If your grandchildren’s boundless energy, interminable bickering and sullen moods leave you little energy for preparing wholesome — let alone creative — meals, it’s understandable. And then, of course, those “Ick, I hate it” or “Ew, it’s weird” reactions before tasting something can further undo you. So what’s a well-intentioned grandparent to do (besides pour a drink)?
Convenience foods are one obvious solution: They’re familiar, and thus nonthreatening, and the better ones aren’t necessarily a dietary shipwreck. But you don’t have to go that route. You can cook easy meals that your grandkids will not only love but will love helping prepare.
Cooking a dish or even a whole meal from scratch with grandkids offers benefits beyond just the tasty results. It imparts all sorts of important knowledge (about math, science and basic cooking techniques); it teaches them about good food; it’s a great way to bond; it fuels creativity and builds their confidence in and out of the kitchen; and it gives them lifetime values.
You don’t have to be an expert cook to share these lessons. You just need enthusiasm and encouragement — and maybe a few aprons.
Lesson #1: Chemistry and Math
Before you even venture into actual cooking, make kitchen time appealing, says chef Janeen Sarlin, author of Princess Tea: Parties and Treats for Little Girls (Chronicle Books, 2009). While having fun, kids can learn useful lessons that apply beyond the kitchen.
“Fill the sink with soapy water and let them play,” says Sarlin, who is a grandmother to two boys, John, 4, and Henry, 7. “Then, as they’re splashing and laughing, ask why a cup in water sinks when filled with liquid. If they don’t guess, explain gravity,” she says.
Another suggestion: While making dough for pizza, let them see how dry yeast is activated when added to warm milk. The little bubbles that form on the surface are a chemical reaction that, along with your punching the dough down and kneading it, causes the dough to rise. “Scientific names aren’t so important at this point,” says Sarlin, “but kids will be ahead of their classmates when they encounter them later in school.” Meanwhile, they’re physically and mentally engaged.
Through cooking you can teach kids basic arithmetic before they formally learn it in school, says Sarlin, or “Neeny” as she’s known to John and Henry. When, for example, a recipe calls for three-quarters of a cup of flour, using the half- and quarter-cup measures illustrates how fractions are combined and it helps them learn how to measure accurately. Pouring liquids into a glass measure and spooning and leveling dry ingredients in metal cups also teach hand-eye coordination.
Lesson #2: Food Comes From Farms
For too many kids, mealtime means grabbing something of the fly — food comes off shelves or across a fast-food counter. Making “real” food can be a small antidote to our national fast-food mania, offering insight into the origins of ingredients and the cooking process. Barbara Josephson’s 17-year-old granddaughter, Danielle, wanted to make jam with her last summer to give as Christmas gifts. Josephson thought it was a good chance to teach her about where ingredients come from and how good preserves are really made.
Josephson grew up on a farm while her dad was in the service. Since the women of her family prepared everything they ate, farm-fresh meals were the norm.
“So off we went to a farm to buy a flat of strawberries and then to a hardware store for jars and lids,” says Josephson, who still uses her grandmother’s canning pot and tools. “We spent an entire day preparing the jars and cleaning, slicing and cooking the berries before finally boiling and sealing them. Although I don’t think Danielle will be too anxious to repeat such a labor-intensive day with me again, she now appreciates what goes into making high-quality, store-bought strawberry jam.”
Lesson #3: Family Matters
Sharing kitchen activities along with recipes and stories helps bring together generations. Taking the lead comes naturally for many grandparents, who tend to have more patience than parents. They’ve seen fingers (perhaps of kids who’ve grown into impatient parents) in the frosting bowl and flour on the floor before, so they can let kids feel like they’re getting away with breaking the rules without suffering any consequences.
