Sandra Lee Is Back on TV — and Still Concerned About Your Grocery Bill

A Monday afternoon FaceTime with Sandra Lee quickly turns into a shopping intervention. Anybody who wants to lower their grocery bill, says the Semi-Homemade Cooking host, needs a Costco membership and an affinity for Trader Joe’s. When I counter that the crowds at the latter are a real turn-off, she’s having none of it. “You just have to get up early and go when they open,” she instructs. “Same with Costco.”

We are speaking on the occasion of her new series, Roku’s Dinner Budget Showdown (out May 3). It’s her first fully fledged TV show since Sandra’s Money Saving Meals ended in 2012 when Lee turned her attention to working alongside then-partner and then-Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. But this return for Lee, long an evangelist of stretching a dollar in the kitchen, seemed inevitable. Recent headlines about skyrocketing grocery costs are like the Bat-Signal for Lee. And while this show is new ground for her, blending cooking instruction with competition, she insists that her mission has always been the same.

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“I’m from La Crosse, Wisconsin,” she says, perched on a couch in her Los Angeles home. “And coming from the Midwest, you have a different perspective on everybody between New York and Los Angeles. That is who the advertiser wants to reach. That is who television has to service. And that is what our content has to do.”


So do you start getting more incoming calls when the price of eggs rises again — or are you always out there pitching?

I have found, show after show, that I come out with these big concepts that are before their time by at least a couple years. This is Semi-Homemade meets Money Saving Meals, which were my two huge shows, with a hybrid of competition. Those two shows, by the way, everybody said they wouldn’t work. Even after the huge success of Semi-Homemade, which was number one on Food Network for five years, they said “no” to Money Saving Meals. I went and wrote the cookbook, it was a New York Times bestseller, and they came back and said, “Do you want to do this?” So, I’ve learned to just archive my content. I must have 15 ideas for shows in my binders (motions to binders.) See that, all organized? That’s all content that I created over COVID.

You’re one of the few people in the food space to not tackle a competition format. Was that previously not appealing?

Never. It felt like a death sentence to the stand-and-stir type shows, which people really want. If you look at what’s going on now, it’s not just audience erosion. People are complaining that there’s no content anymore. I based what I want to do around my growing-up television icon, which was Samantha Stevens in Bewitched. I’m like, “How would Samantha get this on the table?” Four dishes, a cocktail, a tablescape, two wardrobe changes, and you change the kitchen in 30 minutes. I really just want to do something that I can be happy with that I know it has great service, and not something that is just the next competition iteration.

Food Network is overwhelming competition series at this point.

Yeah. And there’s no home and there’s no hybrid, so I created the hybrid.

Do you watch any food television?

Some, to see what’s out there. My perspective is different. After 25 cookbooks and four series and 12 primetime specials in food and four of them in home, nobody even knows that my real roots are home and garden. I created product for retailers like Walmart, QVC, Target.

Was QVC your breakout?
No. Walmart was my breakout. QVC taught me how to be on air, but Walmart and Target taught me how to look at the world through the lens of consumers and what they need and how you give it to them. And then QVC taught me how to be on television and really how to market. I didn’t do food till much later.

Do you identify as a chef? You’re often labeled as one.

I would say I’m more of an all-around lifestyle personality. I mean, we got an Emmy in makeup for my show. Nobody gets that on cable — and certainly not on Food Network. I did fashion with Fox for an entire year. My grandmother was a huge fashion couturier. Back in the day, she did all Dean Martin’s wife’s clothes and Esther Williams’. I come from a long line of women who are very determined and highly successful in their own right.

The culinary community tends to turn up its nose at hacks, pre-made stuff, packaged things — all long your bread and butter. Have you noticed a shift in accepting that way of cooking with so much of that driving food content on TikTok and Instagram?

Everybody goes to the grocery store. Everybody uses products off the shelf. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be on the shelf. And my job is not to judge you. My job is just to share and show you how to use it, in multiple ways, to the best of your ability. It’s your choice. Everybody’s got to eat. You live your life. I live mine.

You’ve accomplished a lot, in media and in philanthropy. What’s still on that bucket list for you? What do you want to do that people maybe don’t think of you for?

What would I like to do? I’d like to do is I’d like to hang a wreath on the White House and do the Christmas special for the White House. I’d love to create the movie for Aunt Sandy Claus. You Google “Aunt Sandy Claus,” you’ll see me. It became a big thing when I was doing my specials over Christmastime. There’s a lot of bucket list things that I have but doing the work I currently have is super important to me. Hunger, gay rights, those are my heartstrings.

I’d like to talk about the word “tablescape” — because while you may not have created the concept, you did coin a portmanteau that’s now broadly used in the English-speaking world.

By the way, the woman who at the time said, “I’ll never! That word is so annoying…” now she uses it constantly, just like she does cocktails constantly.

Who might that be?

It’s not Martha.

Well, did you have any understanding at the time that you were creating a new word?

I did. I tried to, as with many of the things that I’ve coined or created, to put that into the Webster Dictionary. But if you trademark things, they can’t go into the dictionary. But I say “tablescapes” all the time. Livingroomscape, wardrobescape, fashionscape, tablescape, whatever the scape is. I’d like to escape and go on vacation because I am tired.

Are you in L.A. most of the time these days?

I do a 50-50 split now. New York is in my blood, obviously. It was an honor to be able to serve for the years that I got to serve New York State. That was incredible, and I learned a lot. But my uncle got cancer right after I got it (Lee was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015), and so I came here [to be with him] after the big breakup.

What did you learn about yourself during your time as the de facto first lady of New York?

I learned what an incredibly powerful position that the leaders of this country have. Look at marriage equality. Look at AIDS testing. Look at what my breast cancer diagnosis created nationwide in changing the laws and changing availability for screening. What an example that you can be if you’re willing to be open and transparent, which is not always easy to do. It’s a fine line between that and coming off like a housewife — and I’m talking about The Real Housewives.

In prepping for our conversation, I discovered you share a name with Dr. Pimple Popper. She’s really scrambled your SEO. Has that ever prompted any misdirected asks?

She did everything she could when she first started to lean into cupcake zits with icing oozing from pimples. She did everything she could to lean in — as did her people. That was one of the heights of Semi-Homemade at that time. So, I am aware of her. She probably does really good work and changes lives, but I think everybody needs to be on their own path. I’m very thoughtful about my sisters and how I respect them and their boundaries.

Before I let you go, what’s the best thing you’ve eaten recently?
Last night, I had chocolate soufflé at the Polo Lounge at The Beverly Hills Hotel. It was divine.

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