Top Reasons Why Kids Need to be in the Kitchen

 

The lazy days of summer brought something unexpected; my children into the kitchen. I’m not referring to children whining about being hungry, once the scent of dinner lures them from their playing digs, but as, actual cooks. My kids, ages 7, 8 and 11, are in the kitchen every night—chopping, grating, mixing, stirring, and all the other verbs required in cooking a meal.

On a recent night, Isabella, the oldest, shredded some leftover roasted chicken. Joaquin, my 8-year-old, heated corn tortillas on the iron coma. Most impressive, my 7-year-old, Estrella, placed the shredded chicken onto the tortillas and rolled it into taut taquitos, whereby after being shown twice was able to stitch the tortilla closed with a toothpick.

In Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked, he writes that the amount of time spent cooking each day for the average American fell by 50% to 27 minutes. A home cooked meal is losing ground in every country, but especially in the United States, since the 1960’s. Instead we, the collective world population of eaters, are fed at restaurants, drive-thrus and with pre-packaged meals found in the frozen section of supermarkets. In the U.S., there are five drive-thrus for every 1 grocery store. We have outsourced the cooking of our food relegating the choice of ingredients to someone else.

A steep price is paid for our departure from our stoves and ovens by our air, soil and water. Examining water alone: the EPA reports 40% of America’s rivers and 46% of lakes are too polluted with nitrates to support aquatic life. Agriculture is the leading source of contaminants. The truth of the matter is to cook in large quantities to feed large quantities requires large agricultural operations which lean heavily on pesticides, petroleum fertilizers, feedlots, and growth hormones—the same contaminants polluting a river near you.

By contrast the home cook, unconcerned with profit margins, can spend more money on ingredients. When I make homemade pizza, I spend $5 per 1/2 pound of organic mozzarella sourced from grazed animals on rain-fed pastures and $8 per pound of organic pork sausage. The pizza chain franchise couldn't possibly buy sustainable, quality ingredients and sell a large pizza for $6.48, the current market price at one popular outlet. Thus, a small rancher, grazing his/her cows on natural pastures is grazed over for the cheaper feedlot raised animal.

Small to medium sized farmers who are stewards of the land and water, like the ones I’ve met all around the country, rely on us, home cooks and a growing, but still small number of farm to table restaurants, to keep them in business.

This brings me back to my kids in the kitchen. Cooks are not born; they are cultivated. For several years, my kids joined me at the farmer’s market and supermarket. They’ve watched me carefully choose our ingredients.They’ve listened to me ask questions of farmers and vendors regarding the water-sustainability of their goods; that is, food grown by minimally diverting water from its natural water cycle. In the process, their pallets developed to discern the difference between fresher, quality ingredients.

My kids know brussel sprouts or broccoli purchased in season from the local farm are almost sweet. They notice the rich golden hue of butter purchased from grazed cows. Although a critical part of their food education, but only the beginning. If we are to support food producers, who are dedicating themselves to raising ingredients without compromising our environment in the process, then we must train the next crop of cooks. My family is proof that kids can cook, and they can start early.

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4 thoughts on “Top Reasons Why Kids Need to be in the Kitchen

  1. April Cantor says:

    Thanks for another great post Florencia! Just this evening Ezra made quite a stand for making his own spinach gnocchi, even as I tried to steer him into buying the fresh-packaged stuff from the local Italian store (to save us time). I finally surrendered since he made a good case: “Mom, any food I make my own way is gonna taste way better than anything you can buy at the store!” And even though somehow we managed to screw up the recipe and he ended up not liking the end result (“It didn’t turn out the way I had it at cooking camp. 😦 ” ) I was still proud that he took a stand for a home-cooked meal.

    And please don’t be mad at us: we were actually in CA this Aug but in San Francisco. We figured it was too far north of you guys to get you to meet up with us but we thought of you. We did the drive from SF to Seattle to visit my brother for a week. It was awesome! Hope to make it out there again, this time in So Cal.