Christine Agnini has three granddaughters, 14, 9 and 2, who live on an organic farm in Ann Arbor, Mich. Because Agnini lives in New York City, she doesn’t see them as often as she’d like. “Whether I go there or they come here, [cooking is] always an important part of our time together. We make traditional things like Victoria sponge cake because my husband’s family is English, as well as recipes from my own mother and father. For Christmas, I gave the girls a crêpe pan and wooden turner from Williams-Sonoma, and it was a huge hit.”
Everyone in one place creating a feast together is infinitely better than the grown-ups doing the cooking and cleanup while the kids stare at a computer or TV in the den. It’s also a great way for grandkids to learn about their older relatives and family recipes and heritage.
Lesson #4: Cooking Fosters Creativity
The kitchen is a place where experimenting is not only acceptable, it’s beneficial. It’s good for kids to learn that they can play or try out new things and not be “judged” on their performance or need to achieve “perfection” in the result.
So what if the cake decorations or pizza toppings aren’t flawless? As long as they’re edible, the process encourages originality and the expression of personal style. And the wonder and pride of those “ta-da” moments — like when grandchildren see how ingredients they mixed in a bowl emerge from the oven as a cake and say “I made that!” — are priceless.
Lesson #5: The Kitchen Is a Place of Enrichment
Finally, lessons learned while cooking with grandparents remain part of us even when we grow up and have children and grandchildren of our own. Soap star Colleen Zenk (Barbara Ryan on As the World Turns) spent a lot of her childhood on her grandparents’ small dairy farm in Barrington, Ill., where everyone, regardless of age, was expected to pull his or her own weight.
“My grandmother, Lillian Phelps Zenk Dittrich, was a professional baker, but she also prepared meals for the help,” says Zenk. “We were up before dawn, and just after breakfast we’d cook meals for six to 10 farmhands, then drive into the fields to deliver the baskets. I can still taste her fried chicken, potato salad, cookies and pie.”
Zenk credits her grandmother with teaching her what commitment to one’s job means. “For most of my years at ATWT, I lived in Connecticut, so I had to get up at 3:45 a.m. for my nearly three-hour commute. It’s just what you did. While I don’t have my grandmother’s pastry-chef genes — my daughters do; they’re all gifted bakers — I did inherit her work ethic.”
In the end, cooking with grandchildren can be a gift for the whole family. It builds kids’ trust in you so they might share “secrets” with you. While gaining useful knowledge, it instills confidence in their own skills and gives new meaning to “happy meals.”
Neeny’s Corn Muffins
My grandsons love corn muffins — as do most kids. This recipe is a good vehicle for teaching kids chemistry, math, hand-eye coordination and cleanup, and most of the steps are appropriate for children of all ages.
1 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (unsifted)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled (best done by an adult)
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
2 eggs, slightly beaten
- Preheat the oven to 425° F. Grease a 12-muffin tin. This is a good job for kids to do with the paper and stick of butter — or with their fingers, if they don’t mind getting greasy.
- Have kids measure out the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and baking soda, leveling off the tops of the cups/teaspoons with a small spatula and adding these ingredients to a large bowl. (Kids love to add each ingredient individually, so allot plenty of time.) Mix well with a whisk or spoon.
- Let the kids break the eggs into a small bowl and whisk until slightly beaten. (Kids love to crackand beat eggs. But you probably don’t love shells in your muffins, so have a teaspoon handy.)
- In a separate bowl, stir the butter and buttermilk together, then pour in the eggs and mix well.
- Pour the liquid mixture into the center of the dry ingredients. With a wooden spoon, beat just until the dry ingredients are completely blended — do not over-mix. Fill each muffin tin about two-thirds high, then bake until the muffins are golden brown on the edges and a toothpick stuck in the center of one comes out clean — about 20 minutes. Set on a rack until they are cool to the touch, then tap out of the tins and enjoy.
Joanna Pruess is the creator of the New Jersey-based Cookingstudio in Kings Supermarkets. Many of the more than 15,000 students who have attended the school were children. Joanna taught several classes for them, and also taught her own three kids to cook.