Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cooking with Kids

My kids love to help in the kitchen. Hardly a day goes by that my daughter doesn’t pull her little stepstool over to the counter next to me and ask, “What do we do now, Mama Chef?” At ages 3-1/2 and 5, my kids aren’t quite ready to do much real cooking on their own, but they love to help as much as they can. Here are a few of my favorite kid-friendly dishes that even the little ones can help with!

Scrambled Eggs
The first thing my son learned to do in the kitchen was to crack an egg. So, naturally, scrambled eggs is a dish that he loves to help prepare. I bring the egg carton over to the counter and tell him how many eggs we need, then he carefully counts them out and cracks them into the bowl. I help him add milk, salt, and pepper, then he whisks them up with a fork (I use a big bowl to help avoid spills). He butters the toast while I cook the eggs, and when they’re done he gets to make faces on his pile of eggs using Cheerios, sliced black olives, pepperoni, pieces of fruit, pretzel sticks, cheese, red hot candies, whipped cream, ketchup, and whatever else we have on hand.

Brownies (from a mix)
We provide a snack for coffee hour after church once a month or so, and my son loves to tell everyone that he made the brownies that we bring. As well as cracking the eggs (of course), his job is to read the directions and tell me how much of everything we need. I use a marker to draw a line on the glass measuring cup if he needs a little help with the water or oil, and if the recipe calls for butter, we count the tablespoon marks and use a butter knife to cut off the right-sized piece. He does the initial stirring (I taught him “clockwise” and “counterclockwise” while making brownies!) and count how many strokes we use, I help him scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula and give it a few more good mixes, then he finishes it up. He sprays the baking pan with non-stick spray, then I hold up the heavy glass bowl while he scrapes the batter into the pan. We practice “greater than” and “less than” as we set the oven temperature (“Which is hotter, 325 degrees or 350 degrees?”), then he sets the timer. When the brownies are all done and cooled, we cut them together and count how many brownies we made.

Meatloaf and Meatballs
A lot of people are grossed out by the feeling of raw ground meat in their hands, but I find that squishing very satisfying, and so do my kids. My son helps read the recipe and measure out the various ingredients, then we dig in with both hands to mix everything together. We taste the various spices and the breadcrumbs as we put them in, and talk about the flavors each one adds to the final product. We even talk about what we could use instead of certain ingredients: What if we were out of bread crumbs? What else do we have that’s in the grain group that’s kind of dry that we could substitute? (We came up with cereal, potato flakes, and crushed tortilla chips.) What could we use instead of ketchup? What else do we have that’s made from the same thing as ketchup? (Our answer was fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes, and salsa.)

Spreading filling on a sandwich is a slightly trickier skill than I first realized. It takes a bit of practice to get the knife at just the right angle so it pushes the filling onto the bread instead of scraping it off. Although peanut butter is a favorite, its stickiness makes it harder to spread, so try starting your kids spreading the jelly side while you do the peanut butter, or spreading mustard or mayo or butter on a cold cut sandwich, or spreading tuna or chicken salad. They can also practice cutting the sandwich in half or carefully lining up a cookie cutter to cut the sandwich into a shape. When they learn their shapes, you can challenge them to figure out how to try to cut the sandwich into rectangles or triangles. If you want to get really creative, let them choose their own sandwich fillings. My son has requested things as varied as chicken with lettuce and apples and a touch of mayo (surprisingly delicious) to bacon and cheese and grapes (not surprisingly, somewhat less successful). We practice nutrition by choosing a meat, a fruit or vegetable, and a dairy product to balance the grain of the bread.

Edible Playdough
Cooking doesn’t necessarily have to be food, although this playdough is perfectly edible. There are plenty of variations on the recipe, but I like to use one cup of creamy peanut butter, two cups of non-fat dry milk powder, and half a cup of honey. Kids learn different techniques for measuring different types of ingredients: peanut butter has to be smooshed into a measuring cup, milk powder needs to be shaken down until it’s level, and honey is a liquid that drizzles into the cup. You can talk about how there’s twice as much milk powder as there is peanut butter, and half as much honey. We discuss how adding a bit more or less of each ingredient would change the texture of the dough. Sometimes we make a hypothesis about it and then do an experiment to find out if our hypthesis was right! And of course, there’s plenty of fine motor skills and creativity involving the final product. You can also give the kids chocolate chips, jimmies, cereal, M&Ms, and other small edibles to decorate their artwork.

And besides all the skills mentioned above, cooking with kids helps teach them basic hygiene and food safety (my kids now run right to the bathroom to wash their hands whenever I call them into the kitchen to help me cook), healthy menu planning, reading, following directions, and math skills like fractions and units of measure. They’re more likely to try new foods if they helped to make them. You can use food to talk about geography (where do grapes come from?), anatomy (what part of the chicken did this come from?), and nutrition (why do I let you eat lots of fruit but candy is only a sometimes food?). Plus, it’s just plain fun to play around in the kitchen with your kids.

So…what do we do now, Mama Chef?

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