Getting a meal on the table can be a challenge. It’s especially hard with young children in the house. In my experience, almost every time I try to start cooking a meal, one of my kids ends up in the kitchen with me playing their best distraction game.
Sometimes my kids want to play. Sometimes they are curious about what I’m doing. And almost all of the time, it tends to slow me down.
Over the past few years, I have tried to figure out ways to incorporate my children into the meal planning and prepping process. It’s important that my kids understand the benefits of making a meal from scratch using whole, healthy ingredients. As a parent, it’s one of the most important things! There is nothing I want more than for my kids to crave and enjoy nutritious food.
As a chef, it’s a bit more complicated. I have very particular ways I like cooking and doing things in the kitchen. Things like keeping my space tidy and moving fast mean I’m successful in the kitchen. I like my vegetables to be cut equally, for things to be measured as they should, and for the food to come out perfectly!
Now, I’ve come to find common ground. My kids think that it’s really cool that their mom was a chef (before I decided to be a stay-at-home mom). They think it’s pretty fun that my job used to be cooking for people other than them. Most of the time, they are really entertained by the knife skills and different flavors I can put together.
They are less amused with exact measurements and keeping a clean working station. But together, we’ve found ways to make it work. The first step was finding a great children’s cookbook. Then we learned how to put together a plan, find the right tools, and started cooking.
Kids and cookbooks
One of the best kitchen tools that I use with my kids is cookbooks (and recipes themselves). I have piles of cookbooks that they love browsing through and sticking post-it notes on the recipes they wish to try. However, we don’t have that many children’s cookbooks. If I really need a kid-focused recipe, I’ll find one online or alter one that I already have.
As my kids get older and appreciate the hands-on books, they want something to call their own. We love going to the local library and taking out books, but their children’s cookbook selection is often limited.
I recently came across a cookbook geared towards toddlers and younger children and wanted to give it a try. I have a 6 and a 4 year old, so this seemed like an excellent option to explore. The cookbook Little helpers toddler cookbook: Healthy kid friendly recipes to cook together is written by author Heather Wish Staller.
Staller is a professionally-trained chef who has dedicated her life to helping kids find happiness and fun in the kitchen. She teaches kids’ cooking classes and focuses on educating parents and caregivers on why it’s important to involve our kids in the cooking process.
She uses a few different techniques which contribute to her success. After reading the book, I learned these techniques and found out we shared many of them. There’s something to be said about a chef writing a cookbook for a child instead of a nutritionist, pediatrician, or parent. A chef knows various kitchen techniques and rules that are extremely beneficial to children succeeded in the kitchen.
Setting kids up for success in the kitchen
I can’t begin to recall how many times my culinary school instructors and mentors in the kitchen told me to always “set myself up for success.” Setting yourself up for success in the kitchen is creating a safe and clean environment to work in.
At the beginning of the book, Staller goes into extreme detail on the ‘why’ and ‘how” to get your kids involved in the kitchen. The main takeaway is always to encourage your kids to get involved, ask questions, and allow them to be hands-on (when they feel comfortable). The more time they spend in the kitchen, the more curious and informed they would be. As the parent, when you “set yourself up for success” with your children in the kitchen, the kids will become more excited naturally.
So as parents, we need to remember a few things. The author lists these topics at the beginning of the book. I also see them as gentle reminders for us, as parents and caregivers, to set a good example in general and in this particular culinary environment:
- Always keep fruits, vegetables, and other healthy ingredients in the kitchen (and in plain sight) to make them part of your routine. Children will be excited to try new things when they are exposed to these ingredients more often.
- Take your time when cutting, slicing, and other fine motor skills. Working in the kitchen is an excellent way for kids to learn fine motor skills. When they see you taking your time and doing things correctly, they will want to mirror that image.
- Share kitchen duties. When you’re working in the kitchen and your family is around, ask them kindly for help. You can ask your partner to grab something from the pantry for you or ask your child to find something in the fridge. It’s a great way to show good examples of being polite and patient.
- Be proud of your work. We are continually working on building self-confidence in my house. It’s really easy to say that you enjoy a meal that you cooked or praise your children and partner if they did a great job, too.
- Read recipes out loud and speak about the ingredients. This is very fun for the little kids. For example, explaining each item as you grab it, its color, whether it’s crunchy or sweet, are all great ways to expand vocabulary.
Creating a safe environment in the kitchen
Using the right tools and creating a safe environment is the 1st and most important step to take before you begin cooking with your kids.
Keeping a clean counter while cooking with kids is going to be tough. At the very least, you should find a designated area for them to do their cooking and start clean. It’s helpful to have a stepping stool or a learning tower for your kids. This will help them stay at a safe level of the counter and see all the action. Alternatively, if you don’t have a lot of counter space, working at the kitchen table will also work really well.
This is a list of recommended tools from the book. I agree these are great kid-friendly tools to have around and they will make the whole process a lot easier:
- Child-safe kitchen knife: My kids love this serrated nylon set.
