Kids in the Kitchen
East Bay experts break down the benefits of getting young people involved in meal preparation and share their tips for making the most of a child's culinary experience.
Pleasant Hill fourth grader Jasmine Balili prepares a salad in a Cooking Round the World class.
Who has time to cook these days? With the hectic pace of the typical East Bay family’s lifestyle—both parents working, children overloaded with homework and extracurricular activities, and everyone’s attention being pulled away by technology—it’s no wonder meal planning has become somewhat of an afterthought. The prevalence of food-delivery apps, such as Grubhub and Caviar, and packaged meals have also rendered the art of cooking a low priority in many households.
Meanwhile, over the past 25 years, the obesity rate in the United States has quadrupled, and type 2 diabetes—once extremelyrare in youth—has increased significantly among school-age kids. Several experts believe that the abundance of non-nutritious, processed foods might contribute to those unsettling statistics.
“Kids rely on those things and they can forget to eat whole foods, like fruit or whole grains,” says Gail Seche, a registered dietitian and the clinical nutrition manager at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. “Kids who are raised on poor diets are prone to be pickier eaters. They’re more at risk for a less nutritional and higher-calorie diet, which can lead to weight-management issues [and, eventually, conditions like] cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes … [and] hyperlipidemia. We’re seeing all of these things at younger and younger ages.”
One way to slow this disturbing trend is to teach children to cook—and the earlier the better. As Seche puts it: “The first five years of life are critical in shaping healthy habits, including healthy eating and helping in the kitchen.”
When kids learn to prepare their own food, they gain essential life skills, from healthy eating habits and nutrition literacy to financial responsibility, creativity, and self-reliance. In his 2010 book, Medium Raw, the late chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain made the case for teaching cooking in every American school. “Basic cooking skills are a virtue,” he wrote, adding a list of fundamentals that all young people should be required to master by the time they finish high school, including knife skills, making an omelet, roasting a chicken, and “the ability to shop for fresh produce and have at least some sense of what’s in season.”
Cooking in the Classroom
While most school districts haven’t implemented a cooking curriculum yet, some East Bay food activists are teaching nutrition and food preparation in local schools. Perhaps most famously, the Edible Schoolyard Project—founded by Chez Panisse chef and owner Alice Waters—trains Berkeley middle school students to grow and cook their own food. Concord’s Mt. Diablo High, too, offers a Sustainable Hospitality Pathway program—led by Cindy Gershen, the chef-owner of Walnut Creek’s Sunrise Bistro—which teaches food science, including produce-growing techniques, and prepares students for hospitality-industry careers. Gershen is expanding her reach within Mt. Diablo Unified School District by developing similar programs for younger grade levels as well.
In the absence of district-wide cooking programs, some teachers are bringing culinary education into the classroom in other ways. Grady Carson, a first-grade teacher at Mira Vista Elementary in Richmond, invites parents to make their favorite dishes with his students. One October afternoon, Shufang Huang led Carson’s class in a dumpling-making workshop, with the aid of her 6-year-old son Regis Ng, who helps her prepare meals at home. (The budding chef says his favorite thing about making dumplings is, “You can have your hands do it, the twisting and all that.”)
First, a smiling Ng explained to his classmates that dumplings are a typical Chinese food that his family eats about once a week, and Huang and Carson described the ingredients they’d use in the dish. Then it was time to get to work. Huang distributed ground chicken into bowls, which were placed on five tables throughout the classroom. With the help of her son and some parent volunteers, she added other ingredients to each bowl—including sesame oil, corn, and water chestnuts.
The 6- and 7-year-old students scattered around the tables and watched intently. One girl made a face when scallions were added, claiming that she didn’t like the smell, which prompted several of the kids at her table to plug their noses too. But Carson was quick to point out that the scent would change once the dish was cooked.
Next, Ng and Huang demonstrated how to place the filling in the dumpling’s wrapper and dab water around the wrapper’s perimeter before folding it over and pinching the edges to close it. The 19 students enthusiastically followed suit. Once all the wrappers were filled, Huang boiled the dumplings in a pot on the hot plate Carson had set up in the back of the room.
