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Kids in the kitchen: Cooking away summer doldrums

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Blanche Shaheen/Special to the Town Crier
Kids can build confidence in the kitchen by taking a cooking class, visiting the farmers’ market or doing simple tasks at home.

As we approach summer, many parents wonder how they are going to keep their children engaged in productive yet fun activities, especially with the uncertainty of day camp opportunities this year. Parents: Don’t overlook that this is a prime time for your kids to hone valuable skills like cooking.

Throughout the 20th century, home economics was a standard offering in most high schools, teaching students basic skills in cooking, nutrition and woodworking. With the turn of the century, such skills took a backseat to STEM-based classes to keep pace with technology. The current lack of prioritization of cooking skills is unfortunate, as the need to eat healthfully has remained constant no matter how quickly technology has progressed.

The benefits of learning to cook at a young age go far beyond the actual food on a plate. Cooking one’s own food ensures the meals will be more nutritious, without the excess sodium, sugar, trans fats and other processed ingredients found in ready-made and fast-food meals.

Cooking is also a creative outlet for experimentation, as well as a gateway to learning about other cultures. Time in the kitchen exposes children to new ingredients and builds confidence once they learn to master a variety of dishes.

The return on investment for parents is another benefit. As children become more independent, they can prepare simple meals such as scrambled eggs, salads and pasta for themselves. By age 12, they can help prepare dinner before parents get home from work. Their healthy habits and cooking skills will be extremely useful once they reach college. Not only will they be able to save money by cooking their own meals, but they also will avoid the weight gain many students experience from relying on fast foods and nutritionally deficient carbohydrates such as ramen and boxed macaroni
and cheese.

Here are some tips to encourage your child’s enthusiasm for cooking.

• Take children to the farmers’ market with you. Have them select fruits and vegetables that are familiar and unfamiliar. Encourage them to look up simple recipes that incorporate the new ingredients on websites or in cookbooks. This will expand your child’s palate and add a sense of adventure about trying new foods.

• Use children as your sous chef. As they start to become comfortable in the kitchen, assign them smaller tasks such as washing vegetables, cutting softer foods like mushrooms and zucchini, grating cheese, zesting a lemon or boiling pasta.

• Create a cooking station. Establish a dedicated spot, a “mise en place” – which is a just fancy phrase for a food-prep area. Have kids wash and chop fruits and vegetables, measure out spices and herbs, as well as assemble equipment they will need, such as spatulas, blenders or tongs.

• Teach children the art of setting the table. This encourages family togetherness and elevates the experience of at-home dining. Setting the table also teaches kids dinner etiquette, where to place utensils and how to use napkins appropriately.

•Teach children how to clean up. Have nontoxic cleaning products, compost buckets and sponges nearby so that your young helpers can clean as they go.

• Assign jobs to resistant children. Even if your children don’t want to cook, you can still involve them in the process by teaching them how to pick out the dishware and bowls, set the table, clean up or pick out recipes they want to try.

• Sign up for kids’ cooking classes or camps. There are several open throughout the Bay Area, including:
- Taste Buds Kitchen in San Jose, which offers thematic summer cooking classes and camps for children ages 4-13.
- Junior Chef Stars in Pacifica, which introduces students to the nutritional and cultural elements of the culinary arts with fun and intuitive lessons.
- Rainbow Chefs in Burlingame, which is dedicated to a safe and secure learning environment, as well as promoting nutritious eating.

Blanche Shaheen is a journalist, host of the YouTube cooking show “Feast in the Middle East," cookbook author and cooking teacher. For more information, visit FeastInTheMiddleEast.com.

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