Kids in the Kitchen

There are kitchen tasks for kids of every age, and it is fun to work together; the group effort is rewarded by good things to eat.

Susan Kids in the Kitchen

Broaden your child’s interests by familiarizing them to herbs.

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The following recipes are ones that the girls and I like to prepare together and enjoy eating.

Gardening and cooking are a way of life for me. When my children came along, these activities became their way of life as well. From infancy, my kids accompanied me on photo shoots and visits to famous gardens, napping in their car seats. At home, naptime often found me at the computer typing in recipes or dashing out to spend a few moments in the garden planting or weeding.

As the children began to crawl and then toddle, they joined me in the garden. We picked flowers, they learned to say the herb and flower names, and we smelled and tasted them. The children learned how to rub herb leaves to release their scents, not to step on the plants, and to ask first before eating ­anything. At three, Lucie (now eight) would hop out of her swing, grab a sprig of a nearby bronze fennel, and nibble on it like a little rabbit.

The girls love to help in the kitchen. I have found that the more involved I let them become, the more interested in food they are and the more willing to try new things. There are kitchen tasks for kids of every age, and it is fun to work together; the group effort is rewarded by good things to eat. Younger children like Cady, who is four, can pour, stir, and mix, as well as find the right ingredients and utensils and tear herb leaves or salad greens into small pieces. Older kids can read the recipes, follow directions, measure, and prepare ingredients.

We have lots of tea parties for festive celebrations, when someone drops by, or just to brighten the day. Children (and adults as well) like the little bites and nibbles of the accompanying foods, from savories to sweets, all of which lend themselves to the use of herbs. I love the ceremony. Part of the pleasure of preparing food for someone is taking the time to make it special. Warming the pot, choosing the tea, setting the table, cutting some herbs and flowers, using the fancy teacups, sharing a treat—these are all simple things that can add a great deal of enjoyment to everyday life.

For one St. Patrick’s Day, I was asked to provide a “green” snack that a kindergarten class could help prepare. I settled on scones with herbs, and to make it more festive, I decided to have a real tea party and serve tea. Not sure which herb to use in the scones, I cut a variety and presented them to the class. The general olfactory consensus of this group of five-year-olds: sage is yucky/ stinky; lavender smells like bubble bath (and somebody’s grandmother); rosemary is too green and like a pine tree; lemon balm is okay—sort of like a sweet lemon; while fruit-scented sage, which smells like tutti-frutti, is the overwhelming winner.

The students and I mixed, patted, and rolled the dough, then cut out shamrock-shaped scones and sprinkled the tops with green sugar crystals. We set the tables with real china demitasse cups and made herbal tea and decaffeinated Earl Grey. While the scones baked, we practiced teatime vocabulary with our best English accents. It was fascinating to watch these youngsters politely ask for and pass the scones, cream, jam, and sugar with their newly acquired tea etiquette. It tickled me to see some of the rough-and-tumble boys become intrigued with pouring and stirring and sipping endless cups of tea like perfect little gentlemen.

Introducing children, or anyone who is not familiar with herbs, to this wonderful, stimulating world of scent and flavor should be a pleasurable experience. Don’t overwhelm them; a subtle hint of flavor is enough to start, so begin with milder flavors and small amounts; you can always add more. I ask my girls to try new things but never force them. They still prefer the same foods that most children like—pizza, spaghetti, grilled cheese sandwiches, french fries, and (to my chagrin) commercial macaroni and cheese—but their palates are slowly developing.

Most children’s favorite herbs are the sweeter ones such as anise hyssop, fennel, fruit-scented sage, lemon balm, and the mints. They also seem to prefer herbs that they have tasted in familiar foods, including basil, dill, marjoram, oregano, parsley, and thyme. Encourage children to pick the herbs, rub their leaves, and smell them. Talk about the fragrance: is it lemony or spicy, does it remind them of spaghetti sauce? Next, take bunny nibbles. Is it sweet, or does it taste green?

Children usually have no problem with the idea of eating flowers. Always be sure that you have properly identified the flowers and that they are safe to eat, and make sure that children understand that some flowers are poisonous and are not to be sampled. There is a definite preference at our home for violas, anise hyssop and fennel flowers, and daylilies. The violas—pansies, violets, and Johnny-jump-ups—are mild-tasting, rather like a lettuce with a hint of sweetness. Both anise hyssop and fennel have that clean, sweet, anise-licorice flavor, while daylilies are crunchy, fresh, and vegetablelike.

Gathering herbs and vegetables from the garden is a pleasure for people of all ages. Using them in the kitchen can be fun, challenging, and creative. Start simple. For instance, when making deviled eggs, try a little chopped dill to complement the creaminess of the egg yolks and the sweetness of the pickle. The next time you melt cheese in a quesadilla, add a few cilantro leaves or chopped chives. A teaspoon or two of chopped fresh rosemary, thyme, or marjoram improves the flavor of any biscuit dough, and a wonderful aroma fills the house as the biscuits bake. Green beans, a vegetable that most children will eat, are delicious chilled and tossed with a vinaigrette that has a little chopped savory or dill added. Sprinkle fresh chopped parsley or basil on scrambled eggs.

Barrels of Fun

lucie and Cady each have a barrel garden that they plant and care for throughout the growing season. They select the plants and are responsible for watering, weeding, and deadheading; then they are free to cut their own plants as they please without asking permission. They have even won a few ribbons at the county fair with their flowers and herbs.

Barrels and other containers are a convenient way to introduce children to gardening. Here are a few suggestions to ensure a successful experience.

Be sure that the container has ­adequate drainage: kids are often over­zealous with their watering. Position the empty barrel carefully in the spot where it will remain; after it is filled with soil it will be too heavy to move. Ours are out in the yard, set on three bricks to raise them up a bit. This helps prevent rotting of the barrel and ensures good drainage. The barrels are bigger than you might think; it takes a lot of soil to fill one. Let the children mix potting soil and/or garden soil with sand or perlite for drainage and humus for ­organic matter; the mixture both feels and smells good.

We grow some of our plants from seed, and we usually buy a few special flowers in bloom. Last year, Cady chose a lemon thyme for her barrel, and it wintered over nicely. We keep perennials to a minimum so that we have room for annuals. The design and plantings change from year to year and even from season to season. Last fall when the flowers and herbs were spent, the girls planted lettuce in the middle of the barrels and ­garlic cloves around the perimeter. We harvested and ate the lettuce but waited until July to pull the garlic.

This year, Cady planted oregano for pizza and spaghetti sauce. Lucie chose chamomile, so that she could make her own tea, and a tall, purple-flowered salvia for the center focal point. For edible flowers, they chose assorted pansies, calendulas, Gem marigolds, and safflowers. They planted pink and purple asters and bright pink petunias for cutting and color; they know that these plants are not safe to eat. Most years, the girls push a few fat nasturtium seeds into the soil at the perimeter of the barrels. The nasties, as we fondly refer to them, eventually spill over and cascade down the sides.

Most children’s favorite herbs are the sweeter ones such as anise hyssop, fennel, fruit-scented sage, lemon balm, and the mints.