My 2-year-old, Milo, has recently begun stringing short sentences together, and my favorite of his newfound phrases is this declaration of pride: “I did it!”
That’s what he said when he helped me make pizza dough by kneading the flour, water, yeast and oil with his chubby little toddler hands. Later, he sprinkled cheese over the dough, and waited (OK, impatiently) while the pie baked and then cooled. Sure, he tried to nibble the raw dough a couple of times, and downed a handful of mozzarella before I could stop him. Otherwise, our little kitchen adventure went pretty smoothly.
When he finally got to eat a slice of homemade pizza, he used another of his new sentences: “I made this.”
Nothing has ever tasted better.
With schools and most day cares closed, and many Minnesota parents working from home during the state’s shelter-at-home order, sometimes the easiest way to get food on the table and entertain our kids is by cooking together.
“The kitchen is a really powerful place to learn, but it’s also a really positive place to parent,” said Kelly Montoya. She’s the founder of Little Sous, a subscription service that sends cooking kits with recipes and kitchen tools to children ages 5 and up.
Montoya has seen subscriptions climb since the coronavirus started keeping families home mid-March. (One lesson, on making and cooking with cheese, is available for digital download.)
In these extraordinary times, people are searching for a way back to something elemental, like food, Montoya said.
“We’re all learning right now there are things we’ve taken for granted,” she said. “It’s inspiring a whole deeper level of thought and connection as a society to the things we care about but have been moving too fast to enjoy.”
Cooking with kids accomplishes much more than allowing parents to multi-task while feeding the family. It helps kids master a new skill, practice math and chemistry, feel pride in a finished product and learn about hand-washing and food safety.
It can even help with picky eating.
“It’s hard to not at least be curious about what something will taste like, especially if you’ve had a hand in creating it,” said James Rone, who encourages Minneapolis high-schoolers to explore global cuisine in cooking classes at the Project Success Institute. (Rone, the institute’s program manager, is now livestreaming the class every Wednesday at 6 p.m. on Instagram.)
Best of all, cooking together during quarantine gives busy families a chance to view mealtimes with a little more reverence. Instead of a quick stop for fuel before the next thing, meals can be a treasured part of each day.
“A lot of us get into this zone of, ‘OK, feed the kids, go on to the next activity,’ and we don’t actually show kids what’s going on behind the scenes,” said Amy Petersen, a St. Cloud-based dietitian with Coborn’s supermarkets. “Right now, we all need some type of routine in life, and having family meals together, sitting down for snacks, having conversations, can be a sense of normalcy that a lot of families can really use.”
How to get kids started in the kitchen depends on a few factors, like their age, and your comfort with having them handle knives or use the stove.
In her cookbook for preschoolers, “Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes,” Mollie Katzen explains how even the youngest child can handle a knife. One tip: Put a piece of tape on the handle, so the child knows which end to hold.
A new feature on Coborn’s website, called Kids Cook at Home, allows users to select recipes and videos by difficulty and whether knives and heat are required.
And there are cookbooks out there for all ages. Start with Katzen’s books for preschoolers, graduate to America’s Test Kitchen’s recent books for 5- to 8-year-olds (“My First Cookbook”) and ages 8 and up (“The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs”) and onward to cookbooks written by teenagers (“Teen Chef Cooks”; “The Teen Kitchen”).
The pizza dough I assembled with Milo came from Liz Lee Heinecke of Edina, aka the Kitchen Pantry Scientist, who has written a series of books of experiments that use common household ingredients.
As explained in her book “Kitchen Science Lab for Kids: Edible Edition,” kneading pizza dough to form gluten strands is what makes the crust chewy.
Heinecke says all of her recipes teach mathematics, by having kids measure ingredients. They can also teach an important life skill: failing and bouncing back.
“When a recipe doesn’t turn out exactly as planned, it’s not the end of the world,” she said. “By making less than perfect food, kids learn to troubleshoot by asking themselves what went wrong, or how they can adjust a recipe to make it more to their liking the next time.”
Milo and I didn’t have to worry about that. Our pizza might have been a little thin and oddly shaped. But by making it together, it was perfect.
