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Tips, recipe ideas for teaching kids to cook

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Whether it’s Play-Doh or real dough, kids love to sink their hands in and enjoy mixing and rolling, squishing and smashing things under their small fingers.

If you are sheltering in place with your kids — whether you’re working from home or not — it’s the perfect opportunity to teach them some culinary skills and maybe even a little math in the process.

“Usually, parents are just trying to get dinner on the table,” said Amy Meiers of Santa Rosa, a mom who has been working at home while sheltering in place with her family, including 12-year-old son Cannon. “But now with this forced slowdown of life in general, it’s the perfect time to involve kids.”

Meiers and Cannon have won some major cooking contests over the years. In 2016, the mother-and-son team were invited to the White House for a “kids’ state dinner” after Cannon was the California winner of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” Healthy Lunchtime Challenge.

Meier’s most important piece of advice to parents who want to cook with their kids? Try to make the experience as fun and relaxed as possible so your kids will want to return to the kitchen.

“If I’m peeling carrots and potatoes, I ask Cannon to help,” she said. “But the most important thing is to make sure it’s not stressful.”

Once you make it fun and exciting, your kids will get pulled in and soak up the new knowledge like kitchen sponges.

“You get their full attention because they can’t do anything else while they’re concentrating on what you’re doing,” she said. “And when they’re excited, they pay attention.”

How to get started

You can introduce your child to the kitchen whenever he or she is able to follow basic instructions, such as “stir this.”

Cannon, who has a rare genetic disorder that requires good nutrition, started cooking around age 5 after bringing home a fish from the annual Kids’ Fishing Derby at Lake Ralphine in Howarth Park.

“The next day we cooked his fish, and I have a picture of him smiling,” Meiers said.

“We made fish tacos. He loves fish tacos.”

Don’t be afraid to start simple and work your way up.

“The first thing I learned how to make was scrambled eggs,” she said.

“My Aunt Tracy was with me in the kitchen, stirring the eggs in the pot.”

Meiers, who has been cooking out of her freezer lately, likes to stock up on frozen vegetables like spinach, peas and corn to help feed her family.

“I add peas to pasta or chicken pot pie,” she said.

“I put the white corn in chili, and I make a really good guacamole that is a play on Mexican Street Corn.”

Your kids can squeeze and smash the avocado while you char the corn on the stove, she said.

Then you can both mix up the guacamole with some lime and sour cream.

Try a pizza pie

A lifelong baker, Meiers looks to pizza as another kid-friendly project that can even teach them about fractions once it’s time to slice it up.

“It’s so simple. You can’t really mess it up,” she said.

“I always make my crust ... but kids should remember that it’s fun to be in the kitchen. So if that means buying a pre-made pizza crust, I’m all for it.”

Making your own marinara sauce is easy and makes the house smell enticing.

“At times like this, when you’re inside all day, I like cooking food that is low and slow,” she said.

“That way the anticipation builds in the house.”

Meiers’ grandmother used to cook pizza in a wood-fired “horno” adobe oven in her backyard, along with her bread and rolls. Meiers likes to use her Weber grill.

“It’s all cheap. Flour is typically very cheap; then add yeast and salt and water,” she said.

“I buy a 2-pound block of Red Star yeast on Amazon. That’s a lot of yeast, so I usually get it once a year. You can go in on it with a bunch of friends.”

As for the pizza toppings and cheese, those ingredients are only limited by your child’s imagination.

“Cannon likes all the toppings on his pizza,” she said.

“His is covered with pepperoni, then mushrooms, sausage and olives. ... We do a mozzarella, Jack and Parmesan cheese mix.”

Once you’ve mastered pizza, you may want to try a simple bread-making project, like pretzels.

“Bread making is really therapeutic with kids,” she said.

“Your hands are busy kneading, and you get to see a final product together. You watch it rise, and it’s magic.”

Don’t forget to teach your child how to make a healthy salad, which often requires a scary piece of equipment — a knife. It’s important to find knives that fit in their hands and are more sharp than dull.

“It’s hard, because it’s a fine line,” she said. “If it’s dull, there’s more of a risk of them getting hurt. So you want to teach safety and being responsible, and you have to know your kid.”

To give salads a fun twist, Meiers likes to throw some cheesy, crunchy Goldfish Crackers on top instead of croutons.

Sweet treats for all

For dessert, you can’t go wrong with baking cookies, and a straight-up chocolate chip cookie is always a crowd-pleaser. For added color, substitute candies like M&M’s for the chocolate chips and add sprinkles for decoration.

There are lots of cookbooks aimed at kids who are a little older that can help them build life skills and encourage creativity in the kitchen.

America’s Test Kitchen Kids has two bestselling cookbooks for kids ages 8 to 13 — “The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs” and “The Complete Baking Book for Young Chefs” — as well as a new one, “My First Cookbook,” aimed at children 5 to 8. They also offer a Young Chefs Club (americastestkitchen,com/kids/home) with recipes, activities and quizzes. For a fee, you can also order a box that arrives once a month with surprise ingredients, specific recipes for kids and other fun activities.

