How She Does It: Alexandra Zissu — the “green goddess”

In our Q&A series on real moms who create a healthy lifestyle for their families in our busy world, ZisBoomBah is featuring Alexandra Zissu. Eco lifestyle expert, writer, speaker and consultant are only a few of the hats this mom of two girls is wearing — and she does it all in New York City, where she lives across the street from where she grew up.

Alexandra has two daughters; the oldest is in first grade, and the newest family addition is 2 months old. Alexandra is the author of The Complete Organic Pregnancy and The Conscious Kitchen, and co-author of Planet Home and The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat, and has written for New York Magazine, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Details magazine, Women’s Wear Daily and more. The green living expert has also appeared on The Today Show and on NPR.

“I came to everything I do through the food I eat.” So, how does she do it? Q: What does “healthy” mean to you and your family?A: Things that won’t harm us or the earth.

Q: How did you come to eating organic food and living a green lifestyle in the middle of New York City?A: I came to everything I do through the food I eat. Growing up, we had a whole-foods diet, we were always very careful not to eat things with additives in it. We were always eating a wide mix of healthy, largely unpackaged foods. I’d always eaten that way and it really stuck with me throughout my life.

I later came to the organic world. I joined a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture]. And when I was pregnant with my daughter, whose now almost 7, a friend asked me how I was going to make the rest of my pregnancy as organic as the food I ate. And that was the question of my lifetime, because I didn’t know about harmful chemicals in everyday products, and flame retardants in mattresses, and all of this different stuff came out of that question.

So, food is everything. It’s a direct route of ingestion; everything that is grown can harm the environment and harm the farmers, which is something that’s really important to me as well. It’s not fair eating something that could harm someone who is growing it for me. Food is the gateway to everything else, it’s a beautiful way, a tasteful, flavorful way to come together as a family around something that’s healthy and good, and to share it. It’s a conversation starter, and it feeds us all. Food is really the center of everything we do as a family, trying to make sure things are healthier.

“I’m at the table every night, at 6 pm, come hell or high water” Q: That’s an inspiring approach. So healthy eating has become an integral part of your family lifestyle?A: I think it’s super crucial to make it part of just what the family does. I don’t want to eat at 6 pm, but I’m at the table every night, at 6 pm, come hell or high water, because that’s what you have to do if you want to create those things.

Q: Do you follow a certain eating lifestyle, such as vegetarian, vegan, paleo, etc.?A: No, we eat everything. We don’t eat a lot of meat, but my fourth book I wrote actually with my butcher. It was called ‘The Butcher’s Guide to Well Raised Meat.’ I would say that we have a local approach. I’m a locavore.

Q: What’s it like to be a lovavore in New York City?A: We’re lucky to be surrounded by all kinds of farms, and we have amazing farmers markets. And we do spend some time outside of the city in some of the growing regions.

Q: You’ve talked about your mother and how her approach to real food inspired you. Have you always eaten healthy or were there times when you strayed away?A: There were about two weeks in college where I ate candy, and I felt terrible. It’s not that I didn’t like candy growing up. But again, you lay the foundation and you plan for these things. The whole point of this approach to eating and living is to minimize exposure to potentially harmful substances if and where you can.

I think it’s really important to keep talking about flavor. I loved eating at my mother’s table, and I still do. I live across the street from her, we have a lot of meals together, and I love what we eat, it tastes delicious.

“I’m a passable cook who shops extremely well for ingredients that shine.”  Q: Are you a good cook?A: I’m a passable cook who shops extremely well for ingredients that shine. I know I have very basic knowledge of techniques, my mother was a good cook and I was in her kitchen a lot. I’m not afraid to make things, and I’m not afraid to make things I’ve never seen. I don’t love recipes. I really can’t say enough about my farmers. I buy things that taste incredible, and I do very little to them.

Q: You are obviously crazy busy right now, with work, a first-grader and a newborn … How do you get dinner on the table every night?A: Their father is amazing and he believes wholeheartedly in what we’re doing. He also does the same kind of cooking I do. He’s very involved, and I’m very lucky there, I realize.

And we prioritize. This is not a period of time you can have a do-over about. And it’s a choice. And if you’re eating this way anyway, I think at some point you sort of stop wanting to eat in restaurants and, it’s a really lovely time of day. The kids, they grow a little bit older, and we are so busy, it’s the only time of day that the cell phones get put down, the email gets turned off, and we all come together to talk about what we did during the day, and it’s done over food.

Q: What does your 7-year-old daughter like to eat?A: She loves pasta. She loves vegetables, she loves fruit, has always been very fond of blueberries. She doesn’t really like meat. She has her opinions. She’s very opinionated about food, but she manages to eat what we want her to eat. She loves butter, who doesn’t? 

“I still want her to be making the better choices, which sometimes involves me stepping in.” Q: How are you empowering your daufghter to make her own healthy choices?A: We take her to farms a lot. She knows as much as somebody that age can really understand about the system of agriculture. She gets the general philosophy; we don’t want to hit it too hard because, again, we don’t want her to be unhappy or have any fear about food.

So I empower her by letting her know the differences between conventional and local. And certainly, if we’re at the market every week, which we are, and she sees a vegetable that’s funny looking, like a romanesco cauliflower, with it’s crazy head and different colors, she can choose things and I’ll make them for her. But, it’s a fine line right now in terms of empowering her. It’s something I obviously think about a lot, because I still want her to be making the better choices, which sometimes involves me stepping in. I don’t stop her from eating whatever she wants at other people’s birthday parties because I don’t think that’s fair. That’s one way we try to empower her to make her own decisions, and she gets the difference between celebrations and everyday food. I’m mindful. Am I doing the best possible job, no. Am I doing a human job, yes.

Q: What are your go-to dinner staples?A: Every September, we fill the freezer with tomato sauce and pesto, so that lasts through the winter. We’re perfectly fine with whole-wheat pasta and love that. We do a lot of local pastured eggs. Last night we had a huge salad with poached eggs on top. There’s an amazing store around here that has an organic wheat baguette, and so that’s my lazy dinner, a salad with eggs and wheat baguette. And my daughter has tons of butter if she wants it, for her brain development. That’s my idea of fast food.  

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