Cooking With Your Kids ~ The Garden of Eating - a sinfully good blog about food

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cooking With Your Kids

As a little girl, I loved sitting on the kitchen counter while my mom cooked. While I kicked my feet against the cabinets, she taught me how to peel an onion efficiently and how to crack an egg and use my index fingers to get all the white out before tossing the shells into the compost bin. And I still vividly recall the excitement I felt over the beautiful, golden, sesame seed-studded  loaves of braided challah we baked in my second grade class at the Woodstock Children's Center - they were like some kind of miracle...

Childhood is such an important, impressionable time of life when the vast majority of our lifelong habits are formed, or at least pointed in the direction in which they'll head. That's why my husband and I want to introduce our son, Will, to growing and cooking food alongside us.

First ripe cherry tomatoes in our garden by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog, copyright 2011

Will, who is just shy of three, watches and "helps" us with our container garden where we grow tomatoes, greens, peas, beans and herbs. At this point, it mostly means he digs in the dirt but he's learning.
Will really digs dirt by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog, copyright 2011

He had the heady experience of drinking cold, clear, slightly sweet maple sap straight from the spile (was this a new vocab word for you, too?) during our first foray into maple sugaring last winter.

Maple sap dripping out of the stile by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog, copyright 2011

And we brought him with us to forage for ramps a few weeks ago (although we confined his enthusiastic excavation efforts to a patch of ground that was not home to this fragile delicacy.) We've also gone strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and apple picking as a family - all activities we plan to repeat on a yearly basis since we all enjoy it. 

Will LOVES Berry Picking by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog, copyright 2011

We've taken him to local farms and friends' houses to gather eggs so fresh you have to chase the hens off their nests to pick them up. In addition to teaching him where his food comes from, it's a great way to kill an hour or so that does not involve us having to play with digging machines. We have not yet taught him about where the meat we eat comes from, both because we don't have a great local source and we're also both a little wimpy about exposing him to something so bloody at a tender age (or to being exposed to it, ourselves, at our not so tender ages...)

My husband sometimes plans baking projects in their hours together. At this point, Will's attention span is still remarkably short so he mostly just enjoys the idea of helping and participates in the "dumping" portion of the experience where he moves pre-measured amounts of flour, sugar, nuts, raisins, etc., into the mixing bowl. Then he gets bored, climbs down from his stool and runs off to do something else.

It takes about 2-3 times as long to bake something when Will is involved and is inevitably messier and more work but not only are we laying the groundwork for future cooking projects and appreciation of real food, we have also noticed that our notoriously picky eater is MUCH more likely to eat foods he has helped prepare in some way (score!)

Will eating a slice of pumpkin bread by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog, copyright 2011

Will also enjoys using the salad spinner to dry greens and cutting food (cucumbers and tofu are perfect!) with the adorable toddler knife Rahm got him recently after being inspired by this Slate magazine piece by Nicholas Day on the topic of cooking with pre-schoolers. And he LOVES sitting on the counter smelling and identifying spices (cinnamon is his favorite; cloves and star anise rank second and third.)

I recently made him a child-sized apron to help him feel at home in the kitchen and, hopefully, keep him slightly cleaner, though it's a bit of a lost cause at this point in his life. I chose the fabric (called "Dig It" by Michael Miller, in case you're curious) since he is 100% obsessed with digging and construction machines and I thought I should go with something he's already into.

Will baking cookies in his new digger apron by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog, copyright 2012

We figure that laying the groundwork now will not only encourage him to appreciate good food, eat more healthfully, and enjoy growing and cooking his own food from scratch someday, but if we're really strategic about it, in a few years, we might even get him to cook meals for us! If you are shaking your head in disbelief, check out this NYTimes piece by Leslie Kaufman, who got her two sons (ages 10 and 14) to each cook dinner for the family one night a week.

