Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the February 7,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
When Many Cooks Make Better Meals
When cookbook author and TV personality Lynn
conducted a cooking demonstration for children and their families
at Wegmans in Princeton last October, she had youngsters vying to
help make tomato sauce and eight-year-olds wolfing down Tuscan bean
soup. In fact, the session was so successful that Fredericks is
for a series of seven hands-on family cooking lessons which Wegmans
is calling its Family Chefs Institute. The series begins Saturday,
February 10, and continues through Saturday, October 13.
Does it sound far-fetched for kids to want to help cook dinner every
night, and to happily eat healthful, sophisticated dishes? We all
know of families where children refuse to let anything green pass
their lips and prefer to dine night after night on a diet of grilled
cheese, noodles with butter, and pizza. Yet Fredericks claims that
"If my family can do it, any family can."
In a recent telephone interview Fredericks reiterated what she openly
discusses in her popular book, "Cooking Time is Family Time"
(William Morrow, 1999; $25) about the personal situation that led
her "out of desperation" to invite her own children into the
"Seven years ago my life was shattered by divorce, leaving me
with a six-month-old infant and a very angry seven-year-old,"
she says. "I cooked because it was healthier and cheaper than
buying prepared foods." The family was in therapy and her older
son was dealing with learning disabilities and emotional problems.
She remembers coming home from work each night, exhausted and
She would sit her two sons in front of the television set while she
cooked and would serve them dinner while they watched "The
so she could have "five minutes of peace."
But she found this form of family life less than satisfying. The
incident, she says, came about a year later. "At the end of my
rope one evening I handed my son — still in diapers — a bunch
of basil and told him he could help me cook," she relates.
was bored with banging pot lids, but found plucking leaves off stems
quite thrilling." It didn’t take long for her older son, Alex,
to see that his younger brother was getting lots of attention from
mom in the kitchen, so he, too, was drawn in.
Fredericks soon realized that her little family was spending more
time together — and more quality time laughing and talking —
while preparing and enjoying healthful meals. From her son Alex, now
15, she learned what scientific studies have also shown: that men
and boys are more comfortable talking about personal issues during
an activity, in this case during family cooking time.
Over the next year or so she discovered that other
accrue from peeling potatoes, grating cheese, stirring risotto, and
hand-squishing tomatoes. "Cooking helps kids become experts in
following directions and working as a team. They show real creativity,
which is a constant inspiration to me," she says. She points out
the obvious skills that get transferred to school work — using
fractions to measure, practicing with volumes and weights, witnessing
chemical reactions — but also claims that as children increase
their cooking capability, their sense of pride and accomplishment
blossoms and their self-esteem soars. The concept has proved equally
popular with fathers of single parent and two-parent households.
But drawing kids into the kitchen and successfully cooking together
doesn’t happen automatically. The key, says Fredericks, is "to
believe in their ability to really help. It’s being involved in the
process of making it, the empowerment, that grabs them." It will
get messy at times, she warns, and it will, at least in the beginning,
take longer to get the meal on the table. At least initially, the
focus should be on the process of cooking together, not on the result.
"In order to make this work, you have to be focused and committed
but flexible. You’ve got to make it fun, upbeat, and really come from
what the children want in terms of their involvement," she
Among the tactics she suggests are: starting with recipes
you know your children love, shopping for ingredients with them, and
making the dinner table sacred by keeping it set with a tablecloth
and cloth napkins (all washable). She recommends that each child be
given a set of basic tools, among them sets of measuring cups and
spoons, potholders and an oven mitt, a wooden spoon, and one of those
vegetable peelers with the wide, rubberized handles.
In her book she addresses the issue of safety in the kitchen, and
breaks down the instructions for the 125 recipes by what older or
younger (seven and under) sous-chefs can handle. For the young ones,
these include everything from removing the wrapper from a stick of
butter to peeling garlic cloves after an adult has smashed them with
a knife to loosen the skin. Fredericks says that even "infants
should be in the kitchen, being talked to. That is how they come to
know that this is the part of the home where meals come from."
For the Wegmans sessions, each family unit — parents, children,
caregiver — will get to prepare food for their family. The first
session, on February 10, will feature seasonal soups, including the
hit Tuscan bean soup and Thai fish chowder. Fredericks whipped up
the latter soup with a pilot group in January, and reports that even
the littlest kids liked it. "The kids got to season it the way
they like it," she says, after she had discussed with them each
of the salty, sweet, and sour components. "They taste them; they
add them in the quantities they want. Kids can even be induced to
use odd-looking green herbs once they get over the look of them,"
she says, laughing.
