COOKING AND HEALTHY LESSONS WITH KIDS
By Sarah Walla – Sarah is a Mom & a Principal at BumpVitamins.com
WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, my Mom cooked and my Dad worked. Being a stay-at-home Mom with two kids, I seem to remember my Mom ALWAYS being in the kitchen. She made wonderful homemade bread that filled the house with memories of warmth and comfort. She would go above and beyond with themed dinner nights. Pasta night came complete with a gingham tablecloth and Moonstruck (the movie) soundtrack.
I give my Mom a ton of credit for cooking healthy and organic foods… which wasn’t as much of a “thing” back in the 80s. Looking back, for some reason I spent more time with my Dad at his tool bench fixing things and in his darkroom helping develop pictures, than I ever did with my Mom in the kitchen. Maybe she didn’t invite me, maybe I wasn’t interested, but a central motto of my life has been: I can fix a toilet better than I can ice a cake!
I knew I wanted my daughter to grow up with more kitchen skills than I did (I am almost 40 years old and I am still learning how to chop an onion correctly). I still have occasional anxiety when I walk through the grocery store, thinking about how to combine all the options available and what flavors work well together. There is a whole menu that I absolutely will not cook because I simply don’t trust myself: chicken, bone-in steak, scallops, duck, cakes, sushi, and on and on.
I like to say I enjoy the experience of eating these cuisines out, but I also understand that plenty of people enjoy healthy cooking and get really creative with it. I wish that I was one of these people, but I’m more the kind of person who secretly loved having an excuse to order takeout during covid. I was just doing my part to “support local businesses”! But now that things are returning to “normal”, I’m trying to return to more healthy habits and including my daughter in our meal preparation, so that she learns healthy cooking habits through her own experience.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, my daughter goes to a Montessori school here in Denver. At the time she was enrolled, we didn’t understand all the wonderful skills she would learn that I wished my school had offered when I was growing up. One of these skills was food prep and cooking! As soon as her little hands and brain mastered the art of using forks and spoons at around a year and a half, her teachers provided her a little knife meant for cutting potatoes into crinkle fries. If you haven’t seen one of these, they consist of a zig-zag blade with a wide handle on top. The motion for cutting is pushing straight down, not like a regular knife which acts as an extension of your arm and hand. We got the report from her teacher that she really enjoyed it, so thanks to Amazon, we had a similar cutter two days later!
I got so much enjoyment out of seeing my sweet little baby chopping strawberries and carrots and other various items while standing on a stool next to me at the kitchen counter. She was totally focused and so proud of herself! I would tell her how the food she helped make tasted better than if I had done it. She had such a sense of accomplishment! As she’s grown older I’ve introduced new things she could help with… cracking eggs, stirring batters, chopping and cutting some of the more tricky items, like cherry tomatoes and olives, and even stirring hot pots and pans. We got into a serious cooking routine. She got that sense of accomplishment, but so did I. I seriously got an overwhelming sense that “I’m a good Mom” and “I’m winning at this Mom thing” when my daughter held her (upgraded big girl) knife properly to stabilize the food and avoid cuts. Her motor skills kept improving and she was learning how to really focus on the task at hand.
I also teach proper etiquette around hot items such as pots and plates, I always warn her to be careful and control her excited flailing movements. She’s burned her forearm maybe twice on the edge of a hot pot while stirring her mac-n-cheese, but we used it as a learning opportunity and talked about correct positioning while we iced the sore spot. It wouldn’t be long until she was bored of the ice and wanted to stir again!
I also wrote about baby-led weaning in a previous article. Again, this is the process of giving real foods with real textures to babies instead of typical baby food. This helped our daughter improve her dexterity while learning about flavors, textures, and how to behave while eating at a table with others. Combined with helping cook the food we would all eat together, has been a wonderful progression!
She has even taken to learning on her own in different little ways. She loves watching Julie & Julia and saying “Bon Appetite” before eating. She finds cooking videos on my iPad and learns things I haven’t taught her. The other day I asked her what we should serve for dessert, and she paused… then gave me an ingredient list: strawberries, chocolate, sprinkles, and a non-stick surface. I helped her pick out the items she preferred at the store and set up an assembly line for her with the melted chocolate, strawberries (with the stems cut off by herself of course), sprinkles, and silicone mat. My 5-year-old literally made her own chocolate-covered strawberries with sprinkles! Our friends gobbled them up with delight and she beamed sunshine and rainbows!
I won’t lie, being a single and working Mom, there are plenty of nights we make pizza or “support local restaurants” because I cannot fathom spending time prepping and cooking, and cleaning. Our “best” is different every single day, but I’ve come up with some go-to healthy dinners that aren’t hard and super kid (at least my kid) friendly. Salmon with capers and veggies, spaghetti squash with sautéed vegetables and turkey, roasted vegetables with a rotisserie chicken from the store, sirloin steak with mushrooms to name a few… and Taco Tuesday of course! My sous chef likes to chop up black olives to add to the taco mix and stir in the seasoning. I’ll take the help!
An amazing purchase I made that really has changed my world is an Instant Pot. We love the Ratatouille, mushroom and spinach risotto, and chicken tortilla soup recipes I’ve found very, very much. And I equally love the expedited process of simply chopping ingredients, adding them to the magic pot, cleaning up while it cooks… and most of all enjoying a healthy home-cooked meal with little fuss. I’ll usually add whatever we had for dinner to my daughter’s lunch bag for the next day’s lunch at school. I’m sure she loves telling her classmates what we cooked and how she helped me. Or how much she loves the frozen pizza we enjoyed with absolutely no fuss haha!
Just as my Mom loved having theme nights with food and decorations, I’ve always enjoyed eating as social interaction and bonding activity with friends, family, and colleagues…. and now my daughter! We share so many laughs over her not wanting to eat something, me encouraging her to “just try it” and then she dramatically proclaims “this is the best thing ever Mom, try it!” I believe food should be nutritious and delicious, and it also should be fun and social and NOT stressful. I feel confident my daughter is learning more from her school and her parents than I ever did… and I hope it helps her learn independence while staying healthy far into her future!