Children as young as 2 are invited to participate in Stew Leonard’s Culinary Classes for Kids, held at its location in Newington. Children receive hands-on instruction in preparing various products and learn about the importance of measuring, cooperation in the kitchen, and food safety.—Stew Leonard’s photo

For centuries, women dominated the kitchens in their homes, where they did almost all of the cooking. Today, with more and more men donning aprons and getting in on the cooking fun, it’s only natural that children should follow. Gone are the days when kitchens were declared as dangerous and forbidden places for kids. Parents still need to be on guard, and adult supervision is a must when children are in the kitchen, but now they recognize that there are a lot of life lessons to be learned by culinary-minded youngsters who find cooking not only fun but downright exciting.

Consider the benefits of learning basic math concepts with youngsters who count eggs for a recipe or measure fractions for half a cup or a third of cup of ingredients. Training youngsters to read a recipe is one activity that not only results in a good finished product but builds confidence and self-esteem.

Add to this that when children cook something, they are more likely to eat it. Finicky eaters become more open to experimenting with new foods when they are doing the cooking, and some begin to create a palate. With a bit of planning, a parent can help a child become more aware of healthy food choices. Planning an entire meal can be quite an adventure. Go shopping for ingredients, check prices and ingredient contents, and then have a child prepare an entire meal. It does so much toward developing self-sufficiency, but it also offers an immediate sense of accomplishment.

Science and chemistry come into play as soon as baking soda or yeast is added to a recipe. Chemical reactions occur and the transformative effect of baking in an oven suddenly makes chemistry an everyday occurrence. Because of this growing interest and trend, children’s cooking has led to “cooking parties.” Entrepreneurs who arrive at a birthday party with bowls, utensils and ingredients start cooking with young ones who love every second of the experience. However, it’s not just homemakers and small business owners who are tapping into childhood culinary interest.

A child in The Pink Rhubarb summer camp program at Fodor Farm in Norwalk prepares fresh whipped cream for crepes with strawberries.—Jane Peters-Mossa photo

“The younger kids are when they’re exposed to the kitchen and included in the family’s weekly food shopping trip the better,” explains Jenn Polaski, the front-end manager at Stew Leonard’s Newington store and mother of three who began overseeing culinary classes at the store in 2008. “Next time you’re at the grocery store, let your kids pick out a new fruit or vegetable that they’ve never eaten before and allow them to help peel it, cook it, or chop it when you get home.  When you involve kids in the whole process of seeing how food ends up on their plate, they’ll hopefully try new foods sooner!”

Jane Peters-Mossa, mother of three and owner of The Pink Rhubarb in Darien, concurs. She believes children should be taught about cultivating, growing, and maintaining skills in cooking, gardening and craft, and becoming self-sufficient. “Kids need hands-on, practical, project-based activities more than ever in today’s digital world, and cooking can provide that for them,” contends Jane, who has a strong culinary and wellness background, “whether it’s through a workshop on composting, teaching kids how to bake bread through an after-school enrichment program or during a birthday party, or the summer camp I run at Fodor Farm in Norwalk. Children should learn how to be accountable for what they’re putting in their bodies, and I’ve found that if they cook it, they’ll eat it.”

Children participating in The Pink Rhubarb summer camp program at Fodor Farm  examine lavender, which they will use when making lavender-infused tea with lemon and mint.—Jane Peters-Mossa photo

From the time most children come home from school until prime-time television viewing, children can watch children cooking and competing on the Food Network. Keep in mind the development of a child. For instance, toddlers aged 2 and 3 don’t have a lot of manual dexterity and their motor skills are still developing. Therefore, planning simple cooking tasks in the kitchen is important. They can squeeze lemons or limes using a plastic juicer, wash produce in the sink, dry produce in a salad spinner, pick fresh herb leaves off stems and rip them into small pieces, tear up lettuce, sprinkle dried herbs and salt, use a pepper grinder, knead dough, scoop potatoes or yams out of their skins, brush (or “paint”) oil with a pastry brush, use a rolling pin for dough or puff pastry, whisk together vinaigrettes, squeeze water out of thawed spinach, and stir and mash ingredients (foodnetwork.com).

Four- and 5-year-olds vary in their motor skills and ability to stay focused on a single task, while 6- and 7-year-olds usually have well-developed motor skills and can take on more adult tasks. At this age, they can dice and mince vegetables, grate cheese, and peel raw potatoes, ginger, mangoes, and other fruits and vegetables. They can also slice and scoop out avocados, grease pans, measure, drain, pour liquids, and decorate. Older children, from 8 to 12, can use a pizza cutter and can opener, and can handle sharp tools with close supervision. Watching other kids cook on television is motivational and inspiring. Kids being in the kitchen offers learning opportunities and bonding experiences, and leads to memories that will last a lifetime.

Easy Oven-Baked Cheeseburger Sliders

(Recipe courtesy of Stew Leonard’s)

Ingredients:

1 lb. 90% (or leaner) lean ground beef
1/8 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
1/4 cup chopped onions
Pinch of salt
Slider buns
4 slices cheddar or American cheese

Directions:

Heat oven to 400 degrees. In a bowl, combine beef, breadcrumbs, onion, and salt. Gently press mixture into a 8 x 8-inch pan so that it makes one large patty of even thickness. Use the tines of a fork to poke holes throughout the meat. Bake for 20 minutes. As it bakes, the meat will shrink away from the sides and liquid will accumulate around the edges of pan. When fully cooked, remove the pan from oven (keep oven turned on) and carefully drain off the liquid.

Top the meat with an even layer of sliced cheese; return pan to oven for about 2 minutes or until the cheese melts. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for a few minutes. Cut into 2-inch squares (or the size of the buns used), making about 8 mini-hamburgers. Serve with dill pickle slices, ketchup and mustard. Serves 4 at two sliders each.

Sweet Potato Fries
(Recipe courtesy of Stew Leonard’s)

Ingredients:

2 lbs. sweet potatoes
2 tsp. cornstarch
2 tbsp. olive oil
⅛ tsp. salt
⅛ tsp. pepper
⅛ tsp. garlic powder
⅛ tsp. paprika

Directions:

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a shallow dish, combine oil and spices. If leaving the skin on, scrub the sweet potatoes really well. If not, peel the potatoes. Cut sweet potatoes into ¼-inch fries. Toss fries with cornstarch and olive oil to coat. Spread fries out on prepared baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes, turning occasionally or until fries are browned.