Tips, Tricks and Treats: Kids’ Cooking Classes
Glass bowls of diced onions, chopped tomatoes, halved limes and grated cheddar sit, prepped and waiting for the fun to begin. Kids jostle around the sink—some using stepstools—to wash up before laying hands on the fresh ingredients.
Vermont’s kids are cooking, but don’t bother looking for a platter of hot dogs and beans or a dish mounded with Day-Glo mac-n-cheese. This afternoon at Healthy Living Market’s Learning Center in South Burlington, these little ones have commandeered the kitchen to create taco bowls.
Many still learn cooking skills by watching Mom prepare lasagna, Grandma bake bread from scratch or Dad grill juicy hamburgers. However, several Vermont institutions have stepped it up with culinary courses created especially for kids.
Teaching kids to cook is not only fun but also a way to combat fast food and empty-calorie snacks. Sure, some youngsters may still turn up their noses at “good-for-you” food, but learning how to prepare healthy dishes themselves or with their parents can lead to good nutrition and the lifelong enjoyment of eating well.
Learning one’s way around the kitchen involves more than practicing knife-handling skills or understanding the difference between a low simmer and a rolling boil. A recipe can teach kids about reading, math and chemistry, while exposure to new foods—and old favorites in new forms—expands children’s culinary and cultural horizons.
As the youngsters take turns stirring the ground beef, instructors Clarina Pfaff and Erin McGuire prompt them to notice the beef turning from red to pink to brown as it cooks.
“It’s brown now!” one boy exclaims. Time to add the onions. Despite some protests—“I don’t like those!” “They’re too hot!”—in they go. Clarina and Erin follow up with a lesson about how the sugar content of onions makes them go from spicy when raw to sweet when cooked. Brushing aside any skeptical comments from the onion-haters, the instructors introduce a vocabulary word—translucent—to describe how the onions should look when they’re done.
After the kids proclaim the onions to be ready, they pass small dishes of spices around the table, allowing each cook to take a whiff of some familiar aromas—garlic and chili powders—and a not-so-familiar one—cumin. One by one, small hands toss the spices into the meat-and-onion mix. In a display of the teamwork that develops in the class, an older student handed her dish of cumin to a younger student who didn’t get a chance to stir the meat earlier.
“Here,” she said. “You want to put this one in?”
With the meat browned, the class moves to the next step: pico de gallo. While the students combine the tomatoes, onions and garlic, the teachers pass out cilantro, making sure the kids hear their descriptive term: “a sprig for you.” The students dip their fingers into their salsas, then lick them clean. That’s more than OK with the instructors here—it’s encouraged. Tasting the food during preparation is the only way to know if it contains enough salt, onions or lime juice, Clarina explains.
The venerable King Arthur Flour, in Norwich, introduced its first class for children in July 2000. According to Amy Trage, baker/blogger at this bread-and-pastry-makers’ dream destination, “We always knew we wanted kids’ classes to be part of the offerings.” The single-day courses are offered around holidays and feature sweet cupcakes and savory pizza pies. Summertime brings multi-day camps where children of all ages make more complex baked goods.
After instructors noticed that parents were sticking around for the children’s classes, the Baking Education Center followed up with family nights, typically held every other Friday evening during the school year. At these events, parents and children learn to make a tasty meal, such as potpie or gnocchi, complete with salad and dessert, which they can take home to enjoy.
Children’s classes at The Essex Resort & Spa’s Cook Academy in Essex began in 2008, and since the opening of a larger teaching kitchen, more and more of these kid-centered events appear on the schedule. Camp Cook, a program for 10- to 16-year-olds is offered nine times during the summer, Monday–Friday, 9am–4pm daily. This weeklong adventure introduces kids to cooking skills, nutrition and food safety and encourages them to try out flavors that might be new to them along the way.
Culinary instruction isn’t limited to the kitchen, though. At The Essex, campers get out in the garden collecting herbs and vegetables and into the henhouse, both to care for the chickens and to gather fresh eggs. This “dirty work” teaches them to appreciate the importance of knowing the origins of their ingredients. Throughout the week, the kids put together their own cookbooks, which they can take home to continue their foodie adventures after classes end.
Don’t think your children would like fancy or exotic dishes? Don’t worry—the menus might feature some new ingredients, but the dishes are definitely kid-friendly.
“The long-term favorite has always been homemade pasta and sauce,” says Christine Frost, executive sous-chef at the Cook Academy. “We make both from scratch. Kids love the hands-on of pasta making, and as a favorite food it’s always in the top five!”
Cooking classes for children were on the menu from the get-go at Lake Champlain Chocolates’ South End Kitchen, which opened in January 2014 on Pine Street in Burlington’s South End. Beginning with a handful of classes in advance of Valentine’s Day, the Education Kitchen followed up with a week’s worth of kids’ classes during school vacation week in February.
“We received a tremendous amount of positive feedback from kids and parents, so we knew we were filling a need,” says Meghan Fitzpatrick, from Lake Champlain Chocolates. Some classes feature savory dishes, but which are most popular? “Anything with chocolate!” says Fitzpatrick.
In addition to making chocolate bars, either on their own or with their families, children can let their artistic sides show while creating chocolate sculptures. “It lets the kids be Willy Wonka for the day,” adds Fitzpatrick.
Back in Healthy Living’s Learning Center, the class is wrapping up. One of the dads swirls a tortilla chip around his daughter’s bowl of pico de gallo while a 2-year-old contemplates the heavy citrus press, glistening with lime juice. Kids, still wearing their aprons, mug for parents’ iPhones while digging in to their custom-garnished taco bowls. Some moms joke that the kids will be cooking dinner from now on. Let’s hope so.