Look who's coming to dinner! When Giada De Laurentiis arrives at Dr. Oz's New Jersey home for our December cover shoot, there's so much buzz in the house that it truly feels like a holiday gathering. Amid all the chaos, the family's black Labrador, Rosie, sprawls under the kitchen table, rolling over for a belly scratch whenever Dr. Oz walks by. Music is playing, pine boughs have taken over the kitchen table, and mouth watering smells are everywhere.
Giada, naturally, is the person responsible for the feast — a festive menu she created for Good Life readers with recipes from her new book, Happy Cooking. The only requirement: that the food should feel exciting and splurge-y, without launching us all into damage control mode come January.
It all looks amazing and makes the crew hungry, so catering gets set up in the only uncrowded spot: the garage. The number of bikes stored here, by the way, makes you wonder if the Oz clan is getting ready for the Tour de France. (Nope, it turns out. Just their standard, leisurely Tours de Jersey.) Dr. Oz and Giada go for the lean protein (salmon and grilled chicken), veggies, and a tomato salad with kalamata olives.
"How'd you get into cooking?" Dr. Oz asks Giada between bites.
"Well, I come from a large family of Italians who tend to be very boisterous and overpowering—especially the men," she says. "The women sort of shrink a little, and I shrank a lot. So the way I felt empowered and really strong was in the kitchen."
She may have gotten strong, but pudgy? Definitely not. "I don't fit the mold of what people believe a cook should look like," she says. "You've heard the expression 'You can't trust a skinny cook.' But everyone has a different frame and body size." Still, moderation helps, says Giada: "In my family, we enjoy everything, but we don't overindulge."
The key is eating flavorful food, just not eating a lot of it.
If you've seen her shows on the Food Network — including Everyday Italian, Giada at Home, and Giada in Italy — you know she's not kidding about the enjoyment factor. This isn't a woman who totes around spray butter and tucks into fat-free frozen yogurt; that's clear from the healthy pour of olive oil she'll use in the sauté pan and the gelato she'll scoop up for herself and her 7-year-old daughter, Jade. "Tasteless food always leaves you wanting more. The key is eating flavorful food, just not eating a lot of it," Giada says. "Truly, the best sensations are the first few bites, but to appreciate them, you have to be in tune with yourself."
The three-bite rule might seem impossible to the rest of us, especially when something is as seductive as the cake she and Dr. Oz are sharing back at the kitchen counter. But mental tricks can come in handy, Giada tells Dr. Oz. "I love desserts, so I remind myself it's OK not to finish them. I can always have another sweet tomorrow. And if I over indulge one day, I'll scale back the next." Wardrobe adjustments help too. "For the holidays, I typically skip the jeans and go for A-line dresses and tights. I still feel good, but I have more room to move around in my clothes."
Honest, right? She's equally up-front about her personal life. The newly single mom was divorced from fashion designer Todd Thompson earlier this year. "We had been together since I was 19; I'm now 45. That's a lifetime with someone," says Giada. "It was a very difficult time. I don't have the answers; I'm figuring them out as I go. I'm also afraid, like many other women who go through this, and men, too, for that matter."
She's navigating all-new challenges, from her first solo holiday season to fixing things that go beep in the night. "I never knew how to hook up a TV; I had alarms going off in the night that I never had to deal with because my ex- husband would handle all that stuff," says Giada. "I can do those things now. If the water heater breaks, I can handle it. It's moments like those that wake you up and make you think, Oh, my gosh, I can take care of myself. Every challenge is an opportunity to become stronger and believe in yourself more. That's what it's about: believing in yourself."
Maybe the seating arrangements at Giada's holiday table will look a little different, but the food and the joy will still be there. Before the day wraps, Dr. Oz asks her one last question: "What does the good life mean to you?"
"The good life to me is lots of laughter," Giada says. "People always ask me: 'Why do you smile so much? And how do you keep smiling?' You know, I think laughing inside and outside is important. And to me, 'happy cooking' is really important. So between cooking and laughing, I think my life is pretty great."
This story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.