How to train a sous chef

A few years ago, I gave advice to a frustrated mother in my office.  She was concerned that her young son would never catch up to his peers with  his small motor control.  He could barely grasp a pencil comfortably, let alone write his name.  The mother was a newly minted American citizen and her English was labored and unsure.  She had not been able to communicate her concern to their family doctor and she felt helpless in her desire for her son to succeed in school.  As we talked, I suggested that she bring him into the kitchen with her while she cooked.  To teach him how to measure out spices, to use a cookie cutter, to shape the bread.  It sounded odd, but she did what I suggested and within weeks, she saw improvement.  I am a firm believer in getting your kids involved in the kitchen from a very early age, if not to simply familiarize them with good food, but to teach them skills and build relationships.  

When your kids are little, you can settle them into a sling or perhaps a Bumbo while you work, keeping them close and involved in their own little way.  When they are toddlers, you can give them little tasks to do and by the time they are in elementary school, you could have your own little sous chef.  Magazines and blogs and websites are filled with ideas on how to get your kids involved in the kitchen.  Grow a garden, take them to the grocery, let them help you with your menu plan, teach them simple knife skills; these are all fantastic ideas, but what about that age where they are no longer content to sit and babble while you cook but are too young to get you the onions out of the bin?  I know, there’s nothing out there about that age.  Of course, that age is where we are now.  

As I type this, my little guy is motoring around the upstairs of our home.  He is busy every second of his waking moments.  He’s curious and intense.  And sitting quietly in the kitchen watching me cook is not top priority to him.  There’s been a battle of balance in our home because I’m not willing to give up cooking a nice dinner just because I have a toddler, but I also need to eat something other than pasta and broccoli (although, I’m fairly certain Liam wouldn’t mind).  I don’t like the dinner prep to be stressful, so in the last few weeks, I’ve gotten dinner down to a science.  I hope this post is helpful to those readers who are coming up on this stage of life with your little ones!


  • Be prepared!!!  This tip I cannot stress enough.  I generally take a few moments the night before and look at what’s in my fridge so I’m not blindsided the next afternoon at 4.  If meat needs to be thawed, it’s taken care of then, not in a panic with a hungry child in the background.  Being prepared keeps you from running to the drive-through.
  • If you have the luxury of a good nap on the weekend from your child, use it.  Ask your husband (wife, partner, etc.) to be on baby duty so you can gather your supplies for your week of meals and prep as far as you can in advance.  I try to spend a few hours once a month and get meats in marinades, frozen and labeled for quicker dinners.
  • If you’re making a meal, make 2.  Often, I plan my menu around leftovers.  This way, we are all fed well throughout the week and Matt isn’t digging around in the morning looking for a meal before work.  If I can, I make enough to freeze additional portions for use later.
  • Use that crockpot!  Making your meat in the crockpot and then fixing a side later means that even if there is a total meltdown and you aren’t able to get the side done, you at least have a filling meal to eat.
  • Serve a snack while you prep dinner.  I do this almost every day.  Liam eats an afternoon snack around 4 so he sits in his chair and munches while I do all the work that would require a knife or a hot pan.  If I time things right, I can usually get dinner into the oven before Liam is done with his snack and then we are free to play until Daddy comes home.
  • Make one cabinet safe so your child can pull out the pans, bowls, spoons, etc. and play with them while you cook.  My pasta press plates are stored in a case that when shaken makes noise.  Liam loves it.  We turn on music and he shakes the case to the music and we dance while I make dinner.  He also loves to wave wooden spoons around or play peek-a-boo with the onions under the kitchen sink.
  • On a few occasions, we have stripped Liam down to his cute little diaper and let him play in the ingredients.  I’ve shredded cheese onto the tray of his chair and let him feel the differences between flour and oats.  

If I get the time, I like to make as much of the dinner as I can while Liam takes his afternoon nap.  I’ve made a deal with myself to not work the whole way through his nap, though.  I need that time as much as anyone else to sit back and breathe because as soon as he wakes up, we’ve got stairs to climb, dogs to chase and toys to vroom vroom.  I do try to make sure that Liam gets to spend the time with me in the kitchen as much as possible.  He already does most of my grocery shopping with me and enjoys the dirt garden.  It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally gotten to the point where dinner prep isn’t so challenging, but I must admit that I am looking forward to being able to engage Liam a little more fully as I bake and cook.  It will be so much fun to do things together!

Of seeds and water and environmental things

“I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil.”  -Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder
When I was in college, I took an Ecology class.   I was thrilled to be introduced to the information and to put my passion for the environment into action by helping lead the Environmental Stewardship Society with a friend who is now National Park Ranger.  During the course of the semester, I listened to lectures, read books and took plenty of exams.  I even wrote a paper on the impact that DDT still has on our communities today.  It was during this semester, though, that I realized that even though I am a primarily visual learner, I do gain a great bit from a tactile experience.  Which is why my insect collection, although one of the greatest challenges of my college career, was also one of the greatest revelations of my young adult life.  I have such serene memories of those months, punctuated by feelings of terror when I remember my misguided attempts at capturing an angry bumblebee, and they are primarily due to being outside.  I grew up outside, but I didn’t really know much about nature.  I made a declaration that I would make sure my children not only got the opportunity to experience the world around them, but also the chance to understand and appreciate it.

