Wednesday, 24 May 2017

My Top Twelve Tips for Cooking with Children

Lotta getting ready to cook
I've written before about experimenting in the kitchen with kids through baking, it's something we do a lot. Today I'd like to say a bit more about other kinds of cooking with our children. Firstly I should mention that I think helping your children learn to cook is a real gift parents can give them. I think it's a life skill that's up there with reading and writing and self-care. We hear a lot in the media about the importance of healthy eating and that is made much easier if you know a bit about ingredients and how to cook them. 

I remember when I first went to university, I'd never lived away from home before and I arrived with a good set of cooking utensils and plenty of recipes I'd been making regularly for quite a few years at home. In fact I'd often cooked for my family, up to three or four times a week. A lot of my fellow students however were not in the same boat. They were ill equipped both materially and in terms of the knowledge they had of food preparation. That translated to them mostly eating some form of ready made food from ready meals to jarred sauces etc. By Christmas of my first term I was regularly trading friends a home cooked meal for a couple of beers. 

Lotta (4) chopping

I would like to know that when my children leave home they know how to cook well. In fact I want them to know about every stage of the food process from growing seedlings to when to harvest and how to store and preserve excess. In that vein they've always been encouraged to help with cooking our meals. 

Now I have to be honest with you this isn't always fun. I would hate for anyone to read this and imagine this perfect situation where we cook together joyfully every time. In fact often the kids ask to help at the most inconvenient moments, usually when I'm in a big rush to get the food ready in time for us to go out. And don't let me get started on the mess they make! When they bake they are encouraged to clear up after themselves but often when they help with the cooking the clean up happens later and apart from clearing the table they're often not that involved. To give you a few examples, think carrot peel everywhere but in the composting bin, tomato juice dripping off the edge of the counter and down the drawers or soup or tomato sauce splattered all over the ceramic hobs. 

A very young Maya kneading dough

However, despite the inconveniences there are many advantages of involving them in our family's food preparation. Maya's pride when she made pasta for herself and her brother one day when I was sick in bed and her dad was really busy with other stuff. Lotta's sense of accomplishment when she helps mummy by chopping the vegetables. Noah deciding he'll give those courgettes a try after all because he helped cook them. And we do have a lot of fun, with the radio on, dancing and singing while we cook.

There's a lot of information available about cooking with children. Jamie Oliver's website for example has loads of features including advice and recipes. Here are a few of my ideas about cooking with kids.

Photo birthday food
A birthday spread the kids helped prepare

Top ten tips for cooking with kids   

I'd just like to mention that I have no formal culinary training. This a list of things I do with my kids. In our household all knife use by our younger children is always adult supervised as is any cooking around hot food be it on the hobs or in the oven. 
  • Provide a washable work space - table cloths are a no-no as are precious wooden counters or tabletops. Make sure wherever they're working will be easy to clean afterwards because they will make a mess. I've found a very large plastic mat to very useful. 
  • Make sure you have plenty of time. Kids can be very slow, rushing them will spoil the experience and might compromise safety.
  • When the above isn't possible delegate tasks that aren't as urgent. For example when one of my kids wants to do some chopping but I'm actually in a real rush with the savory food, I explain the situation and ask them if they'd like to chop up some fruit for desert instead. If that's not possible I set them up on a parallel board with a small amount of what I need. The important thing is not to turn them away, nothing kills there interest quicker. 
  • Give your non-readers a recipe with pictures instead of words they'll love the independence.
  • Explain what you're doing. Giving a running commentary on your own actions might feel a bit strange at first but it means any child helping you in the kitchen will be absorbing understanding of how cooking works.
  • Involve children in meal planning. Talk about what they like to eat and how you need to mix things up to get a balanced diet. Talk to your kids about what a balanced diet is, what we get from our food and how that helps our bodies. Tell them what's in the food they're preparing and eating at the time. 
  • Ask their opinion. If there are options in your meal talk to them about them, see if they want toasted nuts on their stir fry or to steam or sauté the vegetables. 
  • Teach safe knife use. Children are going to use knives if they're cooking and clearly we don't want any chopped fingers. My advice is firstly make sure the chopping board won't slip (you can put a damp tea towel under it for example). Secondly, demonstrate safe knife use - kids learn best by imitating so show them how it's done. More info from another mum here, I really like the playdo suggestion and it's certainly a way my kids have gained practice. And lastly, don't be tempted to use a dull knife, if they get cut it will be much worse and actually makes the whole job riskier because the blade won't cut smoothly and the child will have to use more pressure and may not maintain good grip and finger safety.*
  • An older child will really enjoy being in charge of a full meal. They'll feel a sense of accomplishment putting the food on the table. Help them with the planning and be available in case they need any help. 
  • As well as knife safety teach heat safety. From the beginning small children need to be aware that ovens and hobs are hot and can burn you. Especially nowadays with modern technology where there's no flame to see kids can get confused about how dangerous hobs are. They also won't necessarily know about heat conduction, that a pan will be hot if you touch it or that dishes that come out of the oven can burn your fingers. Older children as they get more independent will need to learn things like how to boil a kettle** and pour from it safely and how to be safe around boiling water. At each stage just remember that it's lack of experience which is children's biggest challenge and that as long as you provide the information they need and model safe behavior they should follow suit. 
  • If for whatever reasons you don't feel comfortable with your child using knives or hot things, or they're just too small (that really depends on your child) there are still loads of things they can do. It's great to start young so get them spinning salad, kneading bread or pizza dough, mixing pancake mix, arranging cut up food on plates, spreading things - anything that they can say I did that about really.
  • For home educators or parents wanting to stick in a bit of math practice measuring is great. Start out with cups and spoons, your kids will be able to familiarise themselves with notions like halves, quarters, thirds. Kids who are just beginning to read numbers will have a great time telling you when to stop as you measure out ingredients or doing it by themselves. If they don't know the number yet you can also show them it written down thus helping their recognition skills. And older kids can use addition when weighing ingredients and division or multiplication when recipes need sizing down or up.
*Although with the appropriate knife safety there should be very few accidents, things do happen and making sure everyone knows where the disinfectant, sterile wipes and plasters are as well as what to do if you cut yourself is a good idea. Similarly teaching your kids what to do if they burn themselves is good common sense. 

