Little hands, tasty treats

Kids belong in the kitchen, not just to empty the dishwasher or get plates for the dinner table. Truth is kids really can cook! They just need a chance to prove it.

To help parents introduce their half-pints to the culinary arts, Master Chef Gino Campagna has just published a cookbook with recipes kids can easily make and families can enjoy. Set for release Oct. 24, Chef Gino’s Taste Test Challenge: 100+ Winning Recipes That Any Kid Can Cook, published by Rodale Press, can be advance ordered through the publisher or Amazon.

Campagna says the recipes are simple, easy to follow, and best of all — tasty. They’re also open-ended so experimenting is encouraged. Inside the cookbook youngsters will find directions for basic pasta and pizza doughs to Ginestrone (aka minestrone) soup and Guac Amore (aka guacamole) to French toast grilled cheese sandwiches and Fruity Pops.

Gino Campagna with some of his culinary maestros. Source: Gino Campagna

Campagna, who has been teaching children to cook for more than 30 years, says his young apprentices often say, “I can’t wait to tell my mom!” after whipping up something delicious in class. That excited reaction is exactly what he, and parents who enroll their kids in cooking classes, hope will happen. Campagna’s new cookbook helps parents create their own fun-filled cooking-class experience at home.

It’s no secret, he says, when it comes to learning, hands-on is often the best. And Campagna’s pint-sized sous-chefs de cuisines are quick to agree. Hand them a toque and an apron, then stand back, he says. Kids dig kneading dough, mastering a rolling pin, chopping, mixing and whisking around.

“Americans are losing the knowledge of how to prepare foods from scratch,” he says. “But more than that, we’re losing the benefits of sitting together to enjoy the foods. I see only positives in bringing children into the kitchen and teaching them to cook, especially during the holidays.”

Through the years, he says he has become increasingly concerned about the “food IQ of American children” and has worked to raise it.

Educating palates one bite at a time

Gino Campagna holds court in the kitchen. Visit Gino online at Chef Gino’s Club

“We can’t just ask kids to start eating differently or try things they don’t know about or have never tasted,” he said. “We need to introduce them to a variety of foods that are high in nutrition, taste good and are fun to prepare.”

Not one to mount the pulpit, Campagna doesn’t mention that cooking also is a great way to teach math, introduce science and provide historical and social background — without kids even noticing.

And nutrition experts say making good food choices has never been more important. A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that childhood obesity rates are declining, but too many preschoolers in the U.S. remain obese, posing a major health risk as they grow up.

“The kitchen is a place where self-confidence and useful life skills are built, along with an understanding of good nutrition,” Campagna says. “We don’t cook ‘kiddie food.’ We prepare dishes that deserve to be presented at the table to adults.”

Balancing calories and ensuring children get adequate nutrition is a discussion over most children’s heads, he says. He recommends parents help their kids enjoy the process of creating meals that support good eating habits and look for ways to make healthier dishes more appealing.

“Involve your kids in the meal planning, grocery shopping, preparing, cooking and table setting,” says Tina Fanelli Moraccini, co-founder of Los Angeles-based Piccolo Chef, a cooking school for kids where Campagna often teaches. “Our message is simple: Bring your family back to the table and begin with what goes on in the kitchen.”

Mama mia! Tips for cooking with kids from Piccolo Chef:

· Keep it clean: First and foremost, have kids wash their hands before and after cooking. Also, keep a sponge or rag close by to clean up any messes as you go.

· Treasure time: Take your kids grocery shopping. Make it a treasure hunt, finding aisles and reading nutrition labels. It’s a great time to teach colors, shapes, letters, numbers — and good nutrition.

· Keep it real: Let your little ones select their own fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmers market. If they pick it out themselves, they are more likely to eat it.

· Focus on fun: Invite playfulness into the kitchen — tell stories about ingredients, sing songs and play counting games. The kitchen is a great lab for interactive learning — with adult supervision, that is.

· Read the recipe: Encourage your children to read it aloud before they begin. Together, set out all ingredients and equipment on the table, leaving enough space for cooking.

· Use kid-safe knives: Lettuce knives, sold in most kitchen gadget stores, are the same size and shape as a metal chef’s knife, but made of plastic. They can cut through a carrot, yet they’re safe enough for a 3-year-old.

· Make a bear paw: Teach children to fold fingers in, away from knife blades and sharp edges, like a “bear paw.” It’s good practice for when they grow up, too.

· Dress for success: Kids love to rock a chef’s apron and look the part. If they’re wearing long sleeves, roll them up. In the kitchen, closed-toed shoes are best. If their hair is long, tie it back.

· Do it by hand: Encourage kids to use their hands — after they’re washed, of course — to add and mix ingredients. It’s a fun part of learning to cook.

· Keep it tidy: When you finish cooking, have the children help clean up. It’s a good habit for life.

· Eat together: As Moraccini says, “It’s so enjoyable to savor what you and your kids have created.”

Disclaimer: This story is based on personal relationships and is an unpaid book review that does not reflect any business agreements.