"Families are spending more time at home and more time doing things together post-Sept. 11," says Julie Edelman, author of the kids' cookbook Once upon a Recipe (Once upon a Recipe Press). "My mom preferred me not to be in the kitchen, since mealtime was her time. Now, though, mealtime is 'our' time, and that has created a whole new world of cooking with kids."
Cooking is a skill that children can use now and in the future, as well as an activity that allows them to be creative. It's educational too--kids can see measurements in action. "It's application learning," says Maureen Serrao-Cole, founder of Kid Chef, a cooking program for kids in Austin, Texas. "It uses reading, math, science and art. And when you're talking fractions to kids, it helps to have a cup of flour in your hand."
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Though cooking lets families spend time together, the active involvement of kids in the kitchen may also have grown out of necessity. With many families having two parents in the work force, children are taking on more of the responsibility for preparing meals and after-school snacks. Dan Castellano, 16, of Corvallis, Ore., makes Thai food with his dad, but his motivation goes beyond spending time with his father. "I realized," he admits, "that my mom didn't have to do all the cooking."
"Parents are busy," says Gina Flanagan, the owner of Little Cooks, Ltd., a cooking program for kids based in Albany, N.Y., which has instructors across the country. "They want to give their kids the cooking knowledge and basics that will last a lifetime." It's no surprise that as adults have shown more interest in cooking and eating well, those gourmet tastes have been passed down to their kids. And even the most finicky young eaters are often more likely to eat what they have helped to prepare--and to try food they might not otherwise touch--if they have had a hand (ideally, well scrubbed) in making it. "Cooking is so much fun," says Letty Langton, 6, of St. Augustine, Fla. "I get to cook with my mom and dad. I like mixing up stuff and tasting it."
Cooking classes for youngsters are now available across the country--in cookware stores, at cooking schools, in your home. "Children know much more about food than they did 10 years ago," says Riki Senn, the cooking-school coordinator at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va. Her school offers gourmet-cooking classes for children during the summer, teaching recipes for treats like fruit salsa and chocolate-dipped strawberries.
In Peoria, Ill., junior cooks can whip up such specialties as strawberry salad and mint-brownie pie in classes sponsored by the Peoria Park District. Sur La Table, a nationwide chain that sells specialty cookware, offers summer cooking camps in its stores, with courses that include making sushi, pie baking and a chocolate workshop for teens. The chain also carries children's cookware; in 1997 kids' products accounted for 1% of its sales; today they account for 5%. New York City's American Museum of Natural History invites the children of its members to submit recipes to win a place on its Kids' Culinary Council; prizes include the chance to participate in culinary projects like menu preparation.
Chopping and sauteing are gender-blind activities, and boys are now just as likely as girls to take cooking classes. "It's pretty much even in the classes," says Greenbrier's Senn. Many of these youngsters--particularly the boys--discovered the pleasures of cooking from watching TV. In January the Food Network's share of viewers ages 2 to 11 was up 67% on weekend mornings over the past year. "The popularity of the Food Network and the rising perception of the chef as celebrity have made a huge difference," says Senn. Many of the chefs are male, and they have made cooking cool. Young viewers know what Emeril Lagasse cooked last week; they can tell you who won the last Iron Chef matchup. Even public television is whipping up a show: several stations are scheduled to pick up Kitchen Kids with Betty Ann, a nutrition and cooking series, when it debuts next fall.