Spending time with kids is good for the soul. I don’t have any kids of my own, but my sister has three of them, and I definitely had my hand in helping raise them. Kids are incredibly fascinating and cute little creatures. They absorb things like sponges, and can be a major source of entertainment if you give them a chance to share their unique outlook on life. More importantly, spending quality time with kids is extremely good for their well-being; it boosts their confidence and it teaches them valuable life skills. Kids learn by watching us since they learn by modeling (or as psychologists call it, observational learning).
A great way to spend time with your kids is in the kitchen. Everybody has to eat, most people love to eat, and kids are certainly no exception. So this fall, why not spend some time in the kitchen with your kids (or perhaps someone else’s kids who you love like they were your very own) teaching them to make healthy snacks that you could take with you an autumn adventure? It’s a great way to have fun together, build memories, and teach your kids about flavor, ingredients, or anything else that might come up in conversation.
I’ve included some suggested activities for you and your children that pair well with each item. In order to select food items to include, I asked a few dear friends of mine and drew from my own (very fond) memories of my most favorite and cherished season – the Fall.
Suggested Activity Afterwards: Double Feature on a day when it’s just too cold to go play outside; curl up on a cozy couch together instead! (Suggested movies: Disney/Pixar’s Up and Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride, not necessarily in that order.)
• Sure, you can make the store-bought kind for as low as $0.47 per box, but where’s the fun in that? This was my favorite food as a kid, and it still is. Mac & Cheese, served up hot with extra gooey cheese and a crispy layer of breadcrumbs, is the ultimate comfort food! Here’s a simple recipe for concocting it “from scratch”, at home.
• 8 oz uncooked elbow macaroni
• 2 cups shredded, sharp cheddar cheese
• ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
• 3 cups milk
• ¼ cup butter
• 2 ½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 2 tablespoons butter
• ½ cup breadcrumbs
• 1 pinch of paprika
• A skillet for the topping in
• A large pot for the the roux (cheese sauce)
• A oven-safe pan to bake the macaroni and cheese
• Cook macaroni according to the package directions. Drain.
• In a saucepan, melt the ¼ cup of butter over medium heat. Stir in just enough flour to make a roux. This means that you will have to add the 2 ½ tablespoons you have set aside slowly, so that it will not clump together. The objective is to get it to combine it evenly throughout the butter. The slower you go, the better off you will be. It is best to use a whisk for this process, to avoid clumps. If you do have your kids help at this part, it’s a good way to teach them to use a whisk, to learn about the importance of texture in food, and to learn the importance of being patient in the kitchen. A rule of thumb in the kitchen is to never rush, and as my kitchen idol, Julia Child has said, “Everything in moderation…even moderation.”
• Once the butter and flour are sufficiently mingled, add the milk to the roux, slowly again, stirring constantly. Use a whisk for this part, too.
• After you see that the milk, butter and flour are nice and blended, stir in the cheddar cheese. At this point, I would suggest switching to a wooden spoon. You can add the cheese all at one time, but just make sure to keep stirring it, and make sure that the heat is set to low.
• Next, stir in the Parmesan cheese in the same way. The kids can help with this part as well.
• Cook the roux over low heat until the cheeses are melted and the sauce is a little thick. If you’ve ever had or made a cream sauce before, you will be able to recognize the consistency; just make sure it tastes delicious and feels delicious in your own mouth – after all, you are the one who has to eat it!
• Take the macaroni you already made and put it in a large casserole dish. Now, pour the roux all over the macaroni. Mix it up really well, making sure that all of the macaroni gets coated.
• Melt the two tablespoons of butter that you had set aside earlier in a skillet over medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs and brown by constantly moving everything around in the skillet. Once it’s all coated and the butter is sopped up, your done!
• Spread the breadcrumbs over the macaroni and cheese, cover the whole thing and sprinkle a little paprika on top. This is a good juncture to teach the kiddies about how important herbs and spices are for flavor. You can explain that paprika is basically pepper dust; you can explain that there are two types of peppers – hot and sweet, and you can explain that they are flowers that “grow up” into delicious, healthy food that can be eaten or dried out and turned into spices that make food more exciting. Depending on the age group, you can also talk about the chemical that makes spicy foods “spicy.” This chemical is called capsaicin. You can explain that capsaicin is a protective mechanism some plants developed in order to ward off mammals and fungi. You should then receive about forty questions on all sorts of curious topics, at which time you can promptly…
• Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for thirty (30) minutes, and discuss capsaicin, roux, various animal kingdom defense mechanisms or anything else that has sparked your child’s curiosity until the macaroni and cheese is ready. Now its time to eat and watch that double feature!
