"I like to cook pizza, salad and candy . I like to cook because it is fun." --Sarah Kaplan, age 7
" If I could cook anything I wanted to I would cook hamburgers, cookies and doughnuts." --Melissa McGee, age 7
"My mother taught me to like cooking. I would always watch her , so I like to cook now." --Jade Tipton, age 7
Sarah Kaplan was 4 when she decided that she likes to have the kitchen to herself. She'd offered to help peel potatoes for a family Hanukkah party . . . provided her conditions were met: She'd peel the 10 pounds of potatoes that her mother needed--but she insisted that no one help her.
Today, at age 7, Sarah hasn't changed.
Take the afternoon Sarah volunteered to make eggs for an after-school snack. Sarah's mother, Marci Kaplan, remembers being afraid the housekeeper would pass out from sheer horror if she walked into the room.
Tiny Sarah was perched on a wobbly chair at the stove, preparing for triumph. Having carefully cracked eggs into what Marci describes as, "the biggest skillet in my kitchen," Sarah deftly began turning them over as they sizzled in hot butter.
Sarah wasn't worried a bit; neither was Marci. Sarah's cooking skills are being carefully honed at the cooking class she attends twice a month.
There she studies a variety of subjects--from science experiments you can eat to recipes for holiday menus.
"Cooking can be fun and exciting for kids" says Vanessa Parham, Sarah's instructor at Jan and Van Kooking Klass for Kids at the Whistle Stop Cafe in Culver City. "And, I think that by being in the kitchen, kids learn math skills, time, measurements, responsibility and a sense that you have to clean up after you cook."
Parham, who also teaches home economics to handicapped teen-agers for the L.A. Unified School District, says she is particularly interested in teaching children the nutritional value of food. She stresses the basic Four Food Groups to her students, who are divided into groups of 6- to 10-year-olds and 10- to 13-year olds. She takes her cooking students on excursions to the supermarket where they learn label reading and how to select the best ingredients for their recipes.
"I'm really big on that," Parham says. "They need to know the difference between junk foods and healthy foods. I also teach them survival . . . things they can do like spreading peanut butter on toast, how to microwave frozen foods or popcorn when they're at home alone."
But cooking is even better when the whole family is at home. When days become a blur of dance lessons and soccer practice, followed by a quick microwave meal--usually eaten at the kitchen sink or between homework assignments--sharing the kitchen with the kids can be a unique opportunity to enjoy a few relaxed moments together.
For Melissa McGee and her mother, Kelly, preparing dinner is just such an occasion. Melissa started cooking a few years ago when Kelly invited her to help with dinner. Since hamburgers, Melissa's favorite food, were on the menu, she accepted the offer. Today, she still helps out at dinner time.
As a working mother, Kelly's time with 7-year-old Melissa is limited; she wants to make sure they enjoy some special activities together. Between homework and bath time, Melissa helps her mom prepare dinner. As they chat about the day's events, Melissa shreds cheese, makes salad, sets the table and selects condiments.
"It's the only substantial time a working parent has," Kelly said, "I grew up with dinner as the family time--when we could talk about how the day went. It's a time to relax and talk and we make the best of it."
Unlike her friends Sarah and Melissa, who venture into the kitchen occasionally to help out, my daughter Jade is always in the kitchen.
Even if I'm not cooking, she'll get out her toy oven--the kind that really bakes--and whip up a treat. After school, a simple piece of fruit never seems sufficient. A fruit salad, made from one half of every piece of fruit in the refrigerator is what she wants.
When I'm in the kitchen, she'll offer to help with almost any kitchen chore. Although she is happiest when we're making something sweet--especially cake or cookies--even dish washing and table setting are viewed as new and exciting adventures.
"Can I stir the meat?" she asks when spaghetti is on the dinner menu.
"Can I crack the eggs? Really, I know how to separate them--I've watched," she assures me when I'm making muffins.
"I'll roll the dough . . . no? OK, how about if I shred the carrots?"
Jade's interest in cooking was piqued when she was about 5 years old. Once limited to stirring, patting and decorating holiday treats, her interest has now broadened and she appears to enjoy all the intricacies of cooking. She approaches simple tasks for adults--rolling dough for pastry, chopping nuts and vegetables, stirring punch or lemonade--with deliberate confidence.