For many families, dinner is only a means to an end: We must eat to survive, so busy schedules lead to prepackaged meals or takeout, and picky eaters make dinner a draining task as parents fight to give them a balanced diet. Combine that with all the stress and activity of the holidays, and creating a menu that is easy, healthy and tasty for all involved seems impossible. But no matter what time of year it is, dinner doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, for some families, cooking with the children is actually the glue that makes mealtimes manageable, as well as an activity that imparts important life skills to the next generation.
According to Randi Matson, co-owner of the Young Chefs Academy of Lancaster, a cooking school geared toward children, introducing kids to the kitchen isn’t just about teaching them how to chop and mix ingredients (youngchefsacademy.com). “There are many academic subjects that are involved in cooking: reading, math, science, social studies, cultural awareness, nutrition, healthy eating, budgeting,” she says. Teamwork, creativity and social skills are also involved in that mix, she says, but “the most important thing I want to get across to students is the enjoyment of food.”
First of all, she says, children as young as 3 can be introduced to the kitchen: Doing so may even make them more likely to eat their veggies. “Little ones love to tear pieces of lettuce or fruit, like grapes,” says Matson. “Watch them pull the little ‘trees’ from a big head of broccoli — then they will eat it!” Older kids can help with following a recipe, by measuring ingredients, cutting softer fruits or veggies with plastic knives and helping to mix things. Thirteen-year-old Isaac Nohr, who has been a YCA student for more than a year, is already gaining some independence in the kitchen. “He has very successfully made a few signature dishes on his own, such as baked French toast, fruit pizzas and apple and brie crostinis,” says his mother, Manheim native Paige Flory. “He would like to start taking on one dinner a week, where he would plan, prep and serve the meal.” According to Matson, it’s important to go at each child’s pace: “We have students whose parents trust them at the stove at age 7,” she says. “It really depends on the child and their ability to focus and their desire.”
No ingredient should be off limits. Instead of relegating them to “kid foods” such as macaroni and cheese and hot dogs, offer your children the chance to work with foods such as salmon, tofu or zucchini, which are not traditionally offered to the younger generation. “We have used all kinds of ingredients with our classes,” says Matson. “We even had one parent shocked that his child was eating avocado. He said, ‘I have never even tried an avocado!’” Matson suggests conducting a “taste test” with your kids: Try a raw carrot and a cooked one, and ask which they like better, or compare a red grape with a green one. “Or, here is a garbanzo bean, try it alone, then tell us what you think after we put it in with these ingredients,” she says. Isaac’s favorite ingredients include raw onions and hot peppers, and he is willing to give new things a try. “At home, Isaac is very proud to taste-test his creations and usually thinks they are delicious,” says Flory.
Matson will be the first to admit that teaching kids to cook takes time — something parents on the go don’t always have enough of. She suggests planning a designated time and date to let the kids be hands-on with a recipe — and not the night before your big Christmas party. “It takes much patience to teach cooking skills to children, and if you can carve out some time on rainy days, it will be more fun than trying to do it in a hurry and ending up stressed with the mess,” she says. “You wouldn’t want to discourage your child, so if you have time, great! If not, wait until you do.” Consider allowing your children to help bake cookies to give out to neighbors or friends this holiday season, or come up with an easy meal plan, such as omelets or mini-pizzas, and let them choose the veggies to add in to their creations. Lay out all of your ingredients and tools so they’re easily accessible, and have the kids help you clean up as you go along so there’s not a big mess at the end.
Either way, cooking well “is a life skill that will help a person no matter what other fields they pursue,” says Matson. For both Isaac and his mother, making healthy dishes is crucial: “In a society that is always looking for the quick fix and the most convenient solution, I see certain dangers in kids growing up thinking their food comes from a drive-up window or the freezer,” says Flory. “I believe that intentionally preparing and serving wholesome meals and dishes builds not just strong bodies but strong families and communities.”
1. Get the kids involved. They can help with planning, shopping, assembling. Ask them!
2. Start small. Give them short, small jobs.
3. Pay attention to their level of interest and ability. Increase their responsibilities as they can handle it. They love a challenge!
4. Look at each spill or mess as a great learning experience. We never worry about messes when cooking — we just clean them up.
5. Teach kids to “clean as you go.” Make up a song or dance to make it fun. (Then it is more fun for you!)
6. Enjoy the process, enjoy the food, and especially, enjoy your child!
Mini Veggie Frittatas
½ red bell pepper
2 small green onions
½ cup low-fat cheddar cheese (sharp or mild), grated
2 large eggs
½ cup egg substitute
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon oregano leaves
Preheat oven to 400°F. Prepare muffin pan with cooking spray. Slice zucchini in 1/8-inch thick slices and core, seed and finely chop red bell pepper. Finely chop green onions (use both the greens and white bulb). Grate cheese and set aside. In a mixing bowl, beat eggs, egg substitute, salt, pepper and oregano at medium speed for 2 minutes until well blended. Add in red pepper and onion. Mix well. Place a zucchini slice in each muffin cup. Spoon 1 Tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons of the egg mixture into each cup. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of cheese on top of the egg mixture. Bake until set for 10-12 minutes. Serve warm. Makes 12 frittatas.
Breakfast Cereal Muffins
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup brown sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups breakfast cereal (choose one with at least 5 grams of fiber per serving; the YCA Test Kitchen used 100% bran flakes)
¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup low-fat or skim milk
¼ cup honey
Optional add-ins: ½ cup dried cranberries, cherries or raisins, or chopped nuts such as walnuts, pecans or almonds
Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare muffin pan with cooking spray or paper liners. In a mixing bowl, combine flour, brown sugar, baking powder, salt and cereal. Mix well. In a second bowl, beat egg with a wire whisk. Whisk together with oil, milk and honey. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, and stir just until flour is moist. The batter should be lumpy. Fill muffin cups 2/3 full with batter. Bake 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Remove from pan immediately. Makes 12 muffins.
Rice and Spinach Cake
1 cup Arborio rice, cooked
1 onion, chopped
1 pound fresh spinach
1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 Tablespoons butter, softened
4 Tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
Pepper to taste
Pinch of nutmeg
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare the rice according to the directions on the package. Prepare cake tin or mold with cooking spray. Wash the onion and spinach well. Remove the stems from the spinach. Using a microwave-safe bowl, cook the spinach in the microwave for 2-3 minutes, covered. Cook it long enough to soften it, then drain well and finely chop. Chop the onion. Place in a microwave-safe bowl along with the olive oil. Microwave on medium power until the onion is softened. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the spinach, rice and onion. Next add the softened butter, eggs, cheese pepper and nutmeg. Mix well and press into mold or cake pan. Bake for 25 minutes or till golden. When done, turn out on a plate to serve. May be served hot or cold.
Recipes courtesy Randi Matson
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