**Did you know making a cup of tea is one of the earlier brownies (like girl guides) badges! 

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Five Little Things : Boats

I love boats. I don't sail but somehow they still represent for me a certain escapism, a possibility of adventure, a je ne sais quoi...
And because I love boats I photograph them. And it's a collection just like our shell collection, or Noah's strange assortment of rusty metal bits or my china cats, I collect boats with my camera. 

Oban, Scotland 2016
Greece 2004

Jardins de Luxembourg, Maya's birthday 2009
Homemade walnut shell boats
Birttany 2008
All that thinking about boats got me writing a list poem about the words we have for boats. It's a very rough sketch, no idea where I'll go with it but it has lovely sounds. Here it is:

The language of boats

Sail boats and tall boats
canal boats and barges
bowsers, cokkleshells
coracles, crafts
cruisers and cutters
dwows, dredgers, drifters
dugouts and flagships
ferries and freighters
gondolas, hydrofoils
houseboats, icebreakers
kayaks and kanoes
life rafts and liners
paddle boats, pedalos
punts, rafts, sculls
shikaras, showboats
skiffs, smacks, tugs
tenders and tankers
trawlers and tubs
vessels and whalers
watercraft, yachts.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

More blooms

Sickness has hit our smallest again so we're taking it very easy this week. Lots of cuddles in the hammock, little nature walks, easy crafts (a paper cup string telephone, hammer beads etc) and games (Carcassonne, City of zombies).  And of course lots of trying to catch up on the sleep some of us have been missing out on!

The nature walks are giving us a great opportunity to enjoy the springtime and appreciate the flora and fauna around us. The children are really enjoying listening to the birdsong especially our resident blackbirds. Lotta said to me yesterday, "remember mummy if we lie here and close our eyes we'll be able to hear the birds better". And also all the flowers which Maya particularly has been drawing in her herbier/nature journal.

Here are some pictures from our walks...

Fly on a flower

Snowball flower

Male Blackbirds


Saturday, 6 May 2017

Five Little Things - Flowers

I almost called this post Pretty in Pink! (Yes I love that film). Here are a few of my favourite flower snaps at the moment. There is something infinitely joyful about a blooming, beautiful flower. They are at once delicate, ephemeral and yet robust. Enjoy.

Photo Pink Tulip

Photo close up pink flower

Photo purple/blue flower

Photo sakura - cherry blosom

Photo pink flower

And from a treasured poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, my favourite stanza from Maud in which flowers feature greatly. 
There has fallen a splendid tear
      From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
      She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, "She is near, she is near;"
      And the white rose weeps, "She is late;"
The larkspur listens, "I hear, I hear;"
      And the lily whispers, "I wait."

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Giving our children agency on their birthdays

Last week I wrote about sharing touchstones for joy with our children through sharing our passions. Another moment when we try, like all parents, to create happy memories for our kids is on their birthdays. We mark these special days with our own family traditions and by giving the day over to the birthday person, that is to say letting them choose the food we eat, the places we go, the activities we share. 

Maya wearing her crown

Our traditions are simple; bunting, a birthday crown, opening the presents one by one in the morning after breakfast (if it's possible to wait that long!), taking a moment to each say something we’re grateful for about the birthday boy or girl. In general birthdays are spent ‘en famille’ because this is what the children prefer. If they want a party then it’s held on another day.

Origami horse birthday decorations

When I look around I can see that our way of doing things is very simple compared to some of the enormous birthday celebrations going on out there. But whether a celebration is big or small, simple or elaborate is not the most important thing to me. What really counts is giving the birthday child agency. 

Noah chooses Lego and apple cake

Children live each day in a world where many decisions, big or small, are out of their hands. What time they have to get up, what they get to eat, where they have to go, all these things are decided for them. This is true for home educators as for school educators. Okay, we don't usually get up so early! But we do have places we have to be and it is Frank and I who plan our menus. Of course we try to include our children in these decisions as far as possible, to offer options and discuss how we do things. We try to include foods they like to eat and to talk about our activities and what they mean for how our time is organised. But its not the same as being fully able to decide how things go down, even if for only one day.

Lotta picks the beach and a big sister pony ride
In fact I think that giving our children agency over the big and small decisions for one day is a very special gift. I know that my three all really enjoy telling us in the weeks before their birthdays what the menus will be and what they'd like to do. It makes their day extraordinary and it is such a small thing for us to do.

Maya on her first birthday

This year, as she turned eleven, Maya wanted to be just us on her birthday. She had a small party two days earlier with a couple of friends one of whom slept over. We spent a lot of time making things for her party bags and decorations for the house using our origami skills and this book (in French). Aside from horses we also made cranes and origami flowers to put in the party bags along with homemade earrings (I made tiny cranes using a quarter of a square of origami and added some beads sorry no photos). There was also some chocolate and sweets in little origami bags (I'll post a tutorial for these soon as I couldn't find anything in English). 

Origami flower gift
Origami decorations

On the actual day she opted for crème budvig for breakfast, goat’s cheese salad followed by pavlova for lunch and pizza for tea. She wanted to stay home and enjoy the nice weather. We played molki in the garden and Mr X, one of her favourite board games, twice. In the evening we got her little brother and sister to bed and watched Rogue One. It was a simple, quiet day.

Maya 11