While the dumplings cooked, Carson took the opportunity to embed a food-based math lesson into the session. “If Iris has four dumplings, and Isabella takes away two, how many dumplings does she have left?” Several children clamored to answer—and then, they ate. Every student tasted the food they’d made, and almost all of them declared the dumplings “yummy.” The girl who’d turned up her nose at the scallion smell was later seen licking her plate.
An Educational Opportunity
Carson has incorporated cooking into his classroom instruction numerous times in the past. It’s a hands-on way to teach about other cultures, he says, as well as a teamwork-building practice. “Cooking brings us together,” he explains. “Everyone will want to participate, and that’s an amazing thing. Not everyone wants to participate in P.E. Not everyone wants to participate in reading time. But everybody will want to cook.”
It also serves as a practical application for math and science lessons. “When the kids start cooking, pretty abstract concepts, like a half a cup or a quarter of a teaspoon, become part of their daily language, and they start to use it very fluidly,” Carson says. “They may not know exactly what it means, but it’s not an intimidating term. … I’ve seen kids just jump into fractions fearlessly [after learning to cook].”
For younger children, Carson says, that might take the form of cutting a stick of butter in half to show what a “half” looks like, or having them count out spoonfuls of ingredients in a recipe—a tactic Kensington-based chef Mollie Katzen, who’s written two cookbooks for preschoolers, has used too. In Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes, Katzen outlines a recipe for “Number Salad” that requires one handful of shredded coconut, two tablespoons of orange juice concentrate, three pieces of orange, and so on, up to “stir nine times,” to give toddlers practice counting as they prepare their own healthy snack.
Older kids, like the fourth and fifth graders Carson taught in the past, can grasp more complicated concepts and aren’t at risk around burners or knives the way first graders are. With these students, educators can use cooking to teach chemistry, from witnessing how water boils when it’s heated to seeing—and tasting—the difference between a grilled cheese sandwich and a cold cheese sandwich. “It’s putting two things together and watching what happens when they interact with each other,” Carson says. “You don’t even have to say ‘chemistry.’ … ‘Look, we’re putting eggs in the flour. I bet something’s going to change. What’s going to happen?’”
Breaking Down Barriers
Oakland resident Mindy Myers also uses educational theories when developing lessons for her youth-cooking program, Cooking Round the World. A former school principal with a Ph.D. in educational systems design, Myers launched her business after observing that children synthesize information better when they experience something firsthand.
“We integrate cultural education with the cooking,” she explains. “So it’s not enough for me to teach, ‘Let’s make a soup.’ It’s important that children also recognize the origins of the ingredients, why a food is indicative of one country or another, why there’s no wheat in Vietnam, why there’s a propensity of dates in Israel.
“This is an educational program,” adds Myers, “as opposed to just a culinary experience.”
Cooking Round the World students perform most of the tasks themselves, from peeling vegetables to operating equipment. Younger children work with plastic knives and electric pots and pans—they’re not allowed near the stove—but they still get the tactile sensation that comes with each step in the process. Older kids, meanwhile, are granted more access throughout the kitchen.
Ultimately, Myers believes the experience helps her students learn independence. “I see cooking as a great equalizer. It’s an equalizer that a 5-year-old and a 12-year-old can each cook according to their age limitations and abilities, but it’s also OK for a child who has autism. And it’s OK for a child who has attention deficit disorder or other learning or behavior inabilities,” Myers says. “We’ve had children who don’t speak English. I have had a blind and deaf child. Cooking crosses lines, and I like that.”
Perhaps the most valuable skill cooking can impart to children, however, is nutritional literacy. That’s what led Lynda Rexroat to launch the Cooking With Kids Foundation eight years ago. The Lafayette native—a former professional baker—knows firsthand the dire consequences a poor diet can wreak: Her own unhealthy eating habits over time led to food intolerances, illness, and surgery. So she changed her diet, eliminating sugar and flour, and revitalized her health.
Still, she was troubled by what she was witnessing in kids. Rexroat had previously worked at Children’s Hospital Oakland, so she understood some of the health and behavioral issues that can arise when young people don’t get adequate nutrition. She also noted that, in the long term, a poor diet can have a negative impact on a child’s schoolwork. So she started teaching cooking to East Bay youth, with an eye toward nutrition education. In addition to lessons on wholesome-food preparation, her curriculum includes gardening, as well as training kids to read food labels.