Suggested Activity Afterwards: Drink some warmed cider and draw some festive fall pictures.
This is a good thing to make with super little kids, because it can be safely handled without too much risk of anyone getting hurt or burned. As long as you supervise, it should be pretty low-key and painless, and you can focus more on making beautiful seasonal art.
• One (or more, depending on how many people) pre-packaged tube of cinnamon rolls, like Pillsbury ® with icing (yields eight cinnamon rolls)
• Margarine or butter for greasing
• Either a 13” x 9” round pan or a normal cookie sheet will work just fine for baking these bad boys
• A spatula or butter knife for spreading the pre-packaged icing
• Optional cinnamon sticks and grater for garnishing
• Follow the directions on the package, which includes making sure to preheat the oven and grease your baking pan, whichever type of pan you decide to use.
• Have the kids help with separating the buns (which are pre-sliced) and placing them on the greased cookie sheet. You can explain that the greasing of the pan works as a lubricant so that the cinnamon buns won’t burn and this enables the rolls come out as delicious as possible.
• Let the rolls cool completely before icing. (The hardest part)
• Have the kids help with the icing process – have them use a spatula so there is zero risk of getting cut if they are tiny tots.
• Show the kids how to handle a stick of cinnamon and a grater. It will definitely fascinate them to see how cinnamon comes from a stick. You can then also blow their minds by explaining that the stick is really a rolled up piece of the inside of the bark of a special tree that makes this delicious spice. Let them try grating some cinnamon over the buns. You can act really impressed, say how pretty it looks, and also explain how it adds the most necessary ingredient – TLC, tender, loving care!
Suggested Activity Afterwards: Sit at the kitchen or dining room table to eat these messy yet delicious gems and make it mandatory that during the meal everyone tell their scariest story or experience.
Sloppy Joes are a great comfort food – messy and DELICIOUS. Here’s a healthier alternative to the canned variety that is sure to please anyone in your household no matter how big or small the tummy in question.
• 2 Tablespoons butter
• 2-1/2 Pounds ground beef
• 1/2 Whole large onion, diced
• 1 Whole large green bell pepper, diced
• 5 Cloves garlic, minced
• 1-1/2 Cup ketchup
• 1 Cup water
• 2 Tablespoons brown sugar
• 2 Teaspoons chili powder (more to taste)
• 1 Teaspoon dry mustard
• 1/2 Teaspoon red pepper flakes (more to taste)
• Worcestershire sauce, to taste
• 2 Tablespoons tomato paste (optional)
• Tabasco sauce (optional; to taste)
• Salt to taste
• Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• Kaiser rolls
• Sharp cheddar cheese, thinly sliced (optional)
• Add butter to a large skillet over medium high heat.
• Add ground beef and cook until brown. Drain most of the fat and discard.
• Add onions, green pepper, and garlic. Cook for a few minutes, or until vegetables begin to get soft.
• Add ketchup, brown sugar, chili pepper, dry mustard, and water. Stir to combine and simmer for fifteen minutes, adding salt and pepper to taste.
• Now, add the tomato paste, Worcestershire, and Tabasco if desired. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
• Spread butter onto the Kaiser rolls and brown them on a griddle or skillet. Alternatively, you can butter the rolls and place them on a cookie sheet to toast them in the oven. For an even healthier alternative, just toast them in a toaster oven or in the oven for a few minutes.
• Spoon the meat mixture on top of the toasted buns, and if I were you, I would personally take a thinly sliced piece of cheddar cheese and just place it right on top of that hot meat mixture and let it naturally melt. Yum city. I will definitely be making these within the next few days!
• Serve along-side some crispy kettle cooked chips, and you will have everyone around the table begging for seconds of sloppy Joes and scary stories.
