A recipe for teachable moments
The editorial director seemed a bit perplexed by my question.
“Sure, we’ve published a few cookbooks for kids, but they’re hard to sell, because, you know, kids can’t really cook.”
I had posed the question because I was going to moderate a panel on cookbooks for kids. Having written two such books myself, I felt that I knew something about the topic, but once I had confirmed, I got nervous: Would there be enough to talk about? So I reached out to a few editors who I knew had published kids cookbooks and asked for their insights.
This one — a well-respected leader in publishing — was nice enough to respond immediately, despite the fact that we’d never met. A promising start, I thought. And then he said kids couldn’t cook.
As a cookbook writer — and more to the point, as a mom — I knew he was wrong. Hadn’t my daughter helped me come up with some kid-friendly hors d’oeuvre recipes? Hadn’t she and her friends helped me test — of all things — a cold fruit soup? Hadn’t one of them gone home, inspired, and created her own pancake topping? Wasn’t I always hearing from others about how they helped out in the kitchen?
True, none of these kids were left to navigate hot stoves and ovens, treacherous food processors and sharp knives on their own. But did that matter? With appropriate supervision, they were most definitely cooking. And learning. And having a whole lot of fun.
And as I found out when I spoke to others in the field — editors, teachers and parents — the opportunities for learning in the kitchen are many and (at the risk of sounding grandiose) profound.
First, there’s learning about the food itself. Cooking with Mom or Dad, a grandparent, a schoolteacher, or a cooking instructor can be just what the less-adventurous child needs to summon the courage to try an unfamiliar food.
Cooking together also presents opportunities for learning about healthful eating, because you can control what goes into the stew or the chili or the fruit tart, and as each ingredient is washed, trimmed, chopped, measured, seasoned, and cooked, you can talk about why it’s healthful — or why it’s what the folks at Sesame Street call a “sometimes food.”
Cooking as a family also teaches kids practical life skills, and inspires confidence.
Beyond learning about food and food prep, cooking gives kids a chance to practice math. In the home kitchen (especially when cookies are involved), counting, fractions, geometry, telling time, measuring, and identifying patterns all become tremendously exciting.
In the kitchen, too, the importance of reading comes to the fore. Reading, understanding, remembering, and following instructions will all determine the success of a recipe. Even if a child can’t read yet, the example set by an adult reading aloud will make an impression.
Cooking can be a great introduction to social studies. A pizza or a stir-fry, a taco or a curry can all inspire discussions about faraway places — about how geography and climate account for differences in what people eat, and how various cultures prepare and enjoy their food.
Science comes into play when kids see, up close, what happens when you add liquids to solids, expose foods to heat or cold, beat at high speed to incorporate air (think whipped cream!), or mash a solid to mush.
Cooking can help younger kids — or older kids with developmental delays — improve their fine motor skills. And parents need not bring out their professional-quality knives for family cooking sessions. Buy a pair — or two — of safety scissors and reserve them for kitchen use only. They’re great for certain kinds of cutting. So are plastic knives and cookie cutters. And, of course, everybody can use a spoon.
The amazing thing is that all of these teachable moments come about naturally, in the course of the project, as you work and talk together. As one child said, “It’s fun! We’re not learning anything!” (Wince, fellow parents, but you know what he meant.)
True, cooking with kids can be messy. It can take longer than if you did it yourself. The little ones might run out of steam halfway through, leaving you to finish the dish and clean up the mess. And true, cooking with kids is hardly your first choice on the those nights when you’ve rushed home with just enough time to nuke something to eat before you rush out to an evening Scout meeting or a softball game.
But for those meals when you have a little time — whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner — the rewards of cooking and eating together are great. And those meals just might be the ones your kids will remember most of all.
Karen Berman is the author of Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family and Easy Peasy: Snacks and Treats to Make and Eat, both published by Running Press.
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, June 28, 29, and 30, from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. daily, kids between the ages of 10 and 16 will have the opportunity to learn how to cook Italian at Cucina Casalinga, a cooking school at 171 Drum Hill Rd., Wilton.
The theme of the program focuses on basic Italian cooking. “We are hoping all of our students leave here with plenty of knowledge, and a good foundation of the fundamentals of cooking, so that they will always be able to cook for themselves,” says owner Sally Maraventano.
Day 1: Exciting Italian Recipes for A Family Brunch
Day 2: Pizzette, Pasta & Pesto
Day 3: Graduation Day Baking Class. Throughout the day there will be breaks for a visit to the herb garden.
Each class offers hands-on preparation a sit-down luncheon or dinner with drinks included. Attendees take home a folder with all of the class recipes. Class size is limited to 10, and the cost is $300. For more info call 203-762-0768 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.