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Parent to Parent: Underfoot, or helping? Let kids into the kitchen

By Betsy Flagler
John Rosemond
Betsy Flagler, who lives in Davidson, writes the nationally syndicated Parent to Parent column.

You’re in my way.

That doesn’t sound nice at all, does it? Whether through words or body language, it’s the feeling children often get. They are in somebody’s way or on somebody’s nerves.

Change that feeling in your house, starting with the kitchen. It’s easy to shoo your own, or visiting, kids out, but children need relatives and neighbors to put out the welcome mat. Your presence, more than presents, is what they need.

Instead of kicking kids out of the best spot in the house, invite them in for cooking lessons. Incorporate their interests and abilities in food prep, baking, cleanup and setting the table. Even a child as young as 2 or 3, when properly supervised, can learn to crack eggs, measure ingredients, roll dough into balls, sift flour and peel apples. All sorts of step-by-step lessons can come into play, from the chemistry of cooking, to reading recipes, to the math of measuring.

They will make messes, yes, but also make memories and learn life skills.

Need peppermint sticks smashed into bits? A toddler with a plastic hammer is your go-to helper. So many jobs in the kitchen are fun, such as washing lettuce in a salad spinner and tearing it into bite-size pieces.

The best ingredients to employ: An extra dose of patience and a spoonful of love.

Perhaps the most compelling kitchen invitation for children, over the holidays or any time, is to make cookies together. If you have a sugar dough recipe that needs to chill, and only a short time with family, make the dough a day ahead. Then focus the time you have together on rolling out the dough, cutting out shapes and decorating. Teach, incorporate, share what you know.

Wrap up the project by sharing the cookies, taking photos and writing down the recipe together.

My favorite recipe to cook with children over the holidays is called Snowballs. It’s a recipe passed down from my grandmother, whom we called Mamaw.

Snowballs call for 1/4 pound butter; 2 rounded tablespoons powdered sugar; 1 cup flour; a pinch of salt; 1 cup finely chopped pecans; and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla.

Cream the butter, powdered sugar, flour and salt together well. Add the pecans and vanilla. Roll into small, tight balls and bake in a 300-degree oven for about 25 minutes, until very light brown.

The fun part: Once the cookies are baked and cooled, each ball is rolled in powdered sugar. Your little assistant will need to learn not to dump out the entire box of sugar, and that a little bit goes a long way.

What may be second nature to you, such as rolling out dough, takes practice for your mini-chef. All this hard work will build fine-motor skills.

Another fun option is to make candy with kids, such as assembling melted chocolate, caramels and pecans into “turtles.” Candy-finishing advice from our Flagler family cookbook: “Spoon chocolate over the teeny turtle bodies.”

Our family cookbook also includes one of my sister’s recipes for play-dough: 1 cup flour; 1/2 cup salt; 2 teaspoons cream of tartar; 1 cup water; 1 tablespoon vegetable oil.

Mix all ingredients thoroughly, cooking over medium heat. Stir until the mix leaves the sides of the saucepan and is firm. Add a couple of drops of food coloring and scents of the season, such as peppermint or cinnamon. Again, let your little learners do as many steps as they can. Make several batches, divide into small plastic containers, add a ribbon and cookie cutter and voila! Inexpensive gifts for friends.

My favorite entry in the family cookbook is a big crowd-pleaser: Papa’s Nutty Caramel Corn. Unlike my mom, my dad was not big on letting us help him in the kitchen, so I never learned the secrets to making this delight. The popcorn recipe calls for the chef to wear awful “holiday patchwork corduroy pants” of maroon, blue and yellow – a ghastly outfit now long-gone.

My dad’s popcorn was the best: mounds of fresh popcorn covered in brown sugar with cashews and pecans, put together in a turkey-roasting pan. He even made a little screen to sift out the popcorn kernels. And don’t even think about using microwave popcorn, Dad would say. It tastes like cardboard.

That caramel corn was like magic, the way it disappeared. This year, allow your little helpers into the kitchen to make some magic of your own.

Email Betsy Flagler at p2ptips@attn.net.

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