The final day of the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration was a little different. In the morning, attendees had three different options of experiences before free time with families and then a final interview and dinner at Epcot.
While I had my fingers and toes crossed that I’d be able to go on the Africa Trek, I wasn’t so lucky, but instead I had the joy of interviewing a chef and a sommelier from Disney. They had so much to say about their experiences – from how they came to work at Disney to updates of the menus.
It was inspiring to hear that the chefs don’t simply put a dollar value on a meal and then try to work backwards from there to keep it within the Disney Dining Plan requirement but instead go for a more creative approach, just keeping the budget in mind rather than having it be the starting point.
And while every restaurant has its own twist on meals and styles, they have a very effective ordering system. Where there are common ingredients – hamburger meat, tomatoes, chicken, and the like – the restaurants order from a distribution warehouse within Disney. However, when restaurants need something more special and different for their menus, they order from distributors just for their restaurant – allowing both a cost effective solution and uniqueness required for many of the restaurants.
Not surprisingly, adding healthier options has been one of the biggest trends in dining at Disney. I know I’ve started to see it, where kids’ meals now come with carrots and grapes as the first option – although yes, you can still get fries if you ask. There are more salads, and the California Grill at the Contemporary Resort has been hugely successful.
One thing I was surprised by was an area of Disney dining that I’m intimately familiar with: allergens. If you have any food restrictions, allergies, or intolerances, Disney is one of the best places to dine. At each restaurant, there is an allergy chef who will make sure that you meal meets your restrictions. In fact, on the website if you make a dining reservation, there is a place where you can share your restriction. That is noted on the reservation and forwarded to the restaurant where the chefs will not only be sure they’re ready for you, but they will come out to your table to discuss everything from the ingredients to cross-contamination with you.
And if you happen to go to one of the quick serve places that doesn’t have an allergy chef, there is a black binder at each location that details every ingredient in every item on the menu from ketchup to hamburger to buns and beyond. And many of the foods have allergy alternatives – tapioca buns are available for those with gluten, dairy, and soy issues, for example. I know that I’ll always be confident with Little Miss’s dairy issues when dining at Disney. The part that had surprised me though? With the growth in allergies for a long time, this is a program that has been around for only the past six or seven years. We’ve been using it for the past three years coming to Disney, and they definitely have it down pat.
The consistency across restaurants and days and meals is impressive within Disney. If you’re ordering a particular menu item, it will be the same no matter when or where you order it, and that’s part of the quality control the chefs require. And unfortunately, that is not always the case at all restaurants I eat at.
Disney is always hiring new chefs – obviously, given the number of dining establishments they have! – and many of them come for externships with various culinary programs around the country. I love how Disney helps continue their education and provides them with a foot in the door. That said, the chef admitted that there has been a problem in the past several years with the interns coming in after watching so many cooking shows on tv and challenging how things are run more, thinking that a) they know how to do it best and b) that they’re ready for an executive chef position as soon as they complete their internship. I can only imagine the fun that has to be to manage that!
After our day of fun – and yes, in the Magic Kingdom, I ran into a friend from home within the first five minutes, before we got to a ride! – we headed over to Epcot to a mysterious interview opportunity.
When we arrived, we were ushered into an exposition hall where we discovered several interviewees from Chef Gary (my favorite Disney chef for all the help he offered me the first night with the buffet ingredients) to Barrett Ruud of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to Jennifer Stone from The Wizards of Waverly Place to Alyson Stoner from Phineas and Ferb to Daniel Curtis from Zeke and Luther and more.
They were there – along with two winners of the weekend’s TRYathalon (an activity aimed at getting kids excited about living healthy lives by trying new things and foods) and a twelve year old who feeds people at a homeless shelter with produce from her garden. She was remarkably mature and inspirational, but I have to admit I didn’t catch her name. Shame on me, I was in the parks all day and didn’t have my computer on me.
