The easiest way to start kids off in that most entertaining pastime, cooking, is to buy one of those pre-prepared pizzas. Take the kids to the grocery store and let them help choose the frozen pizza. Get them home and get them involved in removing the wrapping, choosing a dish, setting it on the dish, and putting the works in the oven. You will have to turn the oven on yourself, and take the heated dish out of the oven. But when we do this with my grandkids, they still take delight in eating “what we cooked ourselves.”
Next move on to getting the kids to make the pizza. You may stoop to buy a ready made crust. Lay this out and then let the kids spread some tomato paste as a base. Let them decorate the crust with slices of pepperoni, pineapple, and diced ham. Then set out a bowl of grated cheese and let them sprinkle the cheese liberally. The grandkids love this and recognize it as a step-up in the art of cooking.
My favourite is corn muffins. A small box of corn muffin mix cost less than a dollar. Let the kids spray or spread olive oil into the individual cups of a muffin pan. Better yet let them place those individual paper cups into each of the metal depressions—this is a cleaner and safer approach. Let them pour the mix into a big bowl. Let them break in an egg. Best you pour in the milk or water. Now introduce them to the mixer. It is best to get a small, hand-held device for the kids. You will have to supervise this operation as at worst the result may be splattered mix all over the kitchen. Let them spoon the runny mix into the muffin cups and into the oven. Now they know they are advancing in the skills of cooking.
Here is my favourite recipe to make with kids. I have made it with the older boys many times, and every time it is a hit of entertainment and good eating. Start by getting a large pot of water heating. While the water heats, get the grandkid who is most trusted to cut a packet of bacon into small pieces, and let them start frying the bacon to a nice crisp. The less skilled grandkids are put to breaking a half carton of eggs into a bowl, an activity that they seemingly enjoy a great deal. Let the youngest grandson break the contents of a packet of the long, thin pasta into pieces. At least he can do that with little mess and almost safely. One of the older kids can be allowed to toss the pasta into the boiling water.
Once the pasta and bacon are cooked, you will have to drain the water off the pasta. But the kids are allowed to mix the bacon and the eggs into the pasta and churn it all around until the eggs cook to a nice goo from the heat of the pasta and the bacon. Serve soon with ketchup and they will eat their fill in happy contentment.
This dish is of course classic pasta carbonera. I have read it was a favourite of Italian miners—not sure where or when they were mining—for they could easily transport the ingredients down the mine and make the dish with little more than an open flame at lunch time.
When I was growing up on a mine, the idea of men, boys, or kids of any stripe cooking was not envisaged. All the cooking was done by servants. In the morning they would confer with my mother on the day’s meals and that was that. I am not sure my mother even knew how to cook. The cooking maid’s range was limited. Mainly eggs & bacon with toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, stews, spaghetti and meat balls, and an occasional roast for supper. Vegetables were always cooked to a pulp, and meat to a dried cinder. But we knew no better and were always hungry.
On Sundays we would go to grandma for lunch. She was a superb cook with a slow Aga stove that she tendered with skill and love. But then she had been widowed with three young kids and had been forced to open a boarding house for the local miners. She had learnt how to cook big meals for hungry miners. She would prepare us a chicken stuffed with pork sausage, roast potatoes and onions, and all followed by trifle. Sunday we truly ate well.
In my high school days I lived with a widowed aunt. On Sunday, she prepared the meals for the rest of the week and froze them in the fridge. Each evening, Gog-gog would heat the allotted dishes and make sure they were ready when she got home for work and supper with me and my cousin. Gog-gog had been my uncle’s aide on the mine, and came with my aunt to work for her when my uncle died. While Gog-gog was male, we thought of him simply as loyal servant and would never ourselves have ventured into the kitchen which was truly his domain during the week.
