Whether your child is a toddler practicing his fine motor skills with a wooden spoon or a teen working out the intricacies of pie dough with a rolling pin, working side-by-side with parents in the kitchen offers a heavy helping of learning and communication opportunities. (For some reason kids find it easier to open up while whisking together dressing ingredients than when they're sitting down for the purpose of chatting!)
Of course, for many parents, there's not much time to be had in the kitchen. Labor-intensive meals occur only on special occasions, if at all, and the daily priority is to get something on the table. That's okay. Take those shortcuts together by livening up leftovers or whipping up a nutritious meal from a mix. Sharing your "real life" cooking has the same benefits as preparing a big dinner. When you have more time, you can make some of those special recipes. (You might bake bread or roll out that pie dough together on the weekend, for example.) Here are some tips for making the most of your child's time in the kitchen, no matter your time constraints.
Meals that are fun and quick to make, nutritious, and easily successful will build confidence in your child and save you time. Stocking the cupboard with healthful convenience foods now will pay off come crunch time. Some good choices:
- Healthful mixes. Try instant mixes for gumbo, enchilada, alfredo, sloppy joe and dressings. All will quickly become staples in your household.
- Broth powders. Homemade soup isn't out of the question when your broth is instant. Have your child toss in leftovers from the week and a few spices, and you've got yourselves a budget-friendly, healthful dinner. Or follow an easy, reliable recipe.
Make It Fun
- Add to the importance of your child's role as cook by providing appropriate supplies. Your little tyke might need a stepstool, for example, and kids of all ages will appreciate a colorful apron.
- Encourage easy creativity via the spice rack. "Want to try cardamom instead of cinnamon on those apples?" and "Let's add some zip to these leftover mashed potatoes with a little Garlic 'N Herb Seasoning". Combining spices with other favorite foods is also a good way to get kids to try them.
- Remember that presentation is paramount for kids. Cut foods like sandwiches and pancakes into shapes, and grate veggies into ribbons atop salad greens. Take advantage of seasonal inspiration (the shapes might be hearts in February, shamrocks in March and Christmas trees in December, for example). Stand broccoli (trees) upright in the rice, slide fruits and veggies on a kabob, and make a raisin face in the oatmeal (sprinkle cinnamon for hair!)
- Be enthusiastic about food. Show interest in new recipes and new ingredients, and encourage your child to do the same. Be willing to try your child's suggestions. A willingness to experiment with new foods will be very valuable in expanding your child's nutritional and cooking repertoire.
Look For the Lesson
No need to get preachy, but take advantage of the learning potential in the kitchen. Here are just some of the things your child can learn by your side as you cook together:
- Reading. If your child is learning to read, go over the recipe together before you start cooking. If he's old enough to read on his own, have him read the recipe aloud to you while you gather the ingredients and supplies.
- Math. Cooking is a great way to teach and reinforce math skills in a fun, meaningful way. If your child's a toddler, she can learn number recognition and counting. Older kids can learn fractions, measuring (liquid and dry), multiplication (doubling and tripling recipes), and division (halving recipes). Your child will probably be eager to use her knowledge over and over again in the kitchen, too—it sure beats number worksheets. When math problems come up for school, be sure to point out the correlations with what you've been doing in the kitchen.
- Vocabulary. You'll cover cooking terms, of course, like "preheat," "dice," "al dente," and "whip." But many general words will come up, too, such as "golden," "puffy," "blend" and "Fahrenheit." Teach your child the names of ingredients (from artichokes to zucchini) and equipment (ladles, spatulas, and whisks).
- Following directions. Recipes provide the perfect practice for following step-by-step procedures. By following (or not following) them, your child can learn about consequences, too. If you find that a recipe would be better approached differently than the way it's written, make corrections in the cookbook. Also note changes you make in seasonings, amounts, etc. This will encourage your child to be on the lookout for ways to improve and personalize his work.
- Frugality. By using up leftovers, budgeting food purchases, and being inventive with menus (to use in-season produce, for example), your child can learn not to waste as a matter of habit.
- Recycling. Set up a good recycling system in your home, if you don't already have one, and learning to recycle those packages and cans and food scraps will be automatic.
- Responsibility. Cooking is fun, but a responsibility, too. Your family is waiting for a meal, after all! Your child will also learn that it's her responsibility to clean up after herself if you make sure that she does it in the kitchen as she cooks. At the same time, she'll learn the satisfaction of contributing to the family. (You can extend this to the community by having her prepare a dish for a community potluck or an extended family get-together, too.)
- Other cultures. Ethnic spice blends l are easy ways to introduce ethnic flair—and enlightening conversation—to dinner. Look for easy-to-prepare recipes from other cultures.
- Related life skills. Cooking is a great foundation for teaching other life skills, too, such as meal planning and nutrition ("This is good for our eyesight," and "This will help you build muscles!"), grocery shopping, table setting, and gardening. Visit the farmer's market and the food co-op together. Let your child help you place your order online for cooking items.
Springboard to bigger subjects, too, like food miles, organics, ethical sourcing, local foods, and sustainability. You might explain that you purchase your produce from a local farmer who sells at the co-op, for example, and that you order your coffee, tea, spices and other cooking ingredients from Simply Orgnaic, a company that helps the farmers who grow their products and makes business decisions with the environment and communities in mind.
