Healthy Children - August 2014

Life together in the kitchen

What begins as cooking with kids becomes much more

When my son unexpectedly brought home a school friend for video games, homework and supper one afternoon years ago, I baked an easy cake recipe, topped it with fresh, sweet whipped cream and served it for dessert. “Where’s the box?” the friend asked. “And the can?” We just smiled at each other.

From his early days, my son and I spent happy hours together in the small kitchen of our 1930s bungalow. As a toddler, he had his own drawer of pots, tubs and long-handled spoons to use for projects and noisemakers. We danced to lively music on the radio. He ran miniature cars and trucks through cornmeal on his high chair tray while I cooked. He made messy mixtures that became snack foods and art projects. And then, as a preschooler, standing on a chair to reach the counter, he began to cook.

We took our time. It was slow cooking meets slow parenting. And it was the start of a love of cooking together that’s still a favorite part of our visits all these years later. Here’s how to step out of the world of boxes, cans and carryout and into a world of kitchen and cooking memories.

• Grocery shop together. From the grocery cart seat, young children can practice colors and counting in the produce section. A little later, they can learn to select fresh, delicious fruits and vegetables. Readers can examine ingredients on packages and use a calculator to total purchases. It takes a little longer, and it’s worth it.

• At home, start with good kitchen hygiene. Clean hands, clean surfaces, clean foods.

• Arrange ingredients and tools before beginning.

• Find parts of the process even youngsters can do alone or side by side with you. Certain cutting activities, mixing and arranging all are within a child’s capability. Let them breathe in the rich fragrances of herbs and spices and add them by the pinch or spoon. Leave the sharp-knife and hot-stove work for the adults.

• Select ingredients that work well together and allow for invention. Quesadillas. Fruity punches. French toast and toppings. Serve and celebrate these new creations. Let your child start his or her own personal cookbook, handwritten, complete with invented spellings. Write dates on the entries. This will be a treasure.

• Cooking is full of teachable math moments. Teach fractions the easy way, even to preschoolers.

• Children's cookbooks can be fun, but aren't nes.

• Children’s cookbooks can be fun, but aren’t necessary. Far too many instructions begin “Ask an adult to …”

• If time is short, make time later.

Rushing takes the fun out of learning and patience runs thin.

• The freedom to be tactile keeps food handling fun, but it takes practice to master mixing speeds and techniques. Create cooking spaces where spills and splashes are easy to clean up.

• Substitute freely. Many meats and meat substitutes are interchangeable without adjustment, as are many starches and much dairy.

• If you’re going to use a can of something, make it count. Homemade cherry pie is economical, festive and easy to make, but it isn’t always time smart to use fresh cherries. Use canned tart cherries (not cherry pie filling!) for the recipe below.

Laugh at the mistakes. Sometimes it’s the recipe, sometimes it’s the cook. They can become some of the best stories.