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Healthy Cooking with Children

Local foodies say cooking with children can establish a lifetime of healthy habits.

From creating dough for freshly baked bread to squeezing lemons for a neighborhood lemonade stand, Michael Roll enjoys spending time in the kitchen with his children transforming ordinary food into nutritious culinary creations, particularly during the summer. He says that when parents cook healthy meals with their children they model behavior that can last a lifetime.

"The more ‘from scratch’ and processing raw food at home a child can see through their parents, the better understanding the child can develop in terms of what makes food healthy and unhealthy and where our food comes from," said Roll, director, Department of Culinary Arts and Food and Beverage Management at The Art Institute of Washington in Arlington. "These are fundamental things that can easily be lost in our very time-crunched worlds and long grocery store aisles of prepared and over-processed foods."

Farmers markets can offer a goldmine of inspiration for creating nutritious summer meals. "[They] bring us seasonal, fresh produce, grown close to home," said Christine Wisnewski, an instructor at Culinaria Cooking School in Vienna. "In contrast to the mad dash into the supermarket the rest of the year, the more relaxed summer schedule also gives us the chance to really look around and broaden our food horizons."

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Students at Tiny Chefs Culinary Academy learn to prepare healthy meals.

Offering children a wide selection of fresh food and a chance to make their own selections broadens their culinary horizons. "In my experience, kids are more willing to try something new if they are given the opportunity to choose that new item themselves," said Wisnewski. "Challenge them to choose one new thing a week. "One week have them look for the most beautiful fruit or vegetable they can find at the market, next week have them find the ugliest. You might all be surprised with how that experiment plays out. The kids will gain exposure and you will gain experience. You were always curious about kohlrabi anyway, right?"

Roll encourages parents to approach cooking with an attitude of enthusiasm. "Baking chocolate chip cookies, even with my 6 year olds was fun because measuring flour, sugar, learning how to crack an egg were all exciting things for them," he said. "Licking raw batter and tasting warm cookies didn't hurt, but at 11, my son could probably make passable cookies without any help. My family's passion for cookies is why."

COOKING TECHNIQUES and the tasks children undertake in the kitchen should be age appropriate, said Roll. "For the really young, nothing beats funny shapes, layering yogurt and fruit and granola in a clear glass is magical to a child," he said. "For the older, make baking a chemistry lesson on baking soda [or] why flour in bread makes such a different product than flour in pancakes."

Roll added, "I think that starting simple helps, too. Chicken broth, chicken, carrots, celery and pasta, with some seasoning still makes the best cold remedy there is. A child can peel a carrot. A child can test the doneness of pasta, a child can learn that a little salt is great, no salt is bland, and too much salt is a disaster."

With a little planning, parents can create delicious and healthy fare with their children that is hands-on, but safe. "Letting kids help cut fresh fruit for fruit salads is a great summer dish, said Beth Szymanski of Tiny Chefs, a culinary academy with locations in Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria, Sterling, Ashburn, Reston, Herndon, Centerville, Va., and Potomac, Md. "Kids love to help cut food and having them use lettuce knives lets them really help out in the kitchen while keeping them safe."

Szymanski adds that there are simple short cuts to create substantial, low-maintenance meals. "Use an already cooked rotisserie chicken to create a chicken salad or pasta salad in the summer time to keep the kitchen cool without having to turn on the oven, plus the kids love to help shred and cut up the chicken," she said.