October marks the national Eat Better, Eat Together Month. You probably didn’t know such a month existed. I didn’t. But with today’s busy lifestyles, eating together (or staying engaged with each other and not our devices) seems like a dying art. This month we’ll explore the mental, academic, physical, and spiritual benefits of eating together.
Unusual French Fries
“Mrs. Ojeda, do you want to try my French fries?” one of the boys ran over to our campsite and held out a packet of tinfoil.
“You made French fries over a campfire?” I looked inside and saw neatly sliced pieces of potatoes. “Sure, I’ll try one!”
“This is my second batch,” he said proudly. “I added more seasonings this time, so they taste better.”
“Delicious,” I proclaimed.
“I’m gonna try making something else,” he said, as he dashed back to the boys’ campsite.
I smiled. For the past hour, we’d listened as 12 young men experimented with preparing their own noon meal over a campfire. Instead of working as three different groups—they had three Dutch ovens, three fireplace rings, and all the utensils necessary—they had congregated at one campsite.
It took almost 30 minutes for them to start their fire and then decide what to make with the raw ingredients the school had provided. Instead of making camping stew with biscuits on top, the boys had gotten creative. They produced French fries, bread-on-a-stick, and baked potatoes. We had scheduled an hour and a half for lunch, but their shouts of laughter and creative endeavors made us change our plan.
Earlier in the week, each student had made lasagna and cobbler in their camp cooking class, and now they had the confidence to get artistic with their food preparation. For the first time in 15 years of doing Outdoor School with high school students, kids prepared three of their own meals.
The Art of Cooking
I had no idea the level of entertainment it would provide (both for the staff and the students). Who would have thought cooking could engender such creativity? I taught our girls the basics of cooking and baking, and I recall a few fun kitchen projects. We even hired our oldest daughter to prepare family dinners during a particularly busy time in our lives. But until I heard the giggles, guffaws, and belly laughs from the neighboring campsite, I had no idea boys could practice creativity in the kitchen, too.
For most of my life, I’ve enjoyed the art of cooking (and baking). I rarely use recipes (or precisely follow the ones I do use). I’ve never met a recipe I couldn’t tweak, modify, or change in some way. Perhaps I’ve developed this survival mechanism because I rarely check my cupboards before I start cooking.
In retrospect, I realize I rarely gave our girls unfettered time in the kitchen to just create. I worried too much about wasted ingredients, ruined meals, or unpalatable results. But without failures, creativity, and practice, we never really learn the art of cooking.
And when kids learn the art of cooking, they take ownership of what they eat and feel like an integral part of the family. If we want to eat better and eat together, we need buy-in from everyone in the family (in this case, the students).
If I would have announced to the students we’d have baked potatoes and biscuits for lunch, 90% of the students would have groaned and grumbled just a bit. But give them carrots, potatoes, veggie-burger, biscuit mix, onions, and garlic, and they’ll want to raid your spice collection and spend three laughter-filled hours preparing their own meal.It's Eat Better, Eat Together Month! Check out these ideas for practicing creativity in the kitchen with your kids. #eatbettereattogethermonth #familymeals Click To Tweet
How to Practice Creativity in the Kitchen with Your Kids
You can teach the art of cooking to your children or grandchildren at any age. None of the boys had cooked over a campfire before, and few of them had made more than sandwiches or TV dinners at home. But all of them now feel empowered to experiment at home. These suggestions will help you start teaching creativity in the kitchen to your kids or grandkids at any age.
1. Start Young (but Start)
Our daughter has involved our grandson in meal preparation from the moment he could stand on a chair and showed interest. He started with cracking eggs, dumping pre-measured ingredients, and turning on the mixer.
It takes longer to have an eager helper in the kitchen, but the payoff in creativity will be worth the extra clean-up. I love baking with our grandson—and I love how his mom doesn’t mind the messes we make.
When we allow little ones to practice creativity in the kitchen, they gain confidence, fine motor skills, and buy-in for eating healthier.
2. Teach Safety
We didn’t just turn teens loose in the campground with matches, briquettes, and kindling. Each student understood how to build a fire, use briquettes, and the rudiments of heating a Dutch oven to a certain temperature.