This fall, thousands of kids wrote essays on healthy living. There was definitely a trend about how to get kids to eat more healthfully; lots of kids wrote about how getting in kitchen and cooking helps inspire eat new foods. I am in one hundred percent agreement with that, as I see the wee ones willing to do and eat so much more when they’re involved in choosing the recipe or helping me make it.
Our wonderful gardener suggested that kids are more likely to eat fruits and veggies if they’re fun. Cut them into shapes, make them dippable, use different textures, etc. I’ve heard the shapes thing about foods so often. There’s something in me though that can’t bear to waste the rest of the food, and I’ve never been able to do cool shapes – except when making pancakes!
Chef Gary brought up a wonderful point, giving me yet another reason to bring the wee ones into the kitchen (and thankfully, I’ve already started teaching fractions when doubling recipes or using measuring spoons or cups). He suggests that we use cooking as an educational tool. The obvious one is fractions and decimals, but you can also include history and cultures when talking about the foods and where they come from and why we eat them. Really, food is all about science and reactions. Why not talk about them as you’re cooking? All in all, it’s a great learning tool.
The Magic of Healthy Living also focuses on getting kids involved in meal prep. There are all sorts of suggestions on how to do so, even for younger children who aren’t physically capable of cutting and being around hot surfaces. Why not have them add precut veggies to your salad – their choice of veggies so they’re more likely to eat it! – or stir fries? There are ways to include our kids, no matter what their age or skill level.
Gardening with our children to encourage them to get involved with their food, eat healthier, and try new things was another focus. One of my favorites was an interesting idea to create a garden and have different planters for each food – e.g., cole slaw or pizza toppings. And yes, Epcot now has some of these themed gardens on site, including the aforementioned pizza garden!
The biggest tip for new gardeners was to make sure your plants get sun and water. Some “easy” beginner plants to start with are tomatoes and peppers, as well as herbs. I know I am certainly inspired to actually do my garden this year rather than say I’m going to an let it get away from me. I will be planting seeds indoors to start them this weekend!
Gardening is obviously a great way to reduce the cost of eating healthy foods. There is the concern and perception that eating healthy is expensive and more than people can afford. If you think about the cost of a seed packet (usually around ninety-nine cents by me) compared to the bounty, it’s a no brainer. Beyond that, though, buying fruits and veggies at the store may be slightly pricier than buying processed foods, but they’re more filling to eat, so you eat less of them. To keep costs down, combine them with brown rice or quinoa (which counts as a complete protein even though it’s a grain) to cut the cost of eating healthy foods. Yum!
There were all sorts of great tips on how to help people eat healthy with limited time, too. A great idea is to cook on Sundays for the whole week so that you can pull out leftovers and have quick meals when you’re busy during the week. We all have a two hour block somewhere on the weekend where we can make three or four things for the week and then stick them in the fridge or freezer for later. Beyond that, simply work on making good choices everywhere you go.
My favorite bit of advice on this topic? There are 24 hours in a day, says Chef Gary – use ’em! It’s really easy to come up with excuses for why we aren’t eating as healthfully as we should be. Daniel Curtis had it right: “I can’t” and “It’s too hard” are our mental blocks to doing things; we need to just try it out.
Disney is working hard to incorporate vegan into vegetarian options, according to Chef Gary. In his eyes, it’s such a small leap to go from vegetarian to vegan, and I personally love how they’re the adapting menus to accomodate more people! These adaptations have been well-received, as Disney has served over 440,000 people with food allergies and sensitivities.
Interestingly, Disney isn’t focusing simply on pointing out where food is healthy. They don’t always call out healthy foods because, according to Chef Gary, “healthy food should just be good food.” I admire that attitude. If the chefs make something taste good, that’s great. Being healthy is simply a by-product.
That said, Disney is also focusing on getting healthy snacks within arms reach of every park guest. There are obviously the alternatives to fries for the kids’ meals, but even the ice cream stands now offer a whole orange or other fruits. Granted, I saw people eating more ice cream than I did fruit, but the option is there – and I know I’m not ordering fries for the wee ones!