I have been waiting for the chance to introduce my son to the natural world.  We went outside in the snow and ice so that he could feel it, but it wasn’t really the experience that I had hoped for.  Mainly because at 6 months, there isn’t going to be the enthusiasm I feel being mirrored back at me.  But now.  Now that he is 9 months old, I am getting to watch the light bulb turn on as he realizes the difference between surfaces and substances and I knew that he would begin to enjoy our walks for a different reason.  So this week, we made trips to the compost pile where I explained how and why it works.  We even hung around and watched Daddy turn the compost so that we could see the rich, black soil at the bottom.  I took Liam to a greenhouse where we purchased some plants and then showed him the root systems as we transplanted them into our herb potters at home.  We ended our week with a trip to COSI yesterday.  We were really there to celebrate my nephew’s birthday and see the Titanic exhibit, but Liam and I got some chances to talk. 

Cosi has a wonderful section that is for children age 5 and under (accompanied by their parents, of course).  It was here that we were able to spend quality time at the water tables playing with the simple toys and watching the water react to how he slapped it or what it was passed through.  I had hoped for a bigger reaction, but he wasn’t feel tip-top, so we will simply have to return at another time.  In the main play room, they had giant light switches.  I was super excited about this because Liam knew just what to do.  Every time we leave a room where the light is on, we turn it off.  He puts his tiny little index finger up to the switch and we “save electricity” and turn the switch off.  If you leave a room without doing so, he wants to go back and turn the light off.  I think it’s great.  Already he is aware of a routine so that when he is older and actually understands kilowatts and such, he won’t think that I’m such a nerd.  Once inside the Titanic exhibit, he fell asleep waking only just before the rooms outlining the crash and the final hours of the ill-fated ship.  It was in this room, that I realized that he’s never been outside when the stars are out.  He was fascinated by the way the “stars” twinkled in the night and I made a mental note to take him outside and show him the night sky this fall when it’s dark before his bedtime.  Before we left, we went to see the movie about Whales on the 7-story screen.  Liam hadn’t been himself much of the trip, wanting to be held and somewhat fussy, but as soon as he saw the giant mammals swimming across the screen, he lit up.  He waved his arms and called out to them as though they were right there.  I can only assume that he thought they were in an aquarium like we had seen at the zoo.  What is fun is that I had just opened a Christmas present of bath toys that had several whales in it that were featured in the movie.  So now when my little guy plays in the tub, we can talk about the Orkas and the Hammerhead sharks and he’ll have heard those words before.  
Here’s the thing, Liam doesn’t know the difference between sand and dirt yet.  He doesn’t understand the concepts of erosion and it will be some time before he does.  However, he can still listen to me explain to him why we plant trees and why I cry when I see the hawks scrounging up the carrion in the middle of the city.  We read our books and we talk about waste and it’s impact on the environment.  I showed him the recycling bins at home and told him that someday, he’d get to make a trip with me to the center to drop off our stuff.  When we go for walks, we talk about what we see.  Or rather, I talk and he babbles back his response.  Liam doesn’t talk all that much on a day to day basis, but when we are outside, he does.  He loves to watch the geese in the pond along the bike trail and he thinks it’s funny when the trees blow in the wind.  I’m hoping that through this and many other exposures we can continue to learn together about the environment and nature; and that in time, he too will learn to love it as much as I do.  And as much as I learned from my insect collection, I am honestly hoping that he doesn’t develop a real interest for that species until later.  Maybe in his own ecology class.

Challenge update

 Pear blossoms

I had signed up for the No Waste challenge in an attempt to get myself back on track after being so lax in my efforts.  I signed up, approached my kitchen with greater purpose and have thrown nothing away in the last 2 months.  Nothing.  I have never been so proud of myself for actually using each and every item I purchased.  This week, however, I did have to pitch some questionable food in my fridge that a relative had sent over and my husband stuck in the fridge without telling me.  I never knew it was there until the fridge smelled odd.  Last night, a bag of scary looking potatoes went to the compost as well.  There was little I could do to rescue them.  Also, I bought a few bags of Sunchips since they now have the nifty compostable bag!  I’m super excited to see how they break down!  I checked into the research that Sunchips posted on their site, so I won’t be able to actually report on the progress for a while yet, but it’s exciting to see each trip I make to our little pile.  Also, I think the compost at the bottom of the pile is ready (finally!  It only took about 2 years to get everything broken down.), so we will be adding it to the garden this spring.

Transplanted Rhubarb that seems to really be doing well!

I’ve been going over my garden plans a lot, but haven’t really settled on my official plan.  Today, I did get some herbs in, but it started storming before I was able to get my deck boxes ready for the lettuce I’m anxious to plant.   The grand plan is for Matt and I to work on the gardens/flower beds/yard over the next week (culminating with a big work day next Saturday) and then I will plant as I am able through the following weeks.  I decided not to do peas this year since we just haven’t been able to get rolling with the prep work and I’m not certain that it’s all that worth it for me to plant them when every year I wind up finding plenty at the farmer’s market.  Also, by not planting the peas, I can get down to business and try broccoli and brussel sprouts since I’ve been dying to do those but never have the room.  Also, I’m not doing potatoes.  I tried them 2 years ago and they were a total bust.  I was really frustrated since we worked so hard on them and only got a few potatoes back.  I’ve found a local farm that sells 50 pounds for 10 dollars, so I feel that it is a good choice for now. 

 Helping Mama plant Basil

Also this week, I’ve been taking Liam to the compost pile and talking about the fine art of vermicomposting.  He is mainly interested in throwing things into the pile and not so much in my lecture, but we’re still talking about it, right?  Which then brings me to my next challenge update.  I decided to participate in Abbie’s Environmental Education Week Challenge since I can actually start the environmental education with Liam now.  I’ve got a post percolating about what all we’ve done this week and some photos to share.  But I’m saving that until after tomorrow’s trip to COSI (the Center of Science and Industry) since I’m sure there will be something to talk about there as well!