A simple ‘soup’
Everly, 3, Brooklyn Center
Everly loves to help her mom, Amy Parkin, in the kitchen. Her favorite pastime: cracking eggs. To make Pretend Soup, a spin on a yogurt and fruit bowl, Parkin let Everly use a knife for the first time. “I thought, all right, I’m going to try it, even though it made me cringe,” Parkin said. Everly did great slicing berries and apple wedges. “It was all symmetrical, too,” Parkin said. “I was so impressed.” Parkin swapped peach juice for the orange juice called for in the recipe. Bananas were scarce, so she worked in a mix of berries, apples and crushed pineapple instead. After Everly assembled the “soup,” “she was so proud of herself,” Parkin said.
Note: You can swap any kind of juice and fruit depending on your tastes. To help a young child measure juice, put the measuring cup in a pie pan or baking pan, put the juice in a small pitcher, and let the child pour it into the measuring cup from the pitcher. If spilling occurs, it goes into the pan. To help a young child peel a banana, cut it in half crosswise, then make a slit all the way down the side of the skin. Repeat on other side, and give the peel a little tug to start. Bananas are safe for even the youngest child to cut. Use a serrated dinner knife or a plastic picnic knife, and put a piece of tape on the handle so your child remembers which end to hold. From “Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes,” by Mollie Katzen.
• 2 c. orange juice
• 1/2 c. plain yogurt
• 1 tbsp. honey
• 2 tsp. lemon juice
• 1 small banana, sliced
• 1 c. berries (fresh or frozen and defrosted)
Place the orange juice in a bowl. Add yogurt, honey and lemon juice. Whisk until it is all one color.
Split banana slices and berries among the serving bowls. Ladle the soup over the fruit.
Hannah, 2, and Sam, 5, Plymouth
As the writer of a food blog (twohappycooks.wordpress.com), Alli Hearne has often let her children help out on recipes. “We love to get our kids involved as much as we can. They like to scoop ingredients, drop them into the bowl, mix with a spoon,” Hearne said. Her trail mix is easily adaptable, calling for any combination of sweet, salty and crunchy things found in the back of the pantry, such as dried cranberries, sunflower seeds and crackers. In the family’s latest batch, the kids especially liked the chocolate chips. “It was a big mess,” Hearne said. “But you have to just go with it. Messes can be cleaned up. We all have more time these days.”
Easy Trail Mix
Makes a lot.
Note: This recipe does not require knives or heat. Ingredients are customizable; use whatever you like or have on hand. From Alli Hearne.
• 3 c. cereal
• Crackers (such as Ritz), broken, about 1 sleeve
• Graham crackers, broken, about 1/2 sleeve
• 1 c. dried cranberries
• 1 c. chocolate chips
• 1/2 c. raisins
• 1/2 c. sunflower seeds
Add all ingredients to a large bowl and mix.
Milo, 2, Minneapolis (See story.)
Makes 1 large pizza or 3 to 4 small pizzas.
Note: Pre-bake crusts for 5 minutes if adding soggy ingredients such as fresh tomatoes or extra sauce. From “Kitchen Science Lab for Kids: Edible Edition,” by Liz Lee Heinecke.
• 2 tsp. yeast
• 3 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1 tbsp. olive oil
• Choice of cheese, sauce and toppings
Add yeast to 1 cup warm water and let sit for 5 minutes.
In a large bowl, mix flour with the salt, then stir in the oil and the yeast mixture to create the dough.
Briefly knead the dough and then put it back in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp dish towel and let it rise for 30 minutes.
Punch the dough down and preheat an oven or grill to 400 degrees. Flatten and stretch the dough. Add your toppings and bake in an oven or on a grill.
Ben, 10, and Maddy, 15, Arden Hills
Stephanie Harms’ two children like to get creative in the kitchen. “The kids are both fairly independent,” she said. “I let them kind of just go.”
For this recipe, however, they followed instructions to the letter, even seeking out ingredients like buttermilk and paprika that they’d usually find substitutes for. Maddy, who is a vegetarian, still got to put her spin on the dish, using cauliflower in place of chicken.
Ben had fun removing chicken skin for the first time. “That was kind of squishy,” his mom said. “We laughed a lot when we were doing it.” He wants to make the chicken again, but with a twist: Instead of a cornflake crust, he’d like to use Cheez-Its.
Harms said cooking together gave the family a way to pass the time “in a really meaningful way,” she said. “It reinforces for the kiddos and the whole family that we’re safe, and it’s going to be OK.”
