Frances Largeman-Roth, a Brooklyn-based nutritionist, reveals her best tips for cooking with your children.
As the New Year approaches, you (as a parent, or a person with young children) might be thinking about how to bond with the children in your life, and help them develop both a healthy attitude toward food and healthy eating habits. But between work, extracurricular activities, and just trying to get a moment to yourself, you may have trouble finding the time and energy to have those quality moments. Frances Largeman-Roth, a Brooklyn-based nutritionist who recently partnered with Uncle Ben’s rice in order to encourage parents to cook with their kids, understands that so much can get in the way of spending much-needed quality time with your family. She recently spoke with Food & Wine with her best advice on how to spend more time with the youngest members of your family in the kitchen.
Largeman-Roth says that getting kids interested in food and cooking will vary—some kids might find inspiration by eating out a restaurant with the family, or in the case of her own 8-year-old daughter, watching reality television cooking competitions. There is one almost sure-fire way to peak their interest, though, and it’s also the simplest method.
“Invite them into the kitchen,” Largeman-Roth advises. “Lots of parents shoo kids out of the kitchen when they’re prepping a meal. I get it—little ones underfoot can be annoying and hazardous at times—but let them smell those amazing aromas and lift little ones up so that can see what’s happening in the pots and pans.”
If you’re struggling to find a free moment to introduce your child to the kitchen, Largeman-Roth suggests that you treat the activity like any other appointment you have to keep.
“It’s smart to schedule kitchen time with your kids,” she says. “For most parents, this will be on the weekend or maybe over a school break. Once you’ve carved out the time, don’t let other distractions like cleaning or television get in the way.”
Once you’ve actually wrangled your schedule, hustled yourselves into the kitchen, and tied on your apron, you’ll be faced with another, perhaps even harder conundrum. What should you cook together?
Largeman-Roth says it’s best to keep it simple by picking quick recipes with few ingredients. Try making “healthy soups or overnight oats,” for instance. She’s also making rice pudding in her home at the moment (to which she adds Uncle Ben’s brown rice) because it only takes 25 minutes to prepare (probably the length of the young kid’s attention span) and there are lots of easy steps that kids can do on their own, “like zesting the orange and adding the packets [of rice]… They can also spoon the finished pudding into the dessert cups and garnish with pomegranate seeds and pistachios.”
Kids can and should pick the recipe if they want to, either from a favorite cookbook or online. A personalized apron or their own set of measuring cups will also make your child feel “that you value their participation, [and] should help get them into the cooking spirit.” Young kids (around 3) can help with even the simplest tasks, like setting the table or washing produce, but Largeman-Roth says her 8-year-old can already be put in charge of cutting vegetables like cucumbers (with a safety knife of course). However, once you pick your recipe and give everyone a task to do, you should be aware that cooking with kids with almost always take longer than usual and make a mess.
“This is where your patience comes in,” she says. “If a recipe usually takes you 30 minutes to make, figure on more like 40-45 minutes when you’re making it with a kid. You have to be in a relaxed mindset and allow for a little creativity. Maybe you hadn’t planned to add chocolate chips to the muffins or shredded cheese to the soup, but if your kid has a reason for adding it, go with it.”
The mess especially might be a deterrent for parents to let their kids into the kitchen, so Largeman-Roth advises clearing off the counters so no bottles are knocked over and liquids spilled, putting towels down on the floor, and moving your laptop or other electronics away from the cooking area.
Once the dish is finished, your job is not done. Largeman-Roth says that one of the most crucial elements of cooking with children is to taste what they’ve prepared.
“Everyone should at least try it,” she insists. “First off, a kid is more likely to try something they’ve had a hand in making, so it’s great for getting them to eat more vegetables and whole grains. Second, by eating what they’ve made, you’re validating their culinary contribution and that means they’ll be more likely to get back in the kitchen with you.”
After you’re done cleaning flour off of the floor, washing the dishes, and wiping butter off everyone’s hands and faces, it might seem like the entire venture was just an exhausting exercise in frustration and mess-making. But Largeman-Roth is here to reassure here to that there are real benefits to spending this type of quality time with your family.
“Kids learn so much when you cook together—everything from addition and subtraction to history and geography. And it’s a wonderful bonding experience too. As long as you make it fun and not rushed, your kids will really enjoy the process and will have great memories of your time together in the kitchen,” she says. “Introducing your kids to healthy ingredients when you’re cooking absolutely works to get them excited to eat those foods more often.”