One thing I love about Kaufman's article is that she does not gloss over the challenges inherent in giving up control in the kitchen -- she squirms in discomfort when a  flame is left on too long for her taste and has to repeatedly battle her impulse to step in--something she unthinkingly does early on in the experiment that backfires - her son storms off to his room and misses the meal he'd prepared altogether, despite her apology.

As a perfectionist (fine, I'll just say it, I'm anal) who views cooking as somewhat of a devotional, semi-meditative practice--I like to clean up as I go and put everything in its place so that there's no mess left at the end--this kind of letting go is very HARD for me! I think it's good to be realistic about the fact that this is not an easy process - it requires a lot of patience, faith in your child, and a willingness to spend more time and do more cleaning up than you would if you just handled it all on your own. But the end result should be worth it.

Will picks the first ripe tomato in our garden by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog, copyright 2011

If this sounds appealing to you, I've compiled some resources to help you in this journey.
Please add your own thoughts and any recommendations you have on approach, books, tools, etc., via comments.


Mem said...

Good job....keep it going! He will love you even more when he's older.

Kim Foster said...

I love all this. (Your son is insanely cute, btw!) The cooking, the gardening the harvesting of berries, the way both you and your husband are making it a way of life for the family, what an awesome way for a child to be raised.

I also love that you are honest about the realities of cooking with kids. It's harder, messier, more time consuming, nothing ever comes out looking like its supposed to, and sometimes it ends in temper tantrums, and no food. But also, it just sets them on a path in the kitchen, and it's all worth it.

Thank you for inspiring your readers to start cooking with their kids. They'll be better for it. Love this!


Olga Woltman said...

Eve, Will's photos are adorable! Great, great post - we have been taking about nutrition a lot and cooking is a part of it. We will be checjking out your book recommendations!

Eve Fox said...

Thanks so much, Kim and Mem. And thank you, Olga! I hope you like the books - I wasn't able to include all of your great recs - maybe a follow up will be in order... But I found out about a few new ones I'm excited to check out (ordered for Will's upcoming b-day!)

Ayelet in DC said...

This is wonderful! Thanks for letting us benefit from all your messes, experimentation and research. I'll definitely be returning to this post!

Anonymous said...

Hey eve! Your boy is mad adorbs!

In my family, we all took turns making dinner beginning when we were quite young. My night was Tuesday, beginning when I was 7. But, it was a necessity because my mother was disabled and not able to do it. I think that made it more of a real thing vs a fun thing and as a result, I really did make dinner (or else I would be in big trouble when my dad got home from work).

Probably not the way you're gonna do it, but it sure worked! - Madeline s.

Winnie said...

Your son is adorable, and looks so much like you!!! I really miss my kids being that age, when even though it could be maddening, we cooked a lot together. Now, with my son being 13, it's more likely that he's in the basement playing guitar with his band, and I am fixing food for the crew. My daughter is 10, and really loves to bake- she made some killer peanut butter cookies all by herself last week: the only thing I did was put them in and take them out of the oven :)

Julia said...

We are doing all the things you mention, and I don't think it would be possible to avoid it they are so a part of our life.

One thing I've started to do now though, since we are now 3 1/2 and it can be a struggle for a control freak cook like me, is that I let my son "wash dishes" which he loves, and he can see what I'm doing while I cook. The floor is a little wet, but it could be worse!

Louisa Foti said...

Lovely piece! And what a cutie is Will! My children are 3 and a half and two and they're increasingly 'helping' me in the kitchen which is wonderful, and messy! Jacques at two is obsessed with peeling onions and Francesca the elder loves to do all the stirring, whisking, pouring, rolling, biscuit cutting, cake decorating etc. But attention spans are still very short!
This year my daughter's shown a huge interest in the veggie garden and loved sowing seeds with me and waiting for them to emerge. We also have chickens and its always a fight between them as to who's collecting the eggs or doing the feeding.
Getting kids involved at such a young age is brill! A great early education.

Jeremy Brown said...

Sounds like a great idea for cooking with kids! Thanks for sharing! I'd like to invite you to our party, Fantastic Thursday. Hope to see you there!