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Sunday Meal Planning: Getting Kids Involved With 'The Whole Family Cookbook'

My friend Michelle Stern was still pitching The Whole Family Cookbook when I met her face-to-face a year ago during the IACP conference in Portland. Once she closed the deal and started creating recipes, I did a little testing and, as you'd expect, lots of photograph-making in the process. Because her book is focused on cooking together with children, I wanted to get Everett and Truman and Monroe involved; and I was immediately surprised to see how much benefit we get from having them join in the cooking fun. [Note: Enter a giveaway for the book by commenting; details at the end of the post.]


Even months before we got the book, then, we were discovering how much healthier kids might eat if they just take a hand -- not just in cooking the food -- but in planning that cooking. I'd ask Everett which of a couple possible recipes to try, and we'd discuss whether a recipe had ingredients he'd like together. I was a little thrilled when he said one of the recipes we tried was too sweet for him -- and we made another variation on it that had honey and a small amount of sugar and that we all loved, adding a great sherbet recipe to our family repertoire. (The recipe that made it into the book is a delightfully tart buttermilk lemon sherbet, a winner indeed.)

Handing kids a cookbook with lots of pretty photos of healthy food and asking them, "find something for dinner tomorrow" is the best way I can think of to get them involved in this hardest parental job (filling their stomachs with good "growing food") and to make sure the hard work you put in to choosing sources and shopping and lugging the stuff home and cooking it all on demand pays off. Until, that is, they're old enough to do all the shopping and preparing on their own (I was particularly freed by the image of Rebecca's teens from last week's post making turkey sandwiches and sweet potatoes). I did that one night, and the next night, we had taco salad straight from Michelle's book (my recipe adds red cabbage to the onions for a little extra nutritional zing).

The book is approachable and energetic, not just for the hardcore locavore environmental activists, but also for the -- as Michelle describes herself -- "multitasking working parent and child chaffeur" intent on proving "you don't have to be a stay-at-home parent to cook with your kids." The recipes provide a lot of what a writer whose article we linked from the Facebook page last week called "serv[ing] as pitchman for the underdogs: the fruits, the vegetables; the foods without preservatives or ingredients I couldn't pronounce." Honestly, the photo of "Yummy Strawberry Yogurt Parfait" was enough for Everett to demand it, immediately! (We have to wait for strawberry season; in the meantime, we're making it with my pantry-staple jam.) And some of the names, like "Wish-for-a-Fish Pasta" and "There's a Turkey in Your Pocket" may inspire if your child is, like Truman, charmed by such cute things. "That's so funny!" he'll tell me over and over, repeating the name of the dish. "You were like, there's a turkey in my pocket! And I was like, hehe."

The recipes all come with neat color-coded markers that show which steps would be appropriate to let children ages 2-3, 4-6, 7-10, and 11 and up help with. I found they're pretty on target; when we made the Baked Apple Puff, a sweet variation on an old fave, the Dutch baby pancake, Everett and Monroe helped along with their respective age groups. (We used buckwheat flour and switched the sugar for maple syrup and it was delicious.)

While my approach toward ingredients is a little more whole-hog than the recipes in the book (I prefer to make a pot of black beans with orange peel than to buy a can; I prefer maple syrup over brown sugar; I haven't used ground turkey in years, preferring ground beef and pork I get in large quantities from local farmers and keep in my freezer), not everyone has time for such things, and I affirm utterly Michelle's commitment to spending our cooking time with our kids making that good food to grow on with whole, local and fresh ingredients, instead of focusing all our bonding time on chocolate chip cookies and microwave popcorn (which seems to be the prevailing cultural attitude: most of the food-passionate parents here in Portland defy that Hollywood-friendly stereotype).

There are a lot of books on cooking with or for kids on the bookstore shelves right now, and this is a rare one that avoids judgment or preachiness, while at the same time embracing the concept of involving our kids in good food decisions (no vegetable hiding or sweet pretenses here). You'll probably be happy to see that Michelle doesn't call repeatedly for using organic ingredients, making a small plug for it in the prologue and leaving it at that. And I think the bar for most of our families is pretty low; if we get two or three new fruit- and veggie-packed recipes into our weekly rotation, we're thrilled! This book easily sails over that bar with plenty of potential.

And speaking of meal planning, I'm putting the "Pork Ribs with Asian BBQ Sauce" on my menu for this week: please remind me to take the ribs out of the freezer if you catch me online tomorrow...

[We posted last week about meal planning, and I had been plotting at the time to make it a semi-weekly topic for Sunday evenings when such thoughts are going through my mind. It is such a central issue to parenting that it seems to easily supply a multitude of topics: if it starts to overwhelm you, let us know!]

One more thing: I ordered a copy of this book the day before a review copy came in the mail. So I'll be giving it away. Leave a comment before Thursday, April 28 at midnight -- if you need a topic, tell us what you like to see in a cookbook aimed at parents -- and I'll pick a winner at random on Friday morning.


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Thank you for sharing! I've been curious about how to involve my kiddo in cooking as he grows. He's currently 17 months and loves most everything we put in front of him.

Our meals are a little predictable - we have many dinners we like, but don't typically have time to try more than one new recipe a week. How would you say the recipes in the book measure up for time commitment? Also, for main meals, is there a good pescatarian selection?


