Tiffani Thiessen opens up about parenting: 'My kids will probably say that we’re strict'

Tiffani Thiessen on cooking for her kids and the joy of family road trips. (Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Tiffani Thiessen on cooking for her kids and the joy of family road trips. (Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

Tiffani Thiessen may be best known for playing Bayside High cheerleader Kelly Kapowski on Saved by the Bell and Beverly Hills, 90210's misunderstood minx Valerie Malone, but in recent years, the actress has emerged as a food and lifestyle guru with a cookbook under her belt and a hosting gig on MTV's Deliciousness.

Those culinary skills have also come in handy at home, where Thiessen and actor and illustrator husband Brady Smith are raising their two children, 11-year-old Harper and 6-year-old Holt. When she's not sharing her '90s style secrets with her daughter, the TV teen queen is overseeing themed pizza and sushi dinners with all hands on deck.

Feeding her family is also central to the star's latest partnership, working with Nutri-Grain's new "Getaway From Negotiation" sweepstakes offering five families a stateside vacation worth up to $10,000. Here, Thiessen opens up about her own recent dream getaway, working with her kids in the kitchen and why her preteen isn't that interested in Saved by the Bell.

How did you first get into cooking?

My love of food has always been there since I was young. I grew up in a family where the women — my mother, my aunt, my grandmother — all love to cook. And I was just kind of that young girl who just wanted to be with the ladies in the kitchen, doing what they were doing, because it looks fun, you know? I started to really passionately fall in love with food as I started to get older. I started traveling a lot, even for Saved by the Bell. I was going all through Europe and I think my love of food and different cuisines and different places sort of fed that fire a little bit. And then as I got older, it was really about entertaining and having friends over, and I love to throw a good dinner party. And then it became about doing it for the kids. So it's had an evolution, but it's always been there since I was young.

Are your kids picky eaters, or has your experience with cooking helped them have more sophisticated palates?

My daughter used to be very picky when she was younger and she's gotten so much better now that she's older. She's in the kitchen with me a lot. She likes to cook. We grow a lot of vegetables and fruit here, so it's been really fun to see their own sort of personal connection to food and watching it grow. That's been really super-helpful as well. My son is not so much picky, I just have a hard time getting him to eat vegetables. He'll eat fruit all day long, but vegetables has been really hard the last couple of years. And so I have to sneak it in in other places, which luckily I know how to do that. But overall they're good eaters. They really are good eaters; they eat the healthy stuff. My daughter is very good about fruits and vegetables, but I think every parent can say that there's moments of pickiness. That's just being a kid, right? Being a mom, I have to deal with that.

The premise of your Nutri-Grain sweepstakes is that parents need a break from negotiating over snacks with their kids. Can you relate to that as a mom?

Oh my gosh, I can relate to it so much. Nutri-Grain actually told me this statistic, which kind of blew my mind, but then I'm also like, that makes sense. But they say half of parents [spend] nine days of the year negotiating food with their children, which I can totally see. It seems like crazy stats, but then I'm like, no, that kind of makes sense because you're negotiating usually every single day with something when it comes to food. And so I was really excited to actually partner with Nutri-Grain. My kids, first of all, absolutely love them; they're one of those things that are in our pantry all the time. And I trust that if they pick that, I know that they're getting something good for them and that it's not filled with a bunch of crap. ... On those mornings where we're rushing to get to camp, I can throw it in their backpack — or they make their own decisions. That's the other thing, too: I want to start showing my kids that you can choose healthy things and let them have that independence of going in the pantry and grabbing something or putting in their backpack for snacks.

Do you have any slam-dunk family meals you know everyone will love?

We have themed nights sometimes for dinner, so we have, like, pizza nights, which the kids love doing. They love calling it "decorating their pizza." They roll it out — I let them do all of it literally on their own, which is kind of fun, and giving them lots of options. My daughter's really gotten into making homemade sushi, which has been really fun for her. She loves doing that and then I can actually get vegetables in her. ... Those are always some really fun, easy theme nights that we do. But again, dinner is usually pretty seamless now that my kids are a little bit older. They get in the kitchen a lot with me, they love to help, they set the table — not every night, but they generally do most times.

How would you describe your parenting style? Are you strict, easygoing, a bit of both?

