Preschoolers Serve Up Some Pleasant Surprises
Here’s a sentence for you to finish:
“When children are allowed into the kitchen….”
If your answer touches on some variation of all hell breaking loose, you are about to discover that a) you are wrong (a good thing here!) and b) you are not alone. Most adults assume that chaos will rule – and spaghetti sauce splatters will become your new wallpaper — when kids jump into a cooking project. And while it’s true there might be a few spills, most children (and I’m talking really little ones here, ages 3 through 6) respond to a cooking invitation with surprising good will and a sense of respect. They are so honored to be included in this adult realm, and most will want to do their very best in every way.
There is so much a small child has to gain from cooking. And by “cooking,” I mean everything from plucking basil leaves from their stems to make pesto, washing a zucchini with a little soft brush in a bowl of water, buttering bread, whisking pancake batter, spreading beans and sprinkling cheese onto a tortilla, or pouring milk into a bowl from a spouted measuring cup. He learns to count, observe, anticipate, describe. She sees science in action, and gets clues about other cultures while honing her own senses. Pride of accomplishment and the ability to reach out to others with an edible offering combine into what might be the most significant factor of all. If you are lucky enough to remember the first time you made something for another person to enjoy eating or drinking, and if that first time was early in your life (or even if later), you will recognize that feeling I am trying to convey – it’s a thrilling sense of effectiveness in loving outreach — something little kids rarely get to experience. And it stays with you as a point of referral and confidence for the rest of your life. (For me, it was when I was seven, and I figured out that it would make my parents very happy to have their coffee waiting for them, freshly brewed, first thing in the morning. So I learned how, and I started making their coffee every Saturday morning. I was so proud, here I am still writing about it!)
When cooking with small children, it’s important that you be present in the kitchen the entire time as a gentle guide for the project. Get everything set up ahead of time – ideally on their level (a child-sized table) so they won’t have to climb and possibly teeter upon high stools. Keep sharp knives out of reach, and be sure that other sharp blades, such as those in a blender or food processor, are “adult touch only.” If you are cooking with heat (an electric skillet on the table, for example), discuss that fact ahead of time, and set out some safety rules – most importantly, that only an adult has any dealings with an oven. Anticipate spills by using larger-than-normal bowls and placing trays under mixing stations, and have a plentiful supply of plush towels handy. Keep a sense of humor, and relegate kid-cooking projects to weekends, on days when there is no clock ticking – either for getting to the next activity or for getting an actual meal on the table. Don’t cook together when frazzled or hungry – just do it for fun. If it ends up becoming a little meal in the process, consider that a bonus.
Here are some simple projects you can do with a preschooler:
• Make cinnamon toast. Toast slices of bread while you combine sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and let your youngster stir them together until “all one color.” Butter the bread together, and the mini-chef can sprinkle away.
• Decorate bagels. Show your small child how to spread softened cream cheese on half a bagel, and have handy small bowls of assorted cut vegetables and olives – and maybe also some micro-greens or sprouts. After the cream cheese application (let it take a good, long time; this is a more complicated task for a 4 year-old than it is for you), it’s time to decorate the coated bagel with colorful vegetable bits. Kids can make a face or an abstract design. And in the process, they will likely start munching the vegetables – largely because they want to clear the “slate” and make a new decoration. Sneaky? Maybe a touch, but it’s fun and oh-so-wholesome — and it really works. A great idea for a birthday party, and the bagels can double as lunch with a cup of soup.
• As I mentioned above, small children enjoy stripping the leaves from stalks of fresh basil to “help” you make pesto-from-scratch. Just be sure they discard the stems and put the leaves into the food processor – and not the other way around. (They often toss the leaves and save the stems. Funny, but a pain to comb through the compost….)
• You can make a simple popover batter together, allowing your small child (if you are game) to break the eggs. Let them do this into a pie pan, and tell them to whack each one harder than they might expect. (They tend to crack eggs more gingerly than you might expect.) The pie pan allows for a nice, horizontal inside-of-egg landing area, so none of this essential ingredient escapes. Have damp paper towels handy, as – surprisingly – most small kids do not like having sticky hands.
The rest of the popover batter is equally easy to execute, from measuring the flour and milk, dumping/pouring the same into a large bowl, and whisking the thin, supple batter. A child’s small arm can handle this – with great joy! The hardest part is waiting for the popovers to bake, but the kids are very proud of themselves when they accomplish this feat. (Just check out the look on the faces of Julius and his pal!) We call this “patience skills.” It is a tremendous source of pride – almost as much as the finished, yummy product!
• Miso-Almond Dip is healthy and delicious. Blending almonds and miso together with apple juice is a lot of fun for children, and they love poking all kinds of vegetables (raw and/or cooked) into the resulting, delicious dip. Prepare to have more vegetables consumed this way than you might ever have imagined! (Exhibits B and C: Happy Julius, munching away with two adult friends!) If this ends up being so filling that your child won’t have tummy room for lunch, will you mind? I doubt it.
First published February 2014