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Cookin' With Kids

One of the best ways to rear up an adult who has good eating habits is to start young. And one of the best ways to do that is to introduce children to the joy that is cooking. To that end, Southern Oregon has a variety of culinary classes for kids ages 5 to 15.

While the classes vary in focus and format, they all have the same goals: To teach children some basic kitchen skills and to give them a head start on the path toward healthy eating habits. And if they gain a couple cups of confidence along the way, all the better.

"It's a great confidence builder for kids. They learn how to work with a knife, they see that they're empowered to actually make their own meals, they share with other kids and see how fun that can be," says Mary Shaw, education coordinator at the Ashland Food Co-op, which offers two weeklong gardening and cooking classes. "Without it being a nutrition class, they learn about the value of eating local, fresh, whole foods — and how tasty they are."

Children in the co-op classes divide their time between the garden and the kitchen.

At Oregon Health Management services, kids can find specially themed cooking classes once a month. May, for example, could be creating a meal for Mom, while June is breakfast for Dad.

"Students gain self-assurance in the kitchen and a positive attitude about cooking," says Barbara Paulson, who teaches culinary skills to 5- to 12-year-olds at OHMS. "They know about nutrition and its relation to health. They appreciate being able to feed themselves on a budget. They know what foods to eat to stay healthy."

Like at the co-op, the kids' cooking program at The Willows is a weeklong camp where students ages 8 to 15 spend six hours a day exploring the school's gardens, picking herbs, prepping meals and, of course, cooking. The intensive group coursework covers subjects such as knife skills and safety; correct use of kitchen gadgets; measuring; recipe substitutions and refining; table manners, setting and service; basic kitchen skills including breading, browning, searing, dicing, making roux and a vinaigrette; segmenting citrus; tempering; de-boning; baking, sautéing; gluten and non-gluten foods, and food allergies; reading food labels; and safety guidelines for cooking, refrigeration and storage.

But according to the school's owner, Mary Dowling, culinary education for children goes much deeper than simply the act of cooking.

"It shows them a practical application of math, science, nature, all put together," she says. "Maybe an 8-year-old doesn't know what a quarter of a cup is, but when we dice an apple and cut it into four pieces and hand him a quarter of the apple, then he's learning fractions. It's a practical application of what they only theoretically learn in classroom, and it makes all of those subjects much more interesting. And tasty!"

One of the best outcomes of culinary training for children is that after the classes end, families come together around meal planning, preparation and cleanup. It supports the work done in the classes, and helps to keep children interested.

To keep them involved, be sure to talk to them, ask lots of questions and answer any they might have. Looking at the components of a recipe and asking them to come up with substitutions or additions based on family preferences goes a long way toward making them feel involved. Investing in cookbooks for kids, doing research with them online, and involving them in grocery planning and shopping are helpful, as well. And if you can grow something with them, by all means, do it!

"No carrot ever tastes as good as the one you planted," Dowling says.

Shaw adds that's it's really a win-win. Children build confidence and learn some basic kitchen skills, and, "If the parents are open to having their very own little gourmet chef in the kitchen, well, that's not a bad thing."

Cookin' With Kids