Cooking with Your Kids
As a typical child in the ‘80s, I did not each much homemade food. Most of our meals came fully or partially out of a can or a box. At age 13, however, I decided to become a vegan. If you can imagine, Louisville, Kentucky, of 1992 did not offer a ton of options for vegans. So I learned to cook, and I loved it. I am neither a creative person, nor a scientific person. Cooking has become my outlet for creativity and experimentation and an opportunity to learn scientific processes through baking.
When I had kids, I knew that I wanted them to share my joy of making food. As soon as my first son was old enough to stand safely on a chair (16 months), I had him help me cook and bake. Now, I often have both boys beside me in the kitchen. I feel a lot of guilt because I am not one for getting on the floor and playing. I also hate doing crafts. Cooking is a way for me to interact with my boys and provide them with a creative outlet.
Children are little artists and little scientists. They have an inherent urge to create, to test, to try. With cooking, they can have great flexibility in combining ingredients and methods to design new dishes or new takes on old dishes. With baking, they can hone their fine motor development and learn the science of how baking works. Baking provides less room for creativity, but a great opportunity to learn precision.
If you have not cooked with your kids—or haven’t done it much—with the upcoming holidays and cold winter days, now is the perfect time. Below I give you my tips for having kids in the kitchen and two delicious recipes that your kids can make.
1. Be Patient
Here is a confession—I am not a patient person. I am also a perfectionist (big surprise for the lawyers, I’m sure). As much as I love my children and cooking with them, I am not always in the right frame of mind to do so. Sometimes, I really need my friend’s birthday cake to be perfect, or I might just be really tired after a long day of work. I know that those are not the times to have “help.” Find a time when you are in the mood to be with your kids and when you can deal with a degree of frustration. Know that learning to cook can be difficult, and your kid is probably going to grab a fistful of sugar and stuff it into his mouth. Take a deep breath, laugh, and move on.
2. Embrace the Mess
My kids are still in preschool, so accuracy, focus, and cleanliness are not their strengths. I had a hard time with this when my youngest son started cooking with me (cue the perfectionist). Now, I have learned to let go and realize that spilled flour can be cleaned up.
3. Trust Your Kids
We live in an era of helicopter parenting, and we all have a deep, deep desire to protect our children. Study after study, however, has shown that protecting our children from every bruise or mishap hampers their growth and development. Trust me, your kids are capable of so much more than you give them credit for. Being in the kitchen, has allowed me to face my fears and overwhelming desire to shield my kids, and they have risen to the occasion. My children both helped me at the stove by around 18 or 19 months. My oldest at 4 is adept at sautéing and helping with soups and sauces. He started cutting fruits and vegetables at around 2 with assistance and around 3 with his own (lettuce) knife. Both kids have cultivated a healthy respect for the dangers of cooking. (Before you call CPS, I do have some limits. I will not let them near the stove if I have a pot of boiling water or if any liquid on high). Anyone who cooks gets small burns and small cuts. My kids are no different. The first time my youngest son helped, he accidentally touched the burner. He got a small burn, and he had a few tears, but now he is extra cautious. Provide good supervision and encouragement, and you will be amazed at what your kids can do!
4. Start Slow and Small
If you are just starting out, I recommend staying away from complicated recipes with multiple steps. The recipes below are perfect, but don’t limit yourself to baking. Even the youngest toddlers can help with dinner. For example, as I cut vegetables, my second son will put them on a baking sheet for roasting. Or he can help wash greens and spin the salad spinner (a favorite in our house). He helps make easy vinaigrettes. The oldest scrubs potatoes and chops vegetables. Both love to use the food processor (which thankfully doesn’t run unless the lid is secure). Experiment with small tasks, and build from there.
Like many of my recipes, the two that follow are building blocks to wherever you want to take them. These recipes are great not because your kids can help with them (kids can help with pretty much anything) but because they can make them alone or with minimal assistance. And the recipes are hard to mess up.