“What we’re trying to really teach them is: what is balanced, what is enough,” explains Rexroat, who says that even the pickiest eaters are usually willing to taste the healthy foods they prepare in class. “Children who never ate a vegetable are eating them.
“The children become their own health advocates,” she adds. “[They’re saying,] ‘Mom, I don’t want to buy that; that’s not good.’”
They’re also sharing their knowledge at home. Rexroat tells the story of a 4-year-old student who lectured her father on proper produce storage: “How many times have I told you, Dad,” the preschooler said, “tomatoes don’t go in the refrigerator. The flavor is gone!”
It’s not just affluent families that reap the benefits of Rexroat’s classes, either. The nonprofit Cooking With Kids Foundation provides the same education and training to children in underserved communities, and it’s looking into a partnership with the Monument Crisis Center in Concord, which helps low-income families achieve food stability. While its for-pay classes subsidize most of those efforts, the organization is trying to raise additional funds to build a mobile classroom kitchen that can drive into disadvantaged areas—where, Rexroat notes, many schools don’t have sinks or countertops for the instructors to use—to teach kids there.
As Rexroat points out, helping kids learn how to cook can actually have a profound effect on the entire family.
“Nobody eats together, nobody shops together. … No one does anything together because they’re going in 20,000 directions,” Rexroat says. “So what’s happening with us is, you can’t let [your child] be in the kitchen with a knife by herself; you have to be in there with her. And then she wants you to put that in the oven for her, so you have to be there. Pretty soon, what’s happened is—I love this—our families are in the kitchen together.
“So this little one we taught,” she adds, “is now opening up a world to reunite the family.”
A Parent’s How-To Guide
Follow these steps to ensure your little home chef has a positive experience in the kitchen.
Best-selling cookbook author and James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame inductee Mollie Katzen has created three recipe collections for kids. Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes and Salad People and More Real Recipes are designed specifically for preschool children (ages 3 and up); Honest Pretzels, meanwhile, is geared toward youth ages 8 and older.
Here, Katzen, who lives in Kensington, and a few other local experts offer up tips for parents who want to encourage their kids to have fun in the kitchen.
With Little Kids:
Start with small tasks. “Really young toddlers can help around the kitchen,” Katzen says. “That child can wash a zucchini or a cucumber. They can set the table.”
Bring the setup down to their level. A stove is the wrong height for small kids, and standing on stools can be dangerous. So, Katzen suggests putting all the ingredients on a low table and using electric cookware if possible.
Get organized. Pre-portion and, in some cases, precook ingredients ahead of time, so children are able to work with them. “Steam a few pieces of broccoli so they’re really easy to cut,” Katzen advises. “You don’t want the kid cutting raw broccoli … with a [butter] knife on a plate.”
Timing is everything. “Don’t [introduce kids to cooking] on a busy weeknight,” Katzen says. “Save it for an in-between time when nobody’s super hungry … so the focus is on: Let’s have fun learning to cook something.”
Tell them they don’t have to eat it. Making a cooking project about the experience, rather than the end result, takes the pressure off. “But this whole idea of [feeding] another human,” notes Katzen, “they love that!”
With Older Kids:
Follow their lead. “Whatever your child is interested in eating, they’re more likely to be interested in cooking,” says Mona Bisseret Martinez, whose daughter Rahanna, a teen chef, showed an early interest in plants—so Mom encouraged her to work with vegetables and herbs.
Kids love dough. Shaping dough—when making bread, pizza, or pretzels, for example—is fun for kids, Katzen notes. Six-year-old Regis Ng agrees; his mom, Shufang Huang, likens dough to “another toy” he can play with.
Let them experiment. When teacher Grady Carson makes dinner, he lets his 13-year-old son, Dashiell, prepare his own version of the meal simultaneously. “I’m not going to let him do all the pieces of chicken,” Carson says. “But I’ll say, ‘You can have one or two cutlets to try your thing.’”
Be prepared for a mess. Food will inevitably fly when kids start cooking. “Trying to contain it to one area has been helpful to me,” says Bisseret Martinez, “because … I’m the cleanup woman.”
Girl on Fire
Meet the East Bay’s youngest celebrity chef, Rahanna Bisseret Martinez.
