The more you encourage your kids to participate in the pleasures of cooking healthy and delicious food, the more they’ll understand and love what they eat. After 7 years of cooking with our kids and chronicling the thrills and spills at Gastrokid.com, we’ve come up with our top ten 10 tips. Practice these in the kitchen, and you can make the family meal as satisfying in the kitchen as it is at the table. We started our kids on organic pureed butternut squash baby food and now they’re chopping summer squash for succotash with a butter knife. They started by eating string cheese and they’re now savoring Stilton. We avoided ancho chiles, but they unexpectedly taught us that they love anchovies. The moral of the story is: don’t cook down to your kids. Cook with them. If you’ve got tips we didn’t include here, we’d love to hear about them and put together a list of 100 tips for our next cookbook (you can pre-order our forthcoming The Gastrokid Coobook: Raising a Foodie Family in a Fast Food World from Amazon.com).
1. Feed Them Perfect Produce
Buy the best, ripe, in-season, local produce you can find, whether at a grocery store or farmer’s market. Asparagus in spring to teach your kids the essential less of eating seasonally and locally. Strawberries in summer. Apples in fall. Citrus in winter. Perfection. Perfection. Perfection. Read the labels, ask the grocery store clerks, and make sure you’re buying vegetables and fruit in season and farmed as close to home as possible. After your kids taste that intense balanced flavor and texture, produce from thousands of miles away will never taste quite right to them again. It’s better for them. It’s better for the environment. It’s better for the economy. While it might cost a bit more, it will pay for itself in convenience and prep time. It takes less effort to put a dish together with ingredients that are delicious to begin with, and for families time is priceless. You’ll appreciate it and your kids will too.
2. Rinse. Repeat.
A dirty piece of produce teaches kids about where food comes from. Let them see the beauty of a bunch of carrots pulled straight from the ground, soil still clinging to the tops.Tell your kids about the farmers who grew them. The people who picked them. The sun. The rain. The earth. Even better, take them to a farmer’s market and ask them to pick something for themselves. Introduce them to the person at the stand. Chances are they are the farmer or know the farmer and can tell your kids about the harvest. Once you’re home with your kid’s selection, have them rinse the dirt off. Let them care for the vegetables or fruit. Let them dry them. Let them add them to the dish you’re preparing. And, voila: your kids are invested in all the right things, including the meal to come.
3. Chop To It
Kids can cut too, as long as you give them a safe knife. Plastic disposable knives repurposed from takeout, plastic knives from a kids’ set, a butter or dinner knife with a less-than sharp serrated edge and a rounded point: all of these are a great introduction to knife skills for kids from 3 years old and up. Herbs, peeled fruit, and soft vegetables like zucchini, cucumbers, and tomatoes will yield to a kid-friendly knife and will easily involve the kids in food prep.
4. Mix It Up
Baking is the well-known kid-friendly introduction to the culinary world. We all have memories of licking the spoon when making a cake. But a good stir can stir enthusiasm for other, healthier foods, too. Teach them the delicacy of tossing a salad. The tossing of whole wheat pasta in homemade pesto. The saucing of a panzanella salad of toasted cubes of bread and ripe heirloom tomatoes in a balsamic vinaigrette. The blending or food-processing of a sauce or salsa. (Supervise the heavy machinery, naturally, but letting them control the noisy blast of the blender or food processor can hook them). They stir. They savor.
5. Rock and Roll
A rolling pin is a wonderful thing. Especially the little ones they make these days. Give a rolling pin of any size to the kids for rolling out cookies and pie crust, of course, but also for pasta and dumpling wrappers. The process is gratifying, and even athletic. Have them stuff the pasta or dumplings with spinach or kale-rich fillings. Like Homer Simpson says: Dough!
6. Be Honest
Chicken is from a bird. Beef is from a cow. Pork is from a pig. Tell your kids the truth about animals and they can make their own choices about what they’re comfortable eating (old Macdonald had a farm and he had an oink oink for bacon; remember that one?). Our 7 year old omnivore Violet knows the deal and has come to the decision that she doesn’t like the deal, but she still hasn’t given up good old cured meat like bacon or prosciutto. It’s too yummy for now. We’ve taught her about the difference between happily raised animals and sadly raised factory farm ones, but her heart’s just not into the carnivore thing right now. If she goes vegetarian on us, we’re in full support. Listen to your kids concerns and take them to heart. You might rethink your own attitudes to food through a child’s eyes.
7. Mess Around
Think of the kitchen as a playground. Flour will be spilled. Clothes will get dirty. Fun will and should ensue. Embrace the culinary chaos (with an eye on the stove and she sharp stuff). Let it happen. And an apron on everyone helps. It’s like suiting up for little league. Game on.
8. Scale Up
We recently bought some red snapper that hadn’t been scaled. I was scraping it down as I’d seen a fishmonger in Manhattan’s east village a decade ago and I wasn’t so good at it. 7 year old Violet wanted in. She excelled at taking the scales out. She loved the dinner that followed. 4 year old Desmond hated it (he’s just not into fish anymore, unless it’s an anchovy or a sardine. He loves the little spines. Go figure.). Point is: let the kids lend a hand whenever they want to or can safely. Speaking of scales, measuring ingredients is a fractional math lesson: 1/4 cup goes into 1 cup four times and so on.
9. Keep Them Safe
For all the chaos, there needs to be a bit of order. So…
-Of course everyone should wash their hands before and after cooking. It’s the symbolic beginning and end to the cooking of a meal.
-Always turn pot handles in and away from the edge of the stove to keep hot stuff from spilling.
-Cook boiling liquids on the back burners, away from curious hands.
-Keep your knife block out of reach at the back of the counter.
-Keep your knives behind the cutting board. If a kid pulls a board off the counter, you don’t want the knife falling with it.
-Give the kids a step stool for a good view and position and give a their own dedicated space at the counter free of glassware, raw eggs, meat, and fish, and sharp tools (including peelers and microplane graters!). They’ll feel more in control and involved. And keep them busy with the safe stuff to keep them from grabbing your chef’s knife or raw chicken out of boredom.
10. Don’t Force It
Engage the kids only as much as they want to be. Stuffing ravioli can be fun for a minute, but after five tries, it might get a bit dull for the little ones. And don’t expect culinary perfection. A tough cookie, messy ravioli, or mauled herbs can be their signature on the meal. Let them feel the joy. Let them eat it and enjoy it. Don’t go Gordon Ramsey on them. The kitchen can and should be a happy place for play and pleasure. And that’s a perfect foodie family affair.