They’re also doing it beyond the parks with their licensed produce. They’ve sold over 1.3 billion servings of fruits and veggies so far. Even the television shows have shown changes with a reflection towards healthy lifestyles. You’re much more likely now to see a bowl of fruit in the background of a set than you are chips or other junk food. This is a huge change, and the characters are also more likely to be shown eating healthy foods instead of pizza or donuts or ice cream. I like the subtle changes in the message.
There is also a push to improve school lunches, which is one of my personal pet peeves – and no, neither of the wee ones ever gets a school hot lunch for many reasons. Chefs are moving to schools where they are partnering chefs with schools through the American Culinary Foundation. They try to work with school chefs to improve menus and taste, frequently for free. It’s worth looking into for your local schools to see if there’s an opportunity to make a difference. Most schools around the world have a limited selection – not the thirty choices each week that we offer. It’s a smaller selection but healthier, cheaper and easier to prepare. This may be the model we should be following – I know I’d be good with it!
Tampa Bay Bucaneer Barrett Ruud also offered up some tips regarding what works for him – even though to this day he is not a veggie fan! His best route for eating healthy and performing well is to always eat breakfast. He also eats after every workout, and in general, he eats every 2-3 hours. For him, exercise doesn’t have to be work. When he isn’t in training for the season, he isn’t one to just lift weights and run for the sake of it. He suggested that we just do something fun that’s an activity that we like, whether it’s yoga (he does it) or dancing or golf. Being active is what’s important.
Lastly, we discussed what health means to various panelists. This was so telling to me, especially coming from several people who are growing up in an industry that is so image conscious.
“Health is not a look. Health is not a size. It’s your self respect.” I may need to print that out and pin it to a wall somewhere.
“Reach your own full potential. It’s not about comparing yourself to someone else.” Gee, I don’t know anyone who ever does this….
“Healthy living is freedom and taking the time to make those choices for yourself. And yes, cake is part of healthy lifestyle.” This one was a quote from Alyson Stoner from Phineas and Ferb, and even with so much competition, quite possibly my favorite of the evening.
Ok ok ok, one last tidbit of Disney trivia: the average guest walks seven miles each day in the parks. Apparently that gives a little justification to be able to then eat some of the treats there. Like the ones we had after our healthy dinner.
Once the interview session ended, we met up with our families again for a healthy dinner. While I might have hoped that there was a kids’ option, both the wee ones had plenty of food to eat. Little Miss, in fact, cleaned her plate and was thrilled with everything from the heirloom tomato water to the polenta to the beautiful white fish. Mister Man wasn’t as pleased with the flavors – though he did try everything – but he still at the roasted chicken and multi-grain bread. Personally, I loved it and could eat this kind of healthy food all day every day. And I’m really quite inspired to do so.
Or I was until we got to the viewing party for Illuminations where the healthy desserts were displayed for us. No, I have no pictures of them, but there were very few tables or places to put our food. We ended up squatting next to a curb, which wasn’t exactly conducive to attractive pictures. The yogurt panna cotta was beyond compare. I’m begging Disney for the recipe, as I (and Mister Man) want to recreate that at home. It’s so much better than my panna cotta, and I’m sure far healthier, as well. I also had blueberry water for the first time, which was wonderful and a very unique taste. I’m going to look at how to recreate this one for summer, as well. It was so refreshing!
And finally, IllumiNations. We watched it together as a family with the fireworks and images displayed on the rotating Earth as the music told its story. It was the perfect ending to our conference and stay with Disney telling the story from chaos to order to meaning. Yes, the conference had it all, and I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything.
Thank you, Disney!
In the interest of full disclosure, I attended the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration. The conference ticket also included discounted hotel stay, park tickets, and some gifts for myself and my family. I was not compensated in any way, nor was I asked to write about the conference. All opinions expressed are my own.