Empowering children to cook—
even their own “junk food”
—is good for everyone
Group tasting what they’ve baked—homemade Pop-Tarts.
BY JORDAN CHAMPAGNE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARGAUX GIBBONS AND MICHELLE MAGDALENA
“Eat all the junk food that you want as long as you make it yourself.”
This is food rule number 39 from Michael Pollan’s book Food Rules, and it is a favorite with the kids I know. I use the book as a guide and conversation starter with the youngsters in the cooking workshops I teach as the author has simple and practical advice on what kind of food is healthy to eat.
Because eating is essential, engaging children in cooking comes naturally and can be rewarding for everyone involved. Cooking can seem burdensome as lots of us are busy, but many children—whether our own kids or our nieces, nephews, grandchildren or friends’ kids—would love to share in this task if we would only let them. In my experience, kids are eager to work with “dangerous” knives and interesting kitchen appliances. We simply need to teach them the skills to do so safely. After working with hundreds of kids of all ages, the biggest injury I have seen has been a small cut from a knife or grater.
Taking a cue from Food Rules, one of my favorite culinary projects at the kids’ culinary camps we hold at Happy Girl Kitchen is making Pop-Tarts from scratch. We start by traveling to Lonely Mountain Farm in Corralitos to harvest strawberries and macerate them in sugar and lemon juice right there before we leave. This may seem like an involved process for making a simple pastry, but you can always use jam you’ve made previously with your children. (One of the wonderful benefits of making preserves is having them at your fingertips to turn into other wonderful treats.) We let the strawberries sit overnight to take a break.
The next morning we start the jam cooking while we make our crust. The children have great fun rolling out the dough. We encourage them to stray from the classic rectangular shape and, instead, cut out hearts, circles, ovals and creative shapes.
But the real highlight is making the frosting. Once, my young students started to ask about making different colored frostings, and I said, “Yes, let’s try to make it pink with hibiscus.” And it all started there. In the end, we made 14 different colors of frosting, all out of natural dyes. A little blackberry jam made purple, cinnamon made brown, green juice made green and lavender, a light pink. We even made bright yellow frosting with powdered turmeric, which ended up tasting much better than anyone thought it would.
What made the project the most fun was the children felt free to experiment and innovate. I find that too many times kids have to follow rules and recipes, but cooking is much more exciting if the cooks are able to influence it. You never know where the project will lead, and the children just might invent something new.
Whether making jam, pickles, dinner or “junk food,” kids really can have a lot of fun in the kitchen. Cooking is a skill they will use for the rest of their lives and a great contribution to the household chores. So teach those kids how to use a chef ’s knife safely and get them to work!
Jordan Champagne is the co-owner and founder of Happy Girl Kitchen Co. She has a passion for preserving the local, organic harvest and loves sharing her secrets at the workshops she teaches across the region.
Champagne’s daughter Jaya Sri picking out her vegetables
Small hands preparing pasta and another
GETTING KIDS INTERESTED IN THEIR OWN FOOD
- Let children pick out their own vegetables. Whether we are at the farmers’ market or the grocery store, I let my kids select any vegetable they want. I have found they enjoy the freedom and are more willing to try a new one if they choose it.
- Kids like their vegetables crunchy. Raw vegetables put out on the table with a simple dip can really disappear fast! Also, making an easy, crunchy refrigerator pickle with young ones presents opportunities for fun experimentation.
- Kids like responsibility, especially at a young age. Encourage them to plan one meal a week and provide guidance as needed. They will like feeling in control and contributing. Set them up for success.
- Encourage a “no thank you bite.” Oftentimes, just by looking at a new food, people think they will dislike it. I ask that my kids take at least one bite just to try an unfamiliar food before they decide they don’t like it. If they dislike their no thank you bite, they may say “no thank you” when they are offered more.
- Place a copy of Food Rules by Michael Pollan on the dinner table as it can spawn deep conversation about eating healthfully and sustainably. If children receive these “rules” from someone other than their parents, they may be more willing to hear them. This is especially true of teens and tweens!
- Teach your children good kitchen safety skills or find a proper mentor to teach them. With the know-how, they can handle sharp utensils and even immersion blenders and never get hurt.
- Play with your food! I think the admonishment “don’t play with your food” should be replaced with, perhaps, “respect your food.” We should have fun with it from picking it out to preparing it to eating it. The more enjoyable the process, the more youngsters will want to be involved. (And often, the mess is worth it!)