One mom who sees it that way is Ashley Hansen, who was among parents who shared with me tales of cooking with kids.
Hansen, who owns Hansen’s Sno-Bliz snowball stand in New Orleans, admits she is a bit of a Pollyanna when it comes to cooking with her daughter Avery, 8, and son Gordon, 10.
“I always seem to go for this Mary Poppins aspect,” she said. “Let’s make this fun.”
And, snap, the job’s a game – literally.
“We have cooking contests with smoothies, small salads, grilled cheese, cookies. Everyone is encouraged to add a ‘secret ingredient,’” Hansen said, explaining that the idea for the game grew out of family members having their own ideas of how a cookie or smoothie should taste.
“So, I was like, let’s all put in our own special ingredient. They loved the idea of a secret ingredient that would not be revealed until the end.”
Hansen doesn’t leave everything to chance. Some contest ideas are born out of what she finds in her refrigerator or if she over-buys a fruit or vegetable.
“It’s important to lead them. I try to plant seeds and see who picks up what. Look, I have this Tupperware of roasted nuts. Look, I have bananas.”
The family loves crepes. Avery filled one with shredded cheddar and fresh dill. “She won that round,” Hansen said.
Gordon took home the trophy one day with his yogurt smoothie blended with rosemary and blood orange. “Avery and I looked at each other and said, ‘Gordy, this is so good.’”
A salad contest one night ended in another victory for Gordon – and for his mother. The boy made the winning combination of kale and watermelon.
“Ever since then he’s been eating all of his salads,” Hansen said. “He loves salads now.”
“It is a curiosity that kids have about how foods taste together, experimenting with things,” she said. “It’s also about making magic happen, like Harry Potter coming up with potions.”
Parents are remarkably clever sometimes. One dad told me he signed up for one of those meal-in-a-box delivery services, and now his son waits for the package like it’s a present and can’t wait to get into the kitchen to make whatever is inside.
After listening to lots of parents, I saw a few recurring themes:
Let kids do it their way. As one father told me: “For the cupcakes, she likes to split them and frost between the halves. ‘It’s less messy, Dad. The frosting doesn’t get on your fingers.’ I mean the frosting and crumbs do get everywhere to accomplish this, but the eating part? Okay, it is less messy.”
Pull out the gadgets. “My 4-year-old loves using the tools — stand mixer [cake and frosting], plastic knife [cutting boiled eggs and raw mushrooms], rolling pin [pizza dough], tongs [heating tortillas on gas stove], blender [making smoothies] and immersion blender [mayonnaise],” said one mom.
Go hands-on. Think shaping meatballs, cutting out cookies, “smashing” potatoes or rolling up wraps. “My 2 1/2-year-old is a whiz at scrambled eggs; he loves to crack eggs.” (Most kids seem to like eggs “scrumbled,” as one 6-year-old puts it.)
Of course, it doesn’t always go well. One mom explained how the first time she made brownies with her son, they had a blast until … “He had an absolute meltdown when I put them in the oven. He had been licking the spatula and I think he thought I had gotten rid of his treats. He was maybe 18 to 24 months. Full on-the-ground crying while they baked.”
Is it worth the trouble of sticky fingers, tantrums and messy kitchens?
I can’t say from first-hand experience, but one mother told me: “My kids and I have always cooked together, making chicken Parmesan, pad Thai, fish with macque choux and more since they were 4 and 5 years old. … Now that my kids are [in their] 20s, they’re cooking all of the recipes we used to make together, at their apartments in college. When they come home from school, they bring recipes from their roommates with them, that we all make together. So it’s sort of come full circle!”
Hansen’s secret-ingredient contest idea sparked me to incorporate it into pizza — the single dish that came up over and over again among parents.
The idea: Make an easy muffin-tin pizza, using homemade or store-bought dough and marinara. Line the muffin tins with dough, put a little mozzarella in the bottom, layer on a teaspoon of marinara, and then let everyone take it from there. Hide the ingredients with another spoonful of marinara and a sprinkle of cheese.
You could make them and then let the kids taste and identify them. Or let the kids hide ingredients and have other family members taste, identify them and vote for a winner.
I played the game with my husband at home, and even this slightly beyond middle-age guy enjoyed it.
Muffin Tin Deep-Dish Pepperoni Pizza
Make your crust and marinara and then let the kids build the pizza they love.
Vegetable oil or cooking spray, for greasing the muffin tin
All-purpose flour, for dusting the counter and your hands
1 pound pizza dough, store-bought or homemade
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese
1 cup marinara sauce, store-bought or homemade
1/4 cup (about 1 ounce) chopped red bell pepper
1/4 cup (10 to 12 olives) chopped pitted kalamata olives (optional)
48 mini pepperoni slices (about 1 ounce), (may substitute chopped salami or crumbled cooked sausage)
1/2 cup (1 3/4 ounces) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Fresh basil leaves (optional)
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a 12-cup muffin tin, or coat it with nonstick spray.
Lightly dust a clean, dry surface with flour, then roll out the pizza dough to about 16-by-12 inches and about 1/4-inch thick. Cut the dough into 12 equal 4-inch squares.
Place a square of dough in each muffin cup, and press it into the bottom and up the sides so it reaches the top of the muffin tin. Lightly flour your hands if the dough sticks to your fingers. The dough may shrink back down into the cup. If it does, work it back up the side of the tin as you add the toppings.
Inside each cup, layer about 1 tablespoon mozzarella cheese and 1 teaspoon sauce. Evenly distribute the bell pepper and olives, if using, among the cups, followed by 4 pieces of mini pepperoni. Top the meat with a scant 1 tablespoon sauce, so it covers the filling. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese, dividing it evenly among the cups.
Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the crust is brown and the cheese is bubbling.
Remove from the oven and top with fresh basil, if using. Let cool for at least 3 minutes before removing the pizzas from the muffin tins to serve.