I’m not going to take credit for this one. Apparently, it is a thing in France for young children to learn to bake with a yogurt cake. I slightly adapted this recipe from the delicious site Chocolate & Zucchini. Even though my 4 year old cannot read, he makes this recipe by himself (I read the measurements to him, but he can do everything else, including putting it into the oven and testing it for doneness).
- 1 cup of whole milk, plain (unsweetened) yogurt
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup of sugar
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil
- 2 cups of all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon of dark rum
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Make a 9-inch pan non-stick (see tips below).
In one large bowl, combine the yogurt, eggs, sugar, oil, vanilla, and rum. In a second bowl, whisk (or sift) the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Fold the flour mixture into the liquid ingredients and mix very gently until all of the flour is mixed in (if you do this aggressively the cake will not be tender. Make sure to be gentle and not overwork the batter). Add any ingredients you wish and fold in. Pour the batter into the cake pan and bake for 30-35 minutes until done. Let cook for 10 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a rack to finish
The awesome thing about this cake is you can add pretty much anything to it. Here are some
- Instead of Rum, add another liquor of choice like bourbon, Cointreau, or brandy. Or leave it out altogether
- Add fresh berries 1 cup – 10 oz is sufficient. Tossing them gently in flour before adding to the battter can help them stay aloft
- Add chocolate chips (1 – 1 ½ cups)
- Add citrus zest—a teaspoon or two of orange or lemon zest is delicious
- Add spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, or cardamom
- And while I love the simplicity of the cake, a light sugar glaze at the end is delicious
Here are some combinations:
- Blueberries and Lemon zest
- Apples and Cinnamon
- Orange zest, chocolate chips, and Cointreau (instead of rum)
Making a pan non-stick:
- Butter the pan generously
- Butter the pan AND put parchment on the bottom OR
- Spray with a non-stick spray (like Pam or something similar)
Sifting will make a lighter more tender cake, but it might be more difficult for the kids, so simply whisking the dry ingredients is perfectly fine
A friend gave me this recipe several years ago, and it is a favorite breakfast treat. It doesn’t take long, so even on casual weekday mornings we will make this (from time to time). A Dutch baby is like a popover. It is a light custard with flour that puffs or rises in the oven, and, like a soufflé, falls quickly after it is taken out.
The recipe is basically a ratio:
- 1 egg
- ¼ cup of flour
- ¼ cup of milk
For each egg you add, increase the flour and milk by a quarter cup. For the three of us, I will make a four egg Dutch baby in a 9-inch skillet. It is the perfect size when accompanied with some fruit, and sometimes (rarely) we have leftovers.
Preheat an oven to 400 degrees. While it is preheating, put a cast-iron skillet (or other oven-safe skillet) in and melt in it 2-4 Tbs of butter (the amount you need will depend on how big your Dutch baby is and how non-stick your skillet is. Well-seasoned cast-iron is best for this reason).
While the butter is melting, combine the three ingredients in a bowl. Here is the key—to get a big rise, the batter must be well whipped. You can do this with a whisk or an immersion blender. If it is not well aerated from whipping, it won’t rise. When the butter has melted, pour the ingredients into the hot pan, and bake for around 20 minutes until the Dutch baby has risen and is golden brown.
VARIATIONS AND TOPPINGS:
- Be careful with any additions to the batter. Changes to the recipe can alter the “puff.”
- Add a little whole-wheat pastry flour (I would do no more than ¼ of the total flour)
- As the butter is melting in the pre-heating pan, add some thinly sliced apples and brown sugar, pour the batter on top without disturbing.
- Fold in lemon or orange zest
- I am purest for toppings at the end. I leave it to butter and syrup or honey. But you can also sprinkle with powdered sugar, add fresh fruit or citrus zest, or even Greek yogurt with honey and nuts.
I hope that you and your children enjoy testing these recipes and more!