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Kitchen kids stir things up

Children can do a lot more than lick chocolate frosting off a wooden

It's become a holiday tradition. Three days before the big event, Mom puts away her briefcase and pulls out her recipe books.

Seventy-two hot, floury hours later, she emerges, tottering but triumphant, bearing enough food - she thinks - to feed Rhode Island.

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The family waits expectantly around the table, poised for action. Grace acts as a starting gun, and they're off. The bird is carved, the potatoes are passed. Fifteen minutes later, the kids are off to play, leaving behind the wreckage of plates and throwing a "Thanks, Mom" over their shoulder as they run out the door.

Not at the Held household.

With its cooking island and fickle oven, the kitchen is the center of the family. That's never more true than during the holidays.

"I love that my children enjoy doing something that I enjoy," says Leslie Held of Newton, Mass., a former caterer who passed her love of baking along to both sons. Sixth-grader Zachary helps with the shopping and makes pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread for Thanksgiving. Younger brother Jesse, the mathematician, triples recipes for his mother so there will be enough for all and likes to sprinkle cheese and spices over everything.

Both boys help with the serious business of choosing the menu of desserts for the annual Christmas party.

And that, experts say, makes for a real family event. "If mother - or father - is being a slave in the kitchen," it's not much of a holiday, points out Lynn Fredericks, author of "Cooking Time Is Family Time."

Preparing a feast together is a great way to get the TV turned off and the children out of their bedrooms. And while one might not think pumpkin pie could hold the same allure as Pokmon, you might be surprised.

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"Little kids want to do what you want to do," says Mrs. Held, who brought her sons into the kitchen when they were too young to know cooking is supposed to be a chore.

She and her husband, Grey, put a toy kitchen in the real one when Zachary was a baby, so he could cook along with his parents. At 3, he tried holding a mixer for the first time, splattering the walls with cheesecake mousse. When the boys got a little older, Grey created secret recipes with both children, something special that no one else in the family knew how to make.

Turning cooking into playtime is the secret to capturing your children's attention, experts say. But for a lot of people, just cooking dinner is a daunting task, let alone adding children to the mix.

For example, when Sharon Rooker's teenage daughter comes home to Haverhill, Mass., from boarding school, her four girls go on a baking frenzy. "At Christmas, we have lots of plates of beautifully decorated cookies. I'm thrilled to see how Natalie will include all her sisters." Even five-year-old Caitlin helps stir the batter and decorate.

But for day-to-day cooking, "I know I'm going to take three times as long to show them how," says Mrs. Rooker. "It's just easier if I can do everything myself."

With more single-parent households and homes where both parents work, teens are donning oven mitts more than ever, and not just on the holidays. Forty-seven percent of teenagers cook dinner for themselves or their family at least once a week, and more than 2 in 3 prepare some kind of meal during the week, according to a survey by Teen Research Unlimited in Illinois. That's up from roughly 1 in 2 in 1994. This doesn't mean seventh-graders are regularly turning out three-course meals, but a lot of teens say they like the sense of accomplishment that comes from cooking pasta and sauce or mac 'n' cheese.

But holidays are a great time to expand their repertoire. Ms. Fredericks recommends starting at least a week in advance, because if adults are feeling harried or exhausted, no one is going to have fun. Start by asking children what kinds of foods they want to fix, and what they remember about the year before. "Pepper it with your own childhood memories." For example, "when I was little, my favorite part was ... when I put my hand inside the turkey and it disappeared,"

Held makes up a preliminary list of goodies for the annual appetizer and dessert extravaganza the family throws every year, and lets Zachary and Jesse pick the final seven types of cookies. They have even more say over which desserts get served to the younger guests.

If dealing with more than one child at a time sounds like too much multitasking, pick one dish to make with each of them, Fredericks says. And make sure it's something they like - cooking yams with Dad is much less thrilling if a child dislikes sweet potatoes.

Chef Wayne Almquist points out, however, that children are more likely to try a dish if they've had a hand in making it. At his class for young people at the Culinary Institute of America in Hudson, N.Y., whatever he's teaching his 10- to 12-year-old students often becomes their favorite dish. "Then they eat vegetable lasagna till it comes out their ears."

Indeed, home fries have become a staple at the Rooker table since sixth-grader Lucia learned how to make them in her home economics class. Her mother, Sharon, estimates they eat the spicy fries three times a week - which is just fine with her. "I don't think I'll ever get tired of them, especially if Lucia makes them."

As for Lucia, she says it's fun to be able to help out, and she likes the fact that she can make the dish by herself.

That sense of pride in being able to make something for the family is just one of the benefits children get out of learning to cook, Mr. Almquist says. They also get to exercise their creative side and learn to follow directions. Sometimes, he says, his students even realize McDonald's hamburgers are not the epitome of gustatory delight.

Also, working with parents on a project can also make talking a little easier. "Cooking should definitely be done as a family," says Almquist. "That's when conversation begins."

Tasks likes cutting out cookies or kneading dough "are a great opportunity to schmooze without talking being the focus," agrees Held, as Zachary expertly wipes down the counter and Jesse sticks his entire face into the mixing bowl to lick the last of his brother's brownie batter.

In addition to having some company while wrestling with turkey and all the trimmings, parents might be surprised to find they're less tired - not more - after cooking with the kids. "It's really quite powerful," Fredericks says. "There's a lot of weight on [the cook's] shoulders. But when they share it with [the children], they recharge their batteries."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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