As the weather gets colder and activities move inside, it is a great time to refocus on family meals and cooking with your children. We are all familiar with the statistics that demonstrate that families who share meals together on a regular basis result in better adjusted children who are less likely to get in trouble in school and engage in underage drinking and smoking. Additionally, these figures show that these children are also physically and emotionally healthier. There is little argument from most parents that family meals and shared experiences are a positive thing, but how can you realistically incorporate these activities into your busy life?
Bring Your Child Into the Kitchen
The enormous popularity of Food Network and national shows like "Top Chef" and "Cake Boss" have elevated cooking and baking from drudgery to fun. Who knew that millions of Americans would sit down for hours to watch people compete over making a perfect spaghetti sauce? You can bring some of this excitement into your kitchen by watching one of these television shows with your child so that they can see just how much fun cooking can be. One suggestion is the "Rachael Ray Show" (WHAM 13 in Rochester) because Chef Rachael Ray is upbeat, G-rated, and her recipes and techniques are geared toward the everyday cook rather than a restaurant chef. Your child may not want to sit through an entire episode, but they will see that cooking has taken on celebrity status. Rachael Ray has a website – www.rachaelrayshow.com – and a wonderful kids' cookbook, Cooking Rocks: Rachael Ray 30-Minute Meals for Kids, which can be purchased on Amazon or at any local bookstore.
MAKE IT FUN. Depending on the age of your child, you might want to add some props to your kitchen experience, such as aprons or even chef hats. Younger children especially, may enjoy dressing up. The most important thing to remember is that safety comes first, so make sure that whatever utensils or tools you use, they are age and skill-level appropriate. When it comes time to use the stove or oven, never leave your child unattended since pots can easily boil over and other accidents can happen quickly. If there are parts of the preparation that call for a task that uses sharp objects, you can handle the bulk of that chore, but let your child try it with a duller blade until he or she is more skilled. Mixing, measuring and pouring are excellent activities for younger kids, so there will still be plenty for them to do.
GET STARTED. Pre-select a recipe that is geared toward your child's age and something that he or she will want to eat. It's no fun to work in the kitchen and not be rewarded at the end with a warm cookie or a yummy bowl of soup! Start with recipes that are also familiar to you – such as your child's favorite dish – so that you can concentrate more on time with your son or daughter rather than the steps necessary for preparation. Choose a time to cook together when you won't be rushed. You don't want the initial experience ruined by the fact that you only have a half hour before you need to get to soccer practice. An easy and fun way to start may be to set aside time on a weekend morning when schedules are sometimes more flexible and you can make breakfast, which tends to be less complicated. When the meal is ready to serve, the entire family can join in and enjoy time together.
Extend the Learning Beyond Cooking
Cooking together not only enables you to spend relaxing time with your child, but it can also give you an opportunity to sneak in some learning. Parents often look for ways to learn together since homework can often involve a computer and does not lend itself to interactive conversation. One of the easiest ways to do this is to practice math while measuring ingredients. For small children, this can be as simple as counting the numbers of cups that are being added to a recipe or the number of times that the child needs to stir the batter. For older kids, you can talk about fractions such as asking, "if this recipe calls for a cup, how many quarter cups would we need to use?" The website www.kidscooking-activities.com has an excellent section on children's books which have a food theme or cookbooks Based on famous children's literature. You and your child could read If You Give a Mouse a Muffin before making muffins for breakfast, or select a recipe from the Wizard of Oz or Anne of Green Gables Cookbook.Food and mealtime are a part of every culture, so take this opportunity to make a themed ethnic meal and share some information with your child about that culture. For example, you could make Won Ton soup and talk about China or lasagna and chat about Italy. Since every family has its own traditions around certain holidays and celebrations, this is one of the best ways to learn something new, spend time as a family, and enjoy healthy food. Think about your own family traditions and foods that your children love to eat for a holiday. Two of the first celebrations that come to mind are Thanksgiving – which is all about the food – and birthdays. Maybe you can bake a birthday cake together for every member of your family on their special day or involve your kids in making simple snacks like a healthy trail mix to keep everyone happy while they wait for the turkey dinner.
Increase Family Time
Schedule time each week to cook and eat together just like you schedule all of your other activities. If it's not on the calendar, it won't get done. Keep in mind that you may not always have time for cooking and family mealtime on the same night, so when you cook consider making enough to freeze for another dinner. That way, you can look forward to a future night when the focus is solely on spending time talking around the table. Parents may also consider making a meal as a family with each member taking a different chore. The work will get done sooner and more people can be involved in the process. The youngest children can set the table perform other simple tasks while the older children and adults can handle the actual food preparation.Other ways to increase family time are to extend the meal preparation to getting the ingredients. Try to carve out time to go to the grocery store or a farm stand to pick your own vegetables and fruits. The Rochester Public Market (which was named the Favorite Farmer's Market in the country in 2010) is open 52 weeks a year on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 am-1 pm and Saturdays from 5:00 am-3:00 pm. The Market is located at 280 North Union Street just a few blocks from East Main Street in Rochester.Although it might be difficult for you and your family to cook and eat together every day, making a date to do this as often as possible will improve your physical and mental health and keep the lines of communication open in your house.
WHERE TO GET STARTED LOCALLY:
You and your child can try a local cooking school to get you started on the road to culinary success! You can register for cooking programs at Wegmans and Tops Markets to increase your kitchen confidence or just try something new and different.Tops Cooking School at www.topsmarkets.com has a calendar of programs to choose from and classes are given at the Mt. Read Boulevard store.
Karen Higman is a contributing writer to Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. She is a fund-raising consultant for non-profit organizations who lives in the Rochester, NY area.