Stir it up

When kids conquer the kitchen, everybody wins

Around 5 p.m. every day, parents all over Madison find themselves surrounded by a ring of sad, hungry faces. Some undoubtedly throw themselves enthusiastically into whipping up a healthy, delicious meal that everyone in the family - even the child who refuses to eat entire food groups - devours with abandon. Most of the rest find ourselves, at least sometimes, muttering, "Didn't I just have to make dinner yesterday?" while rummaging through the cupboards for something that is not frozen pizza or mac and cheese.

How to cope with the time, energy, and creativity shortages, not to mention the picky kid taste buds, that make meal planning and prep an Everest-high hurdle for so many parents? For many families, the key to breaking out of the food rut is to get the kids involved with planning and preparing meals.

It might seem like a recipe for a constant diet of fast food and sugared cereal, but with guidance, the creativity and energy of kids in the kitchen can lead to both healthier and more exciting meals for everyone in the family.

"The more you can make kids a part of the process, the more open they are to experimenting and trying new foods," says Susie Swenson, a registered dietician with Group Health Cooperative. She recommends having frequent family meals and giving age-appropriate kitchen tasks to every member of the family. To find out what this might look like in practice, I talked to several Madison-area families whose kids are old hands in the kitchen.

Jen and Scott Lynch and their 8-year-old daughter, Evie, are known for their promotion of the local food movement (their blog, "Eating in Place," is at vidalocal.blogspot.com, and they write the weekly updates for the Westside Community Market at www.westsidecommunitymarket.org).

To get ideas for meals, they tape and watch cooking shows and look through kids' cookbooks such as Mollie Katzen's, which, Jen notes "have step-by-step picture instructions so even pre-readers can follow along." Meal planning begins with a family brainstorming session on Friday evening, before the Saturday farmers' market. The variety of produce gets kids' creative juices flowing: "Sometimes we just buy what looks interesting at a farmers' market and then worry about what to do with it later in the week. Dragon's tongue beans? Pea shoots? Celeriac?"

They also visit pick-your-own places like the Tree Farm in Cross Plains (www.thetreefarm.net). "I have noticed that for many kids, picking the vegetables and fruit themselves dramatically increases the likelihood of both trying and liking the item," says Jen Lynch.

Evie cooks dinner herself once a week; a typical menu might be French toast, homemade applesauce and multi-colored pepper salad. "Eclectic, to be sure, but all things she loves," says Lynch. "I think the key to involving kids in the kitchen is to sometimes let them have total control. So what if the concoction is inedible. Kids learn valuable skills by just messing around."

That view is echoed by another local food blogger, Otehlia Kiser (gutenappetit-letseat.blogspot.com). Her 6-year-old son, Jarra, loves to experiment in the kitchen, in a free-form way that nonetheless can produce impressive results, like his recipe for Jarra's Tilapia (see sidebar). "He came up with the 'rub' for the tilapia all by himself," his mom explains. "He grabbed a few things from the cupboard and started mixing. I'm sure I helped with the proportions as in, 'whoa, let's stop there with the soy sauce or it will be too salty.' I was doubtful about the saffron, but he did it, and, as usual, it turned out great."

In kids' cooking classes at Whole Foods Market, instructors work on the principle that kids will be more excited about eating food that they have made themselves, says marketing director Amanda Jahnke-Sauer. Parents can provide healthy ingredients and let kids choose how to combine them. A make-your-own salad bar with bowls of pre-chopped ingredients, or a "homemade Lunchables" kit with various crackers, cheeses and meats, can give kids a sense of control over what they eat and help them feel that eating healthy food can be fun.

For older kids who've moved beyond the kitchen chemistry experiment stage, one way to snag them into helping in the kitchen might be to use the computer. Kids can be assigned to Google combinations of ingredients for recipes or compare versions of family favorites on sites such as Allrecipes.com. There are also cooking sites aimed directly at children, such as Kids Health (www.kidshealth.org/kid/recipes.html), which offers simple recipes and nutrition tips.

Vanessa Balchen, writer of the local food blog "What geeks eat..." (www.whatgeekseat.com), capitalizes on her teens' love of technology by publishing her weekly menu plan on a wiki (an editable website) that they can check every day. When they get home from school, they know if something needs to be done to start dinner cooking before Balchen and her husband return from work. "My 13-year-old is my sous chef," says Balchen; he washes, measures, stirs and sifts for his mom during breaks from World of Warcraft (don't underestimate the value of fancy titles as motivational tools).

Some parents have found that their kids can rise to serious challenges in the kitchen. Adria Cannon "lost it" one day about a year ago when she realized she was literally spending hours in the kitchen every day to cook for her four children, only to hear constant complaints about the food. She told her three teenage sons that from then on, one of them would be solely responsible for providing the family breakfast, one lunch, and one snacks. (Cannon herself kept responsibility for dinner - "I actually really like cooking.") She gave them a budget and took them to the grocery store.

Some of her friends were horrified, asking if she didn't think the kids would serve nothing but junk food. Although Cannon laughingly says that "At that point, I didn't even care," she did make ground rules to ensure basic nutrition - every meal had to contain a whole grain, a protein and a vegetable or fruit. "Every so often the vegetable gets forgotten," she admits, but in general, the boys have risen to the challenge admirably. They've kept to the budget, provided varied meals for the family, and expanded their culinary skills: The lunch chef "is not a big explorer, but he's a pro at pizza," the breakfast chef frequently Googles recipes and "explores all kinds of baked goods," and as for the kid who does snacks - Cannon says she's "actually caught him reading books about chocolate."

And perhaps most important, they've learned to appreciate the work that goes into providing food for a family. Cannon says she knows her assignment is a success when she occasionally hears one of the boys tell a whining sibling, "I'm the one cooking this, so I can make what I like."

Jarra's tilapia

Make a paste with:

  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • ground black pepper
  • a pinch each of coriander, saffron, chile powder
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil

Mix together and pour over a tilapia filet. Grill on both sides until flaky and white inside.

Spicy fideos with ground beef and black beans

This is one of Vanessa Balchen's "go-to" recipes: quick to prepare and a hit with her family. Her son calls it "Mexican lasagna."

  • 1 package of fideos (Mexican pasta, available at Woodman's or Latino groceries. You can also substitute spaghetti broken into one- to two-inch pieces)
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup Penzey's spicy taco seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 jar canned tomato puree
  • 1 can black beans, drained
  • 8 ounces pepper jack cheese, shredded

Brown the ground beef in the skillet. Drain it if necessary. Add the onion and let it cook for a few minutes. Add the fideos and stir to combine. Add the seasonings, water and tomatoes, and stir to mix it up. Let this bubble and cook for 10 minutes. The liquid should be mostly absorbed by the fideos. Add the black beans. Preheat the oven to broil. Top the fideos with the cheese and stick the pan under the broiler to melt and brown the cheese.

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