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Some of my favorite memories throughout my children's early years were when we all cooked together. The food usually turned out pretty good, sometimes not so tasty but always a lot of fun! At times, we made more of a mess than a meal but it was all part of learning, since cooking helps children learn education basics.
Family and Consumer Science Extension Agent Sheila Gains, my co-worker in Arapahoe County, says math, science and reading skills are enhanced when children learn and practice how to weigh, measure, multiply, divide and follow recipe directions. Cooking is science, involving mixing acids and bases to create a chemical reaction, as in making pancakes or muffins.
Cooking together provides quality time to chat about all kinds of topics. To ensure an enjoyable experience, parents need to relax and overlook spills - so don't expect perfection, but instead value the process of preparing food more than the end product. Creating something yummy that can be shared with others also helps children develop confidence and self-esteem.
Cooking family recipes is a great opportunity to talk about traditions and culture. My mother taught me and my three sisters how to home-preserve food we grew in our garden for the cold winter months. It's a tradition that I passed on to my three youngsters. My favorite memory was when we cut produce to make pickled veggies. The kids love them, so we decided to mix up a batch.
We went hog-wild, as some say. There were string beans, broccoli and cauliflower flowerets, pearl onions, spicy garlic, colorful carrots and small, green tomatoes. The kitchen safety practices, measuring and cutting the produce to a consistent size, mixing the liquid to make our goodies taste like pickles was a wonderful experience. What a great winter we had eating those beautifully colored and crispy treats.
What we learned in safe food preparation skills (like washing your hands) has served my children, and countless 4-H members, well into adulthood and can be passed down to their children. The act of cooking provides a natural opportunity to discuss nutrition topics such as portion sizes, vitamins and other nutrients in foods, too.
Some fun, easy, safe and yummy items to cook together include vegetable soup, quesadillas, grilled cheese sandwiches, baked meatballs, pancakes, French toast and scrambled eggs.
Some no-cook food ideas include sandwiches, wraps and rollups; fruit kabobs or salad; trail/snack mix; yogurt and fruit parfait and fruit smoothies. These make perfect "after-school" snacks.
One thing to remember - parents set the tone as to whether the kitchen experience is a positive one. Children usually enjoy cooking and helping in the kitchen, as long as adults relax and let children get a little messy. Don't expect perfection. Who said pancakes or meatballs have to be round? Or that sometimes biscuits should be used as door stops, not for biscuits and gravy!
Give children clear instructions, show them how it is done and let them practice by doing. While keeping safety in mind, let children complete age appropriate jobs. Laugh when things go a bit crazy, wear a flour beard with pride, and sit back to enjoy what's going on. Cooking with children is a great activity to develop relationships, build child self-confidence, learn math skills and more!
Elbert County Extension is a cooperative effort between CSU Extension and Elbert County government. Sheila G. Kelley is the Colorado State University extension director for Elbert County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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