No Cute Food Here!
Chocolate-chip cookie pizza lovers, please step aside. You too, if you think today’s 10-year-olds want recipes with names like Yo-Yo Fun Bars and Duck-Duck Cupcakes. The fast-changing international culinary scene for kids, tweens and savvy teenagers has gotten much less adorable while lots of us weren’t paying attention.
Kids love arena-kitchen cook-offs with over-the-top action as chefs compete at lightning speed. But as much fun as those shows might be to watch, can kids really learn how to cook from them? I doubt it. Improvised recipes exist only in the chefs’ heads, and their ingredients are often unobtainable to the average cook. And frantic racing against the clock has nothing to do with real cooking. So, if kids want to learn to cook, where do they start?
The ideal way to assure a safe and supportive introduction to cooking is to provide solid recipes that let kids learn in their own kitchens. I’m not recommending setting unsupervised kids loose in the kitchen to improvise with the stove blazing, knives flying, and appliances whirring. Kids’ safety is paramount! Adults need to make sure every element of the experience is safe before any cooking begins in a structured environment, oriented around recipes that work.
Recipe selection is a welcome challenge to a new cook. So is participation in the whole process of putting out a successful meal. Once young chefs help in family meal planning — including shopping, cooking, cleaning-up — and execute a recipe that earns a family five-star review, it’s a sure bet that they’ll ask for a repeat engagement. And they’ll get it.
I learned to cook from my parents, who were caterers in Detroit. Rather than listen to my constant whining about wanting to be in the kitchen with them, they opted for peace and made a place for me on their kitchen staff on weekends. I was hooked right away and so were they. I obtained a hands-on culinary education while also getting to know my mother and father better as we worked together over the years. Those memories have stayed with me. Not every kid gets such an opportunity.
The rewards of learning to cook early are long-lasting and never go away. Problems get solved in recipes, mathematics and reading skills are used, cooking techniques are honed, and young chefs learn how to time the preparation of meals. Kitchen skills and invaluable confidence grow each time a recipe works, and kids enjoy having control over what they eat. Plus, it’s way-cool.
What’s the key difference between recipes written for young chefs and adults? Detailed procedures. Here’s an example. Many recipes would say, “Peel, crush, and chop the garlic,” assuming the reader already knows how to do that. We can’t assume that with young chefs. So instead I explain, “Lightly crush the garlic by laying the flat side of a chef’s knife on the clove and pressing firmly to break open the skin. Remove the skin, cut off the root end, and discard. Coarsely chop the garlic and set aside.” I’m frequently accused of being overly detailed in my recipes. Guilty as charged.
Kids 10 to 14 are old enough to follow a recipe, but I recommend that an adult oversee the cooking process as “adult assistant chef.” The young chef should be allowed to prepare the recipe independently until the appropriate time for adult assistance. Older teenage chefs, however, won’t take kindly to helicopter parenting once they decide to take over the kitchen. You always said you wanted them to be independent, right?
The three recipes that follow are from my latest book Teen Cuisine New Vegetarian, which contains vegetarian, vegan and even a few raw recipes:
- Smart Bars — my version of the ubiquitous granola bar
- Make-a-Scene Pasta — everybody loves avocados and tomato
- Bite-Me Chili — the title says it all*
When I decided to write cookbooks for kids, I was told the idea was a dead end. I heard, “kids aren’t interested in cooking,” “kid’s cooking is going nowhere,” and “the kids will burn themselves and you’ll get sued.” They were wrong, and now fourteen years later I realize how lucky I am to write for kids. And it’s great to report that young chefs everywhere are taking the future of world cuisine in a very positive direction. Kids do cook!
First published April 2014