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Playing With Your Food
By Pamela White

Get ready for some messy fun. It's time to relinquish the kitchen controls and hand them over to...your preschoolers.

Pretty scary, isn't it? Why should any sane parent cook with preschoolers?

There are loads of great reasons:

  • Boosts self-esteem: Children take the lead; grown-ups are helpers. What a kick for your wee ones to be the bosses.
  • Develops small motor skills: Holding (dull) knives, stirring, measuring -- all of these improve coordination.
  • Encourages self-control: In order to make a dish, no matter how simple, your child will need to follow the steps to the finished product.
  • Teaches math skills: One-half cup of milk plus one-half cup of water equals how much liquid? Use cooking time to discuss fractions and practice counting (Four pieces of cantaloupe, two slices of apples and seven grapes equal fruit salad!).
  • Nurtures creativity: What would be good in a fruit salad? Let's decorate the pizza with a face or flowers made from cut-up vegetables.
  • Promotes good eating habits: As a bonus, your children will even try new and healthy foods they've prepared "all by themselves."

Now you know why to cook with preschoolers; let's look at how to do it.

Whether you want to cook one on one, or as part of a playgroup or nursery school program, there are several ways to make the process fun.

Most important, learn to love a mess. Milk will be spilled, sauces will slop over. Let your child enjoy his moment to shine and ignore the messes, unless you and he can wipe up with a smile on your faces and not lose momentum. Don't rush; your child will move at his own pace. Yes, you could do it more quickly yourself, but that's not what cooking with preschoolers is about.

Make it easy on everyone. Use a low table. It's not terribly safe to have small children stand on chairs to do their preparation; it's certainly dangerous to have them standing on a chair while cooking on the stove. Child-size tables and chairs and picnic tables are excellent for children to cook at. In school situations, just use the child-size tables the children do art projects on.

Avoid stove use by using an electric griddle that can be set up on the table, allowing your child to make pancakes or grilled sandwiches. Explain that adults need to handle hot pans from the oven and supervise when the griddle is being used. Food processors and blenders are also to be used only with close supervision. Teach children they are never to push the "on" buttons unless you are right there and small fingers must stay away from the sharp blades.

Do as much food preparation as is practical ahead of time by gathering flour, salt, sugar and doing any cutting or blanching. Make sure you have all the ingredients, measuring tools, and pots and pans needed. Preschoolers can cut fruit, bread, herbs and cheese with dinner knives, giving them more control over the food preparation. Small spoons can scoop out yogurt into measuring cups, making measuring more accessible. Vegetable peelers can peel potatoes for mashing and carrots for round golden sauteed slices.

After the hard work is done, accept being stuck with the clean-up. The children's focus will be on cooking and eating. Clean-up will hold less interest. Put on a happy face as you load up the sink; think of how your child tried zucchini for the first time or invented a muffin recipe.

Other tips: Use smocks or old shirts to save clothes; choose recipes that require action (mashing, mixing, pouring and measuring). Use pie pans underneath measuring cups so overflows can be quickly returned to their cartons. Remind children how important hygiene is when cooking; washing hands should be step one to cooking with preschoolers. Watch for spills on the floor; you don't want anyone to slip and fall.

When choosing recipes, look for those that involve kneading, breaking eggs, rolling or mashing.

Mashed potatoes are a fun and easy recipe. One caveat: Have them peel potatoes over a bowl or over a clean floor. Once, when making Thanksgiving dinner with kindergarteners, there were only one or two of the slippery potatoes that didn't have to be retrieved from the floor and under the bookcases. The children still relished the treat they'd made (potatoes were washed again before cooking).

Buy an electric juicer or use a hand juicer to make orange juice or lemon juice for lemonade.

Hot air popcorn poppers are worth their cost in entertainment value. Most have never seen popcorn as a seed, much less observed its transformation with heat.

Toast bread and have your preschooler spread the butter, watching it melt. Sprinkle on a mixture of cinnamon and sugar.

Give you child instant pudding, milk and an egg beater. Add a bowl of strawberries and whipped cream. Layer ingredients to create parfaits for a cool, no-cook treat.

Any child can make homemade butter with a cold jar and heavy cream. This is an especially fun task for groups of preschoolers as they take turns shaking the jar until the butter forms. A by-product of making butter this way is cool, tasty buttermilk for drinking.

Fruit or vegetable kabobs are fun to make: Cut fruit or vegetables into small bites and place on skewers. Ham and cheese cubes are another option to add onto the vegetable skewers.

What says "childhood" more than peanut butter? Peanut butter, mixed with confectioners sugar to cut down the stickiness, is as fun to handle as play dough. Have your child roll it between his palms into a golf ball-sized treat. Finish it by rolling the ball in chopped nuts, cocoa powder or coconut shreds.

Toast English muffins as substitute pizza crusts. Let your child spoon on tomato sauce, then sprinkle grated cheese on top. Use previously cut-up olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and sliced bell peppers to make faces on top of the cheese. No cooking necessary.

Ready to get started? Wipe off the children's table, stock up on fruit, cheese and crackers, plug in the griddle and invite the preschoolers into your, I mean their, kitchen. Bon appetit!



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