Encouraging the little kitchen helper

ANN/THE STAR/ TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE — Dustin Gardner has mentored numerous young chefs during his 16 years as executive chef at Casbah, an upscale Mediterranean restaurant in Shadyside, Pittsburgh, United States. But it’s safe to say that the budding chef who tugs at his heart the most is his young daughter.

Gardner, from White Oak, and his wife Lindsay — they met while students at the former Pennsylvania Culinary Institute — have been cooking with three-year-old Ellie since she could crawl onto a step stool at the kitchen counter. That is, before the youngster even celebrated his first birthday.

Of course, the child of two chefs would have a natural interest in cooking. “We do that as a family,” he said, “so we wanted her to be a part of it.”

But the truth is, you don’t have to be a pro to have fun with your kids in the kitchen, Gardner said, and the experts agree. Even something as simple as stirring up a brownie mix or helping mom or dad shred lettuce leaves for salad will leave them feeling fulfilled. It will also lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating and help build a positive relationship with food.

“As with anything, when kids are involved, they’re going to want to do it,” Lindsay noted.

However, you have to be patient with the process, dress your kids in clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, and be okay with some (inevitable) messy moments.

For example, when Ellie was helping her mom mix up chocolate chip cookie dough on a recent Monday, more than a bit of flour ended up on the counter instead of in the mixing bowl as she filled and leveled a measuring cup with a bench scraper. The two of them also had to carefully fish a few pieces of eggshell out of the bowl with their fingertips, because the toddler is still learning with unbridled enthusiasm how to successfully crack an egg without getting tiny fragments of shell in the yolk and white.

“Ooohhh!” Ellie exclaimed with delight as she pulled the crushed egg apart with her thumbs.

“Kids have great instincts,” says Lindsay, who worked as a pastry chef at Tender Bar + Restaurant, Sonoma Grill and Ceviche before pursuing a career in social media and web design. You can also learn the easiest way, whether it’s spooning sugar into a measuring cup, washing veggies in the sink, sprinkling sand sugar on a cookie, or stirring chopped herbs into yogurt or sour cream for a dip.

Just use it age-appropriate (ie no sharp blades or hot ovens for little ones), start small and keep it simple with a handful of familiar ingredients.

While a three-year-old shouldn’t be chopping onions, he or she can spread gravy or grated cheese on a pizza, spin veggies for a salad, stir together room-temperature ingredients, or mash cooked (and cooled) potatoes.

Preschoolers will have fun whisking eggs, icing cupcakes, rolling cocktail hot dogs in dough or, while improving their knife skills, slicing cucumbers or tomatoes for a salad. Because her little hands aren’t yet strong enough to operate a child-safe knife on their own, Ellie has learned to cut a loaf of bread and other soft objects with a plastic knife, guided by her mother’s hands from behind.

INVOLVE THEM

There are good reasons to let children help you in the kitchen.

Working in the kitchen promotes hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, and children can playfully train their number skills by counting the various ingredients.

Reading recipes aloud together can also help build a child’s vocabulary, and following a set of directions will surely come in handy when they’re at school.

When you allow your child to have a say in what goes on their plate, while gently encouraging them to at least try new ingredients that an unfamiliar recipe might entail, you’ll also make them a happier, less picky eater because of it will have a positive experience with all types of food.

Sample dishes from other parts of the world while building a cultural awareness.

Perhaps most importantly, pairing in the kitchen is a great way for parent and child to spend meaningful time together while building lifelong memories and traditions.

As Gardner puts it, “One of the best things[about cooking with Ellie]is that it’s really fun to see how the people I care about most share a common passion.”

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