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â€¨Bonnie Stern, a nationally known cooking personality and the former owner of the Bonnie Stern Cooking School in Toronto, has been teaching budding chefs, young and old, for many years.
"One of the best ways to start them off is by having them help you pack their lunches; if they have input into what goes into it, they might be more inclined to eat it," she laughs.
Kids today are actually a lot more sophisticated and interested in food thanks to the Food Network and the rise of celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay, Stern points out. "Also, families eat out a lot more than they did a generation ago, and even fast food restaurants are offering healthier alternatives." As a result, it's possible to at least make your kids aware that not all that's good for them has to taste bad (and vice versa).
â€¨Let kids have a cooking party
Stern says one great way to get your kids interested in cooking is to have them invite some friends over for a cooking party. "You can start by giving them a list of suggestions, but let them decide what they want to make; it doesn't have to all be sugary things or foods that are bad for you."
Make homemade chicken fingers
A great kid-friendly option is homemade chicken fingers. A grownup can cut the chicken into "fingers," then let kids take turns mixing the coating, dipping and breading the chicken, and arranging them on a baking sheet. (Baking instead of frying the chicken pieces is healthier, and also safer than having kids near boiling hot oil.) Have them serve up a selection of dipping sauces -- always a hit with young foodies -- and put out finger-food veggies alongside: Celery, carrots, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli and cauliflower.
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What to bake with your children
What you choose to bake together (or what tasks you give a child) depends partly on their age; a younger child might be able to mix dough, cut out cookie shapes with a plastic cookie cutter, or decorate cookies with melted chocolate in a mini-squeeze bottle, while an older child may be able to perform more complex tasks such as measuring and mixing ingredients or rolling out pastry.
But Stern suggests some of it also has to do with temperament.
"For example, a kid who likes instant gratification might prefer things that are ready quickly, like cookies, whereas a kid who is more patient might like to make something that is done in stages, like cupcakes (since you have to wait for them to cool before you ice them), or a gingerbread house, which you build over several days and can become a fun project," says Stern.
Listen to your kids
Whether it's a cooking party, a baking "bee" or just getting your kids to help with the simple task of putting a good meal together, Stern suggests you listen to your kids and avoid the temptation to impose your own likes and dislikes on them -- dinner, including the making of it, should never become a battleground.
"Kids are going to have different tastes than grown ups; it's just a fact," says Stern. But they're a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Offer them some options, and let them decide what they want to make -- then just have some fun with it."
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