Dining

Pint-size Chefs

When children cook, good nutrition is the happy by-product.
By
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?

The answer, all too often, is time. "A lot of parents want to cook with their kids," notes Pam Hueseman, supervisor of the cooking program in the city of Aurora's recreation division, "but they get home and they're too exhausted. Maybe mom and dad just don't have the time to give them these cooking skills and the love of food."

Operated out of a sun-drenched, $60,000 kitchen, Aurora's extensive cooking program rivals any I've seen. Of the 45 classes offered each semester, about a quarter are tailored specifically to the school-age set. Most are one-time events, but some, like the ever-popular Camp Cook-A-Munga, run for a week and teach kids the basics of food prep and nutrition.

In the two-and-a-half-hour crêpe-making class I took recently with Katie, my kindergartner, we were joined by kids and their moms who cook a lot, moms who don't cook much, and moms who just wanted a morning together. "We like to do the classes because I have a little one at home and we don't get to spend much time together," says local mother Angie Mobley. Her son Tyler, 11, is the oldest in our class, and as he ladles batter in the crêpe pan and flips it out, he demonstrates a quiet purposefulness and none of the cooler-than-thou attitude you'd expect from a boy his age. "With the older ones, they don't tell you what they think, but you know they like it because they keep coming back," laughs Pam.

As for Katie, she's proud to be doing things by herself in mom's domain, especially things I don't normally let her do at home, like swirl pans over a hot stove. At the end of the class, Katie tries the sunrise crêpes filled with eggs, ham, and Hollandaise, the chile relleno crêpes, and the cherry-vanilla blintzes. "Mom, you can have the rest of this one. It's not my favorite," she says about a crêpe filled with mushrooms, peppers, and tarragon. Maybe she doesn't like it now, but I'm not discouraged. If the experts are right, our time in the kitchen has been an investment in a nutritious future. As for Andrew, now he asks for goat cheese by name, high-fiving me when it comes out of the refrigerator on pizza night.