Got persnickity kids? Does dinner time give you panic attacks? Don’t give up! Kids do eat real food, and I share my insights after cooking with kids from my cooking summer camp.
I just finished teaching my daughter and her friends how to cook during my summer kids cooking camp. This is my second time teaching these 11 year old girls how to cook. I won’t lie. It’s a whole lotta work! But, it truly is a labor of love. Most of these girls I have known since they were tiny tots in preschool, some even younger. And they love to cook and bake, but they especially love to eat good food. And I want to teach them that you can eat delicious food that is also healthy and nutritious.
My mission isn’t sexist. I taught my boys to cook, but I didn’t get warm and fuzzies thinking about teaching a bunch of precarious boys wielding knives. I knew these girls would actually listen to me and learn something. Don’t get me wrong, cooking with kids can be a big exercise on patience for the adults involved – I totally get this. But the reward is definitely worth the pain. I firmly believe that education is the key to solving most of our problems. To fight obesity, to encourage the next generation to eat better and more nutritious foods we have to start teaching these good eating habits at a young age.
After last year’s cooking camp, several of my girls used their new cooking skills to start making dinner regularly for their families. Of course, my own daughter had no interest in doing that! She was interested in “helping” this past year and I felt more confident giving her more jobs involving sharp objects like knives, peelers and graters. If I asked for lemon zest, she knew which tool to use and how to use it. Peeling potatoes was a job that made her excited, and I was thankful for the help!
Each day of camp the girls learned a savory and a sweet recipe. I spend a lot of time picking out the menu for our camp. And with Melissa’s Produce as a sponsor, offering me the pick of their gorgeous fruits and vegetables, I wanted each meal to be packed with color and healthy choices. Each day I wondered if perhaps I was pushing the limits, expecting too much from these kids. And each day the girls surprised me with their honesty, their willingness to do the work and how open they were to try new foods.
Our first lunch consisted of Vegetable Fried Brown Rice. It was packed with carrots, corn, peas, cabbage and green onions. The girls chopped all the vegetables and ooo’d and aaah’d at how colorful the dish was turning out to be. But, most importantly, they ate it all up. For dessert? I wow’d them with microwavable mug cakes, chocolate and vanilla (recipes coming soon). It even included an unexpected lesson on old baking powder versus brand-spanking-new baking powder (see third picture below)!
Lunch for Day 2 was a vegetable packed Chicken Tortilla Soup, modified from the recipe on my blog. We used gorgeous fresh heirloom tomatoes instead of canned, plus we added zucchini and fresh corn. The girls made their own guacamole and inhaled the soup with all the fixings. For something sweet we made two things: Chocolate Peanut Butter and No-Bake Crispy Raisin Nut Bars.
For day 3, I took kids outdoors and we made Campfire Carne Asada Fries. It was… AWESOME!!! Each day the girls gobbled up the lunches they made and proclaimed the meal to be even better than lunch from the day before. They didn’t complain about the work (it really wasn’t THAT hard, they admitted) and (most importantly) they didn’t complain about the vegetables in their food. I’ll be sharing this recipe in the next blog post, and will go into more detail about it then. I will say that they loved the idea of cooking outdoors and without a fancy schmancy grill. We also made our dessert over coals: Campfire Baked Apples!
I won’t lie. By day 4, I was feeling a bit weary. Cooking outside in the heat was exhausting… fun, but exhausting. But those kids came bouncing back, ready for their next challenge and I fed off their energy. This day we made pepperoni stuffed chicken breasts. I remembered that several girls were gaga over pesto last year, so we made homemade pesto to stuff in the chicken. I will share the recipe for this later on, too. I included some raw zucchini noodles (zoodles) to each girls’ meal and stirred them into the hot marinara sauce. Several of the girls gave me glares as if saying, “Uh, I don’t eat zucchini.” All of them tried it and most of them liked it. All of them were surprised that they weren’t half bad and was a fun way to eat their vegetables.
Last year, the girls learned all about using piping bags and tips to decorate cupcakes. This year, I taught them how to decorate cookies! Because camp was only for 4 hours long, we didn’t have time to bake AND decorate cookies AND make AND eat lunch. So I baked up some olive oil sugar cookies (recipe in my cookbook!) for the girls to decorate. If you ever need inspiration on decorating cookies, you have to watch the videos from Sweet Ambs. Your mind will get blown away by all of the amazing designs you can come up with for your cookies. My girls watched several videos and we discussed techniques. We made icing in a rainbow of colors and I let them loose to decorate!
For our final day, we baked fruit hand pies: blueberry-lemon, strawberry and peach-raspberry. I rolled out the dough since I was using the olive oil pie crust (again from my cookbook) and it can be tricky for the novice chefs I had with me. You can totally use store-bought refrigerated dough and/or puff pastry. The big trick was avoiding the desire to over-stuff this little babies. Luckily, the final creation was worth the trouble. Part of its charm and appeal were their imperfections and the girls couldn’t wait to nibble on their warm hand pies during their break.
Our last lunch recipe came from my friend Valentina and her recipe for Tortilla Crusted Chicken Strips. I divided the girls into pairs: 2 girls cut the chicken, 2 girls crushed the tortilla chips and coated the chicken, 2 girls were in charge of the vegetables (roasted rainbow cauliflower and green salad with homemade ranch dressing) and my final pair of girls were in charge of the dipping sauce and assisted the other girls. Again, while they ate, I heard the girls proclaim that this lunch was better than the last (thanks, Valentina, for making me look good). But the best part came when two of the girls insisted that they didn’t like cauliflower and wouldn’t try it. The friends were encouraging the two skeptics to give cauliflower a chance, “Just try it. If you don’t like you don’t have to eat it,” they told these two.
It was beautiful. I was silently sitting away from them, beaming with pride. So, did those two girls try the roasted cauliflower? Yes, they did. One liked it, and one did not. Sometimes, when trying to get kids to eat their vegetables we get fixated on them “liking” the veggies. We forget that there are grown adults who hate vegetables and refuse to try them. For me, the key is to keep introducing new foods to my kids. Their taste buds change and mature. What they may not like at age six, could change by age eight or twelve. And kids who are willing to try new foods turn in to adults who are willing to try new foods.
I can honestly say that this camp would not happen if it weren’t for the fabulous companies that sponsored me. So I have to give special thanks to Davidson’s Safest Choice Eggs, The Idaho Potato Commission, Sun-Maid Raisins and Bob’s Red Mill, Melissa’s Produce and Cabot Creamery for supplying me with the finest ingredients to cook with. I was also able to provide some awesome swag bags for my kiddos from these wonderful companies, plus from IZZE and Good Spread who sent me samples and coupons!