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Why anyone would want to spend two or three afternoons a week cooking with a couple of little kids, I don't know (Serena is four and a half and blind; John is two and sighted). But then again, if I don't cook with them, supper simply doesn't get on the table because at 4:30 or 5:00, my two formerly pleasant, reasonable children turn into Cling-Ons. That is, they wrap their now whining, tearful bodies around my legs. It is difficult to move briskly about the kitchen weighted down by sixty pounds of baby, so I would ordinarily give up and go play with them on the living room floor until my husband came home, whereupon he would either relieve me, go call for take-out, or, in desperation, cook supper himself.
Then I discovered cooking with the dumplings. They really love it, and their dad is happier, too. So, everything takes three times as long. So, we make quite a mess. We do eventually get a decent meal on the table, and my kids are gaining a good knowledge of cooking tools and terms.
They scurry about gathering ingredients and searching for pots in the cabinets. "I need the very large pot way in the back," I'll tell them. "See if you can find its cover." At the refrigerator we practice with terminology such as "bottom drawer on the right" and "the compartment on the door." Then they drag chairs over to the sink for washing hands. I run the water so that Serena can hear where to bring her chair (our kitchen is a large square with cabinets on two sides, and Serena is still learning her way around in it). If there are any vegetables to be scrubbed, we do it together at the sink. Then they climb up on their "cooking chairs" at the table.
The children usually begin with peeling the skin from onions or garlic. If necessary, I "start them" by making a slit with a knife. Serena can easily tell when the garlic is completely peeled. Then we put all our vegetables on a large cutting board. I tell them to choose one vegetable and get ready for cutting. I pick up the knife and put one child's hand on it under mine. We talk a lot about the fact that the blade can be dangerous and that they are never to handle sharp knives without an adult.
When we cut large items like carrots I let the children hold them themselves with my hand over theirs. Serena likes to feel the tips and stems we're going to cut off. So that she will really understand what the knife is doing and where it goes, we pause midcut and she feels the slit the knife is making. After the cut, I often push the carrot or potato together and let her slide it apart so she can relate the whole to the parts. When we slice small items such as garlic, I tell them, "Mommy has to hold the garlic because it's too small and I don't want the knife blade to get too near your fingers."
Sweet potatoes lend themselves well to math lessons. "Choose a potato, Serena. Now, let's cut this potato in half. Here, see what the halves look like. Are they big or small? Yes, they're still too big to go in the pot. Let's cut them in half again. Make the pieces stand up on their flat end." Slice. "Now look. They're much smaller, but we still need to cut them some more. Make all the pieces lie down." All this handling of the pieces builds a concrete knowledge of many concepts, including the fact that living things contain water.
If the vegetables need to go right into boiling soup or water, I usually insert the extra step of having the children pick up the pieces and put them into a bowl first. Serena checks to see if any pieces are still too big and if the cutting board is empty. Sometimes they load the vegetables into the upper section of the food processor (nowhere near the blade, and again, with much discussion of safety) and then together they press the start button (it takes two of them to do it!). After I remove the blade, we examine the results of the processing.
I do all the work at the stove or oven, explaining to the children why they cannot. We talk about the sounds and smells of cooking. We listen for the water to boil; we note the sizzle of sautéing food. I explain the various plops, splashes, and bubblings in the hot pots as I pour and stir.
Dry ingredients are a lot of fun. The children open all the containers, learning about lids, spouts, corks, twist-offs, screw-ons, push-ins, pop-tops, and pull-tabs, while developing their dexterity and strength. I give each of them a measuring cup and spoons and a stainless steel bowl (good for noise) then we scoop and pour many more times than we actually need to, listening to the sounds and digging in to feel the textures and, yes, tasting, too. John prefers raw macaroni; Serena favors flavored breadcrumbs. There's no accountin' for taste.
When the children open oil and spice containers, we sniff and enjoy their pungency. Then we pour and sprinkle, letting the oil drizzle and the flakes filter over Serena's fingers so that she can see what they feel like and how they come out. Of course, this appeals an awful lot to John, too. They take turns sprinkling the spices on. Serena's turn. John's turn. Serena's turn. John's turn. They never forget whose turn it is, and our food gets awfully spicy.
We open cans at our house with a primitive tool, the manual can opener. We work hand over hand, and I explain as best I can how the wheel cuts into the can; it's hard to feel. But the click as the cover unattaches is very noticeable, and Serena certainly knows when it occurs. Again we discuss handling the sharp edge of the top with care. Then little fingers dip into the liquid within for licking.
Among the foods my children like to cook the most are eggs and fish. Eggs make the supreme mess, I'm sure that's why. We crack them hand over hand and then, I have to admit, I let them stick their hands into the slime below. They love it. We wash our hands again. Fish is fun because they get to slap it into the pan. They really like doing that. They even enjoy having smelly hands. I make them wash up again.
For some unknown reason both of my children believe that they should make the messes and Mom should clean them up. They are unanimous about this and unwavering. I have not yet conceived of an effective means of combating their united stance. I do a lot of sweeping up of raw rice and elbow macaroni and cous cous.
But now to the end result. Dad comes home. The sweet smell of supper wafts through the air. The kids are hungry for food that they cooked. Our family will eat tonight.
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