Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Big Picnic

She picked out her ingredients unhesitatingly. That Birdy.
Kids cooking. Even just reading those two words, you're cringing, because you have toddlers still, or little kids, and it is impossible to let them "help" without everything taking a million years, and you've got a lock-jawed smile stretching your face, sparrows nesting in the white beard that's grown down to the ground in the time it took your child to measure 1/4 cup of flour. Plus, there's the other 15 3/4 cups of flour spilled out of the bag onto the counter and floor, and the cat is trotting through it, and you will find his floury paw prints all over the house for the next 17 months. I hear you.

But, and I always say this: it gets better. Invest now, deal with the mess and the endlessness with as much patience as you can muster, because one day. . . Oh, one day your kids will be cooking for you, and you will lie around on the couch with the New Yorker while they make dinner, dreaming up your brilliant cartoon captions and dispensing occasional cheerful nuggets of advice, as required. "Pomegranate and mint?" you will say. "Yes, that sounds like a lovely way to glaze the tofu." (That is a transcription of a real conversation that took place while Ben and Ava were cooking dinner a couple of months ago.) "The rice cooker? It's where it always is."  Even the cat is relaxing in your lap because there is no flour everywhere to tromp ecstatically through.
The Minted Pomegranate Tofu meal. They "finished" the sauce with a bit of butter. I know!
As you know, ChopChop, the non-profit family cooking magazine that I edit, is all about teaching kids to cook--and our mission there is not about parental laziness (like mine is here) but about childhood obesity. Study after study links from-scratch home cooking with healthy weight. And we believe that kids are going to have to lead the way--which means getting them excited about learning to cook. To that end, and to draw attention to the important issues at stake during National Childhood Obesity Awareness month, we're hosting something we're calling The Big Picnic: really, an opportunity to post and share photographs of your family cooking and/or eating together. It's this Sunday.
Our art director designed this snazzy badge! 
Tweeting, Google+ing, hashtagging, there are many vehicles for this sharing, and they're outlined here. There are also loads of recipes over there for inspiration, including one that I developed for Greek Salad Kabobs.
An early kabob prototype. You gotta love the banana.
That's what I'm "bringing" to the picnic. Although what I'm really "bringing" is Birdy's version that she made for a party, because it illustrates one of the fundamentals of teaching your kids to cook--and to love doing it--which is this. Lean in close. You have to give them room to make decisions and, maybe, fail, even if they are not making decisions that you would make or failures that are convenient. I know! It's terrible. At my house, this has involved deciding at the last minute to cook a green salad ("Wow, it's really really small now! Also very cooked tasting. I wouldn't do that again!"), experimenting with many dubious choices around salad-dressing concoction (cough *banana yogurt* cough), and threading fuzzy, choky lemon-balm leaves onto kabobs for a party.

The thing is? It doesn't really matter if I think that lettuce and apples and mint leaves are a real dream-boat kabob combo. Besides the fact that I'm often wrong anyway! (My own personal dream kabob would be, scallops and avocado and French fries, if you were thinking about my birthday and how it's coming up.)

But that was Birdy's vision. And you know what? They were magnificent. On a bed of hand-torn lettuce. With a dubious-but-delightful yogurt-based dressing as a dip. And they were gobbled up by grown-ups and children alike (with only one guest commenting about itchy lips). Birdy was thrilled. To quote Harvey Milk, my favorite politician of all time, "You gotta give them hope."

Please, post a photo on Sunday, hashtag it BigPicnic, and know that we're changing the world one mess cooked salad lemon-balm leaf bite at a time.


  1. Jeanne12:26 PM

    As the girls in my Girl Scout troop (aged 13 - 14) are more pressed for time with other commitments, we have changed our meeting time to Friday night 6 pm and I've decided that we will use that time to make ourselves dinner. I'm a bit nervous to "teach" a cooking class but the girls really want to learn. First thing though is watching a safety video :)

  2. I'm totally kabob-ing dinner this weekend!

  3. My almost 5-year-old's lunchbox request for today was a sandwich with pickles, string cheese, and mustard. I made it and I'll be interested to see if it was eaten or if it comes home untouched. I thought about trying to talk her out of it, but they are three of her favorite things and I'm curious to see if they are still her favorite when combined.

  4. Inspired by your family, I recently asked my 11-year-old if she'd like to cook dinner once a week. Her answer was a resounding "yes!" and she's cooking her third meal tonight. She has had so much fun, has learned a ton, and she's so proud of herself when she serves up her creations. I just ordered her a subscription to Chop Chop -- it looks like it will provide her with some great ideas.

    Thank you, Catherine, for sharing your family and your recipes with everyone. I've learned so much from you in the last ten(!) years!

  5. You are so right about the whole "it gets better" thing. My son was THE SLOWEST at measuring, pouring, everything for so many years. He loved to cook, and we did it a lot, but it took a tremendous amount of patience on my part (and I was not always as patient as I should have been). But last night we made Chocolate Zucchini Bread (which we've done many times over the years), and we were working on different parts at the same time! So when I was done with my (roughly) half, we were done! It actually cut the making time in half, half I tell you! I never thought we'd get here, but now we are. (He's 9.) Here's to him cooking dinner soon!


  6. Oh My. I needed this in a big way. Because my children are at this place, the place of cooking somewhat independently but also somewhat dubiously at times. If I eat another bad soup because they put random spices in it, and random vegetables, and random randomness, and then served it as a meal, well... I might just require that they only cook soup from recipes from now on (ahem).

    But also, we bought The Science of Good Cooking and it is hands down, THE BEST cookbook investment ever (despite being also the most expensive cookbook I've ever purchased). Why? Because they give you a recipe but also tell you why you do it that way. The recipes are organized by scientific concept, like "a gentle heat prevents overcooking" and "two leaveners are often better than one." Then there is a scientific explanation and several recipes to try it out! Our scrambled eggs are amazing, my 8 year old makes phenomenal deviled eggs, and I just got a cheesecake from her this week. A Homemade Cheesecake! (It took her FIVE HOURS.) On the other hand, my 10 year old has been making the same basic cookie recipe every week for two months, but each time she experiments and makes it differently. What will happen if I melt the butter, or decrease the flour, or add cinnamon, etc?

    Cooking with kids does pay off. And it's ok to let them experiment, but I've found that it helps to give them some guidance first. I guess you have to eat the soup before you get the cheesecake, eh?

  7. Anonymous7:55 PM

    Ava has gotten so grown up!

    1. I was thinking the very same thing! Who is that tall, tall girl in the picture with Ben? A visiting Auntie? No, its grown-up Ava. Alas, this must mean my own little ones are also growing up...

  8. So funny... but true, true wooovvve.... gives time for measuring flour and putting a (one) banana slice on a Kabob... thanks

  9. becca9:01 PM

    Read this yesterday. Gathered ingredients. Let 3 and 6 year old make cookies on their own (except for the hot oven part...I did that). (Huge) delicious cookies enjoyed and proudly shared with friends. I'll keep reading. Please keep reminding me that the floury counter and mystery "sticky" floor are not forever but the skills are! You are just lovely.

  10. Anonymous10:28 PM

    Love the banana! And the reminder that good cooking evolves from bad mistakes

  11. I am still working on my patience with the small-ish child that shares my kitchen with me. I need to let go more. My expectations are too high. I missed the Big Picnic too, bummer. Love Chop Chop!