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Cooking with Kids

Whether your child is a toddler practicing his fine motor skills with a wooden spoon or a teen working out the intricacies of pie dough with a rolling pin, working side-by-side with parents in the kitchen offers a heavy helping of learning and communication opportunities. (For some reason kids find it easier to open up while whisking together dressing ingredients than when they're sitting down for the purpose of chatting!)

Of course, for many parents, there's not much time to be had in the kitchen. Labor-intensive meals occur only on special occasions, if at all, and the daily priority is to get something on the table. That's okay. Take those shortcuts together by livening up leftovers or whipping up a nutritious meal from a mix. Sharing your "real life" cooking has the same benefits as preparing a big dinner. When you have more time, you can make some of those special recipes. (You might bake bread or roll out that pie dough together on the weekend, for example.) Here are some tips for making the most of your child's time in the kitchen, no matter your time constraints.

Stock Up

Meals that are fun and quick to make, nutritious, and easily successful will build confidence in your child and save you time. Stocking the cupboard with healthful convenience foods now will pay off come crunch time. Some good choices:

* Healthful mixes. Try instant mixes for falafel, soups and dips, beverages (lemonade, fruit drinks, cocoa), salsas, soy burgers, and taco filling. All will quickly become staples in your household. Your food budget will benefit, too, because you can purchase these in bulk.

* Broth powders. Homemade soup isn't out of the question when your broth is instant. Have your child toss in leftovers from the week and a few spices, and you've got yourselves a budget-friendly, healthful dinner. Or follow an easy, reliable recipe. French Onion Soup, Creamy Tomato Soup, and Curried Carrot Soup, for example, can each be made in five minutes using broth powders.

Broth powders are useful in other recipes, too. This Braised Seitan is delicious and elegant, yet easily prepared with vegetable broth powder as a base. You can use broth powders for making grains such as Toasted Pilaf and Surprise Wild Rice.

Make It Fun

  • Add to the importance of your child's role as cook by providing appropriate supplies. Your little tyke might need a stepstool, for example, and kids of all ages will appreciate a colorful apron.
  • Encourage easy creativity via the spice rack. "Want to try cardamom instead of cinnamon on those apples?" and "Let's add some zip to these leftover mashed potatoes with a little Garlic 'N Herb. Seasoning veggies and combining them with other favorite foods is also a good way to get kids to try them. Picnic Peas & Pasta Salad, with bowtie pasta and myriad spices—is much more fun to eat than plain ole peas!
  • Remember that presentation is paramount for kids. Cut foods like sandwiches and pancakes into shapes, and grate veggies into ribbons atop salad greens. Take advantage of seasonal inspiration (the shapes might be hearts in February, shamrocks in March, and Christmas trees in December, for example). Stand broccoli (trees) upright in the rice, slide fruits and veggies on a kabob, and make a raisin face in the oatmeal (sprinkle cinnamon for hair!)
  • Be enthusiastic about food. Show interest in new recipes and new ingredients, and encourage your child to do the same. Be willing to try your child's suggestions. A willingness to experiment with new foods will be very valuable in expanding your child's nutritional and cooking repertoire.

Look For the Lesson

No need to get preachy, but take advantage of the learning potential in the kitchen. Here are just some of the things your child can learn by your side as you cook together:

Reading. If your child is learning to read, go over the recipe together before you start cooking. If he's old enough to read on his own, have him read the recipe aloud to you while you gather the ingredients and supplies.

Math. Cooking is a great way to teach and reinforce math skills in a fun, meaningful way. If your child's a toddler, she can learn number recognition and counting. Older kids can learn fractions, measuring (liquid and dry), multiplication (doubling and tripling recipes), and division (halving recipes). Your child will probably be eager to use her knowledge over and over again in the kitchen, too—it sure beats number worksheets. When math problems come up for school, be sure to point out the correlations with what you've been doing in the kitchen.

Vocabulary. You'll cover cooking terms, of course, like "preheat," "dice," "al dente," and "whip." But many general words will come up, too, such as "golden," "puffy," "blend," and "Fahrenheit." Teach your child the names of ingredients (from artichokes to zucchini) and equipment (ladles, spatulas, and whisks).

Following directions. Recipes provide the perfect practice for following step-by-step procedures. By following (or not following) them, your child can learn about consequences, too. If you find that a recipe would be better approached differently than the way it's written, make corrections in the cookbook. Also note changes you make in seasonings, amounts, etc. This will encourage your child to be on the lookout for ways to improve and personalize his work.

Frugality. By using up leftovers, budgeting food purchases, and being inventive with menus (to use in-season produce, for example), your child can learn not to waste as a matter of habit.

Recycling. Set up a good recycling system in your home, if you don't already have one, and learning to recycle those packages and cans and food scraps will be automatic.

Responsibility. Cooking is fun, but a responsibility, too. Your family is waiting for a meal, after all! Your child will also learn that it's her responsibility to clean up after herself if you make sure that she does it in the kitchen as she cooks. At the same time, she'll learn the satisfaction of contributing to the family. (You can extend this to the community by having her prepare a dish for a community potluck or an extended family get-together, too.)

Other cultures. Spice blends like Indian Curry, Herbs de Provence and Mexican Seasoning are easy ways to introduce ethnic flair—and enlightening conversation—to dinner. Look for easy-to-prepare recipes from other cultures, like Malaysian Chicken Satés for grilling night (you can marinade the chicken in the refrigerator during the day), and Italian Cheese Pie for dessert.

Related life skills. Cooking is a great foundation for teaching other life skills, too, such as meal planning and nutrition ("This is good for our eyesight," and "This will help you build muscles!"), grocery shopping, table setting, and gardening. Visit the farmer's market and the food co-op together. Let your child help you place your order online for cooking items.

Springboard to bigger subjects, too, like food miles, organics, ethical sourcing, local foods, and sustainability. You might explain that you purchase your produce from a local farmer who sells at the co-op, for example, and that you order your coffee, tea, spices and other cooking ingredients from Frontier, a company that helps the farmers who grow their products and makes business decisions with the environment and communities in mind. (The story of Frontier and Akshaya Patra, which provides meals to schoolchildren in India, is one kids can especially relate to.)

It's fun to see how much you can share in the short amount of time it takes to whip up dinner. Teach well, and your child may not only learn a great deal but also take over as head cook in your household someday!

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