Pediatric Feeding Expert Melanie Potock once wrote, “Consider that cooking, like music, drama, dance, and other forms of creative expression, is an art. Art is a form of play.” I witnessed this first-hand.
A few days ago, my five year-old daughter grabbed several things from our pantry and refrigerator and put them on our kitchen table. She had bread, sliced deli meat, mayonnaise, lettuce, and a knife. Carefully and intentionally she constructed several ham sandwiches, packaged them up, and took them outside where she had already placed her toy cash register and made a sign alerting us that Hannah’s restaurant was “opan” for lunch. She got to play, and I didn’t have to make food! It was fabulous.
As soon as they were able to sit at the table and stir with a spoon, my kids helped in the kitchen. They start with stirring, move to peeling or chopping with a kid safe knife, and eventually to using the stove and oven on their own. They have acquired skills for meal preparation that will serve them a lifetime, but they also have an extra opportunity to use all five of their senses, practice fine motor skills, arithmetic, and reading comprehension without those dreaded Q&A worksheets all while feeling like they are at play.
July 22 is International Macaroni and Cheese Day! (I asked Alexa and Google why this date was chosen, and I still have no idea.) If you have been hesitant to begin encouraging your children to participate in cooking, this is your formal invitation. Who doesn’t love mac and cheese? Here are some ideas to have fun with your kids in the kitchen with everyone’s favorite gooey, savory dish.
There is a boxed macaroni and cheese option for almost everyone. If the famous blue and orange one doesn’t work for you, there are easy to find options that are great for families with food allergies or other dietary concerns. There are delicious options that are organic, gluten-free, and even vegan.
Not sure where to start? There are some that just require you to boil the noodles, drain, and squeeze a packet. This style is perfect for a child’s first macaroni cooking session. There is no measuring and only a small chance for mess. They can pour the noodles in the water, squeeze the cheese into the cooked pasta, and stir! A more complicated box is great for early recipe reading and measuring practice. “What do we do next? Can you help me pour the right amount of milk?”
Perhaps your kids have advanced past the pouring, measuring, and stirring phase, and you are ready to be a little more adventurous. Let’s let them chop some veggies! With the necessary exception of kids with particular special needs, most kids who are hesitant to eat cooked vegetables on their plate when served will happily munch on them if helping to prepare a meal. All of my kids groan when I scoop roasted cauliflower on their plates at meal time, but they may eat an entire serving raw while they were preparing it for my roasting pan. Many times, allowing them to prepare the vegetables gives them time to adjust to the idea that the macaroni we are having this time will include broccoli, and they like broccoli…most of the time. Some of our favorite vegetables for macaroni and cheese that allow for kid-friendly preparation are broccoli, carrots, and spinach. We especially enjoy using crunchy roasted broccoli as a crunchy topping to baked macaroni.
Using the stove
If your child has reached this step, congratulations! They are about to graduate from Kitchen Skills 101. It’s time to let them use the stove and, with help, make their own homemade cheese sauce! For ease: Here is a simple recipe for them to follow.
Easy Peasy Mac and Cheesy
2 tbs flour
2 tbs butter
1 cup cold milk
1.5 cups of freshly grated cheese (This melts better than the pre-shredded stuff.) Our favorite is gouda.
Optional variants we use to make it fancy include: diced tomato, onion, and jalapeño, bay leaf, nutmeg, and cloves.
1. Cut butter into small pieces, place in sauce pan and melt on low heat.
2. When butter is melted, slowly add the flour a little at a time, stirring to mix completely into the butter with each addition.
3. When all the flour is fully mixed into the butter, continue to stir this pasty substance for around 4 minutes. This step is finished when the mixture is tan in color and smells a little nutty.
4. Add the milk just like the flour was added. A little at a time, waiting between pours to stir and incorporate completely.
5. Add any optional ingredients and stir into the mixture.
6. Continue to stir while the sauce simmers. (This is a great exercise in patience for kids!) When it seems incorporated and just the right combination of gooey and liquid, go ahead and take it off the stove and pour onto your noodles!