Challenges of Today's Busy Families

(Chapter 1 of the book)


In This Chapter

  • Cooking together for daily pleasure
  • Discovering the benefits of cooking with kids

What does the richest person in the world make for dinner every night?



Kids have a natural attraction to cooking—starting with their first mud pie in the backyard—so coaching them in cooking, meal planning, and sound nutrition isn't as difficult as you may expect. You helped your kids with the first basics of life, such as potty training, crossing the street, and tying their shoes. Inviting them into the kitchen trains them in skills that are equally as important.

Cooking with kids doesn't have to be limited to cookies and holiday treats. In this chapter, parents offer tips and techniques for involving kids in the daily routine of making complete dinners, shopping for groceries, and planning balanced meals—tasks they'll one day have to do for themselves, without your help. Follow these tips to make cooking together not just productive, but stress-free, tasty, and fun—even for busy parents like you!

Why Cook with Your Kids?

Children love to create things—mud pies, sand castles, and crayoned drawings of unrecognizable images that you proudly mount on your refrigerator.

Kids also have a natural curiosity about cooking. Many kids, just like grown ups, even enjoy watching cooking shows on television. While some children may not seem to care about cooking at all, in many cases they just need a nudge of encouragement or a helping hand to walk them through the basics.

Making cookies on an occasional Saturday afternoon can be a treat, but when kids cook with their families on a regular basis, wonderful things start to happen.

Parents can see the following life-long benefits for their children:

  • Bonding with siblings and parents, sharing affection, and communicating with one another.
  • Practicing teamwork and taskwork.
  • Developing a sense of responsibility.
  • Experiencing other cultures and lands through foods.
  • Reinforcing family heritage and traditions.
  • Developing fundamental reading, math, and reasoning skills.
  • Increasing manual dexterity and physical coordination.
  • Improving organizational skills, like scheduling and planning.
  • Establishing sound nutritional habits.
  • Building a solid foundation of fundamental cooking skills.
  • Becoming independent of fast foods and convenience foods.
  • Experiencing the joys of giving and sharing.
  • Elevating self-esteem and taking pride in their work.
  • Creating projects with immediately tangible results and rewards.

Cooking a main meal together is just a first step—eating it together makes a difference, too. In a Reader's Digest study, sixty percent of students who ate with their families at least four nights per week received higher test scores. In another study, students whose families regularly ate dinner together scored better on national achievement tests.

Family Feeding Habits

Families are like snowflakes or thumbprints—no two are exactly the same. Yet the cross-section of families contributing to this book reveal that many share similar challenges when trying to survive meals.

Through my own personal experience and by writing this book, I've discovered that...

  • Taste, time, and nutrition are often more important than price, when fixing a meal.
  • Parents are willing to spend an average of 30 minutes during the week preparing dinner.
  • Teenagers eat an average of five meals per day.
  • Kids—even teenagers—say they actually enjoy dining with their families.
  • Parents want to feed their kids healthier meals, and today's health-conscious kids often prefer healthy foods to junk foods.
  • Students perform better when they're fed breakfast and nutritional snacks at intervals throughout the day.
  • Not all kids are picky eaters—some actually love vegetables, fish, and even anchovies. On the other hand, some kids do go through finicky phases and will refuse almost everything.
  • It takes about ten tastings before a picky eater accepts a new food.

You Can Lead A Horse to Water?

...but you can't make him drink. Similarly, putting a fresh, nutritious meal on the table is hard enough, but getting kids to actually eat it is a horse of a different color. Furthermore, it seems that every day, another nutritional study contradicts one from the week before. (See Chapter 4 for more on nutritional information.)

The best ways to get kids to eat a balanced diet is to include them in every step of food preparation—from cooking the food to shopping for it and planning the meals. Here's how some parents, frustrated by nutritional information, have come to make practical sense of it. They share their own tips for getting kids—even picky eaters—to eat a balanced, tasty diet.

