As a professional jazz guitarist and artist, improvising with food comes naturally to Bill Wurtzel. But he never imagined that when he began making artistic breakfasts for his wife Claire more than 50 years ago, the two would travel the globe inspiring kids to make healthy food choices with Funny Food Art. From Jazz at the Lincoln Center, where Bill has presented his comically nutritious creations to musical accompaniment, to performances in Israel and Sweden, and countless workshops in the U.S., he and Claire, a longtime special needs educator, have been making healthy eating imaginative and joyful.
In their workshops, Bill creates his cute and clever dishes, while Claire explains the benefits of each ingredient. Using USDA dietary guidelines, they not only introduce kids and families to the concept of a balanced diet, they’re also taking aim at growing childhood obesity rates. Their new book, “Funny Food Made Easy: Creative, Fun & Healthy Breakfasts, Lunches & Snacks,” features more than 100 works of plate art, along with step-by-step illustrations and ingredient lists for turning everyday foods into inspired edible creations.
Here, the duo, who will be at our art center this month for the exhibit, “Food, Fun, Photography,” as well as a free workshop for kids and parents, chart their journey from a playful expression of love to an expanding nutritional curriculum.
In the beginning
“Claire told me that when she was a child her mother made her funny little feet out of dough when she baked bread. So one day I made Claire a fun breakfast,” says Bill. “I had no plans to continue and (thousands of creations later) I never know if I’ll do another one.”
Sharing the love
Soon, Bill was making these breakfasts for his kids and, eventually, his grandkids. “It gives me pleasure to make them smile,” he says. “And the creative process puts me in a good mood.”
Happy and healthy together
Thanks to her mom, who as a young immigrant took advantage of free nutrition classes at their local community center, learning to prepare well-balanced meals for her four kids, Claire has long been a healthy eater. She inspired Bill to make better food choices, so when he began making his whimsical breakfasts just for fun, using nutritional ingredients was a given. “It makes me feel nurtured and loved,” says Claire. “And it’s amazing to see how Bill comes up with endless creations.”
A new nutritional lens
The faster he got at his plate art, the more frequently Bill began to serve up his funny food, much to the delight of his family. It was Claire who encouraged him to begin photographing his creations about seven years ago. “I use a point and shoot camera with natural light. I usually create the food art and shoot it within 5 minutes,” he says. “I use whatever ingredients are at hand. I mix colors of fruits and vegetables. Each color has its own vitamins, minerals and nutrients. It makes the food art more colorful. I also try to combine food groups. I look carefully at the food and it usually tells me what it wants to be.”
Roots in improv
Bill’s former career in advertising and his talents as a jazz musician naturally lent themselves to his new creative endeavors. “As a creative director, my job was to come up with ideas for ads and commercials. Playing jazz requires the same inventiveness. So improvising with food comes naturally to me,” he says.
It also comes in handy when his playful ideas don’t always translate, such as when a fried egg was once accidentally burnt and torn. “Rather than toss it, I put it on a piece of toast with a couple of raisins. It’s one of Claire’s favorites — and looks like a friend of ours,” he says.
From the book to the classroom
In 2012, the Wurtzels published “FUNNY FOOD: 365 Fun, Healthy, Silly, Creative Breakfasts” (originally planned as “Breakfast for Claire”), and Claire decided it was time to start going into schools to help combat childhood diabetes and the obesity epidemic. She and Bill took their first workshop for kids and families to P.S. 188 in New York City, where nearly half the kids were overweight or had diabetes. “It was pure joy for them, and us,” Bill recalls. “We make it fun for kids and families to learn about nutrition in a hands-on, joyful atmosphere.”
Never too young
“We feel it’s important to model good eating habits with children as young as 3 and 4,” says Bill. He and Claire have done workshops for kids from pre-K through high school — Claire develops and varies their curriculum accordingly — but the hands-on component always remains the same. “At the end of the workshops, kids try healthy foods they never ate before. When they make it, they eat it. We also have received encouragement from experts in the field of nutrition who believe that our work is making a difference.”
The wonder of whole wheat
Time and again, the Wurtzels see evidence of that difference, such as when a mother who’d never tasted a whole-wheat pancake before thought it was so delicious she asked to take it home for her young child. “When Claire mentioned to high school students that parsley is a breath freshener, there was a run on the parsley,” recalls Bill.
Teaching in tandem
The Wurtzels encourage kids to create in a way that’s comfortable for them. “Bill’s natural ability to motivate kids and his compelling food art were the reasons I initiated the workshops,” says Claire. But she also brings, beyond the lasting impact of her mom’s free lessons, her perspective as a former Weight Watchers client. “Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is a key aspect of the Weight Watchers program: taking time to make your food look good slows you down and makes you more conscious of what’s on your plate,” she says. “We also talk about eating from all food groups, as well as portion control.”
On a relaxing note
“At the beginning of the workshop, kids loosen up by joining me in singing a Funny Food song: ‘When I play with Funny Food, it puts me in a happy mood. And when I eat my Funny Food, it makes my body feel so good,’ ” says Bill.
Passing it on
The Wurtzels’ new book, “Funny Food Made Easy,” includes sections on nutrition, play and even instructions for leading your own workshop. “We encourage kids to pass along at least one thing they’ve learned. This book can help people make healthy food choices on a regular basis,” says Bill, noting overloaded schedules are no excuse. “Weekends are a perfect time for family fun, making Funny Food together. And it can be done quickly and easily.”
A rotating cast
For Bill, favorite creations come and go, depending on the day. “I just made ‘Pearbiscus.’ It’s today’s favorite — and of course whatever makes Claire smile.”
The exhibit “Food, Fun, Photography” opens with a reception from 5 to 7:30 p.m. May 20 in our farmhouse and runs through June 22. Bill and Claire will offer a free workshop for parents and kids from 10 a.m. to noon May 21 (registration is required to reserve your spot).
Learn more about the Wurtzels here.