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

Fredericks

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

returning

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

kitchen.

"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

resentful.

She would sit her two sons in front of the television set while she

cooked and would serve them dinner while they watched "The

Simpsons"

so she could have "five minutes of peace."

But she found this form of family life less than satisfying. The

pivotal

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.

"Stephan

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

benefits

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

advises.

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

issues.

It mimics the at-home environment," she says.

She finds it is helpful to get multiple siblings together in the

easy-going

atmosphere she creates in her class. "There are always issues

between siblings — things like territoriality, taking turns,

cooperation"

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

"works

best in a democratic environment," Fredericks warns. Her

recommendation

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

odyssey

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

paprikash,"

she recalls. "Recipes become a blueprint of the family —

especially

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

married,

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

adds.

Fredericks, who lives in Manhattan, appears regularly on local and

national TV shows such as the "Today" show. She teaches

classes

for parents and children at a variety of cooking schools, and is

deputy

director of the Food Studies Institute, which is dedicated to

improving

the education and health of elementary-school children. In the New

York City public schools the institute has created a food-based

curriculum

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

with pride.

Fredericks says she still comes home from work exhausted.

"But,"

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

Family Chefs Institute, Wegmans Food Market, Nassau

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

p.m.

Classes are also offered Saturday, March 10; Saturday, April

7; Sunday, May 6; Saturday, August 18; Saturday, September 15; and

Saturday, October 13.


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