My 4-Year-Old Wanted to Learn How to Cook, But I Was a Stranger to the Kitchen

Growing up I got the sense that the kitchen was the last place my mom wanted to be, or imagined her daughters to end up.

We were called “latch-key” kids in the eighties when “women who worked were having children and didn’t want to be stay-at-home mothers.” Or at least that’s what I read on the internet.

Back then the kitchen wasn’t perceived as a place of power but a trough of toil. And processed, convenience foods like Birds Eye, Lunchables, and Cool Ranch Doritos were the nouveau riche.

Scrappy kids like me cruised the neighborhood unsupervised and in packs wearing our splotchy Jams and checkerboard Vans to the local arcade for Ms. Pacman—our bliss.

When I became a mother at the age of twenty-nine I had never learned how to cook. During my college years I worked in restaurants and was fed by them. And by the time I was a young professional I ate a lot of cereal. Even after I got married, my husband (also a latch key kid and generation X’er) didn’t know how to cook and didn’t expect me to either.

So I was surprised when my first born daughter, Sophie, at age four pointed to a cook book in a Scholastic catalog.

A few weeks later a Very Berry Strawberry Shortcake arrived in the mail and Sophie and I selected a recipe.

Together we sliced and cored a Granny Smith, then spread a layer of peanut butter on the flesh of each slice and placed halved marshmallows in the center. Voila: A Peanut Butter, Marshmallow Apple Sandwich.

Cooking with Sophie that day unfettered a memory from my latch key days. A television commercial with a mother and daughter cooking Rice Crispy Treats together—sitting with Sophie enjoying our sandwich I felt happy but also a little sad that I had never shared an apple sandwich with my mom.

Very Berry Strawberry Shortcake was both of our first cook book. And like clockwork, every month Scholastic sent us another cook book featuring Strawberry Shortcake’s friends: Apple Dumplin’, Huckleberry, Orange Blossom, Blueberry Muffin.

Today, six years, three more kids, a cat, a dog, a guinea pig, two rabbits, two chickens and countless television hours spent watching Food Network with the family—Sophie and I are still cooking.

We’ve graduated from our Strawberry Shortcake primer to what our family calls our “food experiments”— in homage to Albert Einstein’s famed “thought experiments” of which E=MC2 was the result.

The E=MC2 of our “food experiments” is the active goal of getting our kids closer to their food with community gardens that teach how to grow crops and cook kid-friendly, healthy recipes. One of the many benefits of cooking (both simple and exotic) recipes is learning about other cultures and customs on our “field trips.”

We explore local markets for ingredients to our recipes. Through our cooking we also try to help others—last year our local food bank was near empty.

Today, I was readying our Mad Men era kitchen for this week’s food experiment when I caught a glimpse of three-year-old Patrick outside, half-naked and clutching a Danimal Crushable while chasing our chickens around the yard wearing mismatched dino boots—clearly having a ball.

Back in March, for the price of Sophie’s Iron Chef D.S. video game, we loaded the minivan with four adopted fuzzy chicks, feed, a heat lamp, bulb, a water bowl and a feed box from our local Feed Store.

Yes, I said our local feed store… Most city’s have them… Apparently, the domesticated fowl can fill a spiritual hole in an increasingly technology-focused society. In other words chickens have become chic.

I had high hopes of raising hens as a fun activity and a vehicle to bring our family closer to our food. And the chicken manure would be used for the three garden beds we were hosting in our yard for the Just Garden program. A local nonprofit that builds free garden beds for low-income families. We intended to share our families “bounty” with local food banks.

After five long months of care and a mine field of “free-range” chicken poop two of the four chickens were dead and we had yet two reap one egg. And rainy weather (even for Seattle) drenched our garden…we had tons of peas and inch long carrots but little else.

However, none of that mattered as I leaned into the front door watching my seven-year-old Amelia plucking peas for the Spring Peas with Mint recipe as baby Ty toddled ate dirt.

I hoped that these experiences would give my children a different relationship with food than I experienced.

“Cabbage topped bruschetta,” Sophie announces, interrupting my reverie displaying her selected recipe from Molto Gusto, the latest cook book from Chef Mario Batali.

Our dismal chicken and garden yields have yet to feed our family…let alone donate anything to the food bank. But, Iron Chef Batali is lending a hand, or should I say a kid-friendly recipe, to our families new cook book, Growing Sprouts and Good Food with a portion of the proceeds to benefit Northwest Harvest.

We had selected chefs to contribute recipes to our cook book that supported children. The Mario Batali Foundation was established to feed, protect, educate and empower children, encouraging them to dream big while providing them with the necessary tools to become an active force for change in today’s world.

“Mommy!” Amelia rushed into the kitchen, her wool newsboy hat askew as she held aloft one gently speckled brown egg. “It’s still warm!”

“Spaghetti alla Carbonara,” Amelia says showing the cook book to my mom as she walks through the front door—these days Grandma is a big part of our food experiments.

“Grandma, we’re going to use our first egg for this recipe,” Amelia says pointing to a glossy page of Multo Gusto that featured sliced pancetta, grated pecorino and nested inside spaghetti was an egg yolk.

Mom and I share a look. “It was different when you were a kid,” Mom says wistfully as I hand her an apron.

I nod.

The time has passed for us to make those Rice Krispy Treats together…but just right for us all to enjoy Cabbage topped Bruschetta, Spaghetti alla Carbonara and Spring Peas with Mint.

You don’t have to be an Iron Chef to enjoy “food experiments” with your kids. Cooking is accessible, fun and having all the gadgets and gizmo’s isn’t necessary. What I do recommend is having a great recipe and fresh local ingredients like the ones we used in Chef Mario Batali’s recipe.


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