy, quick — it’s honestly easier than sitting there trying to roll up little — I see people doing these little pinwheels with the bread. I’m like, how does that stay together?

Zibby: Mayo.

Jenny: Maybe. Yes, exactly. Mayo. You’re right.

Zibby: What was the process like putting this whole cookbook together? Not even cookbook. Yeah, cookbook.

Jenny: Oh, my god, it is so different than writing a novel. The novel was so insular. I micromanaged the shit out of it. Every single word was me. Where do I want it? That doesn’t sound like me. We have to change that sentence. I just couldn’t not control it. I’m fine cutting stuff. I’m not precious about things. I’m actually quick to delete pages and pages. With the novel, it needed to be my vision. With the cookbook, it’s so many other people. There are so many people involved. I had a recipe developer. I had a food stylist, Monica. I had Lauren, who’s the most incredible photographer I’ve ever worked with. I had this woman, Mave, who did all the prop styling. I had Michaela, who’s a chef that I worked with that helped me retest things, and this woman, Michelle, in Tennessee who would call me and be like, “Wait, peas with mint. Peas with mint. I’m telling you, peas with mint.” It was just much more collaborative. It was a totally different experience. I feel like this is my book, but it’s also their book. It’s not really just me.

Zibby: But you still have your voice. It feels very you in all the writing.

Jenny: I also threw that part together. I feel like that was just me talking to a girlfriend in an email versus laboring over chapter after chapter of something that had to sustain for three hundred words.

Zibby: This is so cool. You’ve done memoir. You’ve done fiction. You’ve done cookbooks. When is your children’s book? Are you going to do a children’s book?

Jenny: You tell me. Should I?

Zibby: I feel like that should be your next thing. That would be easy. That wouldn’t take you long.

Jenny: Is it fun? How do you find it?

Zibby: How do you find what to write about?

Jenny: How did you find doing children’s?

Zibby: I thought it was great. For whatever reason, I wasn’t expecting, on my events, to literally be talking to babies. It feels very humbling. I’m like, here. I’m on the floor. This is crazy.

Jenny: I’m dying. That’s hysterical. That is really funny.

Zibby: I’m like, I can’t believe this is what I’m doing at four o’clock on a Thursday, is being like, you see — I love reading to kids. I read to my own kids all the time. I love that.

Jenny: Yeah, I get that.

Zibby: I’m like, if I could just keep their attention for two seconds. Mine was geared to three- to six-year-olds. I would maybe do a little older or something. I thought it was fun. I think you should do it, especially with the lunches thing. I feel like that could so easily be translated somehow into a book about the — you put yourself in there, the mom making the lunches. Maybe the lunches come to life. The little panda bears — I don’t know. I feel like there could be so much fun stuff with that.

Jenny: I always think of that movie — I was talking about, in the book, the reason I don’t own a food processor is because I saw that movie Pulse in the eighties where all of the appliances come to life and try to kill Joey Lawrence. Maybe write the children’s version of Pulse. There might be an in for me there.

Zibby: There’s that guy who does all the Creepy Carrots book, Creepy Pair of Underwear! and all that. I feel like you could team up with a Creepy lunch box or something.

Jenny: I could team up with him.

Zibby: You should. That would be funny. Assuming you’re not doing the kids’ books ASAP, you must have more stuff down the line aside from the Dictator Lunches. Tell me, what is your next year? Where am I going to see you on Instagram? What’s going on?

Jenny: I sold City of Likes to Sony. I’m about to do the pilot for that. I’m taking that out right now, or in two weeks. I have to see what happens there. I owe them a script. Then I don’t know. I want to do another memoir, to be honest. I just need to figure out how I’m going to do it in terms of just the kids. How am I not totally going to just exploit them completely?

Zibby: You should. I love how you write about your life. I loved the novel too. The way you write about your life is just so — I told you. I never laughed more, ever.

Jenny: I’m so flattered. That is so sweet.

Zibby: You’re so funny. What advice do you have to anybody trying to — let’s just go back to the food again — to someone about to make lunch today? What should they do? What do you got?

Jenny: If you’re making lunch today, I would say — let’s pretend you’re in New York City. I’m in Bangkok, so I don’t know what I would have access to where I currently — if I were in New York City today, I’d make, maybe, a watermelon feta situation just because summer. I want to savor those moments before it’s full-blown fall. Then of course, I get into pumpkin season, which is my favorite season. I’m obsessed with anything pumpkin. Not pumpkin latte. I mean more like kabocha pumpkin, a pumpkin soup situation. If I were in New York today, I’d do a watermelon feta salad. Then I’d probably force Jason to barbeque some chicken since I don’t know how to barbeque. I probably would start my day, because I haven’t had this in a while, I would do a nut milk. I’d make a homemade nut milk, which I find to be, actually, so much easier than people let on. All you do is soak nuts overnight in a bowl. In the morning, blend them. Just do cashews. You don’t need to even use a strainer. Do cashews and hemp seeds. I’d make myself a really big latte.

Zibby: That sounds awesome. Wow, amazing.

Jenny: That’d be my go-to.

Zibby: I love it. Jenny, thank you. I’m so excited to keep following your adventures on Instagram and through all your amazing books.

Jenny: Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: This whole thing, all this stuff, one of the highlights is meeting people and connecting. This is such a great example of one of those wonderful connections that came out of it.

Jenny: Yes, I agree. I’m so honored. I’m so flattered that you had me on again.

Zibby: Oh, please. Congratulations.

Jenny: Thank you.

Zibby: Enjoy Bangkok.

Jenny: Thank you. Enjoy the rest of your day.

Zibby: Bye, Jenny.

Jenny: Bye.



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