BY MARCIA SMART, SMART IN THE KITCHEN
Stirring it Up: Soups and Stews Your Little Ones Will Love to Cook
Cooking with my toddler in the kitchen is definitely a challenge, everything just takes twice as long to accomplish when a curious munchkin wants to “help.” They are constantly tugging on pant legs and saying “me see, me cook” and of course they want to stir and stir and stir whatever’s in the pot.
Even the youngest of kids can help get dinner on the table. Emphasis on help! Starting at 18 months, there are jobs little ones can do to lend a helping hand, such as emptying measuring cups full of ingredients into the pot and dropping the measuring cup into the sink (all while you’re holding her, of course). Once she’s older and a step stool isn’t a fall waiting to happen, they can stand at the sink to peel carrots or skin onions and garlic, as well as gather ingredients from the pantry and measure water or stock. And let’s not forget the fun of the ubiquitous stir, stir, stir.
For small kids, food and cooking is not so much about eating, but about exploring a grown-up’s world and learning new skills. There are lessons to be learned in the kitchen. It’s a great way to teach kids about nutrition and eating well, and also a nice reminder that dinner doesn’t just appear magically, but is cooked and prepared. For school age kids it’s also a fun way to learn about measurements and volume – younger siblings can count the number of ingredients in a recipe or name the colors of vegetables. Sure there are some safety issues to consider—keep the sharp knives out of arm’s reach and the pots on the back of the stove—and just remember to keep a watchful eye.
Soups and stews are a great introduction to cooking. They can be super simple to prepare and they’re an ingenious way to sneak vegetables and protein in to even a picky eater’s diet. And most kids are much more likely to tuck into a warm bowl of soup if they’ve had a hand in its creation. Before dinner’s ready, enlist the help of your kids to set the table, fill water glasses and clean up the cooking mess. Who knows, the little ones might have so much fun that they volunteer to clean the dishes after dinner. But then again, you don’t want dad to feel left out, do you?
Jack-o-lantern soup: Sure it might be a little time consuming to hollow out little pumpkins for this festive fall soup, but what kid can resist eating out of a pumpkin? Look for smaller sugar pumpkins, sometimes called soup pumpkins – they’re easier to hollow out. Let your kids dig out the flesh using a metal serving spoon, although you may need to finish the job with a paring knife. Kids can also separate the seeds and stringy flesh from the pumpkin meat. Rinse the seeds, dry well and toss with olive oil and salt. To make the soup, roast the pumpkin meat in a 400 degree oven. When it’s slightly cooled, puree with chicken stock, a dash of soy sauce or tamari and a little honey. If you’d like leftovers to have for lunch during the week, add one large can of pumpkin puree and a little extra chicken stock or water. Keep a bowl of toasted pumpkin seeds on the table so that kids can use them to garnish their soup.
Mac-n-cheese soup: A perennial favorite among kids of all ages, elbow macaroni can be made into a crowd pleasing cheese soup. Add broccoli for extra nutrients and flavor (kids can pull apart the florets). To make the soup, saute onion in a little butter and add a couple tablespoons of flour (being careful not to burn), whisk in a cup of chicken stock and a cup of whole milk on low to medium heat (older kids can gently whisk the liquids). Add two cups of kid-grated sharp cheddar cheese (keep in mind that reduced or low-fat cheeses won’t work as well. You didn’t hear it from me, but Velveeta, if you’re up for it, is actually a great option since it melts so well. Stir in the broccoli florets and a cup of cooked elbow macaroni.
Baked potato soup: Have your kids scrub a few potatoes and roast them at 450 degrees in the oven. Once they’re baked and cooked, kids can scoop the insides into a big pot. Whisk in a combination of milk and chicken stock to thin the potatoes into soup consistency and season well with salt and pepper. Let your little ones prepare bowls of baked potato toppings for garnish, including crumbled bacon, chives, sour cream and grated cheddar.
Easy tortellini soup: Nothing is easier than this Italian classic made with convenient frozen tortellini and frozen peas and carrots. This is a great soup for younger kids to help prepare because there are no knives involved. Before you even turn on the heat, let your helper put all the ingredients in the pot: chicken stock, a cup of frozen tortellini (cheese, meat or spinach) and frozen peas and carrots. Let your little chef top her bowl with grated Parmesan cheese.
No-peeking stew: This is a meal that can be made early in the day and left to cook on low heat until it’s time for dinner – it will make the whole house smell delicious. While you brown the stew meat, kids can peel the pearl onions (or you can buy them already peeled and frozen), scrape or peel carrots and measure out the peas. Add the vegetables to the pan along with a large can of stewed tomatoes and enough beef stock to cover. Cover and simmer on low for four to five hours (no peeking!). Add salt and pepper to taste.
Melon and berry soup: Call it dessert and your kids will be instantly intrigued. Using a metal spoon, have your helpers de-seed a cantaloupe (or honeydew melon) and wash and a pint of berries (blackberries or raspberries work well). Add water to thin and just a touch of sugar to sweeten. Puree in a blender and serve chilled.
Marcia Whyte Smart is a freelance food writer who has contributed to Cooking Light, Parenting and Sunset magazines. Visit her blog at http://www.smartinthekitchen.com and sign up for her newsletter to receive weekly family-friendly meal plans and recipes.