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Add a Pinch of Learning

Teaching your kids simple cooking skills makes weeknight meals easier and reinforces concepts they learn in school.
 

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Think about all the ways you’d like your children to grow and develop. It turns out there’s a place in your home where they can experience many of the things on your list: the kitchen. When kids cook, they have opportunities to read (cookbooks), to do math (measuring ingredients), to observe scientific processes (how heat alters food), to learn about geography and different cultures (preparing dishes from other lands), and to practice following instructions (recipes). “You can teach absolutely everything through cooking,” says celebrity chef Sara Moulton.

Moulton should know. An accomplished cooking teacher and the executive chef of Gourmet magazine, she reached into millions of American homes with her groundbreaking Food Network call-in show Cooking Live and, later, Sara’s Secrets. She currently stars in Sara’s Weeknight Meals on PBS. Her down-to-earth tips and advice, always delivered with an encouraging smile, have inspired many a home cook.

We asked Moulton to share her thoughts on how (and why) to get kids involved in the kitchen. As always, she had lots of great tips and practical ideas.

How to Get Started

The best part about learning through cooking is that it can be so much fun. A mom of two, Moulton knows firsthand that kids love learning to cook the foods they love to eat. Her daughter Ruthie, now 22, liked vegetables as a kid. Moulton taught her to whisk up a vinaigrette, cut an avocado, and prepare other salad ingredients. “By the time she was in high school, she would make the whole salad from start to finish,” Moulton remembers. Her son Sam, now 18, learned to make smashed potatoes when he was 11. “To this day, it’s one of his specialties,” says Moulton.

Of course, it takes time to work up to preparing an entire salad. And making a hot dish requires close supervision. But even before kids are ready to conquer whole recipes by themselves, there are many small tasks they can take on. For example, kids can:

  • rinse fruits or vegetables
  • stir ingredients in a bowl
  • measure ingredients
  • grate cheese
  • set a timer
  • cut fruit and other soft produce with a plastic knife
  • read a recipe out loud for you
  • press the button on the food processor

Moulton suggests teaching during a weekend meal, when you have more time. “Salad is a good place to start,” says Moulton. She also recommends baking pizza with kids (see her pizza recipe), because the dough is “pretty forgiving” to make.

A Job Well Done

The more involved your kids become in family meals, the more invested they will be in the results. That means they’re more likely to eat a healthy variety of foods and try new dishes. “Ask your kids to pick a recipe they want to make with you,” says Moulton. “Then take them shopping.”

Helping you prepare a meal is a real accomplishment for your children, especially when they get to eat the results. “It’s good for their self-esteem,” says Moulton. The benefits go beyond the learning they do as they work at your side — they’ll spend more time interacting with you.

Ratatouille Pizza

Sara’s tip: “Store-bought pizza dough, which you can find in the freezer section of your supermarket, is a wonderful shortcut ingredient. If you live in an area with many pizza parlors, you may be able to purchase prepared pizza dough from them as well.”

Ingredients:

  • one 1-pound package defrosted frozen pizza dough or one recipe Food Processor Pizza Dough
  • 3⁄4 pound mixed roasted vegetables, such as peppers, onion, zucchini, and eggplant
  • 1⁄4 pound pitted Niçoise olives, quartered
  • 4 ounces grated or sliced cheese such as mozzarella, Brie, Cheddar, or Monterey Jack

What to Do:

  1. Preheat the oven to 500° F. Position one of the oven shelves as low as it can go in the oven. Grease a 12-inch pizza pan with olive oil or cooking spray. Roll or press the dough into a 12-inch round on the pan. If you don’t have a pizza pan, you can use a rimmed baking sheet (about 13” x 9”) and shape the dough into a rectangle.
  2. Cut the vegetables into bite-size pieces, if desired, and arrange on the pizza dough along with the olives. Top with the cheese. Bake the pizza on the lowest shelf of the oven until the crust is golden, the vegetables are heated through, and the cheese has melted, 10 to 15 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve with a tossed salad. Makes two servings (Note: you can prepare two pizzas and bake one at a time.)

Food Processor Pizza Dough

Sara’s tip: “Making pizza dough in the food processor is a snap. You don’t have to know how to knead; the machine does all the work.”

Ingredients:

  • 2 to 2 1⁄2 cups unsifted, unbleached all-purpose flour
  • one 1⁄4-ounce package quick-rising yeast (about 2 1⁄4 teaspoons)
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

What to Do:

  1. Combine 1 3⁄4 cups of flour, yeast, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the chopping blade.
  2. Add 1⁄4 cup very warm water (120° to 130° F) and the oil; process until a soft dough forms. Add as much of the remaining flour, 1⁄4 cup at a time, as necessary to make the dough manageable.
  3. Shape the dough into a ball and place in an oiled bowl, turning so an oiled surface is up. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in size, about 35 minutes. Use as directed in a recipe.

Preparation Is Key

How to simplify weeknight meals with your kids:

  • Plan the meals for the week, and shop during the weekend.
  • Always preheat the oven or start the water boiling before you do anything else.
  • Read the entire recipe before you start cooking so that you can plan your time.
  • Many slow-cooking recipes can be prepared ahead of time (during the weekend, for example) and then reheated for a quick and delicious weeknight meal.
  • Make homemade vinaigrette once a week and keep it in the fridge for speedy salads every night.

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