My first experience with food preparation involved a free-form recipe that included, among other things, Worcestershire sauce, flour, Tabasco, sugar, Delaware Punch, ketchup, cracker crumbs, random spices and the entrails of a couple of halibut that a friend and I had pulled out of Newport Harbor that morning. We were both 9. We made a vast mess in the kitchen of my friend's mother and were forced to bury our creation in the back yard so it couldn't hurt the dog.
From that time until the year I graduated from college--and decided that there must be forms of food other than those with a "Mc " in front of them--the kitchen was the Forbidden Zone and cooking was alchemy. My haute cuisine was Cocoa Puffs. My preparation for life did not include lessons in pasta, the all-purpose bachelor chow.
But Pamela Sheldon says it could have. A food writer, teacher and consultant who lives in Long Beach, Sheldon said it's possible, even easy, to teach a 5-year-old not only how to make pasta from scratch, but how to actually knock together a decent meal.
"Kids are very natural in the kitchen," said Sheldon, who taught children's cooking classes at Ma Cuisine when that store was in Fashion Island. "It may sound scary, but actually it's one of the easiest things to do with a child because food is so motivating. At the end of the lesson, you get to eat something really good. And in the long run, it'll save time for you because the kids can be more responsible and independent. They can fix their own snacks."
The snacks, however, as well as actual entrees, shouldn't involve "cooking down" to the kids, Sheldon said.
"I like to do real food with kids," she said. "I don't like to make it up. Taking canned biscuits and spreading tomato paste and cheese on them and calling it pizza isn't real food. Kids can learn how to handle making real food. It may not be a pizza recipe from Spago, but you can make a pizza using real pizza ingredients. That's always one of the kids' favorites."
Even a 5-year-old, she said, can whip up a batch of cookies.
"Cookies are a good place to start," Sheldon advised. "They can do the stirring and put the ingredients together. And they get to watch what happens when it all goes into the oven. It also helps them learn math skills when they're measuring, they can learn about telling time by watching the clock and about reading when they're looking at recipes. They're developing organizational skills."
Supervision, of course, is paramount. Otherwise you could end up with fish entrail gazpacho and a nervous dog or, worse, a cut or burn to treat. Simple common sense, Sheldon said, can anticipate most problems.
For instance, she said, don't expect a 5-year-old kid to grasp the nuances of flipping sizzling food in a saute pan. Junior's going to need a few more motor skills before he can look like a Cordon Bleu grad. So, if you've got a heavy pot full of hot stew in the oven, you take it out.
But, Sheldon suggests, while you're teaching your child that knives are sharp and stoves are hot and a big mess is only a flying elbow away, emphasize that the process can still be a kick.
"Depending on the child's age," she said, "you have to set down some guidelines on what can be used with and without an adult around. For instance, you can make a rule that no sharp knives can be used without an adult present. But you don't want to make it so scary that when the kids turn 21, they're still afraid to pick up a knife."
One strategy, she said, is division of labor. Highlight the steps in the cookbook that your child can do--stirring, blending, shaping dough, cutting out cookies--and you dice and saute the onions and flambe the dessert.
A cookbook for kids can help demystify and simplify things, for both children and their parents. A good one is Betty Crocker's New Boys and Girls Cookbook. It costs about $10, it's simply written, includes a brief glossary of common cooking terms and hints, illustrates how to set a table and how to measure ingredients, includes a page on "kitchen math" and an illustrated nomenclature of cooking tools.
(This information alone, believe me, would have been a real boon in my hungry postgraduate days when I was a culinary moron and the can opener was my primary cooking tool. Do your kids a favor and get them a cookbook like this when they're young so they won't face the embarrassment of having to buy a child's cookbook to learn the basics when they're 22.)
It isn't baby food. A few moppet meals from the Betty Crocker book: nachos, scrambled eggs, lemon-blueberry muffins, scones, vegetable soup, crunchy tortellini salad, sloppy joes, oven-fried chicken, peanut chocolate truffles, strawberry shortcake, baked cheese with apples and, yes, pizza.
Presentation doesn't count.
"Even if it doesn't look good at the end, they're proud of it because they did it," she said. "There are very few kids that don't get excited about cooking."
But what if the kid turns into Kitchen Ninja? What if he starts carrying around a Henckel Four Star in a holster like a Navy Colt? What if he pulls down the Magic Johnson poster and puts up one of Wolfgang Puck? What if he asks for a duck press for Christmas?
Relax. Scrap the kiddie cookbook, get him a copy of the Larousse Gastronomique and set the table. Until he heads off to chef's school at La Varenne (on scholarship), you're going to eat like a sultan.