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Volume 38 Issue 21, Sept 18-Oct 1, 2008
now in our 38th season

Cooking with Kids

by Maryjane Mojer
Executive Chef, Bartlett's Ocean View Farm

I believe that when I was growing up I had the same dream every year the night before school started.  It always involved lunch boxes and new crayons. I had the same dream as my own kids went through school, but the lunch boxes no longer had the Partridge Family or the Monkees on them. Instead it was Power Rangers, NKOTB, or the Simpsons.

I attended Academy Hill for kindergarten, then again for second through fifth grade.  For some reason, when I was in first grade the elementary classes were moved to Cyrus Pierce School.  Mrs. Marble was my teacher.  I much preferred the Academy Hill School with those big, beautiful windows, but I sure loved Mrs. Marble.  The one bonus about Cyrus Pierce was that I could go home for lunch every day.  Grilled cheese and tomato soup.  Dad would often come home from Al Silva’s for lunch as well.

Once we moved back to Academy Hill, lunch at home was a thing of the past.  We ate lunch in our classrooms at our desks, and we could bring in milk money once a week to have a carton of milk with our lunch.  I know that I’ll be dating myself, but in kindergarten the milk came in glass bottles with the cardboard tops.

Packing lunch at home was not something I ever participated in—Mom always took care of it.  A big treat in our house was, once in a great, great while, to have a TV dinner while we watched Wide World of Sports.  Pre-packaged, pre-made food was just not what Mom would serve, and certainly not what she would put in the lunch box.

We were a big, white bread family, so every day there would be a sandwich on white bread; usually tuna, bologna and cheese, or peanut butter and jelly.  There was always an apple, and I don’t believe I ever actually ate it.  In the winter, there would often be soup, though we never did find a thermos that actually kept the soup hot.  I did love pouring the soup into the big cup. The one pre-packed item that Mom would send along were the small boxes of pretzel sticks.  The best part was the leftover salt that collected at the bottom of the box.

Packing lunch for my own kids lunches were spotty at best;  I admittedly gave in to buying lunch at school more often than not.  I think the school actually does a great job, and it was easier.  That said, making sure my kids bought what was best became easier as the school made decisions to do away with fried foods and so on.  Teaching the kids that food was fuel and would give them what they needed to make it through every club, event, sport, and meeting that crossed their paths was easier than I thought.  Like so many things, talking and showing helped.  They sure had their share of junk food, but as they grew older and realized how different foods made them feel, they became better able to make smarter choices.

Choosing what to put in your kids lunches now will help them make better decisions when you’re not there.  Cooking with kids and preparing food with kids is a multi-faceted gift, for you and for them.  Teaching them a skill that they can use to feed themselves, their friends, and ultimately their own families is time well spent.  Also, after raising three kids and having a hand in raising a few more, I will share my secret weapon for child rearing; Food. Yup, that’s the big one.  When you are the house with food, your kids will be there, their friends will be there, and you all will have the benefit of having conversations with each other.  I would come home from lunch once in a while only to find my kids’ friends at my house having lunch.  Not one of my own in sight, but their friends knew that, as long as they cleaned up, it was ok.  In my experience, it’s more difficult for any of your kids’ friends to talk them into doing something that’s not the brightest idea if they’ve shared a meal with you and know that they have to look you in the eye to explain.  Believe me, they’ll still do things that aren’t particularly brilliant, but if they know they risk losing good food, it will make a difference.  I know it sounds simplistic and it’s only one piece of raising kids.  For us it was a big one.

The best part is that when every one is home and their friends land on the island, they still show up and eat, and fill us in on where they’ve been and what they’ve been up to.

Teaching your kids to cook can start very simply with hand washing and setting the table.  When they take part in the preparation of the meals, they are also much more likely to try more things.  Shopping, while challenging with kids, is also a great time to teach.

Like all cooking and food prep, the first line of knowledge is reading.  Read cookbooks, read magazines, and most importantly read labels.  There are so very many cookbooks geared towards cooking with kids, including some older books. One of our favorites is the La Leche League cookbook. The one that I have is from 1982, and I’m certain that there is an updated version.  There is an entire section specifically for cooking with kids.

At the end of a day, the last thing you may want or think you are able to do is to pull together the energy and drive to teach cooking, especially when it may not be your own favorite household chore.  There’s the other hidden bonus:  share the burden, share the joy.

Cooking can encompass so very many things.  Shared history, family recipes, new and old traditions.  Math (not my favorite,) reading, and understanding how and why to follow something from start to finish.

Following recipes can be a daunting process.  You find the recipe, gather the goods and start at the beginning.  There are some wonderful cookbooks that give tremendous direction as part of each recipe, and there are some that are more geared toward the self educated, motivated, live on the edge kind of cook.  For some people, cooking is second nature and they instinctively know how to sauté, braise and broil.  For others, well, not so much.

The best chefs and home cooks that I know are well-read.  Becoming a good cook does take an effort, but the rewards are tremendous. Sharing cooking with your kids and seeing how far they take it is amazing.

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