Friday, May 3, 2024

Rookie Mama: Kids in the kitchen, a culinary crusade

By Michelle Cote

What’s cookin’?

As parents, we take deep breaths and attempt to teach those life skills as thoroughly and as best as we can in the fleeting childhood years that blur on by faster than my youngest kiddos can zip around my kitchen island on their Big Wheels wearing grooves in wooden floors that have, for the past decade plus, really become a race track – one occasionally covered in flour.

Of my four little guys, the two littlest have been most fascinated by the idea of cooking, baking, getting hands messy like I get to do while creating something to soon fill bellies.

When they see me pull out pizza doughs, and flour my countertop, they recognize the cue.

The boys pull up big, wooden dining chairs to the counter, sidling up to participate, side by side with me and ready for action.

When this amusing trend first emerged, I was hesitant. Taking time to teach anyone anything any time while trying to complete a task – markedly anyone fewer than 6 years old – is in itself an intense exercise in patience.

And, after a full day’s work as I transition to dinner prep mode, that virtue bandwidth is much depleted.

But I quickly remember that children – young children notably – are darn curious types. When my husband and I mill about outside gardening or immersed yard work, our littlest ones are natural and intentional botanists, wishing to assist as they ask all the questions.

It’s become the same indoors. If I don’t foster their desire to participate while curiosity’s piqued, it will take all the more time to sell them on the idea of sharpening culinary skills later in life.

So, I keep calm and cook on, taking these opportunities to spark culinary excitement as we stretch and flip dough, spooning sauce and doling mozzarella.

Did I mention pizza’s the thing?

This meal’s my favorite to make with my little mini-me assistants.

Pizza’s relatively inexpensive – For the cost of a couple of dough balls, shredded cheese, sauce and toppings of choice, you’ve got yourself the easy makings of a delicious dish.

Accordingly, it’s a weekly meal staple.

Pizza’s also versatile – Really, most anything goes. There are countless options for meat lovers, vegetarians, gluten-free diners, and appreciators of most any dietary need. My crew really doesn’t tire with it, because there are so many ways to cook it up – Homemade pesto to sub for red sauce is also a favorite, and budget-friendly.

Pizzas are easy to make – 450 degrees for 12-ish minutes in your preheated oven, then slice and enjoy the divine goodness. And because the only slicing comes from the pizza cutter, it’s also relatively safe to make with little guys. And they know the oven is off limits to them – for now.

But most of all, pizza’s palatable to universally most kiddos, even the pickiest of the mac-and-cheese-and-chicken-nuggets-only crowd.

Pizza’s a fantastic dish to get your kids to eat their veggies, which balances beautifully with the pepperoni.

Perhaps the pepperoni is what truly incentivizes.

Not to mention that with pizza often comes homemade fries, and sometimes tater tots for my tots.

With or without my mini-assistants, I’m already making a mess in the kitchen, anyway.

So the potential for kids contributing to cuisine disorder is really moot –there will be pizza pans to scrub and flour to wipe down with or without my helpers.

And I accept that they’re sneaking pepperoni bites as they layer toppings with their cherubim grins as though I’m not fully aware of their antics.

They still don’t believe that mamas have eyes behind their head.

But more top of mind than toppings is that all this is borne of a desire to teach a life skill.

I want them to impress future dates with a homemade meal and know I played a hand in those learned lessons, just as I taught them to brush their teeth and wash their hands.

I want them to love preparing food as much as eating it.

But I also want to prepare them for the reality that they’ll one day need this skill for when they’re living solo – or with someone who perhaps doesn’t know tablespoons from turmeric.

I hope for them to carry on the handing down of beloved generational recipes stained, cinnamon-seasoned, and cursive-written.

I hope they’ll devour our own family recipes we’ve collected in a binder through the years, and one day perhaps understand why Mama made so many slow cooker meals during sports seasons. Soccer season is time to crock ‘n roll, after all.

So as you continue to nurture your little ones with food, feed them too with a desire to prepare it – a desire that will last a lifetime, seasoned with warm memories.

You can’t go wrong with pepperoni.

And if you’re lucky, tater tots on the side. <

­­– Michelle Cote lives in southern Maine with her husband and four sons, and enjoys camping, distance running, biking, gardening, road trips to new regions, arts and crafts, soccer, and singing to musical showtunes – often several or more at the same time!

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