  • Get kids involved and focused on healthy options. "Give them choices—but choices stacked in your favor! I ask my daughter (four years old) if she wants corn or beans for dinner. My husband and I choose the main course, such as pasta, chicken, or beef, and let the kids choose the other parts. When we're shopping, I let my daughter choose what fruit she wants. I think that if she has a stake in the choosing, she'll want to eat it (at least it works most of the time)." —Martha from Madison, Wisconsin
  • Enjoy all foods in moderation. "Although we utilize some lowfat and nonfat products (like baked chips, cheeses, and breads), we try to keep fresh produce, fruits, and lean meat as the foundation of most of our meals. We try to avoid processed, convenience-type foods, but honestly, they are convenient and they do slip in occasionally. We eat less beef overall—but we really enjoy it more now whenever we have it. —Kathleen from Nixa, Missouri
  • Have the kids help plan the menu. "We make up a monthly menu plan with the kids. This helps them to understand what goes into planning a balanced diet. They know how much they need of every vitamin and essential food group each day—which is a lot more than most adults know—and are honestly thrilled to help out. —Laura from Indio, California
  • Be creative with picky eaters. "With kids, you have to try all kinds of things to find what they like and will eat. For instance, I have a picky eater. In order for her to eat any green veggies, I blend up steamed broccoli or spinach and put it into pasta sauce or spread it on homemade pizza dough, before putting on the sauce. She loves it. Also, she loves eating corn, peas, or carrots with a toothpick—sort of a veggie kebab. But for safety's sake, eating with toothpicks does require constant supervision." —Christin from Phoenix, Arizona

Shopping with kids may be tough, but it could be worse...

"We are a family of four. Two kids, Alex who is 5-1/2 and Corina, 16 months. We live in Switzerland, near the city of Lausanne. I'm American, my husband is Swiss, and the kids are both.

"Shopping with kids is much, much worse in Switzerland than in the States. In Switzerland, when you go to the checkout counter you're expected to keep the kids in line—and bag your own groceries! And do it fast, too, because the people behind you must do the same. I don't like giving the kids snacks from the store to keep them occupied, but on occasion, I've resorted to this. I never let them have any of the junk at the counter to make them happy—do it once and they will never forget and will bug you forevermore about it.

"Sometimes I let my oldest choose things with me, giving him assignments like "Can you get Corina's milk?" That way he has to look for the special milk that we buy for her while I'm just down the dairy section looking for yogurt. But it also means that my eyes must be moving around non-stop—making sure that the baby is still sitting down (they don't have safety belts here on the carts), that Alex is there getting the milk, not making a mess and not being carried away by some stranger, and oh yes, where's the yogurt I'm looking for?" —Dejah from St. Sulpice, Switzerland

Becoming a Kitchen Coach

Where do today's kids find out how to cook? When many parents were young, students were offered home economics classes that included everything from cutting up a chicken to meal planning and shopping on a budget. Today, schools have to battle just to get funding for the core curriculum, so electives like home ec are rarely offered.

The 4-H Club, scouting, and other groups include some cooking programs, and the Internet carries over 7000 food-related Web sites. Some children prefer watching TV cooking shows to cartoons. But for the most part, if kids don't get cooking experience at home, they enter the world lacking skills as fundamental to independent survival as reading, writing, and 'rithmetic.

Most parents tell me their own mothers, fathers, or grandparents showed them how to cook. But for other parents, their moms or dads intentionally kept them out of the kitchen, which forced them to struggle with cooking later in life.