It depends on who you ask [laughs[. My kids will probably say that we're strict. We're strict about electronics; they only get a certain amount of time. In the summer, they get it a little bit longer, but it's not a lot compared to probably a lot of people. We're "outside" people. We love getting the kids outside and I think it's important. I try to really remember [what I loved] as a kid and it was stuff outside; it was always stuff that I was doing outside. It wasn't a TV show that I watched, at least at that age. And so I try to really remember that that's what's important, getting them out there and having experiences and getting their feet dirty and their hands dirty and breathing that semi-good air [laughs]. In Los Angeles, it's not that great but it's better than inside, right? So we're strict about that.

We're definitely strict about just sitting down as a family and eating. That's really important, especially when it's the school year. We're much more strict about every night sitting home and having dinner together as a family, no electronics, not even our phones. We're a little looser in the summer, because we're running around a little bit more depending on work schedules and stuff, and the kids have camp. They'll have a popsicle when they get home because it's summer. So I feel like we give a little bit. I think we're, hopefully, a good balance of strict and fun.

You recently shared photos of your trip to the Grand Canyon and Utah. Any advice for families traveling with kids? Did you road-trip it?

We did. My husband and I used to do RV trips a lot before we had children. We always said once we had children, we can't stop doing these, because it's really a different and fun way to travel with somebody. We were going to do it last year, but the pandemic hit and so we said that we were going to do it this year. We rented an RV and we traveled for 11 days in the RV. It was hard, but even more than hard, it was so much fun. The kids loved it. We went from the Grand Canyon to Colorado, back to Utah and went into the Zion [National Park]. It was such a high. We said we're going to try to do an RV trip every year, so we're already planning next year.

Harper's now 11, around the same age you were doing pageants and commercials for Barbie. Has she shown any interest in showbiz or is she doing her own thing?

She's interested in other things for sure. I think she's intrigued by what her parents do, but I don't see any sort of real direction and passion of wanting to do that. And we're not focusing on that at all. I want her to be a kid. I want her to have those sort of normal experiences, even though I really truly say that I was very lucky to have the childhood that I had because it wasn't like a normal entertainment life. My parents were very, very involved with everything that I did. So, hopefully, knock on wood, I feel like I came out pretty good. But it's not always that case, you know what I mean? She hasn't asked about it and we're not pushing it. I will always support her in anything that she's passionate in, but she's 11. That's not where her mind is right now, which is great.

Has she seen Saved by the Bell? I picture you having this Kelly Kapowski closet stuffed with banana clips ...

By the way, my daughter now has all that kind of stuff. That's what's so funny. Scrunchies are back, banana clips are back, all that stuff is back. She makes me braid her hair so it's got that kinky wave that we used to do with the iron. It's hilarious how it's full circle.

She has watched a couple episodes of Season 1. She really didn't show [interest]. It's funny, the shows nowadays are more sophisticated, even for her age. She loved Alexa & Katie [Thiessen's Netflix series], and that was a much more sophisticated show, if you were to compare it to Saved by the Bell back then. It didn't hold her interest, which I get. I mean, it's an old show. It's just different. She thought it was funny. She laughed more because she said I looked funny, it looks different, "what were you wearing?"... that kind of thing. She found it more comical, but it wasn't anything she was interested to watch. She didn't care so much.

Your husband is also an illustrator. Is making art a big family activity?

My daughter definitely has the art bug. She loves it. She loves to draw, she loves to create things. She's taken a lot of art classes. She's loved it from day one. We just started getting Holt into it and he's just starting to draw more, and I'm actually kind of impressed. He's been doing ninjas these days and they're pretty good for a newly 6-year-old. But yeah, we're definitely a very artsy family, especially because of my husband. He just finished his second graphic novel, and the first graphic novel in the series comes out this fall.

Finally, do you have any working-mom tips on finding some balance through it all?

Breathe. Definitely a lot of [breathing], a lot of patience, for sure. Being a parent, that's probably number one, patience. Making sure you have a good support system, wherever you can find that, whether it's friends, family, husband, wife, whatever. I think that's truly important, too: It takes a village. It really is not just about one person. It really takes a dance of a lot of people to raise children, hopefully in a good manner [laughs].

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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