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Make holiday cooking a family affair

The holidays are the perfect time to fill the kitchen with the sounds of little voices and family memories.

For many parents, however, giving their children responsibilities in the kitchen can spur thoughts of uncertainty—unsure of what they not only are capable of, but what may bring enjoyment.

“It’s more fun when you get the family involved, especially the kids,” says Cheryl Molenda, chairman of the board of the American Culinary Federation Chefs of Northwest Indiana.

Whether it’s helping prep the food, setting the table or simply observing, experts say getting kids of any age involved not only teaches core skills like math, but also sets them up for important life skills.

Here’s what you need to know to successfully include your children in the kitchen this holiday season.

Find a comfort level for both you and your child. Lisa Wodrich, owner of Third Coast Spice Café in Chesterton, says kids love trying new tasks, so don’t be afraid to be adventurous when testing comfort levels.

“I think we underestimate how much they can do,” she says.

While Jean Theile, owner of Branya’s Bakery in St. John, is comfortable with her children around the stove, she says if parents find more comfort in keeping children away from hot areas of the kitchen, it’s important to have them help in some way.

“My one child doesn’t like to cook, but even having kids in the kitchen while parents cook—even if the kid is just setting the table—is important,” Theile says.

Welcome all ages. Even the smallest children can be helpful in the kitchen, Theile says. “When making green beans, have the smaller children unwrap the butter,” she says. “It’s a great time to teach them measurements and fractions, and kids can also snap off the ends of the green beans.”

Older children around 10 or 11 should be able to peel a sack of potatoes, Theile says, but younger ones might have more luck peeling other vegetables such as carrots.

Make a list of tasks in advance. When prepping for a big holiday meal, make a list of ingredients and jobs that need to be completed for each dish to get the whole family involved, Molenda says.

“Give the kids and even your better half something to do,” she says. “This helps to get things done and puts less stress on Mom or Dad.”

Even simple projects like making stuffing can be divided into smaller tasks, she says. “If you’re using fresh bread and breaking it up the day or two before to dry out, enlist the kids to help out,” Molenda says. “Once the family sits for dinner, it’s almost a given that the kids will chime in and tell the rest of the guests that they helped or made a particular dish.”

Dig in. If you have children who love to use their hands when doing crafts or playing outside, give them tasks like mixing dough.

“We make pizzas a lot, so the kids love kneading the dough,” Wodrich says. “They also love going out to the garden and hand-picking basil to put on the pizza.”

Chef Sam Brown, president of the Greater Indianapolis chapter of the American Culinary Federation, suggests making drop dough cookies. “No mixer is needed, because you have the mixers in the kids,” he says.

Encourage play. While “don’t play with your food” is often heard at the dinner table, Brown encourages parents to allow kids to play with their food in creative ways.

Creating art with the food can broaden a child’s love for trying new things and spending time in the kitchen, he says. One way to do this is by building figures or faces with fruits and vegetables, such as using grapes as the eyes or a cantaloupe as the head.

Bring history to the table. Kids will become more interested in cooking and baking in the kitchen if they have a better understanding of where food originates, Brown says.

“If you’re serving squash and corn for the holidays, when preparing it, discuss the history of Native Americans in this country,” he says.

Try using seeds from the fruits and vegetables to grow your own as well, he says.

“Kids who don’t eat vegetables will if they grow them themselves,” Brown says.

Reach out for help. If the kitchen isn’t your favorite room in the house, but you want your child to know life skills, Theile suggests enrolling them in a class to learn kitchen basics.

At the end of this year, Branya’s Bakery will begin offering a set of classes for kids to teach them the very basics of the kitchen, from how to properly hold a knife to peeling a potato.

For more information on these classes, call (219) 558-8712 or go to Branya’s Bakery Facebook page.