 Good Advice

Today, as a result of both types of experiences, these parents actively encourage their own kids to join them in the kitchen. They also take them shopping and make a point of dining together. Here are some nuggets of wisdom on how parents can encourage their kids to cook:

  • "Kids learn by experimenting. So, if they aren't given the opportunity to cook, they may hate cooking because they don't know how the finished product will taste. But with guidance from an experienced cook, they can love cooking. I never had a chance to cook with my mom, I learned to cook in a hurry when I moved away from home. My first dinner didn't turn out well—the rice was soggy, the meat salty—it wasn't a pleasing experience for the recipient of my dinner. The next day, I called my oldest sister and asked her to walk me through a quick dinner, and it came out perfect. I've been cooking ever since." —Marilyn from Detroit, Michigan
  • "I learned to cook by doing jobs with my parents in the kitchen. I'm not sure how else kids can learn, except by doing—following recipes, measuring ingredients, adapting, and making changes. By helping me in the kitchen, my kids understand portion sizes, fat content (and how to change it by using applesauce in baking and cooking sprays in pans), safe food handling and hygiene (we don't wash hands—we scrub!), finishing a job (you aren't done until the kitchen is ready to cook the next meal), and looking at the pieces of a job to do the whole job (setting the table is part of cooking, as much as chopping an onion is)." —Amy from Springfield, Virginia
  • "I didn't really cook anything until about the third grade. I ate at a friend's house and it was her night to prepare dinner. The deal was that she had to plan a complete, well-balanced meal for under $20; cook it; and serve it. Any remainder from the $20 was hers to keep (mind you this was some 30 years ago). My job that night was to prepare the salad. Her parents gave me rave reviews and I've been hooked ever since. My daughter is, of course, starting much earlier, and with encouragement, seems to be a 'foodie' as well." —Teri from Marble Falls, Texas
  • "I picked up the basics by pushing my way into my grandmother's kitchen, but ventured out on my own to find out more variety and style. Today, my daughter is a great fan of television's Food Network, especially Chef Sarah Moulton. ( and the Food Network on TV are the greatest.) Many of the shows spend time introducing ideas just for kids and help to pass along safety tips and basic skills to the kids. My daughter also likes to gather recipes from anywhere she finds them—then we do our own modifications to make them fit our tastes." —Michele from Lexington, Kentucky
  • "By passing down family recipes to me, my mother's generation isn't lost, and the memories she had growing up will be passed down to my children. When I cook the recipes that my mother taught me, it reminds me of my childhood." —Lisa from University Park, Illinois
  • "I learned to cook from my mother. Her family is from Macedonia, so the foods I made first were basically peasant foods, which continue to be my comfort foods with just a little updating. The kids in my family have been learning to cook primarily by being present in the kitchen during food preparation and also in helping in the garden. Seeing foods start from seeds, watching them grow, harvesting them, and then cooking them give the kids an appreciation for their meals and the quality of foods, as well as a science and economics lesson." —Tina from Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

Whether you're cooking, shopping, or dining with your kids, remember these keys to success:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Keep it fun.
  • Be flexible.
 Good Advice

One of the key staff members in the early days of the Global Gourmet, Lori Policastro, has a fierce passion for knowledge and family values. She home-schools her children, using the kitchen as an extension of her home classroom. Lori offers these wise words and practical guidelines for parents jumping into cooking with kids:

  • Talk, talk, talk. Tell them everything you're doing and why. Teach them menu planning, and thereby, proper nutrition will be incorporated.
  • Discuss nutrition. Show children the food pyramid and how a meal should be balanced not only nutritionally, but with colors, textures, flavors, and calories.
  • Give them tasks. Let children set the timers. Let them pour batter in the waffle iron. Let them put the bread in the toaster, butter the toast, and so on.
  • Be encouraging and proud of their efforts—big or little. Make sure the guests or the rest of the family know how helpful your child has been, and be specific in your praise. A workman is always worthy of honor.
  • Keep an eye on them. Never, ever leave small children alone in the kitchen when you're in the middle of cooking.
  • Give your child life skills. Show your kids how to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, why they should wash them, and how to store them. Also make sure they understand the proper temperatures for cooking raw meat or eggs, the rules of food safety, the dangers of salmonella, and guidelines for proper meat handling.
  • Teach more than just cooking. You're teaching them math—averages, percents, fractions, whole numbers, graduation, sequencing, algebra, counting, subtracting, and more. You're teaching them other concepts as well—art, music, colors, order, logic, reasoning. You're teaching them how to be responsible, be counted on, be part of the team, follow orders, learn rules, clean up after themselves—and you're increasing their self-esteem.

