Bake-A-Bear Bread: The Simple Pleasure of Cooking Rivals Extreme Entertainment for Kids
I live in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA, so the closest local mall happens to be the shiny megalopolis called Mall of America. Incredibly, there always seems to be a long line snaked around a particular store where children — many are part of another child’s birthday celebration — gather around to stuff and dress a new stuffed animal friend. I find this fascinating because once upon a time, long, long ago, I was in the kids’ birthday party business.
While I now write cookbooks and edit a food magazine for children called Ingredient, the roots of this work began when I was Chef Jill from Picky Eaters Kids’ Cooking Parties, a mobile business offering hands-on cooking instruction for kids in my clients’ homes. What did that really mean? Chef Jill hustled birthday parties for kids. In any given weekend, I would be all over the greater Maryland-DC-Northern Virginia area most likely helping kids between the ages of three and twelve make individual pizzas to enjoy at the party, and chocolate covered marshmallow pops to package and take home as a DIY favor.
From building bears to bouncing in inflatable castles to getting pedicures at preschooler spa parties, there are a dizzying number of experiences that parents can hire for birthdays. Most share qualities in common: they are active, they are meant for children to interact and work together, they are fun, they are physical and hands-on, and there is often a final result or product. While cooking may not have extreme elements like costumed cartoon princesses or glow-in-the-dark laser tag vests, it offers a different kind of excitement that is more elemental: empowering kids with responsibility and inviting them to take part in an activity that happens in real life as opposed to merely play.
Creative food writers can fill this need by creating content that reminds adults of the simple pleasures that kids can find – with some support – through cooking events, and these events, however simple they seem, can rival other activities that vie for kids’ attention.
One of my favorite projects for birthday parties, youth groups or scout troops is baking bread, particularly shaped loaves. The activity is fun for toddlers to teens and can be scaled in difficulty as appropriate for the age. Together we walk through the entire process of making dough, then I provide pre-made dough for my young cooks to shape. When the bread goes into the oven, we make our own butter. From the perspective of an adult, the simplicity of it – a jar, a marble, some cream and a sprinkling of salt – can mask its magic, but I’ve had a room of high school boys eagerly lining up for their turns to shake the butter jar, utterly delighted and mystified by their creation.
Food writing can be about how to create these opportunities for learning, cooking, tasting and building self-esteem, and the connections that clever food writers can make to holidays, family history, food trends, food media and even the ephemera of kid and teen popular culture are limitless.
As Chef Jill, I’ve been to hundreds of children’s birthday parties, some with party favor bags that rivaled Oscar party swag, but I’ve never seen a child at a birthday party more excited than when clamoring for a parents’ attention to show off a simple white bread bear, baked and tucked into a modest brown paper lunch sack with the open end turned under and held closed by a sticker that said “Homemade by Me.”
First published June 2014