Meiers bought her son the Culinary Institute of America’s cookbook for kids — “The Young Chef: Recipes and Techniques for Kids Who Love to Cook.”

“It’s a great cookbook,” she said.

“They have a shredded chicken taco, and they are really good. My husband has taken that recipe and made them at the fire station.”

Once the shelter-in-place orders are lifted, Meiers said, you could take young ones on a field trip to the Sonoma County Children’s Museum, where there is a pretend kitchen.

Older children may want to choose a cooking class at Sur La Table in Santa Rosa or attend a cooking camp there this summer.

“Cannon really liked it,” she said. “It’s an instant gratification thing — you cook, and then you get to eat.”

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The following recipes are from Amy Meiers of Santa Rosa.

Elotes Guacamole

Serves 6 as appetizer

¾ bag frozen corn, browned in a skillet with a tablespoon of butter

4 avocados

3 limes, zested and juiced

1 small container of Greek yogurt

— Salt to taste

½ teaspoon chili powder, plus more for garnish

— Sriracha to taste and more for garnish

½ bunch of cilantro, chopped (save a little more for garnish)

Mash together the avocados, half of the roasted corn (reserve the rest for garnish), lime zest and juice (reserve a little lime zest and juice for the Greek yogurt topping), three-quarters of the container of the Greek yogurt, the chili powder, half the cilantro, about a tablespoon of sriracha (give or take, depending on how spicy you like it) and about ½ teaspoon of salt.

Mix together the reserved Greek yogurt, remaining lime zest, lime juice and a pinch of salt.

Garnish with the reserved cilantro, sriracha, roasted corn, chili powder and Greek yogurt/lime sauce.

Serve with chips and enjoy.

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Pizza Dough

Makes 2 12-inch pizzas or 6 small pizzas

1 1/3 cups warm water

1 packet of yeast

1 tablespoon sugar

3½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for hands and rolling out dough

2 tablespoons olive oil

¾ teaspoon salt

Mix the warm water, yeast and granulated sugar together in a large bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes.

Add the flour, olive oil and salt. Mix to combine. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Using lightly floured hands, knead the dough for about 5 minutes.

After kneading, the dough should feel soft and pillowy. If it bounces back slowly after poking it, your dough is ready to rise. If not, keep kneading.

Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Turn the dough to coat with oil on all sides. Cover and let the dough rise for about an hour or until doubled in size.

Toward the end of the rise, heat up your cooking element. We cooked ours in our Weber SmokeFire grill but you could certainly use an oven. Heat the grill or oven to 475 degrees. If using a pizza stone, heat it in the oven or grill for 30 minutes. If you don’t have a pizza stone, use a cookie sheet.

Shape dough: Divide dough into whatever sizes you’d like. Either 2 large 12-inch pizzas or 4-6 smaller personal-size pizzas. Working with lightly floured hands, gently flatten and poke down the dough to shape into a disc. Then gently stretch the dough using the backs of your hands until dough is circle-shaped. (Focus on stretching the sides of the dough instead of the middle. The middle will follow after the sides are stretched.)

Cover the dough with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap until ready to use.

Bake for 5 minutes, then remove and top with desired pizza toppings. Return to the grill or oven and continue cooking for 10-15 minutes.

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Costco and other grocery stores carry the San Marzano tomatoes in a can, which are preferable for making sauce.

Marinara Sauce

Makes 1 quart

1 28-ounce can of tomatoes, preferably San Marzano Tomatoes, smashed with hands or fork

½ can (3 ounces) of tomato paste

3 cloves of garlic, grated or minced

3 tablespoons of Italian seasoning

1 teaspoon onion powder

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Simmer all ingredients together in a pot for at least an hour, then let cool before spreading on pizza dough.

This sauce freezes really well for future use.

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Cannon’s Cookies

Makes 45 cookies

1½ cup butter (3 sticks)

1¼ cup brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoon vanilla

2½ cups flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1½ teaspoon baking soda

1½ teaspoon kosher salt

1½ cups oats

3½ cups of fun “mix-in” ingredients — chocolate chips, chocolate-covered raisins, crushed up pretzels, M&M’s (I used 2 cups of chocolate chips and 1½ cups peanut M&M’s)

— Sprinkles for the topping

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugars until light and fluffy, then add the eggs and vanilla.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and add to the bowl. Be sure to scrape down the side to make sure everything is combined. Add the oats, then the “mix in” ingredients of your choice.

Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 3 days.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Scoop out golf ball-size pieces of dough and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet (I can fit 9 on a sheet). Put the sprinkles on top and bake for 12 minutes or until the sides are golden brown.

Let cool, then enjoy.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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