The cooking classes give each family a chance to see how the process
will work for their particular group. "It’s an opportunity to
pretend they are in their own kitchen," she says. She describes
the setting as a laboratory where the family will encounter all the
obstacles they face at home. "The kids will get distracted at
points, and they’ll have to deal with that, as they will safety
It mimics the at-home environment," she says.
She finds it is helpful to get multiple siblings together in the
atmosphere she creates in her class. "There are always issues
between siblings — things like territoriality, taking turns,
she notes, "and these issues will come to the forefront, just
as they do at home." Only in this setting, parents will have the
opportunity of having Fredericks on hand to show them how to best
deal with them. After preparing the meal, which will include dessert,
each family’s workstation will be transformed with a cloth covering,
cloth napkins, and votive candles. "And that is the environment
you eat in," she specifies.
Experience tells her that the people who sign up for the class are
those "for whom food and what they serve to their families are
priorities, but the dilemma for them is how to get what they want
their kids to eat onto the table. Often they are people who don’t
have confidence in their cooking skills, or they are in a rut as to
what they are serving, or they’re stressed over the issue of safety
and kids in the kitchen. They are people who are looking for how the
process can be demystified and communicated," she says.
Getting kids to change their eating preferences
best in a democratic environment," Fredericks warns. Her
is to make sure each family member gets a night when they choose the
menu, which everyone eats.
"Then, on another night, they’ll be eating another family member’s
choice," she says. "Also, the more ritual a family creates
around the meal, the more successful they’ll be. Every family’s
will be different. In some, the mother might do more of the cooking,
with the kids’ contribution centering around setting the table or
doing the shopping."
Fredericks grew up in suburban Chicago. Her mother, she says, "was
a really good cook. She had to be: my father had very cosmopolitan
tastes, at least for those days." Her father owned an advertising
agency and commuted to and from Chicago each day. Even when he was
not home, the family sat down together at mealtime. "I spent a
lot of time trailing my mother around the kitchen and talking with
her. I was more into eating and talking than cooking, but I knew I
had her undivided attention," says Fredericks, who is the eldest
of three girls.
When she was college age she began to make holiday meals based on
her grandmother’s Eastern European cooking. "At holiday time I’d
be on the phone to my grandmother asking how to make her chicken
she recalls. "Recipes become a blueprint of the family —
if kids influence how food is made."
Her path to and interest in the food industry began with having a
good friend in college who was a terrific cook. "When I got
I had someone to cook for. My former husband and I had met in Greece
and I made many Greek things back then," she says. Her husband
eventually went on to become a chef while she "went through his
culinary education through osmosis."
She worked in publishing during this time and eventually found herself
doing publicity for such well-known New York restaurants as March
and Palio. "I learned a lot from the great chefs there," she
Fredericks, who lives in Manhattan, appears regularly on local and
national TV shows such as the "Today" show. She teaches
for parents and children at a variety of cooking schools, and is
director of the Food Studies Institute, which is dedicated to
the education and health of elementary-school children. In the New
York City public schools the institute has created a food-based
for kindergarten through third grade in which many required subjects
are taught through food themes, cooking, and the arts.
In addition to cooking multicultural meals, the students also plant
spring gardens based on the different cultures they study. "We
grow mainly herbs and vegetables. We have Caribbean, Latin American,
Asian-American, and African-American gardens. For our Asian garden,
we grew icicle radishes in raised beds and the kids were amazed that
these big things had grown from such tiny, tiny seeds," she says
Fredericks says she still comes home from work exhausted.
she says, "I discover that the moment we get into the cooking
process, the kids totally recharge my batteries. I’m no longer the
slave making dinner, instead we are the team."
— Pat Tanner
Park Boulevard, 609-919-9300. Lynn Fredericks, author of "Cooking
Time is Family Time: Cooking Together, Eating Together, and Spending
Time Together." Preregister; $20 for the first adult/child pair,
$10 for each additional family member. Saturday, February 10, 2
7; Sunday, May 6; Saturday, August 18; Saturday, September 15; and
Saturday, October 13.
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