With all the talk of how we should help kids stay healthy, my mind keeps returning to the same idea: Teach them to cook! In my home, the kitchen is an extension of the family room, and my three preteen boys have helped me cook since they were small.
Teaching your kids to cook doesn’t mean that you have to turn them loose on their own. It just means letting them play an active role in meal planning, preparation--and cleanup. Training petite chefs is easy. Here are eight tips to get you started:
- Keep it clean. Teach good sanitation habits early. Teach them the basic hand washing techniques--I always tell my culinary school students to sing one round of “Happy Birthday” while washing their hands. Even though your kitchen is not a professional one, encourage the dress of a chef: hair pulled back, no jewelry, and closed-toe shoes.
- Mix it up. Start them with mixing and kneading tasks. Herb blends and spice rubs are a great idea as a first mixing experience--just makes sure they wash their hands when finished and keep hands away from eyes and mouths if any hot spices are involved.
- Savor the experience. I would encourage you to start with savory ingredients and save the sweet recipes for later. Remember when you started feeding your infant real food and the pediatrician suggested starting with vegetables? It's the same principle. One of my first memories in the kitchen with my mother was making chicken pot pie--it is still one of my favorites! For a healthier version try this made-over chicken pot pie.
- Sweeten the deal. Once you are ready to move to sweet recipes, I would start with smoothies--let them experiment with different flavors. Try adding some protein and fiber to the mixes by adding yogurt, ground flax seed or wheat germ. Encourage eating of the season by selecting seasonal fruits and vegetables. Visit local you-pick-it farms so that they see where the food is coming from, or better yet, start your own garden.
- Herbal remedy. Bits of unidentified green objects on a plate can be intimidating to a child. Purchase herb clippers and ask your petite chef to help with the meal by cutting fresh herbs. If you don’t have the clippers, just use a clean pair of kitchen scissors. Encourage them to taste each herb and tell them which flavors pair well with which foods.
- Start chopping. When your chef is ready to cut vegetables with a knife, choose a small ,non-serrated paring knife. Start with semi-soft vegetables and fruits like cucumbers, tomatoes, summer squash, bananas, and peaches. Once they feel comfortable with these, move to harder, dense vegetables like carrots or potatoes. I would reserve any very hard winter root vegetables such as butternut squash or yams for adult hands only. Try my Roasted Root Vegetables as a way to get kids to try new vegetables.
- Make it a teaching moment. Make the experience an extension of the classroom. One of my fondest memories with my mother was International week at my grade school. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I choose France and asked my mother to help me make chocolate éclairs. The basic éclairs are made with pate au choux pastry dough--a big undertaking for an 11 year old, but with her help they were a success. I remember how she helped me multiply the recipe so that we tripled the ingredients to make enough for the whole class. I did not know it at the time, but it was a valuable lesson in math. Now with my own children, the world has changed and foods brought from home are not encouraged in their school due to food allergies. So I have taken that same concept and applied it at home creating an International Day. We let our kids pick a foreign country and have them research the native dishes. We make a field trip to an international grocery store and explore. Chicken Enchilada Stacker is a great beginners recipe--though they'll need some help from mom or dad.
- Choices, choices, choices! The more variety you offer, the more likely your kids will eat a variety of foods. Don’t be discouraged if they won’t try or don’t like the new foods the first time. According to research, it may take up to five times of trying a new food to accept the flavor and texture. One way I make this possible with my kids is that once a week we have a “Build Your Own Night.” Whether it is tacos, sandwiches, or salads, we pull together as many healthy ingredients that we can find in the kitchen to offer as much variety as possible.
Our favorite is Pasta Night: My kids love pasta night. I prepare whole grain pasta, and we steam broccoli, carrots, and asparagus--really anything that is in season. I sauté chopped tomatoes, mushrooms and onions and grate hard cheese (like Parmesan or Romano). You can even add chopped, cooked chicken breasts, browned lean ground beef or turkey or even lean sausage. Then everyone jumps in to create their own “pasta ala me” dish! (This is a great way to make one meal into two--the next morning you can make a vegetable-stuffed omelet or create a quick vegetable puree that you can use in soups or spreads for sandwiches.)
What was the first recipe you ever cooked with your children? Do you cook with them regularly? If so, what are your favorite foods to cook together?