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Written by:  Katrina Tauchen
Date: November 1, 2012

As the calendar turns to November, families gear up for the holiday season when relatives and friends gather around the table, share a meal and give thanks. But it's not just the Norman Rockwell vision of the family table that marks the spirit of Thanksgiving. Time spent together in the kitchen preparing the meal and bonding over a common goal can breed an even stronger sense of family and connection that continues throughout the year.

With a little time — and lots of patience — the heart of the home is becoming a bonding place for parents and children, and a learning ground for a growing number of pint-sized chefs. Read on to discover the benefits of cooking with kids and find recipes to make with kids here.

Contributing to the family

Kris Ference of Raleigh grew up helping in the kitchen and wanted to instill the values she learned in her two children, Hayes, 12, and Izabella, 9. More than passing along family traditions, the full-time teacher says dividing the responsibilities is a way to ease the workload and spend time together.

"Being a working mom, it's kind of a necessity at this point," she says. "We spend so much time in the kitchen, and [the children] can pitch in and help. And there's that bonding time because they can talk about their days while doing it."

Ference says her kids help with a lot of the basics of meal preparation: making salads, chopping vegetables, grating cheese, or baking boxed brownies or chocolate chip pancakes, Izabella's favorite.

"My son likes her chocolate chip pancakes better than mine, and she likes his eggs better than mine," Ference says.

Trying new foods

Frerence discovered an added bonus when her kids help: If they help cook it, they're more likely to try it.

"Neither of my kids would touch a quiche," she says. "But when they make it, they'll try it. It's opened them up to a lot of new foods."

Experts suggest Ference is on the right track. Although little research has been done specifically on time parents and children spend cooking together, Myles Faith, an associate professor of nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill's Gillings School of Global Public Health, says he sees many possible benefits.

"One is that it can provide the exposure to a whole variety of new and different foods, and repeat exposure predicts children's acceptance of foods," he says.

Faith, whose current research largely focuses on parenting styles and practices, also emphasizes that cooking together could be beneficial if it's enjoyable. "Kids like to do what's fun, and making healthier options more pleasurable could increase children's acceptance of it," he says. "It's an opportunity to make something fun and engaging."

That sense of enjoyment is important for parents to keep in mind, especially when working on a holiday menu, which often brings added stress to plan and prepare. "We do a really easy pilgrim dessert every year that the kids really like, and they always help with that," Ference says. "And every year for the holidays, I try to let them look at magazines, too, for ideas they want to try. There are so many fun options out there."

Wielding the knife

For many kids, that fun begins by getting their hands in the mix. It's an aspect that Lil' Chef, a cooking studio in Raleigh for children and teenagers, keeps front and center.

"We have found that the more hands-on children are in the kitchen at an early age, the greater their chance of discovering healthy foods, which will decrease the likelihood of developing obesity and the diseases that are associated with it," says Susan Caldwell, Lil' Chef founder.

If the idea of handing your first-grader a knife makes you shudder, Caldwell reassures parents that kids catch on to simple cooking techniques and utensils quickly.

"I love putting one of our large safety knives in the hands of a 3-year-old with a banana," she says. "The smiles that appear on the child's face and the sense of accomplishment that the child feels after being able to do something as simple as slicing a banana is priceless. Start with simple tasks, and then choose more challenging ones."

Added benefits for kids

Parents and experts find that teaching kids to cook and cooking as a family produce benefits beyond the kitchen.

"Cooking is all about creativity, science and math, which is used in their everyday lives outside of Lil' Chef," Caldwell says. "Cooking also boosts self-esteem, teaches them to eat healthy, creates family time and bonding, helps them understand planning and making choices, and allows so much healthy creativity."

Ference has seen the benefits firsthand. "My daughter is shy, and I've noticed now that when she does how-to reports for school, she does 'how to ice a cookie,' things like that, and she gets excited about it and can talk about it," she says.

Parents who spend time with their kids in the kitchen also have the ideal opportunity to model healthy choices. "When cooking and eating, we know that role modeling is a predictor of what children eat," Faith says. "Role modeling doesn't mean that you force your child to eat it. It just means that you do it in front of your children so they can see it."

Ignore the mess, embrace the time

There are a few unavoidable truths about cooking with kids, especially young chefs who are just learning: It will take time, and it will probably make a mess.

"The biggest dread of a parent is thinking of the mess, and that was what I really had to get over," Ference says. "I can do it myself, and it can be nice and clean and done the way I want it, or I can be spending the time with them, and we can clean it up later. Even if it's a bigger mess or a hassle, it's worth it."

Katrina Tauchen is a freelance writer, editor and new mom who lives in Durham. She blogs at splashofsomething.com.


Young Celebrity Chef

Triangle kids aren't just flexing their cooking muscles in their own kitchens. One local chef is taking her skills to the next level. Eleven-year-old Sydney McCoy's culinary prowess took her all the way to the Rachael Ray Show in New York City earlier this year as well as to the 2012 Olympic Games in London. And the enthusiastic sixth-grader from Apex just added another notch to her already-decorated apron: She's one of nine finalists in a national competition to cook with celebrity chef Cat Cora using her own recipe titled Bird Lasagna. McCoy also received the individual distinction of Future TV Star. See more about Sydney and her cooking adventures at sydneymccoy.com.


Kids Get Cooking

Have a mini chef on your hands? These Triangle cooking schools are geared toward the youngest of chefs.

C'est si Bon
1002 Brace Lane, Chapel Hill
919-942-6550
cestsibon.net

Classy Kids Cook
1240 NW Maynard Road, Cary
919-481-1645
cary.classykidscook.com

Lil' Chef
4151-105 Main at North Hills Street, Raleigh
919-889-2598
lilchefraleigh.com



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