It's fun to see how much you can share in the short amount of time it takes to whip up dinner. Teach well, and your child may not only learn a great deal but also take over as head cook in your household someday!
Easy After School Snacks
What kid doesn’t come home from school hungry? It’s been a long time since lunch, after all, and sometimes school lunches are, well, less than wonderful. This is a great opportunity to boost your child’s nutrient intake for the day, so rather than let her fill up on high-calorie, low-nutrient sweets, provide some tasty, healthful options. Spices can help make everything a special treat—from a simple sandwich to a dip for raw fruits or veggies.
Sandwiches are a great way for your child to get an extra serving or two of whole grains, plus added protein, vitamins, and minerals, depending upon what he chooses as filling. Stock up on fun breads—pocket pitas, mini deli-style ryes or pumpernickels, or tortillas he can spread with filling and then roll up. Some good filling options to make ahead:
- Egg salad with raisins, pecans, caraway seeds, parsley and pepper.
- Chicken salad with dried cranberries, grapes (halved), chervil and parsley.
- Crabmeat with cream cheese, lemon juice, chives, basil, and paprika or saffron.
- Tofu slices with mayo, tamari, or mustard, parsley, basil, pepper, and rosemary. (Or blend it all together to make a tofu spread.)
- Tuna salad with apple slices and tarragon.
- A variety of cheeses, spinach, avocado and tomato slices, sprinkled with basil and black pepper or Italian seasoning blend.
- Peanut butter and apple slices, with a sprinkling of cinnamon.
- Cream cheese with cucumber slices and dill weed.
Spice Facts for Kids
- Poppy plants (like the ones from which the poppy seeds on your bagel or muffin were harvested) were used to lull Dorothy to sleep in The Wizard of Oz. By the way, there are about 900,000 poppy seeds in a one-pound sack!
- The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that to get a good crop of basil, you had to yell and swear while planting the seeds.
- The smaller the chili pepper, the hotter it usually is.
- It takes 200,000 dried stigmas from 70,000 saffron plants to get one pound of saffron. And they are picked by hand.
- The pretend rabbit that is used as a lure in greyhound races is scented with anise, which smells like licorice.
Fresh Dips in Minutes
- Make dips and dressings ahead of time and store in the refrigerator. Also stock up on cut-up fruits and vegetables. Then all your child needs to do is get them out and dip her favorites.
- In a blender, combine 2 cups cooked chickpeas, 4 tablespoons tahini, 1/4 teaspoons garlic powder, 1/8 teaspoons cayenne, 2 teaspoons tamari and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Serve this hummus with fresh vegetables, whole wheat crackers or breadsticks.
- Add some seasoning to plain yogurt for a quick-fix veggie dip. Options: garlic powder, dill weed and savory leaf; tarragon, chervil and garlic powder; rosemary, thyme leaf and parsley. Or try a favorite packet like Creamy Dill, Chiptole Black Bean Spinch Dip or any of our Greek Yogurt Dips. (Start with about 1/2 teaspoon of spice per cup of yogurt.)
Stock Your Pantry
No time to make your own homemade dips? Try Simply Organic Dip Mixes — they're fresh, flavorful and fast! Choose from nine delicious dips, including Ranch, Roasted Garlic Hummus, Onion & Chive, Guacamole and many more.
Kids heading back to school? If you pack your child’s lunch, this is a great time to think about what you’re going to put in that lunchbox each day in order to maximize nutrition. Just a little planning can make all the difference in how well your child eats. And the family food budget will likely benefit, too!
Now’s also a good time to consider how green your lunch box habits are. According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, school-age children generate 67 pounds of garbage per child each school year – just at lunchtime!
Instead of the old paper bag, consider a washable, reusable, lunch container and reusable silverware and food containers. It may not get him or her out the door to recess any faster, but teaching your child to bring reusables home instead of tossing bags in the garbage is a good lesson in stewardship.
As far as what to put in the lunch container, avoiding the typical commercial fare in favor of your own recipes allows you to minimize undesirables such as artificial flavors, colors and preservatives and maximize wholesome ingredients. When planning each lunch, you might try, for example, to include a fruit and veggie, a whole grain in the form of bread or crackers (or even dessert), a protein such as beans, tuna, or chicken, and calcium via milk or soymilk, cheese or yogurt.
Here are some recipes for healthful lunchbox fare. They’re easy to fix and won’t take you all morning. In fact, many can be made ahead of time in preparation for the week. Be sure to make enough for any adults in your family who are toting lunches, too!
These pickles will keep in the fridge for weeks, allowing you to quickly add them to lunches each day.
Some kids enjoy cold quesadillas, much like cold pizza. And if you have access to a microwave at work, you might want to pack them in your own lunchbox, too.
Soup is a quick and easy way to add protein to the lunchbox. In warmer weather, consider a cold soup.
This snack travels well and is a fun side.
No lunchbox repertoire is complete without the occasional chocolate chip cookie!
Involve the whole family in both the shopping and the preparation for lunches – they’ll become more invested in the movement towards greener, more nutritious lunches and more apt to enjoy and appreciate the results.