Peace, Love, and Kitchen Harmony

Before you decide to bring your kids into the kitchen, make sure the time is right for both of you. Cooking with kids takes patience. Little hands take longer to do things; they need detailed explanations and constant reminders, and the mess—well, the early stages of cooking with kids can be slow, painful torture for the neat and tidy.

Stressed-out parents and cranky kids make poor cooking teams. If you're an eye-bulging, nerve-wrecked, emotionally-strained ogre who just spent two hours in traffic—give yourself a chance to decompress before inviting the kids into the kitchen. Likewise, a tired and hungry child (or one that's too revved up) may not want to participate in cooking—and that's okay. Ultimately, the only time that you and your kids should cook together is when you're both relaxed and able to enjoy it.

 Good Advice

To make cooking together more relaxing, parents offer this advice:

  • "One of the things we like is classical music when food is in prep—it seems to calm the kids down, even though they say they hate it. It does work. I've also introduced it into some of my classrooms, and (especially at lunch break) it seems to have a soothing effect on children." —Maryann from Peabody, Massachusettes
  • "We try to analyze the tasks before we start. Young children are very literal and need explicit instructions. Instead of saying 'You can stir it now,' try saying 'Take the metal whisk and put it in the batter in the bowl. Start to make a circle in the bowl with the whisk. This is how you stir.'" —Jean from San Antonio, Texas
  • "Take a little extra time. The purpose is to let your kids help, even if it gets a whole lot messier. An extra five minutes in the kitchen is a small price to pay for the self confidence and esteem that my kids get from helping me! Believe me, I have worn my share of raw eggs, milk, and flour, but I wouldn't trade those moments for the world." —Shari from Moravia, New York

The younger the kids, the more the mess. Relax! It's part of the process. Remember what feeding her in her high-chair was like? How you kept sponges and washcloths glued to your hands? The early stages of cooking lessons aren't much different. Try to laugh off the spills as you wipe them up. Besides, adults too are known to make a mess in the kitchen, even without their kids' help.

 Good Advice

The Cooking Kid

I'm 13. I live with my mom and Benny, my step-dad. My brother Stephen lives with Daddy and Stacey, our step-mom. We all cook. My mom and I cook together all the time. I started cooking because I couldn't read very well—my mom had me read recipes to her while she did the cooking. Since then, I can read better and now I like to cook. (I just don't like to clean up.)

One day I want to be a famous chef. I'm writing a cookbook on my computer with our favorite recipes. I've entered some contests at the fair and want to enter the book there. So far, I haven't won first place. But I've been practicing and think I will win this year. I'm going to cater a banquet at the ball park, and I'm trying to do stuff for 4H.

My mom and I cook lots of presents to give away. Sometimes I make up my own recipes. My brother likes baseball, so we make him baseball stuff. Benny likes fishing, so we make him fishing stuff. Mom likes crafts, so we make cakes that look like quilts. I like animal stuff, and I can make a cheese ball that looks like a cat.

Here are my tips for kids just starting to cook in the kitchen:

  • Before starting the recipe, read through the recipe to make sure that you have all the ingredients.
  • Set all the ingredients out on the counter in the order that you need to use them.
  • Don't be afraid to experiment and make a mistake.
  • Remember practice makes perfect.
  • Enter cooking contests.
  • Help with cooking and clean up. That way nobody has to do all the work or have all the fun.

                 —James, "The Cooking Kid"

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Table of Contents

Part I: Cooking Together:
The Wisdom of 400 Families

Part II: Putting the Meal Together—Together!

Part III: Cooking 101:
A Handbook for Parents
& Young Chefs

Part IV: Recipes

Part V: Tips In Tens