Suggested Activity Afterwards: Pumpkin Decorating! They even make handy dandy kits now where you can buy everything you need to decorate pumpkins all in one place. The advantage to decorating pumpkins as opposed to carving them is that it is safer and easier for small children to participate.
• 1 Package of English Muffins like Thomas’ ® Brand (which, for your information, come in six (6), twelve (12), and eighteen (18) pack sizes)
• 1 Jar of prepared tomato sauce, like Classico ® Brand’s Tomato & Basil sauce or their Traditional Pizza Sauce (or Fire Roasted Pizza Sauce)
• 2 Packages of shredded mozzarella cheese (or one 16 oz [or larger] package, since everyone loves extra cheese)
• ¼ Cup of olive oil
• Your favorite toppings for pizza; the smaller the better, so in most cases, you’d do alright to just chop these toppings all up to go on top of the mini-pizzas
• One or two cookie sheets, depending on the batch size you decide upon, ungreased (preferably non-stick and seasoned)
• Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
• Separate the pre-split English muffins and arrange them on the cookie sheets in the batch sizes you desire. For instance, you can comfortably squeeze about eight English muffins on a standard cookie sheet.
• Put about a teaspoon of olive oil on each English muffin using the spoon to spread the olive oil over the uncooked English muffins.
• Open the jarred tomato sauce and put about a tablespoon of sauce on each split English muffin half. Use the bottom of the spoon to spread it around on top of the olive oil. This combination gives it an unmistakable flavor and a real nice consistency atop the crunchy toasted muffins’ bottoms.
• Next, take a four-fingered pinch of cheese to start for each muffin half. Sprinkle the cheese atop the sauce and sort of spread it around with a spoon. You want to make sure the sauce is covered with the cheese so that you cannot see any of the sauce. If you need more cheese, add it. If you like more cheese, by all means, add it. I say, the more the merrier for this step. Just make sure you save room for the toppings.
• Sprinkle on your chopped toppings, or arrange your un-chopped toppings above the cheese.
• Bake in the oven on the middle rack for about fifteen to twenty minutes. Keep a watch on the muffins the whole time so that nothing burns. You can pull the muffins out about half way through and use a spatula to check the bottoms of each little pizza in order to ensure that it hasn’t started over-cooking and isn’t sticking to the pan. If you like crispier pizza, let the muffins go for about a half an hour or so.
• Pull the pizzas from the oven and set them aside to cool off so no one burns their tongues or mouths. About five to seven minutes should be sufficient.
• Have everyone eat up and get ready to decorate pumpkins after cleaning off the table from dinner!
Suggested Activity Afterwards: Homework help! Use this as a delicious and healthy incentive to work together on homework that needs to get done for school the next day. These chips are a much healthier alternative to bagged potato chips. You can also use parsnips instead of a sweet potato. Your kids will never believe they are eating potassium rich, low-carbohydrate root vegetables!
• 2 large organic sweet potatoes, peeled or unpeeled – your choice, but remember, the skin is where all of the nutrients are, and this is why we suggest using organic, pesticide-free sweet potatoes
• 1-2 Tbsp olive oil
• pinch of salt (optional, but also remember that salt is what brings out the flavor in dishes of any kind)
• 1 or 2 baking sheets, ungreased (preferably non-stick and seasoned)
• Preheat oven to 200 degrees F.
• Rinse and/or peel your sweet potatoes.
• Slice the sweet potatoes to your liking. You can use a knife for thicker cut, more crunchy variety, or try a vegetable peeler for a thinner, lighter, crispier variety.
• In a large mixing bowl, combine the sweet potato slices and drizzle olive oil over them.
• Next, take the salt and sprinkle it over the sweet potatoes. Toss this mixture in the bowl either with tongs or your hands to make sure that they are adequately coated in the olive oil and salt.
• Lay out the sweet potato slices in a single layer on your baking sheet(s) and bake for one and a half to two hours, flipping at least once or twice to ensure even cooking. Be careful not to burn these – they tend to go from light brown to dark brown rather quickly, so check often. Flip them each fifteen minutes depending on how quickly they cook in your oven.
• Remove once crisp and slightly golden brown.
• Serve immediately, as they are best when fresh. However, these tasty little devils will keep for a day or two after cooking; just in case you need more homework reinforcements.