This month’s Eat Well, Spend Less is focused on the kids and the process of getting them in the kitchen to cook and eat. With summer vacation looming, this is the perfect time to tackle the terrain.
When I was seven I cooked my first meal. I opened up a worn copy of my mom’s Betty Crocker Cookbook for Girls and Boys, and I made roast chicken, green bean almondine, and yeast bread shaped like a turtle. (The turtle actually came from Alpha-Bakery Gold Medal Children’s Cookbook. Both books remain in my possession.)
By seven years old I had spent countless hours in the kitchen with my mom, my grandmothers, my aunts. I watched, I sifted, I mixed, I poured. I soaked up every bit I could get my hands on, and then, I started to make my own food. By the time I tackled a full dinner menu I’d already covered casseroles, cookies, and cake.
My mother did not help me with my dinner venture. After all, she was even more afraid of yeast breads than she was of pie crust. It is the pie crust that holds the keys to my very first memory: My mother’s refusal to seek shelter during a tornado, instead trying to conquer the crust in the kitchen, my aunt and I sitting on the steps waiting for her, me just over a year old.
What Does that Mean for My Kids?
When I think of how I want my children involved in the kitchen, I want to make sure they know how to use the tools there, how to feed themselves and others, and how to keep themselves safe in the presence of everything that’s going on.
On a Skype interview I was once asked to name the key to getting kids to eat a variety of food. Without question I answered that there were three things that stood in importance above all else if you want your kids to be adventurous eaters: get them involved in the planning, the preparation, and the conversation.
I truly believe the first place to start is by giving them a choice as to what they’re going to be doing there. I want them to be a part of the whole process, and for us that means that it starts by involving them in the menu planning, the grocery shopping, and the dinner dialogue.
Now, I realize we’re all busy. I have four kids, a full-time job, volunteer hours, baseball and swimming and band camp, too. (Actually, we don’t have band camp. We have other camps, but band camp seemed more universal.) So, don’t focus on the daily; focus on the overall. It’s a big picture activity. It’s a lifestyle choice. Eat out once in a while. (We had Indian food yesterday.) Allow them to make a mess when you have the time to have them help you clean it up. Make the kitchen a place they’re welcome, but don’t be afraid to kick them out every now and then so you can get something done.
When we plan our menus each week, we try to get a certain amount of input from the other four people who will be eating the food. Sometimes it’s just one of them, sometimes it’s all of them, but we ask on a fairly regular basis if there’s something they want to eat.
- Menu Planning “Is there a meal you’d like to eat this week?” This is a great learning opportunity. Let’s say your kid replies that they want macaroni and cheese. For me that leads into more discussion on the meal. “What type of pasta should we use? What side dishes should we have for a complete meal? Should we add ham to the macaroni, or would you rather have it on the side?”
- Shopping “So, we need pasta for dinner. Why do we want to purchase this brand and not that brand?” There’s a math lesson and a health lesson wrapped into this, as well as familiarizing your kids with the layout of the store or the farmers market or the co-op. “We want to buy a snack for lunch. What things should we look for on the label, and what things do we want to avoid on the ingredient list?”
- Gardening Whether it is a small potted herb or a garden full of vegetables, this act teaches kids how much responsibility and work it can be to grow food. It gives them an appreciation for what’s on their plate they wouldn’t have a basis for otherwise.
I know there are those of you out there who cringe at the thought of involving your kids in activities in the kitchen. I will admit that there are times when the thought of my daughter spilling half a cup of flour down the side of the mixer makes me a bit crazy. However, as Joy so aptly pointed out today, “Patience is an exercise.” It takes work. It takes practice. Sometimes, it takes closing your eyes and taking a deep breath before turning to face the flour. It also takes knowing when to say no. (Testing a new recipe? Let the kids mix, yes. Measure, no.)
- Know Your Child My 5-year-old will stand by me for hours and do anything I ask her to in the kitchen. She is almost too helpful. My 7-year-old likes cutting, chopping, and cracking eggs. He doesn’t have the patience to roll balls of dough all the same size, but he might do it for a few minutes to try it out. My 12-year-old wants a recipe, and she wants to run with it. She only wants you near in case she has a question, but don’t even think of hovering. My 3-year-old wants samples to taste and bowls to mix. His attention span is nowhere near his sister’s, but he likes to come and go and feel included.
They are all different with varying levels of interest and involvement, and that’s okay. Knowing where their interests lie helps me decide which one to ask to accompany me for different projects. It helps me determine how to best use their resources, because someone who wants to chop bell peppers and tomatoes for you is most definitely a resource. It helps me to know who I can trust at the stove and who needs more time and reminders and patience.
- Find Your Comfort Zone You also need to know where your strengths lie. If you get stressed out every time you need to make pie crust, maybe having the kids hover while you make it isn’t the best idea. Choose something you’re comfortable with to involve them and invite them in. Still, if you are struggling with pie crust and that sweet face just wants you to include it, give them something else to work on while you are. Perhaps they can hull strawberries for the filling until you’re finished.
- Make It Fun Sure, making dinner can be a chore some days, and when you’re rushed and harried it can be more difficult to have extra helpers. Pick a weekend to bake ahead or make breakfast together. Choose a recipe you love with fun steps the kids will enjoy like cracking eggs or using the hand mixer. Turn on music, sing, laugh. Show your kids how a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Blow the dish soap bubbles liberally as you scrub pots and pans.
We talk about our food. What did we like? What did we dislike? Could it have used more spice, less lemon, more acid, a bit of salt? And we encourage our kids to do the same.
Kids are not going to enjoy every meal. I don’t enjoy every meal. It’s okay. Please note, however, that this does not meal that I will make an alternative meal for dissenters. It simply means that my 12-year-old’s dislike of asparagus is recognized, and we have also explored to find two ways she happily eats and enjoys it, even though it is not her favorite food. Do I only serve it that way? No, but I do try to be sure that during asparagus season we eat it the ways she enjoys it, too.
This conversation about food also helps to figure out what it is your kids might not enjoy about a food. Is it slimy? Is it too bitter for them? Why have they suddenly sworn off mushrooms after six years of consuming them? Did they learn recently in school that mushrooms are a fungus, and they don’t want to be caught eating a fungus?
You can take what you find out during the dinner conversation about the food and apply it both by changing things yourself and encouraging the kids to experiment and change things in the kitchen as well.
More than anything, my goal is to have my children feel good about feeding themselves. Food does not need to serve the purpose of self-loathing. It doesn’t have to be something to fear. It can be used to nourish and even celebrate. Eat to live.
As always, you can check out what others are writing in the Eat Well, Spend Less series on getting kids cooking: