Kids in the Kitchen: teach them to cook!

Apr 1st, 2007

Teaching kid’s classes provides us a growing repertoire of recipes that that work well, and those that don’t. Pizza is always popular! Pasta, too. But when we make a common dish like mac ‘n cheese from scratch, it often fails to live up to the child’s vision of what it should be. No surprise that the blue and yellow box, for example, is the standard for macaroni and cheese for children even as young as three! I loved it myself—until I read the ingredients. Adults—parent or teacher, who want kids to eat healthier, have quite a challenge. No doubt about it, the blue box will beat our scratch recipe for speed and ease of preparation, and it certainly encourages the child to be more independent—cooking class not needed. So when daring to make a recipe that has competition from a crafty version in a box, we advise making the new recipe as close to the “box” in flavor and appearance as possible. Don’t go for cutting fat and calories right away. Just make a great tasting alternative. Then hope that the satisfaction of “doing-it-myself” adds up to a desire to do it again and again! Our position on this subject is that teaching kids to cook helps develop their independence and gives them alternatives, but most importantly, they start to enjoy the process.

Of all the positive outcomes of learning to cook, we like that it helps kids enjoy the eating because they made it! A common expression heard in our classes is “this is the best “blank” I have ever eaten.” We can only guess it is because they did it themselves. With that kind of reaction to cooking, we dare to cook many foods that don’t make it to a kid’s list of favorite foods. For example, we were not real confident about making a fish burrito in one of our classes during Spring Break last year. But the children—8 to 13 years old, seemed quite eager to learn how to make it. The first step was to “bread” the fresh fish in a tasty seasoned bread coating. Everyone in class willingly took their turn during the breading procedure (process of getting the crispy coating to stick to the fish for cooking). Then again they enthusiastically helped “swim” the fish in the deep fat, (holding one end and moving it back and forth in the fat to set the breading before letting go), with adult supervision, of course. At this point, Lenore and I were encouraged that we had picked a recipe that made a hit with the kids. We assembled the other ingredients, and the children served themselves. The older kids filled their tortillas to the brim while the younger ones picked everything but the fish! Surprised we inquired. “We don’t eat fish,” they explained. I asked why they didn’t mention that while we were cooking and they didn’t know. I guessed the process of making it was enough fun to trump the fact that they don’t eat fish. Would the younger kids eventually enjoy eating the fish, we wondered, while the older kids went for seconds—proclaiming it the best fish taco they had ever had!

Parents often ask us how to get kids to eat better. Never having had kids, Lenore and I do not pretend to know for sure. We rely on good books on the subject by experts. We especially like the book, “Meals without Squeals!” by Christine Berman MPH, RD & Jacki Fromer, which is aimed at day care providers of young children. With a title like that, we believe mealtime to be one of the great challenges of childcare. Not speaking first hand, however, (having only parented our dogs, for which we provide a ration of kibbles at mealtime), I can only offer what I have read. These authors say to offer only healthy choices and allow kids to choose from them at mealtime—even if some items are left on the plate. They say avoid negotiation when it comes to food and mealtime, and only make exceptions to the family meal when there is an allergy or medical reason to do so. And of course, most authorities say kids will eat what they see parents and teachers eat, so it just makes good sense to be good role models. I don’ t judge, mind you—my dogs eat better than I do, but when people and kids tell us their creations are the best ever tasted, we go right back to our favorite way to help kids eat better, “teach them to cook.”

Here are a few of our kids tested recipes.

PIZZA DOUGH (using a mixer requires adult supervision)
1 cup water, warm 110°F. or less
1 pack active dry yeast, or about 2 ½ teaspoon
1 Tablespoon sugar
3 cups AP flour
1-2 Tablespoons EVOO
1 Teaspoons salt

Vocabulary & Abbreviations:
EVOO=extra virgin olive oil TT=to taste TBSP=Tablespoon TSP= teaspoon PUNCH DOWN= removing air after first rising with “fists.” KNEAD=working dough with rhythmic motion until it becomes very elastic—developing the gluten. This can also be accomplished in a mixer with dough hook and adult supervision. Method: 1. Combine water yeast and sugar in bowl of mixer & stir; set aside until mixture is foamy. 2. Add 1 ½ cups of the flour, 1 tablespoon of EVOO, and all of the salt blending with the dough hook on the mixer about 3 minutes, or mix by hand about 7 minutes. 3. Add flour gradually until all flour is incorporated. Mix with dough hook until the dough cleans the sides of the bowl. OR, dump onto floured surface and knead for 4-7 minutes by hand. 4. Oil a clean bowl with remaining EVOO, swish dough in bowl and cover with towel. Let rise 1 to 1 ½ hours or until doubled in size. See diagram for shaping.
RED PIZZA SAUCE
2 Tablespoons EVOO
1 small onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large can Roma tomatoes
1/2-1 cup water as needed
3 oz butter or EVOO
¼ cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
TT salt and pepper
Method: Heat EVOO in sauce pan. Over medium heat, sauté onions until soft about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 more minute. Add all tomatoes and cook for 3 minutes. Add water, if needed. Simmer 20 minutes. Blend (in food processor or blender) and strain, if desired. Whisk in butter and parsley. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Use immediately or cool quickly in the refrigerator and save for another day.
YIELD: 2 ½ cups
EVOO=extra virgin olive oil
TT=to taste
As needed, means ingredient is optional and only used to thin down sauce.
Minced= very small squares