By Lyndsey Waugh
Cooking meals at home on a regular basis often feels like a pipe dream, especially for parents with young children or who have kids with demanding after school schedules. But, with less focus on “full sit-down meals” and more attention paid to eating nutritious foods, using a greater number of time-saving pre-chopped veggies and already-marinated meats makes eating at home easier than ever before.
As the culinary director for Sprouts Farmers Market — and father of two kids under age seven — Chef Matt Pratta gets it. Trying to balance preparing a meal at the end of a workday and keeping things stress-free can be hard, but with a few simple tricks, he and his wife Elena involve their kids in the process.
“We look for simple tasks that our children can help with in the kitchen,” explains Pratta. “Peeling hard boiled eggs, snipping greens, shucking corn, adding ingredients to a salad, these small assignments help kids feel engaged in the cooking process.”
Involving children with the steps of preparing a meal provides an opportunity to talk about food tastes and flavors, allowing for a natural backdrop for learning to occur.
“Noticing colors and textures, counting out ingredients, helping read recipes and measuring ingredients can also be layered in,” Pratta says.
To simplify prep, Pratta’s summer shortcut includes marinating chicken or another lean protein ahead of time in one of his favorite flavor profiles — the same options that he creates for Sprouts customers. This allows prep time with children to focus on preparing vegetables and sides.
Deconstructing meals is also another way to engage kids in mealtime. Think charcuterie board or bento box — the art of wholesome grazing has never been more fun.
“Deconstructed meals allow for creativity and personalization, without adding tons of extra pots and pans — or heat — to the cooking experience.” says Pratta.
A kid-friendly or family version of this might include a mix of things like rotisserie chicken or hard boiled eggs, nuts, sliced cheeses, fresh veggies, hummus or guacamole, or whole wheat pasta salad — you can get creative here with easy items that are ready to go and that you know your kids will enjoy. A bento box-style meal also allows some space for kids to taste and try new things, with smaller portions and bite-size tasting options. They also make for an excellent school lunch option.
Another word of advice? According to Charleen Badman, James Beard award-winning chef and owner of FnB in Scottsdale, avoid labeling a child as picky.
“Adults need to be open minded,” says Badman. “Children go through different phases and their preferences change with age.”
Instead, make tasting new things fun and help your child to identify what they may be tasting — are the foods bitter, sour, spicy or sweet? This can help children begin to understand their own taste preferences, moving beyond “like” and “dislike.”
Badman began volunteering at Echo Canyon Middle School in Scottsdale, conducting small cooking lessons with students in their school garden. Today, the nonprofit she founded, Blue Watermelon Project, provides “Chef in the Garden” and culinary food education to nearly 30 schools throughout Phoenix, Tucson and Northern Arizona. She’s also mobilized dozens of local chefs to lend their time to the effort. Each January, Blue Watermelon Project hosts its annual “Feeding the Future” event, which pairs student culinary teams with chef mentors to create recipes aligned with the National School Lunch Program.
“There’s power in allowing young people to have a voice in the meals they eat and in understanding where their food comes from, and how the foods they eat connect back to a cultural story,” shares Badman. “At home or at school, kids are curious about food, and we know that when we spark that curiosity, it makes the idea of cooking and preparing foods more fun.”
With help from the Sprouts Healthy Communities Foundation, Blue Watermelon Project will be expanding its school-based gardening and cooking programs to serve more students. Chef Matt Pratta will also be making his debut as a volunteer with the nonprofit’s Chef in the Garden program this school year.
Read more Savor articles on Green Living.