Child's Play

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Somewhere between coming home exhausted after work and my sons' repeated pleas for dinner—like, right now, Mom—I have a thought: Why not begin teaching my kids to cook for themselves? I'd get some help in the kitchen, and they'd learn that cooking can be simple, delicious, and fun.

But where to start with these energetic seven-year-old twins? The trick, I decide, is in fast planning and delegation. After all, my boys are hungry now. With some guidance, a small snack to tide them over, and a review of ingredients we have on hand, Matthew and Jack pick an easy-to-make, kid-friendly main dish of black bean and quinoa quesadillas, served with a mixed green salad topped with chopped pears and dried cranberries. Jack is in charge of the quesadillas, and Matthew the salad.

Getting Started

To begin, I lay out all the tools we'll need for making our dinner: pots, bowls, salad spinner, mixing spoons, a spatula, measuring cups, cutting board, and knife (for my hands only). Quinoa is as easy to make as rice, so I let Jack measure out the grain and water, and I put it up on the stove to cook. Jack may be old enough and have the motor skills to not need my help with measuring cups, but he's still too young to be in charge of flammables. Then together we open a can of black beans, pour them into a saucepan, and heat them up. With my supervision, Jack places a tortilla in a heated cast-iron pan, spoons some quinoa onto half of the tortilla, adds black beans over that, tops it with cheddar cheese I'd grated earlier in the week, and folds over the tortilla. Jack watches the cheese melt and the tortillas crisp up until...voilà! We have our main course.

Meanwhile, Matthew washes and fero-ciously spins the greens. I tell him to dump them into the salad bowl, and he does exactly that. He dumps everything—salad, spinner, water, and all.

We both stare at the mess, burst out laughing, and then I explain more precisely what I meant for him to do with the salad. "Ohhh, now I get it," Matthew says, and he repeats the process—this time with success.

Trial and error. Order and chaos. Failure and success. The kitchen is a place where all sorts of life lessons can be learned.

"When kids do their own cooking, they begin to develop a relationship with food," says Mollie Katzen, author of the children's cookbook trilogy LPretend Soup, Honest Pretzels, and Salad People. "Cooking becomes a portal into a world where food becomes more real, and parents and kids bond."

As a mom, I can attest to that. When Jack and Matthew saw the results of their handiwork, they were thrilled and proud. So was I. When children know how to cook and recognize that a meal takes time and care to prepare, a foundation is laid for a lifetime of healthful eating. Developing an appreciation for healthful meals early on is important in forming a positive relationship with food that will always hold your kids in good stead.

When children become accustomed to a diet high in fats and sugar, for example, a pattern is then set. It may not come as a surprise that dietary likes, dislikes, and patterns that take shape during childhood continue to affect eating habits well into adulthood.

Fortunately, good nutrition is fairly simple to incorporate into a child's diet. David Ludwig, associate professor of pediatrics and director of the Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) clinic at Children's Hospital Boston, recommends that kids eat "grains in their least processed state; an abundance of vegetables, beans, and fruits; and a lean protein at most meals."

He suggests incorporating healthful fats, such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados, and cautions against consuming partially hydrogenated fats (or trans fats) present in the fast food and brightly packaged insta-meals that often catch children's eyes in grocery stores. And finally, he encourages kids "to limit concentrated sweets to occasional treats and completely eliminate sugar-sweetened drinks."

Healthy and Fun

Following these guidelines is easier than it sounds. Does your daughter want French toast? Make it with hearty whole-grain bread instead of white bread, and top it with fresh fruit. Instead of that plain cheese sandwich for lunch, add some avocado and cucumbers. And pasta? No problem. Try whole-grain bowties and scatter sautéed broccoli, zucchini, or mushrooms on top. In other words, get a little creative and turn typical kid-friendly food into dishes with higher nutritional value.

Children are also more likely to eat these ramped-up dishes if they've helped make them. Case in point: our dinner. Matthew has the reputation of being a picky eater when compared with his twin brother. Like many kids, Matthew doesn't like his food mixed together. For example, the carrots can go next to the pasta—just not on it. But the night we made dinner together, he loved getting into the vegetables with his bare (yet clean) hands to assemble what he later dubbed "Matthew's Salad." After I chopped the pears, Matthew scattered them over the greens, added some dried cranberries, and mixed it all up with a homemade vinaigrette. He ate it all, I'm convinced, because he had fun as he created the salad. That's right: I let him play with his food—before it got to the dinner table anyway.

A Generation Thing

Only in 2007 does cooking with your children seem a radical notion. In our grandparents' time, food was made from scratch, and the kids helped. "In the last few decades, the wisdom passed down through generations has been interrupted," says Ludwig. "Instead of parents teaching their kids to eat natural whole foods, children now learn what to eat from TV food ads, product placement in movies and popular sports, and entertainment figures hawking junk food...Kids need clear, firm guidelines, given lovingly."

Indeed. I cook with my kids and teach them about nutrition for a simple reason: I want them to grow up healthy. And if you eat healthfully, so will your children. Serve them what you're having, and they will learn to eat a wide variety of foods. My sons will be eating every day for the rest of their lives. Showing them how to make good food equips these future adults to make wise food decisions long after I'm around to harass them.

After all, nourishment comes in many forms. A meal is one example. Cooking with your kids and creating lasting food memories is another.

Dayna Macy, a writer and musician is the communications director of Yoga Journal.