I'll never forget the day I went to pick up my daughter from the baby sitter's and found her standing at the kitchen table with Marilyn's five other charges, covered blonde-tip to sneakered-toe in flour. "Look, Momma! Look what I made!" Emily couldn't wait to show me the puffy, bread-dough Teddy she'd already partially eaten.
The other kids, equally floury and equally proud, showed me turtles, bunnies, dinosaurs and other creatures I couldn't identify. How was it possible? How did one smiling, calm woman and five kids in a simple home kitchen add up to a baking adventure that actually produced edible food, pride in accomplishment and happy kids?
Marilyn knew what I had yet to learn: If you start small and stick with it, cooking with kids in the kitchen builds to something better and better.
"A lot of this generation's moms missed learning to be comfortable in the kitchen from their own moms, because those moms had joined the work force" says Dominica Catelli, chef, cookbook author and high-profile personality behind Mom-a-licious (www.bemomalicious.com). "What I've spent a lot of the last 14 years trying to do is to give today's moms the tips and tools that empower them to get in the kitchen more and to get in the kitchen more with kids."
Catelli's "step one" on cooking with kids?
"It's not an all-or-nothing thing! A lot of moms feel like if they can't be in the kitchen for hours with their kids making something complicated, they shouldn't even try at all."
Instead, says Catelli, "Start small and things will gradually fall into place. With even five minutes in the kitchen you can make a smoothie with your kids, make blender salad dressing, show them how to stir something. You'll be amazed at what you can accomplish in a very small amount of time."
Small increments do add up. Each kitchen task builds confidence and helps get both moms and kids hooked on cooking together.
Even though the temptation when cooking with kids is to focus on sweets, or something out of a box because it seems easier, Catelli says, avoid it: "Kids will get as much enjoyment out of prepping fresh vegetables and fruits. So why not make something bright, colorful and healthy together right from the start?"
There are things you can do to simplify and enhance the cooking-with-kids experience. Choose recipes you know by heart, or "forgiving" recipes that you and your kids can fudge or fiddle with and still get good results (such as vegetable soup or chef's salads). Or choose dishes that require no real recipe at all. Sandwich, taco, burrito, nacho or baked potato "bars" are prime examples.
Catelli says her family has done theme nights for years. "Soup night, pasta night, taco night. ... With dishes like these, there's no limit to what ingredients you can use for each theme, so it doesn't get boring," she says. And whatever theme you choose, doing it at least once a week can become the cooking-with-kids occasion everybody looks forward to.
When tackling a more difficult recipe with more than one child, Marilyn Raffensperger, a mom and longtime child-care provider, says assigning each kid a task so everybody works together as a team, in sequence, is a good idea. "That way, everybody knows they're going to get a turn, and you can arrange it so that on the more challenging tasks, it's the adult's turn," she says.
Marilyn's other tips?
Also helpful in lowering parental stress levels and building success:
Try to become more comfortable with delegating some of the kitchen control as the kids gain skills. The days you cook with the kids, start earlier and allow extra time so you're not tempted to step in and do the job for them. As kids progress in their skill levels, don't be afraid to let them take on more and bigger (albeit, still supervised) challenges.
But what if a dish doesn't turn out? "There is still room for fun. All chefs have failures," says Raffensperger.
Preparing for those inevitable bloopers, it's also good to have a backup plan, says Catelli.
Remember that even "failures" can actually be successes. Olivia and Isabella Gerasole, the sisters behind www.spatulatta.com, a kids-cooking website based in Evanston, say they both remember being given the chance to cook something of their own design. "From the time I was really little I'd been in the kitchen watching my dad make pasta and helping him with some of it," says Isabella. "But one night when I was 8 or 9, dad called and said it was up to me to make the dinner that night. He said I could put three vegetables of my choice in the pasta sauce." Isabella remembers choosing broccoli and two other vegetables, "which, combined, didn't taste too good." But it didn't matter. Says Isabella: "I was so excited that he entrusted me to do it and that I had prepared the sauce myself, that's what mattered."
In addition to building confidence, cooking with kids is bonding.
"You are there together. You are talking. You are laughing," says Catelli. "Was the bread you baked together the best ever? Probably not, but 30 years later, when your kids catch a whiff of the scent of fresh baked bread, you can bet that aroma will bring them right back, saying: 'Hey! Remember that time we were all in the kitchen and we made that bread?'"
See more of Monica's stories here.