Crispy Oven-Fried Chicken
Note: If you don’t have buttermilk, combine 2 tablespoons lemon juice or cider vinegar with 2 cups milk (or plain yogurt) and allow the mixture to stand for 5 to 10 minutes before using. In place of chicken, use cauliflower as a vegetarian substitution, but dip cauliflower in a beaten egg before dipping in the cornflake mixture to help the crust adhere. From “The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs,” by America’s Test Kitchen Kids.
• 2 c. buttermilk (see Note)
• 2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
• Salt and pepper
• 1 tsp. garlic powder
• 3 lb. bone-in chicken pieces (split breasts, drumsticks and/or thighs)
• Vegetable oil spray
• 4 c. cornflakes
• 1 tsp. poultry seasoning
• 1 tsp. paprika
In a large bowl, whisk together buttermilk, mustard, 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and garlic powder.
Use paper towel to grasp skin on 1 piece of chicken, then pull off and discard skin. Repeat with remaining pieces. Add chicken to buttermilk mixture and turn to coat well. Wash your hands. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or overnight.
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and set cooling rack inside baking sheet. Spray rack with vegetable oil spray.
Place cornflakes in a large zip-top bag. Add poultry seasoning and paprika. Seal bag and shake to combine. Use rolling pin to crush cornflakes into small pieces. Pour cornflake mixture into second large bowl.
Remove 1 piece of chicken from buttermilk mixture, add to bowl with cornflake mixture, and toss to coat. Use your hands to gently press crumbs onto all sides of chicken. Place chicken on greased rack in baking sheet. Repeat with remaining pieces of chicken. Wash your hands.
Spray chicken all over with vegetable oil spray until each piece is shiny. Place baking sheet in oven and bake until chicken breasts register 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer and drumsticks/thighs register 175 degrees, 35 to 45 minutes.
Use oven mitts to remove baking sheet from oven (ask an adult for help). Place baking sheet on second cooling rack and let cool for 5 minutes.
Lots of chocolate
Kristiana, 11, and MaryKate, 10, Arden Hills
Sarah Lundgren and her husband are both educators, so having extra time to cook with their four children has felt like “an early summer,” Lundgren said. Her 12-year-old son was so excited, he made a Google Doc with 20 dessert recipes he plans to try. The children have to rotate making treats each day, “but I haven’t given them too many restrictions, since there have been so many other restrictions,” Lundgren said. Two of her children teamed up to make this recipe. They noticed early in the process that it was not going to yield enough cookies for a family of six, so they doubled it. MaryKate mixed everything together, and Kristiana helped her scoop the dough into balls. Since they only have one cookie scoop, Kristiana used her hands. “She, of course, washed them first,” Lundgren said. The hand-scooped cookies came out rounder, and the crispy-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside cookies impressed everyone. “They were gone within 24 hours.”
Chocolate Brownie Cookies
Makes 12 cookies.
Note: From “My First Cookbook,” by America’s Test Kitchen Kids.
• Vegetable oil spray
• 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
• 2 tbsp. Dutch-processed cocoa powder
• 1/2 tsp. baking powder
• 1/4 tsp. salt
•2 tbsp. unsalted butter
• 1/2 c. plus 1/2 c. semisweet chocolate chips, measured separately
• 1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
• 1 egg
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper and spray parchment with vegetable oil spray.
In medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt.
In a large bowl, combine butter and 1/2 cup chocolate chips. Heat in microwave at 50% power until melted, about 2 minutes. Use rubber spatula to stir mixture until smooth.
Add brown sugar and egg to melted chocolate mixture and whisk to combine.
Add flour mixture and use rubber spatula to stir until combined and no dry flour is visible. Stir in remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips.
Measure 1 heaping tablespoon of dough and drop it onto baking sheet. Continue with remaining dough (there should be 11 more tablespoons). Leave space between dough mounds. Let sit for 10 minutes.
Use your hands to roll each dough mound into a ball, then place back on parchment-lined baking sheet. Gently flatten each ball (if dough is sticky, use wet hands).
Bake until edges of cookies are just set and centers are still soft and starting to crack, 11 to 13 minutes. Let cookies cool completely on baking sheet, about 30 minutes.