    Big hugs to you all. Peace,

    April Cantor founder and director april@soulshinelife.com 347-645-0453

    Let your Light SHINE!

    http://www.soulshinelife.com Kids Yoga Adventures and Family Yoga Workshops & Retreats

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  2. Irene Villanueva says:

    Hi Florencia,

    It’s so good to hear from you. I’ve been thinking about you and the family, hoping you would write. You know I love seeing the photos of kids and hearing about everyone. This piece on why kids need to be in the kitchen made a few connections for me. First, it filled me in on what you and your kids are doing. Also, it reminded me of my visits and observations of your mom’s kitchen, with her, you and your sisters all participating in the meal preparation. (I may even have a video of that interaction somewhere.) Even more personally, and going back yet another generation, it brought back memories of my own childhood in my mom’s kitchen.

    Your first description of Joaquin heating the tortillas on the comal made a strong connection for me. First, let me say, that’s a great image. Perhaps it’s the thought of the traditional and basic food, the tortilla. Also, the traditional cookware, the comal, illustrates the significance of what might seem a simple everyday task. Yet, as you point out, those “everyday” tasks are not so common in today’s fast-paced, quick and easy world. In contrast, your illustration serves as a great example to emphasize how uncommon that act is, and the importance it takes on. The activity in the kitchen, with each family member contributing to the preparation also illustrates the social activity as an informal teaching and learning activity. There is so much teaching and learning going on these types of activities, language, culture, in addition to food preparation. Most importantly you are creating memories of important times together which you and your kids will treasure.

    As I said, your story of the present day kitchen activities with your kids sparked my memories, so many….. It reminds me of my mom’s stories about learning to make tortillas in New Mexico, standing on a little stool to reach the stove, on a comal passed down from the previous generation. Thinking of my own memory and experience, here’s another centered around the making of tortillas. My dad made small rolling pins (we called them bolillos) for my sisters and me so that we could all “help” my mom roll out the flour tortillas. [He cut dowels down to size for our small hands.] My sisters and I would roll the tortillas, trying to make somewhat circular-shaped tortillas and laughing at the various map-like shapes that we unintentionally created. And, my mom, always accepted whatever shapes resulted, because in the end “they all taste the same.”

    You mention that your kids are learning in the kitchen, in addition to the act of shopping for foods. As you said, they have developed their palates, and have an awareness of the differences and tastes of fresh ingredients. I would add that you and they also have a deep appreciation of the time, care, and attention that you place on putting those carefully chosen foods on the table. The process involves so many aspects. Of course it all starts with the growing, cultivating the foods, which you have written about before. Also as you described, selecting and purchasing those ingredients is an important part of the process. The experience in the kitchen, combining, chopping, grating, mixing, stirring, shredding, rolling, heating, etc., etc., of those foods brings the family together in another very important step in the process. This leads to the presentation of the foods on the table, which might seem like the “final” step in the process. Almost. So far, everything has been done with family members participating in a communal effort, leading to that final step, to sit at the table together. And, all of those steps contribute to the kids’ awareness of those differences in the tastes of the foods. That’s why the kids enjoy the final product in yet another memorable social experience for the family, sitting at the table together to savor the foods and celebrate la familia’s work and contribution in bringing it all together.

    You have something very special here Florencia. Your children are learning so many important things. They’re learning to value family, learning to collaborate, care, and appreciate their family, the earth and its gifts.

    con mucho cariño,

    Irene

    ________________________________

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    • Florencia Ramirez says:

      Irene,
      Your response touched me profoundly. In my imagination, I see you in your mother’s kitchen rolling out misshapen tortillas with homemade rolling pins just as easily as you remember my sisters and me in my mother’s kitchen. Would your long black hair get tangled in the masa and mistakenly rolled around the bolillo?

      Food has the power to repair many of the environmental problems like, water pollution, overdrawn aquifers, soil erosion, etc…. Your thoughtful response reminds me that food to has the power to strengthen families and friendships. With that in mind, PLEASE come to my kitchen and teach the kids to roll flour tortillas; let’s roll out more tortilla memories. And I can show off my 70-year-old Chamber stove. It is similar to the one you once cherished in your kitchen.

      Abrazos,
      Florencia

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