Friday, July 24, 2015

Tell your kids to play with their food

Last month, a second grader surprised me with her baking skills. We were finishing a week-long summer program and planning our celebratory party. She offered to bring in brownies that she emphasized she would make entirely by herself. The next day, she proudly came into our class with 27 brownies carefully cut into generous squares. She emphasized that there were just enough for everyone to have one, and watched carefully to make sure that no one took an extra. I was impressed—not just by her organizational skills, but especially that she had baked a dessert all by herself.

Clara is just a year younger than this girl, and I questioned whether a year from now she would be volunteering to bake something all by herself. We are still at the stage of her helping out as sous chef or kitchen's assistant. She has never made an entire dish by herself. I know brownies are not the hardest dessert to prepare, but still this situation got me thinking about Clara and cooking. 

At the same time that I was thinking about Clara's culinary future, she received a hand-me-down copy of Strawberry Shortcake's book, Cooking Fun. This book from 1980 details ways to make a typical meal more interesting through food layout and design. Clara especially liked the Snakey Snack "recipe" (alternating slices of carrots and cucumber with cream cheese in between and arranging it to look like a snake). She was proud of herself when she made this mostly by herself for her friends when they came over for a playdate. Another favorite was Crackerwitch Castle (a tower of cheese and crackers).   

Clara was very happy to find a radish tail that worked perfectly as a
snake tongue.

Clara followed the directions to make Crackerwitch Castle and added her own embellishment with
cracked cracker topping and red pepper boats with carrots.

For any one who is looking for fun food ideas, this site has 60 ideas to get you started. I like their Loch Ness bagel monster and the Octopus' Garden. I'm not a fan of all of their recipes, though. The Banana Dogs look just wrong. I am lucky that Clara is a good eater, so I never had to trick her into eating her vegetables by making them look like something else. (But if she was a picky eater, I think I would go to Play with Your Food first for ideas! I love the way they give peppers and other veggies such a personality in these photos.)

Not all experiments have been a success. Clara's attempt at making the Octopus Garden resulted in a mishap when the pepper dipped a bit too far in the hummus.
I am not one of those moms who cuts out fancy shapes for my daughter's sandwiches every day or makes whipped cream smiley faces on her pancakes. I tend to have just enough energy to make sure she gets healthy snacks—slicing her apple into pieces rather than giving her a whole apple feels like an accomplishment. The only exception to the norm is on her birthday in which case I have been known to prepare cutesy presentations like butterfly sandwiches to please the birthday girl. However, I'm enjoying the delight in which Clara is expressing towards contributing to the cooking, even if at this point, she's mostly helping with the presentation rather than the actual food. 

Our next step is creating a meal together. It turns out we have a couple of other kid's cookbooks that I forgot we owned: Lidia Bastianich's Nonna's Birthday Surprise and The Silver Spoon for Children: Favorite Italian Recipes. Both of these books have real recipes like for Fish Kabobs and Pesto Spaghetti. Lidia's book is accompanied by drawings and a children's story that reinforces growing one's own food and making seasonal recipes. Another kid's cookbook that looks promising is Mollie Katzen's Pretend Soup. Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook was a classic in my house when I was a teeanger trying to experiment with vegetarian cooking. 

Yesterday, I read in the Motherlode blog on the New York Times site about a 9-year-old cooking Pasta with Tomato and Mushrooms and an 11-year-old making a fruit tart. I would love to help Clara develop the confidence and skills to try these recipes in a couple of years. The Times has been offering a series called "Kids in the Kitchen" where they share kid-friendly recipes. We definitely plan to put some of these on our list of recipes to try with Clara.

Clara has developed a curiosity about the kitchen and cooking through playing with her food. I encourage you to consider telling your kids to play with their food this summer and see what they create. 


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