Pint-size Chefs

When children cook, good nutrition is the happy by-product.
May 2008

Wielding a pint-size Day-Glo rolling pin, my three-year-old son Andrew rolls, presses, and pokes the squishy substance before him, in the gleeful way that preschoolers have of turning every activity into a full-body sport. Flour is everywhere, coating his blond hair, the counters, and the floor, yet nary a "no" is heard. That's the beauty of Sticky Fingers Cooking, a Denver-based cooking school aimed at the tiniest chefs. By the end of the morning, he'll have learned a technique or two, we'll go home with pizza for the family, and I can relax, knowing we'll leave the mess behind.

And what a mess there is. For the past hour, six children have rolled out whole-wheat dough, measured herbs, spread tomato sauce, and sampled three kinds of cheese (mozzarella, goat cheese, and fontina), sometimes by the handful. They've squished olives, tasted artichoke hearts, tossed handfuls of spinach, and felt mushrooms. With all these toppings, it's no surprise that their pizzas are as heavy as they are. The surprise is that I've heard no whining. These children are beaming because they've made pizza all by themselves, and they've done so by piling on the dreaded V-word: vegetables.

"Most kids...only eat cheese pizza, but when you're making it and you put vegetables in front of them, they'll eat them," explains Christine Mackstaller, one of three cofounders of this nutritionally minded multiweek program for children ages two to five. "What we're trying to do is expose kids to foods in the hope they'll try them because they're involved in the cooking process."

With the nation's pediatric obesity rate tripling in the last 30 years, children's nutrition has become the overlapping segment of a Venn diagram, the one issue that parents, pediatricians, and food-industry advocates are rallying around. Study after study has shown that kids are getting just a fraction of the recommended servings of vegetables a day—and what they do eat is often a french fry. So if cooking together helps kids make better food choices, why not make it part of the routine?