The first time I saw men, boys, and kids cooking was when courting. My wife’s father was a colonel in the air force and an avid cook. I recall my utter amazement the first time I was invited around. He had the whole tribe of kids and males involved in peeling vegetables for a large stew for a large family gathering. I did not know how to get involved. We all sat on the sunny porch, the kids drinking coke, the men beer, and we all peeled, cut, and diced potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, and tomatoes. It was weird and wonderful.
Then came time to barbecue the meat. Again it was new to me to see men cooking meat over an open fire. There was much argument about the coals, the cleanliness of the grate, the right tongs, and the need for a cover or not. Recall this was Africa and there were no Webbers on sale at the hardware store. The boys and young men gathered around respectfully listening to the old men banter about their cooking opinions and braaiing skills. A strange new world opened up.
Then for ten years at university I was on an mining-company scholarship in a university residence and never thought of cooking for myself at all. Food was in the canteen and it was always good and plentiful. Not until I was a grandfather did I actually cook a meal for myself or seek to entertain grandkids with cooking.
My son was brought up, as I was, ignorant of the art of cooking. Yet he taught himself when he needed to. The lesson learnt is this: if you do not entertain your kids with cooking, they will find a way when the need arises, but it is best to give them a good grounding. My son taught himself to cook when, as an officer in the U.S. Navy he was stationed in Japan. Along with three other officers, he rented a house on the beach overlooking Mount Fuji. We realized his interest in cooking when on Fridays we received a call from him asking how to cook a stew, how to roast pork, how to make bread pudding.
“And why do you want to know this?” was our incredulous reply.
“Because a whole bunch of Australian and British girls are coming down from Tokyo for the weekend,” he stated in muted tones.
You can imagine the rest. For Christmas, I sent him the South African cookbook Cook and Enjoy. Now he is a good cook.
Time has passed and he has two kids. So with my grandkids I make trifle. It is very ease to make. It can be pretty complex if you choose, but with kids, I recommend simple. Let them break a bought sponge cake into pieces. Let them peel and cut bananas, strawberries, or some healthy fruit. Give them a carton of cream. If you can find it, give them a carton of custard—if you cannot find this, no matter. And maybe some jelly you made the previous day. Give them nuts and raisins. Cherries are great. Them let them loose to layer this to their heart’s content. You may decide to pour some milk to moisten the whole. Let them put this in the fridge to cool and hey presto they are delighted with a sweet, gooyey mess.
If they can read, direct them to the web to explore the over fifty recipes for trifle that I found one day. Just warn them not to choose any that involve booze. For sherry and port are my favourite additions when the overly censorious daughters are not watching. If they are safely out of the way, I douse the kids’ trifle layering with sherry. Then everybody enjoys the trifle. Just do not tell them what is in it.
From trifle advance to bread pudding. It is easy. Take dry bread. Let the kids break it into small pieces. Then to their creative talents let them layer the bread, apricot jam, nuts, raisins, glazed cherries, and whatever they like and so fill the bowl. Let them mix milk and eggs and pour this over the bread and the rest. You will have to supervise a bit when it comes to putting this in the oven and baking to a solid mass. The grandsons will eat what they have cooked with gusto regardless of the details.
In theory the idea of entertaining the younger kids with cooking is to draw them into the purchase and preparation. You will have to control the oven or the hot plate. Thus it is best to plan and cook things which involve lots of breaking, mixing in bowls, pouring into dishes. Any mix that they can mix and that you can pop into the oven yourself will do. Lasagne is a perfect example. Trifle and bread pudding are also great. They involve lots of safe preparation on the table; lots of scope for individual choices about layering, and you remain in control of the final act of popping the dish into the oven.
Avoid cooking that involves the stove top until the kids are teenagers, when they probably don’t want this form of entertainment involving you.
A final word: the sooner you teach them to cook on an open fire in a camp setting the better. But see this as camping, not cooking. Give them pre-cooked sausages pieces to gingerly advance to the open flame. And then give them marshmallows and chocolate and send them to bath and bed.