My daughter will never let me forget the time I handed her a too-sharp knife at age four with which she promptly cut herself slicing cookie dough. After that, despite all efforts to engage my kids in cooking projects, I’ve still been over-protective about letting them handle sharp objects or touch a hot pot. We have an oven that releases a mascara-melting blast of heat every time you open a door, a wide variety of fun tools that can easily remove layers of skin without proper use, and a mixer that can create flour-storms at the lightest of touches. So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to host not just one, but two scout groups in my kitchen last weekend to help them on their way toward earning beads and badges.
The Cub Scouts that joined me on Friday afternoon were from my son’s den, so I knew my audience. Plus I had a parent helper who brought another level of control to the project. This group of 3rd graders had several easy tasks – cookies, a couple of den snacks, and talking about healthy food choices and I was delighted by their enthusiasm to get underway. Cookies are a great motivator to get kids engaged in the kitchen, especially if they come with the promise of eating them afterward. So, setting aside my reluctance, I pulled out the big mixer and shared cautionary tales before we started measuring and dumping in ingredients. A lot of flour made it onto the floor and counter, but that’s par for the course, even with me. In the end, we had a great chocolate chip cookie dough (without nuts in deference to one nut allergy) that we spread into a large baking sheet (lesson to boys — you can make 48 cookies in one fell swoop this way instead of creating individual cookies that require more time). And the best part is — everyone got a turn doing something they wanted to do, even if it meant turning the mixer on and off eight times.
On we moved to a couple of classic snacks: Ants on a Log, Cheese and Crackers and Orange Slices. Given the nut-allergic cub present, the boys stuffed their celery with either peanut butter or cream cheese and ventured beyond the traditional raisin toppings to dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, honey almond slices and chocolate chips. (lesson to parents — your kids will eat celery if nicely tricked out even if they say they don’t like it). The cheese and crackers might have seemed like a cop-out, but I wanted to judge (and teach) kitchen knife skills as this group is working toward their Whittling Chips and eventual pocketknife ownership. They took to instruction well, learning to leverage the blade for a smooth cut before we moved on to the oranges, a larger knife and some serious safety considerations. Holding a kitchen knife and the food you are cutting properly is essential in the kitchen — one I teach in my adult classes and one that always amazes students because it really does elevate your prep to a new level. These boys rocked when they got it right and we had gorgeous orange slices quite professionally trimmed up. They were terribly pleased with themselves, as they should have been, for creating appealing, healthy foods that they could then be trusted to make at home.
The following Saturday I had been asked by a neighbor if I would be willing to work with her Junior Girl Scout troop on some of their cooking requirements for a badge. Ambitiously, I told if she gave me two hours, we could knock out all the requirements and it was game on! Eight young 5th grade ladies, most of whom had some cooking experience, knocked out a sheet of dark chocolate almond bark – a super fun, easy recipe that can be made in under 15 minutes. We moved on to a four-ingredient squash soup, that simmered while we whipped up three tasty breakfasts – yogurt parfaits, mini egg bagels and a blueberry banana smoothie with hidden spinach. The latter elicited cries of concern until they tasted it and agreed that the bananas and blueberries (and pineapple, and almond butter) masked any spinach flavor. They were hooked.
Our final dish was flatbread pizzas, a version of what my family and I had made over the campfire last summer. The girls mixed together the uncooked sauce and topped it with shredded rotisserie chicken and leftover roasted peppers from my refrigerator, along with cheese. Ten minutes in the oven and there was not a crumb left. Despite the periodic statements of “I don’t like xxxx,” not one girl left without finishing everything she had made. Plus they were very inquisitive about what alternations and modifications they could make to the recipes I sent them home with. Future chefs indeed.
The weekend was proof positive that when you engage your kids in cooking they are more likely to try what they make. One of my Cub Scouts proclaimed he didn’t like cheese but “tried” four pieces on crackers. One Girl Scout insisted she would not eat the roasted peppers but consumed as many pieces of pizza with them as without. My favorite? The young lady who told me as she was leaving that the squash soup was “reeeaaaallly gooood!” Lesson to me – give a little more free reign in the kitchen when kids want to cook and you’ll be very gratified with the results.
PS. I let my kids make their own homemade macaroni and cheese that same night. It was awesome and they were very proud of themselves.