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He’s the passionate host of David Rocco’s Dolce Vita on Canada’s Food Network. He is a driving force behind a project aimed at getting Ontario schoolchildren eating healthier. But what gets David Rocco most excited is being a dad, to one-year-old twins Giorgia and Emma.

Caroline Connell: What’s the best thing about becoming a father?

David Rocco

It just gets better every day — the joy of walking through the door and seeing the girls’ smiles and how excited they get. And every day there’s something new that they do.

My wife had a really rough pregnancy, and the girls were born two months early, at 3½ pounds each. Being first-time parents, that was a concern, obviously. But now they’re doing amazing! We brought them to Italy with us when they were five months old... They’re very active in what we do.

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CC: What’s been the biggest surprise?

DR

How much work it is! When we found out we were having twins, people’s eyes would pop out — I’m talking about family, people who knew how much work a single baby is. I was thinking, you know, how bad can it be? We’ll have help, mother, mother-in-law...it will be great. Well, it is so much work. But the rewards are double.

We do a lot of attachment parenting; my wife is an extremely committed mother and I’m a hands-on father. It’s getting a little easier now, especially since we’re starting to see the twins sleeping longer.

CC: What does it mean to you to be a hands-on father?

DR

Being involved, not just evenings and weekends, but in the daily stuff. I’m lucky because my office is 100 metres from where we live, so I pop in at lunchtime and sometimes I plan it so I can do a feed. That’s fun. I just love seeing them tasting a new food for the first time. Like Granny Smith apples — Giorgia’s eyes went big and she puckered from the sour taste!

I try to make it a daily ritual — my break in the day — to pop in and spend time with them, changing diapers, all that stuff that my father didn’t do. My dad was a wonderful father, never missed a soccer game or a hockey game, but there were things he didn’t do. As a grandfather now, he always comments on how lucky we are in this generation that men are more aware and have the opportunity and the desire to be involved at that level.

CC: You grew up in an Italian family in Toronto. What role did food play in your home?

DR

In my family, food obviously was big. It was an opportunity to bring the family together. The kitchen was the focal point of our home. Meals were not just to get full; there was no TV on, so meals were a way for our family to connect with each other. I was introduced to cooking — to seeing my parents cook and the simplicity of cooking — at an early, early age.

CC: What attitudes are we teaching kids today about food?

DR

I think as a society we’ve lost the importance of the simpli-city of cooking — taking a tomato from the garden. I mean, that’s how I grew up. Cooking can be simple. It’s a life skill that I think should be passed on to kids. Unfortunately, we haven’t spent time cultivating that.

My mom would actually use cooking as a way to connect with us, have a family dialogue, whether we were peeling potatoes or chopping tomatoes.

And there’s something magical about cooking with kids; they’re more inclined to want to eat what’s prepared. So those green vegetables — say sautéed rapini or spinach, that would make most kids say, “Eeew, yucky” — well, now they want to eat them because they were involved in the preparation.

CC: Do you think there’s something parents should be doing differently around food?

DR

Mmm, I’m going to get into trouble! But I think we don’t do enough to introduce kids to new foods. It’s a lot of work, so mothers and fathers say, “Little Johnny doesn’t like broccoli so I’m just going to keep giving him hot dogs and chicken fingers.”

When we were growing up, my parents would say, “This is what we’re eating and if you don’t want to eat it, that’s no problem. But I’m not going to make you something else, and you don’t eat anything else.” Today I think many mothers and fathers get guilted into making a separate kids’ meal.

CC: What would you suggest to a parent who says, “That’s great, but I get home at six o’clock and my kids are hungry, and those fish sticks are right in the freezer. I don’t have time to cook from scratch”?

DR

First of all, I think [cooking from scratch] is cheaper — especially now that the economy’s not great. You can feed a family of four for a lot less than those fish sticks or prepared meals. With planning, you don’t have to rely on ordering a pizza. When I was in college, I used to tease my buddies, tell them we could eat better in less time than it would take for a pizza to arrive.

If you can make it fun and get the kids to help you, it’s probably less work than most people think.

It’s about getting into the groove, opening up a can of, say, chickpeas. Take a little bit of olive oil, sauté some garlic or some onions diced up, then rinse the chickpeas and mush up half of them, then add some water and let it simmer for 10 minutes. You have a fantastic soup. You want to add some potatoes, add potatoes. You want to add some leftover pasta, start breaking it up. It’s a one-pot meal and, literally, it’s done in 15 minutes.

CC: How do you plan to get your own daughters involved in the kitchen?

DR

We’re doing it already. I love having them in the kitchen with me when I’m cooking. I’ll give them some of the ingredients — for example, a tomato — just let them hold it, play with it, smell it, bite into it. And I talk to them when I’m cooking, so they know that food is social, it’s interactive, and it brings families together.

CC: How important is it to teach kids about healthy nutrition — you know, trans fats, sodium...?

DR

If we make it too technical, if we don’t make it fun, it sounds preachy. We have to make a heart connection with kids, introduce them to ingredients, get them excited. Sodium? When you cook a simple meal like tomato sauce, sodium is never an issue.

For one of the [Ontario] pilot programs I did at a school in North Bay, we made a cold couscous salad. The teacher had the students in little groups, each with the recipe and all the ingredients. The first thing I said, after thanking them for having me, was “OK, take the printed recipe and throw it out. I want you guys to have fun! This is about a canvas and paint, and you guys are artists. If the recipe calls for half a cup of cherry tomatoes and a cup of cucumber, and you feel like a cup of cherry tomatoes and half a cup of cucumber, go for it!” Then I had all the students go into each other’s groups and make the salad together, and it was such a fun experience. They felt excited and empowered.

CC: So you encourage people to cook...

DR

...with their eyes and their stomach and intuition!

CC: Tell me more about your work in Ontario schools.

DR

The premier’s office called me last year to help promote the new bill that was passed to eliminate trans fats. So I said that now is an opportunity, if I’m going to come on board, to teach kids how to cook — making this as important as math, science and geography at the high school level. Because at the end of the day, if we say, “Guys, we’re going to change the school cafeteria system — we’re going to eliminate french fries and serve only couscous,” kids are going to say, “Yeah, that’s nice. Now I’m going to go next door to the strip plaza and have pizza.”

And so we just finished a pilot program in four schools where we introduced recipes, then those recipes actually became part of the cafeteria food. So what I’m hoping to do is take it beyond the cafeteria and make it part of the curriculum. Part of the program, hopefully, will be teaching the kids how to cook, bringing it back home to cook for their families, even keeping a journal. I want them to see that it’s a whole process, not just cooking because we have to feed ourselves.

Information is current as of the original date of publication.