The Great Mashed Potato Problem

Teach thinking and solving skills in the kitchen.
By Ellen Booth Church



The Great Mashed Potato Problem

Problems are no surprise to cooks — we confront them all the time. Next time you contemplate one in the kitchen, invite your child to help you consider different solutions. For example, when you realize you need melted butter for a recipe, invite him to suggest ways to melt it. You will not only be showing him how to use problem-solving skills, but you will also be teaching him how heat can change things. Of course, it doesn't have to be a real problem. You can make up a problem for him to help you solve, as in the Great Mashed Potato Problem.

The Great Mashed Potato Problem

"Let's put it in a box and smash it with a hammer!" — Harry, age 4

Here are the steps to problem-solving:

Define the problem. "How do we make soft mashed potatoes out of hard potatoes?" Brainstorm solutions together. "How can we make something soft? What tools can we use?" This can be a good time to introduce a new tool, such as a potato masher or ricer. Choose one or two solutions and test them. Discuss the pros and cons of the solutions and try some of them out. Be prepared to allow your child to learn from mistakes!

After exploring the problem, make mashed potatoes together.

What you need: 5 russet potatoes, peeled 1/2 bay leaf 1/4 cup milk 1 tbsp. butter salt and pepper to taste What to do:

Fill large pot with water, potatoes, and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Ask your child, "What will happen to the potatoes when they get hot?" How will we know when they are soft?"

  1. Boil potatoes until tender (about 15 minutes). Remove the bay leaf, drain potatoes, and put them in a sturdy mixing bowl.
  2. Show your child a few different tools to mash with. You might have an old-fashioned hand masher, a large slotted spoon, or a ricer. You might ask, "Which tool will be the best to use? Let's try it and see!"
  3. Warm the milk and butter in a microwave for 1 minute on medium heat.
  4. Ask your child to slowly add the milk/butter mixture into the mashed potatoes while you stir.
  5. Add salt and pepper to taste.

 How Many Ways Can We Use a Banana

"I can dip it in yogurt and lick it!" — Jarrod, age 3

"Cut it up and make a face in my cereal." — Kim, age 4

Brainstorming the many ways to do something underscores problem-solving and creative thinking. Start a brainstorming conversation with your child and see where it goes.

  • While sharing a banana with your child, ask him to think of all the different ways to use it.
  • You might start with suggesting different banana foods that he knows, such as banana pudding, pie, or banana splits.
  • Encourage him to "think outside the kitchen" by asking him to consider other non-edible ways to use bananas. Sandy said, "You can dip it in paint and draw a picture!" Ken placed a banana in the middle of his forehead and said, "Look, I'm a banana-corn" (as in unicorn).
  • Try making some fun banana dishes, noticing all the different ways they can be changed, from mashed banana baby food to hard, frozen banana pops.

Cooking "Outside the Box"

"The red pepper is so pretty!" — Abby, age 3

"The sausages are looking at me!" — Sam, age 5

You can invite your child to use his creative-thinking skills by inviting him to looking at a common food in a new way.

  • Take a favorite boxed food, such as macaroni and cheese.
  • Ask, "How can we make macaroni and cheese better? What can we add to make it taste great and look good, too?"
  • Set up a selection of add-ins for your child to experiment with: fresh or frozen peas, diced carrots, red peppers, sliced chicken, ham, or tofu.
  • Have your child experiment with small batches in paper bowls. Encourage him to notice how the different combinations look as well as taste. "How did the macaroni change?"
Problem Solving
Following Directions
Easy Recipes
Critical Thinking
Age 5
Age 4
Age 3
Problem Solving
Hobbies, Play, Recreation