To practice the art of cooking, kids need to know how to use the equipment at an age-appropriate level. Teach them how to use and clean sharp knives. Explain how to safely use mixers, turn on the stove or oven, and use hot pads. You know your children best, so you can determine ‘age-appropriate.’ If you cook with your grandchildren, check with their parents first.
3. Teach Nutrition
I modify most recipes I try to make them healthier. My French-fry-making student discovered he could have a tasty ‘French fry’ without baptizing his potatoes in oil. Instead, he relied on seasonings and rubbing a little oil on the potato slices.
Talk about the recipes as you plan and prepare. “I wonder how these brownies would taste if we used whole-wheat flour instead of white flour. Whole-wheat flour is better fuel for our bodies.”
Experiment. When we stopped using white flour about twenty years ago, we replaced some of the white flour with whole-wheat flour. As our palates adjusted, we used more whole-wheat flour and less white flour.
Try to keep the talk positive. “Some fats are ok, but we don’t want to eat too many. What could we do to this recipe to make it healthier?”
When we talk and listen while we prepare food, we allow our kids to exercise their creativity and learn about nutrition at the same time.
4. Teach Clean-Up
You’ll want to teach kids how to clean up after themselves, too. I always assumed everyone knew how to clean up after themselves. But the more time I spend with teens in my kitchen (my students), the more I realize the difference between kids who have learned how to clean up and kids who haven’t.
I use this rule of thumb—kids should clean up to the same degree they help make the mess. We shouldn’t expect our five-year-old grandson to leave a spotless kitchen after creating something in the kitchen. But if he does a fourth of the work, he can do a fourth of the cleaning. With supervision, he can load dirty dishes in the dishwasher or run the vacuum over the mounds of spilled flour on the floor.
Talk as you clean and explain why you do things a certain way. “We need to make sure and get all the crumbs off the counters and floors, so we don’t tempt mice, ants, or cockroaches into our kitchen.” Or, “If we put the measuring cups in the top rack like this, we’ll fit more dishes in the dishwasher.”
5. Enlist Everyone’s Help
One of my favorite childhood memories involves helping my family make lefse at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I would sit on the counter and roll the dough into little balls for my grandma to turn into lefse. As an older child, I took over keeping the lefse under wraps as each piece came off the hot griddle. Eventually, I moved on to turning the lefse with the special lefse spatula my dad had carved.
Everyone who entered the kitchen during lefse making took part. We worked together as a family to produce something everyone would enjoy. Find tasks for everyone—take out ingredients, turn the oven on, get out the mixer, line up the ingredients in the order needed, wash the dishes, and tidy up afterward.
Each task helps kids feel needed and valued. And kids who feel essential to their family develop resiliency. For an in-depth look at how doing chores and participating in family activities can have positive results in your child’s development, check out this post by Dona Matthews, Ph. D, a developmental psychologist, and author.
6. Planning, Procurement, and Preparation
If you want to practice creativity in the kitchen, take the time to let your kids help plan menus. Before they can read, they can give verbal suggestions. Once they learn to read, they can search cookbooks or the Internet to find dishes they want to try.
Kids can learn about budgeting, grocery shopping, and healthy eating by helping you plan, shop, and prepare food. Once your children reach their tween years, you can send them out through the grocery store to hunt for specific ingredients.
You’ll enjoy the payoff for investing the time to teach your children how to cook when you can turn the responsibility over to them as they get older. Once they get their driver’s license, you can send them grocery shopping in exchange for the use of the car.
Creativity in the Kitchen
You can nurture creativity in the kitchen at any age—even if you’ve never felt brave enough to try it before. Kids have a delightful sense of humor, and you may end up feeling refreshed instead of worn out. Or you may feel a little of both. Remember to give yourself plenty of time for your first adventures creativity in the kitchen adventures. I’ve discovered it takes at least twice as long to bake or cook when I have a young assistant.
Do you have anything to add to the list? What are some of your favorite memories of creativity in the kitchen as either a child or an adult?