- Kid-friendly scissors: Here’s a cooking tip for adults as well; kitchen shears/scissors are a great item to have around. They make cutting up food for little ones so much easier. They are also great for kids to use to cut up herbs and soft foods.
- Measuring cups and spoons: It’s best to find measuring cups and spoons with large letters and numbers that kids can read.
- Muffin pans: The author and I are on the same page on making and baking muffins and cups for our kids. We love doing these kinds of recipes. They are also really great snacking trays!
- Large cutting boards: Larger boards make clean up a lot easier. Try to find no-skid cutting boards. Alternatively, if you put a wet towel underneath a board, it won’t slip.
- Smaller mixing tools: Smaller tools are much better for smaller hands!
Staller recommends other kitchen tools, but I think that these are some of the essentials to start with!
The book also elaborates on some basic safety measures that need to take place. The best tip being never to leave your child unattended in the kitchen. Keep them safe and supervised is our number 1 job!
Tips to remember while cooking with your kids
One other thing that I love about this cookbook is that it isn’t just recipes. The author provides actually helpful and excellent information! She gives some constructive tips to keep things moving smoothly.
Some things that Heather Staller suggests are:
- Instead of letting your child pick a recipe to make from the whole book, choose 2 and allow them to pick from these 2. I found this tip very helpful. So many times, my kids have picked out a recipe that is way beyond their cooking skills, or we simply didn’t have the ingredients.
- Before you start, set up all of your ingredients and tools. Gather all of the ingredients ahead of time, so you’re not running around looking for things while also trying to keep an eye on your child.
- Designate a fair amount of time to do the recipe. Don’t rush it. You want to give yourselves enough time to enjoy the process.
- Lots and lots of handwashing.
- Having additional snacks on hand while cooking. This tip was pretty genius. Keeping safe snacks on hand (apple slices) is a good idea when dealing with unsafe ingredients (raw cookie dough).
What are the best recipes to cook with your kids?
Finally, we’re getting to the actual recipes. This book provides really easy recipes for kids that they would actually eat.
While I love incorporating my kids in more elaborate recipes, these recipes are much more straightforward. In fact, my 6 year old really loved that he could read and understand most of the recipes on his own. He went ahead and made his own shopping list from the ingredients and independently read most of the recipe.
One of the best parts about these recipes is that the ingredients were mostly already in my kitchen. I rarely found a recipe that I wasn’t able to make right away. As I scrolled through the book, I never came across a recipe that seemed unattainable, dull, or something my kids wouldn’t at least try.
We decided that we would try the Smashed Bean Quesadillas with Easy Salsa Dip recipe first. My oldest kid took it upon himself to gather the ingredients. After he did that, we read through the steps and figured out who could do which action.
It was easy for both of my kids to get involved because the recipe was really straightforward. It also applied some fun techniques like using a potato masher to “smash” the black beans.
The kids loved it because it had very simple and familiar flavors to them. I appreciated the recipe as an adult (and a chef) because some added steps really made a big difference in the quesadilla flavor. For example, we brushed the tortillas with oil before cooking, which allows them to cook to the perfect texture.
The dipping sauce was also a great addition. We usually just use Greek yogurt and salsa separately, but mixing them together was a great idea!
Here is the recipe; give it a try!
Smashed-bean Quesadillas with easy salsa dip
- 1 can pinto or black beans drained and rinsed
- ½ tsp chili powder
- ¼ tsp garlic powder
- 1 pinch salt
- 1-2 Tbsps vegetable oil
- 4 whole wheat tortillas 8-10" in size
- 1 cup whole or part skim shredded cheese cheddar or Mexican blend
- ½ cup prepared salsa
- ½ cup plain Greek yogurt
- Preheat the oven to 400°F before you start. You will also want to put a piece of parchment paper on a baking tray to prevent the quesadilla from sticking.
- Rinse and drain the black beans and put them in a shallow bowl. Use a potato masher (or the back of a fork if you don’t have one) to smash the beans up. Then fold in the spices and salt until everything is mixed.
- To prepare the tortillas, brush the oil on one side only or use a little trick that we developed. My big kid is learning how to use the non-stick spray. So instead, we laid out the tortillas and gave them a quick spray of vegetable oil. We did this to two tortillas first.
- Place the oily side of the two tortillas face down on the parchment paper. Sprinkle a small handful of cheese (about ¼ cup) on each tortilla. Add the smashed black beans and put a little more cheese on top. We topped those tortillas with the other ones that hadn’t been oiled yet. After that, put more oil on top of the tortilla (oil side facing up).
- Put them in the oven for about 10 minutes until you start to notice the cheese bubbling. Turning on the oven light was helpful here and fun for the kids to watch the quesadillas cook.
- While you wait, mix the dipping sauce by combining the salsa and Greek yogurt in a small bowl.
- When the quesadillas are done, take them out and let them cool for a few minutes. We cut them up with a pizza cutter and dipped them right into the sauce.
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