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Kids in the kitchen

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Teaching kids to cook prepares them for a healthy life
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneSarah Lemon and her son Jasper slice vegetables while preparing dinner at home.
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneXavier stirs vegetables while helping prepare dinner at home.
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneSarah Lemon and her son Jasper read a cookbook while preparing dinner at home.

Christmas goose or pheasant? Gifts of homemade chocolate bark or gingerbread? And in between the season’s feasts, which healthful recipes will we make?

My kids recently have pondered these questions more seriously than they’ve speculated about their Christmas stockings’ contents or which toys Santa will leave under the tree. Shifting the holiday focus toward experiences together — including time spent in the kitchen — has been almost a year in the making, since my sons each received their first cookbooks.

Gifts from their grandma in 2020, the cookbooks didn’t make a huge initial impression on 5- and 7-year-old boys. But once I started including them in meal planning, budgeting and grocery shopping, my sons eagerly browse their cookbooks for the next dishes they’ll prepare and share with the family.

Such experiences are my antidote to checking off everything on the kids’ wish lists. And for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents, friends, neighbors and anyone worrying that “supply chain” snags and consumer shortages will derail their holiday giving, real-life activities with kids counter the season’s stress and uncertainty.

Plenty of fun can be had ice skating, hiking, planting flowers, seeing a play or concert, donating items to charity or any number of other pastimes that can hold kids’ attention for a few hours. Why cooking and baking? The process of choosing, purchasing and preparing real food arguably can have the biggest impact on kids’ long-term health and well-being.

With childhood obesity an American epidemic, there’s powerful motivation to model a framework of healthy habits upon which kids can build. A delicious meal, of course, is the reward for this exercise. But equally gratifying for my kids is taking center stage during family dinnertime to explain what they made and accept enthusiastic accolades.

The mood is a stark contrast to mealtime battles between parents and children. I’m sympathetic to these families’ plights but also puzzled that the concept of positive reinforcement isn’t more readily and regularly applied to food.

I recall a humorous chronicle of a father’s attempts to feed his four kids — ages 10 to 16 — without one of them complaining about the meal. The dad’s response — to retire from cooking — generated Internet buzz and was detailed in a 2019 Good Housekeeping article. Offering his kids DIY dinnertime cereal or sandwiches, the dad cooked only for him and his wife. In about two weeks, the kids asked for dinner, too.

Tough love certainly can compel kids’ gratitude and improve their attitudes. But this family — and many like them — could have avoided troubled mealtimes altogether by involving kids in the process and teaching basic techniques that can be practiced and refined into life skills. Don’t like what we’re having? You can choose — and cook — tomorrow night’s dinner.

Although it’s mildly stressful to shepherd kids through a grocery store and literally hold hands wielding knives and kitchen utensils, it’s much preferable to unrest around the dinner table. Tucking into their food, my kids aren’t sated just on reiterating its preparation. They also want to brainstorm their next culinary triumph.

After preparing a half-dozen recipes from “Kid Chef, The Foodie Kids’ Cookbook,” my older son is graduating to my cookbooks, requesting new foods and learning to stretch a roast chicken into potpie and soup. My boys each were responsible — with direction and supervision — for a dish contributed to the Thanksgiving menu.

And that Christmas goose? My older son is lobbying for a family feast straight out of “A Christmas Carol.”

So instead of weighing which passing trend will spark temporary joy, select a cookbook for the child in your life. Accompany it with a grocery store gift card. Then give your time to chaperone a youngster’s shopping, cooking and eating. This humble beginning could shape holidays for generations to come.

Try these recipes from my kids’ favorite cookbooks.

Winter White Bean Stew

3 cups dry white beans, such as navy, Great Northern, cannellini or a mixture

2 bay leaves

2 Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds or 2 small Parmesan wedges

1 head garlic

1 jalapeno

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 small onions, peeled and chopped

5 to 7 small carrots, chopped

3 celery stalks, chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 cup chicken stock or water

Crusty bread, for serving

In a bowl large enough for the dry beans to double in volume, soak beans in water to cover by at least 2 inches. Use more than one bowl if using more than one type of bean. After soaking for 6 hours or overnight, drain beans and rinse. Transfer to a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed stewpot. Rinse bowl and set aside.

Place stewpot over high heat and add enough water to cover beans by at least 2 inches. Add the bay leaves and cheese rinds; bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook beans on a low simmer for 45 minutes to an hour until tender.

While beans cook, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the top third off the head of garlic. Nestle it with the jalapeno in a sheet of aluminum foil and drizzle olive oil on top. Fold foil to seal and place in a small baking dish. Roast in preheated oven for as long as the beans take to cook, then remove and set aside to cool.

When beans are finished cooking, they will still look at little soupy. Pull out and discard cheese rinds. Carefully transfer beans and their liquid to soaking bowl. Season with the salt and pepper.

Return stewpot to medium heat and add the olive oil and onions. Saute, stirring occasionally. As onions become translucent, add the carrots and celery, along with the rosemary and pepper flakes. Saute, stirring occasionally, for 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

In a food processor, puree 2 cups cooked beans with the chicken stock or water. Remove and discard jalapeno stem and add chile to processor. Squeeze roasted garlic cloves from head into processor. Pulse to combine with beans.

Stir bean puree into stewpot, along with cooked, whole beans and any remaining liquid. Stir to combine and warm over medium-low heat to desired temperature. Taste and adjust seasoning. Ladle into wide bowls and serve with the crusty bread. Stew may be refrigerated for up to one week or frozen for 2 months.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Recipe from “Kid Chef, The Foodie Kids’ Cookbook,” by Melina Hammer (Sonoma Press; 2016).

Toasted Triple Cheese Sammies

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 cups grated cheddar cheese

1 cup grated mozzarella

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

8 slices of bread

Butter, for pan

In a medium bowl, use a fork to mash the cream cheese, cheddar and mozzarella with the onion and garlic powders. Season to taste with the salt and pepper.

Heat a skillet to medium. Spread a little butter on 2 sides of each of the bread slices, flip over and spread cheese mixture over other sides. Put bread slices together with cheese facing in and butter facing out. You should have 4 sammies.

Put one sammie in heated skillet. Cook 1 side until crispy and cheese is melting, flip and cook on second side. Remove from pan, set onto a plate and repeat with remaining sammies.

Delicious with tomato, veggie, bean or lentil soup. Makes 4 servings.

Recipe from “My Very First Cookbook: Joyful Recipes to Make Together,” by Danielle Kartes (Sourcebooks eXplore, 2020).

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.