Julia Child knew how to mix taste, nutrition

"Bon appetit!" as the late culinary icon Julia Child would say at the end of each episode of her pioneering PBS cooking show "The French Chef." This week, her fans are commemorating what would have been her 100th birthday on Wednesday.

Child's kitchen wisdoms continue to educate and inspire millions through her many cookbooks, biographies and documentaries about her and this month deliciously fun reruns of "The French Chef" on PBS television. A few minutes into an episode on onion soup, I completely forgot I was watching Child ladle soup and grate cheese in black and white! Her personality added the color.

During my years as a CNN correspondent covering the food beat, I was lucky to interview and share memorable meals with Julia Child. She even came to my house one morning for coffee. She taught me a few things about food and nutrition, too.

While working on the manuscript for my book, "The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!," I asked Child, who was then well into her 80s and well known for her love of butter and cream, what advice she might have for planning a healthy dinner party menu.

She offered a stealth strategy, "If you serve a health-conscious meal to guests, don't say so. Don't mention it at all. Think taste first!"

Gems from Julia

During an interview with me for a CNN profile in 1997, she shared that moderation was the key to eating a healthy diet, but here's her delicious twist on that, "Everything in moderation, I say. Even excess! You can splurge every once in a while."

She continued with a stronger observation, "I think a lot of people have an immature attitude. They hear you shouldn't eat a lot of butter or red meat and so they give up eating butter. They give up eating red meat. The key to healthful dieting is to eat small helpings and a great variety of everything. And above all have a good time!"

When I asked about the healthfulness of French cuisine, she leapt to its defense, "When they speak of French cooking, they say, 'Oh! All of those heavy sauces!' I think people have a complete misconception of French cooking. I think they're thinking of tourist cooking."

Child's cookbooks give loud applause to the appeal of produce. In her cookbook "The Way to Cook," more than 100 pages are dedicated to cooking vegetables and salads with a chapter introduction in which she declares, "The truth has dawned that fresh vegetables are not only good for you, they can be the glory of any meal, when lovingly cooked."

Julia's kitchen

During a recent trip to Washington, I was disappointed to find out that the exhibit in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History featuring Child's kitchen from her home in Cambridge, Mass., was closed for renovation.

I wanted to get some photos of the section of the kitchen where a VHS tape of CNN "On the Menu With Carolyn O'Neil" was placed next to her television.

Nanci Edwards, project manager for the Smithsonian Institution, took me behind the scenes to see how the new exhibit was coming along. Child's kitchen with its shiny appliances, cookbooks, countertops and copper pots hung on a blue pegboard wall was wrapped up in protective sheets of clear plastic waiting for the surrounding exhibit to be completed.

"Julia Child's Kitchen" will be on display Aug. 15- Sept. 3 and will reopen in November, as the focal point of a new exhibit hall titled "Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000."

But don't look for the CNN videotape. "I don't think that will make it into the new exhibit," Edwards informed me, "but we're not going to throw it away." I guess I'm still with Julia Child in the Smithsonian somewhere.

Carolyn O'Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of "The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!"; email her at carolynoneil@aol.com.