Thank you for the book review. It sounds fabulous. I am always challenged to let my daughter participate without getting stressed out about the mess and food getting wasted in the process. I know this is part of having a three year old in the kitchen, but I have a hard time letting it go. I would love to hear suggestions on that front.

sounds like a fantastic cookbook. I like cookbooks that give parents hints on what kind of prep and cooking activities are appropriate for each age.

Like the age recommendations. Not sure how my newly literate, very literal son would do w/subbing ingredients (we're doing a gf/df/you-name-it-free trial for a few months...sigh). Might as well try! Maybe he'd get a kick out of figuring out the substitutions if I gave him a cheat-sheet...

There are several great Montessori catalogues and websites that have great child sized but fully operational kitchen tools to facilitate kids helping in the kitchen. My kids used to love their non electric hand mixers and I still have one all these years later.

I love the idea of getting kids involved in cooking. I just wish my kitchen was big enough for them to all help at the same time. they always end up fighting over gets to help, but i'd love to hear more ideas for including them all in the process.

My kids "cook" with me nearly every day. For the two year old, it's just standing on a chair at the sink scooping flour out of the tin and mixing it with water. The five-year-old helps measure, crack eggs, and monitor the Kitchen Aid. Most kids recipe books I see are heavy on the sweets, carbs, and cheese. I hope this one has some good veg and protein dishes to offer.

I love the age suggestions. Unfortunately, my kids tend to defy the concept of "If they make it, they will try it." Luckily, the kids do eat a range of healthy foods anyway; however, expanding the repertoire would be great for me.

I would appreciate the tips on age helpers, plus the meal planning ideas. Sounds like a great cookbook.

I would love a cookbook like this! I get so stuck cooking the same things every week and catering to a picky 4 year old and almost 2 year old. I love having them help in the kitchen but never know exactly what tasks I can trust in each. It is a bit overwhelming. I like the idea of pretty pictures to get my kids excited about picking and trying new things. This will be a cookbook I will be looking forward to checking out.

What a fun cookbook idea! My 3 and 5 year olds love to help plan the weekly menu, but we are always looking for new ideas. My 5 year old is becoming a pretty decent prep chef, but I am always looking for better ways to involve the little one!

Kate: I hear you, I've often struggled with that defiance. but if they *choose* the food, they're more likely to eat it! and even my picky ones are opening up as they get older; near six and nine, the two oldest are really eating a much bigger variety of foods.

Sounds like a great book. My little guy loves to help in the kitchen, but I struggle with ways to incorporate him into non-baking projects.

I have a 18 month old daughter who already loves to (try and) help me or at least watch, while I cook. She drags her little ladder stool to the end of her counter, now her post during meal prep time. She is no longer content with the bowl and mini whisk on the floor of the kitchen. I really look forward to cooking/baking with her as she gets older. Right now it is kind of tricky, having to be super careful of placement of sharp gadgets, etc., and not to mention a whole lotta mess. But I feel like the mess is worth it. Great bonding time and life skills. I am looking forward to checking out the cookbook.

Our five year old counts two cookbooks as her own - one is Fanny at Chez Panisse and ther other is an IKEA cookbook aimed at kids. The Chez Panisse book has an adorable narrative and yummy, simple recipes, while the IKEA book is filled with bright colorful pictures of (almost?) every finished dish. Those IKEA pictures always elicit ooohs & aaaahs and requests to cook with me!

What a great idea for a cookbook! I would love to get my 2 year old more involved in things that aren't too "hot hot" or "sharp sharp". I know as she gets older it will be easier, but I love to plan ahead. I will surely look into this. Thanks!

My husband grew up planning and making one meal a week. I did not cook at all. As a result he is way more handy and creative in the kitchen than I am. I have struggled to get my older daughter involved but my 4 year old is pretty handy in the kitchen already. We have one cookbook aimed at kids but it is really "kid" food. Not very helpful when meal planning.

Something we picked up from 'group soup' day at preschool is that very little ones can chop both mushrooms and zucchini with a butter knife. You just have to not care about what size and shape the veggies end up in.
And my 4 year old also defies the idea that if she helps out she will eat it. She isn't picky but still won't eat things she helps out with if she doesn't care for them.
I would love tips on how to let go of my anxiety over her making a mess and/or wasting food, and I would also love information about age-appropriate expectations for those things.

Thank you for this lovely shout out for my new book! I am really happy that your family has enjoyed the recipes and that it helps get the kids involved! xoxoxoxox Michelle

This is a great idea! I need tips on how to get my kids more involved and help me out with different recipes they might try(hopefully...). Getting them more involved may help me out be more organized w/ my shopping (hopefully...).

I love the idea of a family cookbook, especially one that focuses on locally-grown food and has lots of pictures! My very favorite cookbooks are organized seasonally; it helps me to shop for what is readily available and by the time we grow tired of certain foods we can move on to the next season.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately--definitely more fun to get them involved than to feel like a kitchen slave. Thanks!

I'd love to win a copy. My boy is a year, so not quite ready to start cooking, but never to early to start thinking of ideas!

birdonfly, the random number generator picked you as the winner! I'll be emailing you directly to arrange delivery of the book. thanks all for participating!

I want to have this family cookbook too. Thanks for sharing.

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