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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Kids' Menu

Making meals with your own mini-chefs

By Marina Wolf

IN THE MOVIE Jack, Robin Williams' character gets together with a group of boys in a treehouse, where they squish all kinds of food together and dare each other to eat the disgusting result. That, says celebrated cookbook author Mollie Katzen of Moosewood Cookbook fame, is what most adults think kids want to do with food, but it's not true. "If they're helping you cook, they don't want to make a mess, and if they do, they want to clean it up," says Katzen. "They really want to do right by food. They feel really honored to be included in an adult activity."

These days there are many ways for children to get involved. Katzen herself has contributed two books, Pretend Soup (for preschoolers) and Honest Pretzels (for ages 8 to 13), to the new breed of children's cookbooks, which put the child in charge and pushing blender buttons at an early age.

At the same time, individuals (like Linda Welch of Sonoma), cooking schools (e.g, Ramekins Sonoma Valley Culinary School), and community centers teach classes that target children but often focus on much the same foods as adult classes. The recipes that Kelly-Ann Hargrove and her instructors teach at Central Market in Austin, Texas, are a far cry from the pseudo-recipes of my youth. Her junior chefs (ages 9 to 12) learn roasted chicken, egg rolls, pesto, and tamales. And even her mini-chef courses, for ages 5 to 8, cover French toast, latkes, and spaghetti and meatballs.

"I only have to tweak the recipes a little bit. Say I have a Hungarian goulash recipe. I'll change the title and call it cheeseburger casserole, so that they'll be more willing to try it," she says. "But as far as the actual things we learn about, and the techniques they have to use to cook the meal, I treat the children as though they have a lot of intelligence, which they do."

Intelligence there may be, but what about motor skills? It's been driven home to generations of parents that children and kitchen implements are a recipe for disaster. Instructors and cookbook authors agree that certain developmental facts have to be considered, and certain guidelines enforced, when working with children in the kitchen.

HARGROVE does the cooking for the younger set at the front of the classroom and stands nearby while older children do a minute or two of stir-fry. She only recently began allowing her students to use paring knives in the classroom. She's had to develop trust that the children can concentrate, and she's also developed a really good cautionary tale. "I tell them about the time that I cut my thumb off," she says with a laugh. "It's true. I mean, just the tip of my thumb. But that always gets to them."

Joel Olson of the Wisconsin-based HemmaChef, goes through the same basic safety lecture, but he is more inclined to a laissez-faire approach. "The only difference between teaching adults and kids is that the adults are just taller," he says. "It's true, because adults do the same stupid things. Kids love it when I tell them the dumb things adults have done in past classes. They know that if they make mistakes, it's not any worse than what adults have done. So it takes the pressure off."

Obviously, children are not the only ones who may feel some pressure during a parent-child cooking adventure. Parents often have to slow way down to deal with their children's cookery. "As adults we often cook to eat, but for children the main event is the process of cooking--not the product," writes Mollie Katzen in the introduction to Pretend Soup. Even if they make it through a whole cooking session, Katzen has found that parents often slip back into food pressures afterward, when children don't always want to eat their own food. "Sometime they just want to feed their teacher, their parents," says Katzen. "I just tell parents not to worry, to sit back, and let them take pride in feeding you."

Pride in accomplishment is by far not the only thing that children learn from working in the kitchen. Measurements illustrate counting and basic fractions; popovers are an exciting chemistry lesson; decorating bagels with cream cheese and vegetable bits is all about developing a personal aesthetic; and just about everything has to do with hand-eye coordination.

Above all, say the instructors, learning to cook gives children self-confidence. "Cooking gives them a sense of control over part of their life," says Olson. "Before, they had to ask, 'When are we gonna eat?' Now they know."

The immediate effect of kitchen independence is often startling to parents, report the teachers. Children can actually assist with meal preparations and do some meals by themselves. Olson for one is thinking longer term than Sunday brunch. "I give them things that they can use for the rest of their lives," he says proudly. "Later in life, when they go on a date, or cook for themselves in college or for roommates, when they're out on their own, they're going to eat well."

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From the May 17-23, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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