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Cooking with your kids: When they get what you’re saying

November 7, 2009

Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to myself. Words of motherhood wisdom – also known as directions, advice, requests, demands and, sometimes, just plain nagging – often go unanswered.

 When it comes to food, my philosophy has been pretty simple. Eat a healthy diet, as best you can afford. Balance everything. Most importantly, appreciate what you have.

 My love affair with food goes back to humble beginnings when there wasn’t enough in the house to feed nine children, two parents, a grandparent, a great uncle and at least one neighborhood friend who usually ate over. There weren’t really any leftovers in our house, just food prepared to make two or three meals.  Sometimes I was still hungry an hour later and I’d slink down to the kitchen to find something to eat.  My love affair was more like a stalker relationship. I was always seeking food and I never turned it down.

 As a teenager running cross country, I learned the value of preparing your body for athletic competition through nutrition. Pasta dinners were a very inexpensive way to feed the hungry teenagers at home, especially those who trained 60-75 miles a week. Slowly the candy, soda, chewing gum, Doritos, Cheese Doodles and gummy bears all disappeared from my diet.

 It was years before I really learned what it meant to balance a diet. It’s a constant work in progress. Given my decades-long experience as a food stalker, portion control can still be an issue.

 As a mother I was determined to be different. I didn’t want my children to know dinners from the frozen food case. I didn’t want them to think I was a mom, who cooked using a can from Aisle 7, mixed with a can from Aisle 2 and a box from Aisle 9.  They were never going to know that dinner meant taking a box from the freezer and putting it into the microwave. I wanted them to know what they were eating and why, even if it was a simple meal.

 I prayed that they would never go to bed hungry. Still do.

 It’s amazing how life comes back at you. For 21 years I’ve been saying:

 “Eat your vegetables. Otherwise your body won’t grow big and strong.”

 “Drink your milk. All of it.”

 “Take your vitamins.”

 “Drink water.”

 “You don’t have to eat it all, but you do have to try it.”

 “If you’re not going to eat anything then just eat the broccoli.”

 “You need more sleep than that.”

 Sometimes I wonder if it ever registers, even though I know it does.

 When I picked up my four-year-old son from day care today he was eager to go home. He was ignited with energy, like a middle schooler full of posse gossip. As soon as we got in the door, he announced he wanted to cook.

 “I want to make some-ting, Momma.”

 I was planning on making a one-dish dinner of risotto loaded with Jersey Fresh produce from my local farm market: cooked and layered with fresh carrots, green beans and portabella mushrooms.

 “Can I cut the carrots, Momma? They’re healthy.”

 Did my child just say that?

 Standing 50 inches tall atop a foot stool, he hovered over the stove. As I taught him how to heat the oil and butter in a large sauce pan I was stunned as how gently he stirred the mixture. When the butter melted he asked, “Can we put the rice in now, Momma?”

 My eyes were glued to his curiosity.

 “After we chop and cook the onions, we can then add the rice, Tommy.”

 We talked about how to be careful around the stove and how to be safe so that we don’t get burned. We talked about the difference in using the wooden or slotted spoons as opposed to just stirring it with a silicone whisk. When I showed him how to stir a pot, he understood that the avocado peeler that he pulled from the utensil drawer would not be good to use for this recipe.  We even squeezed in a lesson on knife safety, particularly after he walked into my line of fire as I lifted scraps with the back of my knife and aimed for the garbage can.

 I always tell him, “The farmer grows this for us to eat.”  I want him to know the connection between what we eat, and how we buy our food from farmers exhibiting at the local market on Saturday mornings.

 While I was finishing the dish, Tommy decided to set the table.

 “I want to be the Plate Helper,” he says a hundred miles an hour.

 He runs to set the table with china plates, paper napkins, a fork and knife set on the correct side of the dish, and plastic kid cups from Friday’s complete with their red lids (leftovers from occasional dinners out.)

 My husband Rick was too stunned at the storm cell in my kitchen to comment. Tommy was still talking a hundred miles an hour at dinner, describing everything he did and what we were eating.

 “These are fresh-from-the-farmer green beans.”

 “Fresh, fresh, fresh carrots.”

 “You’re a good cooker, Mom.”

 “I eat all the farmer fresh green beans so I can grow big and strong to learn.”

 “I’m happy belly (pronounced Bell-Wee).”

 Sometimes you just have to stop and teach your children to cook, no matter how long it takes to put dinner on the table. They’re listening.

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