The writer's 3-year-old son, Ben, likes to get involved in the kitchen by helping to mix and measure. One of his favorite kitchen tools is a small whisk that is the perfect size for his hands. (Leonard Ortiz/Orange County Register/MCT)
It’s a recurring dream, a very nice recurring dream.
I dream of the day when my son, not quite 4, will be able to cook me dinner.
Yes, we are probably at least a few years away from having that dream come true. But even as a baby, I started priming him for a time when we can stand side by side in the kitchen and chop, slice, dice and sauté. We strolled the local farmers market looking for fresh fruits and vegetables I could turn into baby food for him. I would show him the colors and tell him the name of each item while he explored their textures.
At home, I would have him smell spices I liked to incorporate into his foods: cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin and coriander to start. It seemed like a common-sense way to start him on a lifetime of enjoying food and being willing to try new things.
And while I cannot prove this made a difference, he has become a fairly sophisticated eater for a kid his age. He enjoys sushi as much as spaghetti. He devours Peruvian food as fast as he plows through a peanut butter sandwich. And when we go out for Korean food, I have to fight him for the kimchi.
Now my son wants to get involved in making the food. He wants to learn.
Lisa Dohner, owner of Prep Kitchen Essentials in Seal Beach, Calif., provides classes for adults and kids, as well as summer camps to learn about food and the process of making a meal item.
“We like to show them once or twice and then let them do it on their own, to succeed or fail, and they master things very quickly,” she said. “Sometimes we learn tricks and shortcuts from them.”
Dohner said class kids are encouraged to try new things, but the term “picky eater” is never used.
“We don’t point out that things are healthy or good for you, even though everything we make is made from scratch — even pasta,” she said. “We really focus on the process and the fun you can have in the kitchen, doing and creating things.”
That emphasis on exploring food is echoed by Zov Karamardian, chef and owner of Zov’s Bistro in three California cities: Tustin, Newport and Irvine. She suggests getting friends in on the action.
“Sometimes children are reluctant to try something, but if they see a friend eating it, they will try it,” she said. “And when it is something they have made, they are proud of it.”
Getting kids in the kitchen has benefits beyond them learning how to make you a meal. Though that certainly will be nice when it happens.
Reading and following recipes helps with comprehension and math, as well as fine motor skills. Trying ethnic foods teaches them about other cultures and parts of the world. Setting up the work area and gathering all the ingredients and equipment aids organizational skills.
Even the most basic things like washing the produce or helping fold the napkins for the table can help kids feel more invested in the meal. The key is to find tasks that work for each child’s age and skill level.
And don’t be afraid to let them help. Sure, the kitchen holds many dangers: knives, fire, hot pans. Supervision will keep things safe. Know when to be hands-on and when to take a step back.
“The biggest tip I would give is to let kids try things themselves. If they mess up, it’s not a big deal,” Dohner said. “Let them keep doing it until they get it right, and they will get it right and it really gives them a sense of accomplishment ... ‘I made this.’”
A BAKER’S DOZEN OF HELPFUL HINTS
1. Savvy shopping. Let the children help choose ingredients while encouraging them to try at least one new thing. The farmers market is a great place for this, with so many options. If children feel like they are part of the decision making, they will be happier to help prepare and eat new items.
2. Mix it up. Sometimes children are reluctant to try new things. But mixing those in with something they already love can help. So if they love blueberries, but you want them to try kiwi, put the two together. The same goes with vegetables.
3. Time management. Are you rushing around, trying to get dinner on the table in 30 minutes? This might not be the ideal time to get the kids in the kitchen. Because for as much as little hands want to help, the reality is that cooking with children can slow the process. Make sure to build in extra time. It will make the experience more enjoyable for everyone.
4. Recipe research. Cookbooks, magazines, the newspaper’s food section and websites are great places for children to get inspired and find recipes to try. Another source that might not be so obvious: a children’s atlas or globe. My son will look at the map and ask me about food from other countries. So far, I haven’t been able to dig up a good recipe for Mauritanian food, but I managed to muddle through with Moroccan.
5. Make a plan. Knowing ahead of time what you will make will help make things easier. Make sure you have all the ingredients, tools and pans needed. Make sure the recipe is appropriate for the time you have. Read the recipe all the way through with your children so you can pick out the tasks that need to be done by an adult and the tasks the kids can tackle.
6. Broaden your own horizons. By letting your child take the lead or at least have a say in the meal plan, you might find some new things you like, too. Or it could be a good way to try something you thought you didn’t like. Tastes change. As a child, I could not stand corn. But my son wanted to try it. So I got some corn at the farmers market, did a simple grilled preparation and gave it another try. And we ate a lot of corn this summer.
7. Choose wisely. With ingredients, buy the best, freshest stuff you can. With the preparation, know your child’s abilities. Some recipes and tasks are better suited for younger kids, some are better for older kids. The idea is to have them do what is safe for those abilities. Would I give my 3-year-old a knife? No. But he is great at whisking eggs and helping run the food processor, with supervision. Things as basic as letting them help wash the produce can get even the youngest kids involved.
8. Dress the part. Children might feel more chef-like if they have their own apron to wear. For those with long hair, pull it back to keep it out of their faces so they can see what they are doing as they work. It’s also good for safety and for hygiene. Kids like to have tools that fit their hands. Most cooking stores carry smaller versions of whisks, wooden spoons and spatulas that look just like the ones Mom or Dad use.
9. Set the scene. Smaller children might need a boost from a safe, solid kitchen stool. Or it might be easier for them to work at a lower level, with you having to come down to them on occasion. Sometimes the best place to work is the kitchen table, where there is some room to spread out and the surface is not too high.
10. Embrace the mess. It will get messy. It’s children and food. Just go with it. If you cringe at the idea of crumbs on the floor, put a plastic tablecloth under the work area. When the cooking is over, any mess can easily be scooped up and tossed.
11. Taste test. If you are working with things that can be sampled raw, this is a great way to teach children what is safe this way and what needs to be cooked. If you are making a salad, once the child has washed the veggies, go ahead and let them sample bits and pieces of what they will assemble into the dish.
12. Keep it clean. Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. Before starting, after sampling, after handling raw meat, poultry or fish, before sitting down to eat. Really, you cannot wash hands too much.
13. The most important ingredient? Fun! Keep things light and don’t stress. Exploring different foods and preparation can help children learn about more than just food. It can be a gateway to learning about another culture, about the math and science of measuring and about good hygiene and nutrition. And as long as it is fun, learning will happen naturally.
These baked egg dishes are an easy way to get kids involved in breakfast, especially on the weekend when there is more time to linger. These are really easy to adapt, letting you add in family favorites. We like diced ham and broccoli with cheddar.
4 large eggs
¼ cup half and half
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup total for add-in items such as ham, veggies and cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley or fresh chives (optional for garnish)
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat a six-cup muffin pan with cooking spray.
2. Whisk together eggs, half and half, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Divide egg mixture among muffin cups.
3. Divide add-in items among muffin cups. Sprinkle each with some of the Parmesan cheese, if using.
4. Bake until frittatas are puffy and the edges and top are golden brown, about 20 minutes.
5. Remove from oven, then run a butter knife around the edge each frittata to loosen it from the pan. Carefully lift each frittata from the pan.
To serve: Garnish with a sprinkle of the chopped parsley or chives. These also make a good lunch. Serve with a little green or fruit salad or sliced tomatoes.
If you have leftovers, save them to wrap in warm flour tortillas with a little salsa for a quick and portable burrito for breakfast.
Adapted from “Feed Our Small World: A Cookbook for Kids” by Disney Book Group