Meleyna Nomura is a San Francisco based food writer, recipe developer, and photographer whose storytelling focuses on the intersection of food and family. Meleyna is also the kind of “internet friend” I dreamt of one day making when I was a teen, so I’m thrilled to be able to call her one today. Meleyna recently wrote an essay for Eater on appropriation of Tiki culture, she’s got the tastiest Costco finds covered, and she’ll teach you how to clean a greasy cabinet.
Meleyna was gracious enough to chat with me during the chaos of her kids’ first week of summer break about cooking for teens, moving past restrictive nutrition advice, and sandwiches as self-care.
What was your relationship to cooking like growing up?
My grandparents who lived in Hawaii would come visit us for months at a time. They would bring us this huge box of goodies that we couldn’t get on the mainland. My grandmother was not a great cook, but my grandfather was much better, so I grew up eating a lot of his food. My mom was a younger parent and she hadn’t quite fallen into a good cooking routine, but as I got older she became a very skilled home cook, and she did a great job getting us into it too.
There was a heavy dose of 90s diet culture — cutting out fat and that sort of thing. It was well meaning but I think despite food generally being presented as a pleasurable thing in our house, my mom did always have that on her mind.
My parents got divorced when I was in middle school, and I stayed with my dad because I didn’t want to change schools. That’s when I started cooking a lot more on my own. That is also when the Food Network really started to take off and I would watch it all the time. I babysat a lot and I used the money I got from it to buy cookbooks.
Nigella Lawson used to have this online forum (I’m not sure why — I guess forums were just a thing people were putting on their websites back then!) and I would chit chat with people all over the world. I was a lot younger than most of them, but I loved getting all these different insights. And we would do care package swaps so I’d get treats from like Australia or Canada. Nigella’s cookbook Feast had a big impact on me. It was just so lovely. I think personal stories have always been what attracted me to food, and I try to bring that connection in my writing and teaching now.
When I went to college I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I dropped out for a little bit, ended up having two kids, and then eventually went back to study nutrition. Since then I’ve pivoted to be much less nutrition focused and more about helping people eat well, whatever that means for them.
Do you do most of the cooking in your household?
Yeah I do most of it, and the kids will help out with lunches and on the weekends. They’ve recently started to express a little bit of interest in learning how to cook, so I think we’ll start working on it more this summer.
My 15 year old is newly on social media and he’s being fed some of these viral cooking videos. So he’ll come to me and I’ll be like yeah we can make this bloomin onion or whatever. If that’s what’s getting you excited then great!
What is your philosophy on teaching people how to cook, both in your writing and with your family?
Right now I’m already thinking about the holiday content calendar, so for pieces that will go up in the fall we’re writing about helping people cook for Thanksgiving. In my mind the best way to do that is actually to start learning how to cook basic stuff now so that by the time the holiday comes you’ll be a lot more comfortable. People who plan their Thanksgiving menu the week before aren’t thinking like that though, so it doesn’t make for the best headline.
Cooking is something we utilize everyday so we don’t necessarily think about it as something that we could get better at or really practice. Not everyone is into food, which is totally fine, but if you are into it then reframing cooking as a lifelong skill — taking that time and making it intentional — can be really useful.
How did your relationship to cooking change after having kids?
When I first had my son, I had that moment of oh my gosh I’m responsible for raising a healthy eater, like what does that even mean? That is actually what originally pushed me to start getting into nutrition. Those were also the early food blog days and I was home all the time with him reading them.
So that’s when I moved away from viewing cooking as something I do for dinner parties, or going to the store with an ingredients list for a specific dish, and shifted more to understanding how flavors work and things like that. Learning how to take some random vegetables that I have and turn them into a meal. It’s a journey that’s still in progress.
One thing I appreciate about how I grew up is that other than being vegetarian, my parents really didn’t have rules around eating, and I think that helped me have a healthier relationship to food now. How did you generally think about feeding your kids in that regard?
That has also been a real growth process. My kids were little when I was studying nutrition, and I see now that there’s a lot of toxicity in that world that goes unacknowledged. This information about what is good for you and what is not is presented as scientific fact when it’s really not. Like we’re told we should avoid “emotional eating,” but there’s nothing wrong with letting emotions guide what you eat sometimes! The comfort we can get from food is real and there is real value there. So I try to model that.
I’m working on equipping them with basic skills and food knowledge. My kids definitely know their way around the kitchen, they’ll help unload the dishwasher and they know where different ingredients are. I make a point to take them to the grocery store with me when they’re out of school, and I’ll point out the cost per unit on the price tags, and talk about why we’re picking certain things. My daughter loves the grocery ads that come in the paper and we have fun going through them together.
Also just giving them freedom to play. My son has off campus lunch and he gets 10 bucks a week to spend. Sometimes he’s literally buying Fanta and gummy worms at the drugstore. And if that’s how he wants to spend his money, he has the freedom to do that sort of thing. Is it the healthiest choice? No. Is he hungry when he comes home? Yeah. But it’s just one of those parenting things with teens — whether it’s sugar or social media — figuring out how much space you want to give them to work with and how much to insert yourself. They look like adults but they’re not adults and that can get tricky to balance.
Any go-tos when you’re cooking dinner for the family?
My kids have such different food preferences, so finding things that kind of meet in the middle can be challenging. But stir fry with either rice or noodles is usually a winner. Everyone’s happy and mom doesn’t have to do a ton of work to make it. My daughter and I do girls night and we like to make mushroom pasta because the other family members don’t like mushrooms.
How do you protect the self-care aspect of food and cooking for yourself?
It’s definitely something I think about. Sometimes it will be purchasing the more expensive brand of an ingredient that I love, or buying ingredients for the exact thing I’m in the mood for when I’m shopping. Lunches during the week are big for me because I don’t have to consider anybody else. I was at the grocery store yesterday and I was hungry, and I said you know what, I’m going to buy everything I need to make this delicious sandwich I’m craving. So I did that and I made it and it was exciting. Then I had the same sandwich today because I still had the ingredients, and I texted my best friend about it. So for sure I think the self care aspect is important. I don’t always want to be eating what the kids want to be eating.
What is your favorite cookbook or recipe source these days?
I mentioned before that I learned a lot from blogs when my kids were little, and Smitten Kitchen is one that’s been there for me forever. Deb’s tastes align a lot with mine and I know that her recipes are well tested, which I appreciate. I think her being a mom is also important, because she cooks not necessarily just for her kids but with them in mind. And I think that speaks to how I approach it — I’m not cooking just for my kids, and I’m not cooking just for me, I’m cooking for my family. And that looks different every day.
What’s one thing that would go in your dream kitchen?
I’ve always wanted a big window that looks over the yard. I love my kitchen right now but it’s pretty dark in there so more natural light would be great.
Thank you for sharing your kitchen wisdom with us, Meleyna. This newsletter is famously run by two very childless humans, so we love to hear from the food loving parents out there. Follow Meleyna’s mouthwatering Instagram at @makingitwithmeleyna and find more of her writing at meleynanomura.com.