She came thisclose to winning the first-ever edition of Top Chef Junior earlier this year, and now Oakland native Rahanna Bisseret Martinez is using her newfound fame to fuel her culinary dreams. The preternaturally talented 14-year-old chef has interned in the kitchens of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, San Francisco’s Californios, and Los Angeles’ Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel-Air, and catered events for the likes of Samsung, Chrysler, and the Television Critics Association. Diablo spoke to the rising star about learning to cook at age 6, the East Bay’s influence on her food, and her plans for the future.
Q: How did you learn to cook?
A: I first started cooking with my mom. She would just show me what she was doing when she was making dinner, and I got really interested in it. … Mom has a background in botany, so I learned a lot from her about different plants and vegetables.
Q: What are your favorite types of food to make?
A: I grew up eating Louisiana food and California food and Mexican food, so that’s always going to be my comfort food. But I love to cook anything, really. … I like to study different cultures, and then I’ll do a tasting menu [for my family] about, maybe, this place in France, or this place in Mexico, and California.
Q: How did you develop your culinary vision?
A: Well, I grew up in California—I’m growing up in California. [Laughs] I’m around a lot of vegetables and farmers markets. I can walk a couple of minutes and there will be a whole different type of cuisine. There’s a lot of [diversity] here—that is something I think influenced my vision, because I like to cook with a lot of different flavors.
Q: Which East Bay chefs inspire you?
A: Alice Waters of Chez Panisse—I love the history behind her restaurant. My mom and I were there for Bastille Day. It was a great experience. … I’ve gotten to stage [or intern] at Chez Panisse, which was really awesome.
Q: What are your dreams for the future?
A: My dream is to open a restaurant. I want to have a cooking show, maybe some cookbooks. I want to go to culinary school. I want to travel to France and go to different programs here in California as well. … I feel like I have time to think about different ideas. I really want to own a restaurant, though. That’s one of my long-term goals.
Bisseret Martinez was photographed at Forage Kitchen in Oakland, an incubator and coworking environment that provides kitchen space, business support, and a community for chefs and food producers. Taste what Forage members are cooking up at Batchmade Market, held the first Friday of every month, or rent the space for a private event. foragekitchen.com.
Sign up your kids for these local culinary classes and camps.
Back to the Table Cooking School
While this Lafayette culinary academy primarily educates adults, it offers cooking camps for children ages 10 and up in the summer months. backtothetablecookingschool.com.
Cook! Culinary Programs
Professional chefs teach the tricks of the trade to kids ages 9 and older in workshops, camps, and advanced programs. Most sessions are held in Berkeley. cookprograms.com.
Cooking Round the World
Children of all ages and abilities can participate in Mindy Myers’ popular courses and camps, held in communities throughout the East Bay, which highlight the cuisines of
different cultures. Over winter break, a special camp focuses on foods from Pixar films. cookingroundtheworld.com.
Cooking With Kids Foundation
Chef Lynda Rexroat’s nonprofit offers classes for kids as young as 4 at community centers and schools in Danville, Lafayette, Orinda, and Livermore. Students learn to make soups, salads, breads, main courses, vegetables, and desserts, as well as nutrition literacy and knife skills. cwkf.org.
Draeger’s Cooking School
The beloved local market’s Blackhawk location hosts two Junior Chefs’ Camps in the summer for children ages 8 to 10 and 11 to 13. There’s a weeklong, summertime Teens in the Kitchen session as well. draegerscookingschool.com.
In the Kitchen
Young people ages 4 to 14 are invited to develop new skills in the one-off kids’ classes at this Emeryville cooking facility, which also hosts themed summer camps. itkcalendar.com.
Kitchen on Fire
Classically trained chefs lead teens through weeklong culinary camps in Berkeley and Oakland. They sometimes offer parent-child workshops too. kitchenonfire.com.
Pans on Fire
This Pleasanton cooking school provides lessons for adults, teens, and occasionally younger children ages 8 and up, as well as winter, spring, and summer camps. Periodic parent-child workshops allow families to bond in the kitchen while testing out new recipes together. pansonfire.com.
Sprouts Cooking Club
This Oakland nonprofit caters to kids who are serious about cooking. In addition to its chef-in-training programs and restaurant apprenticeships, Sprouts offers summer camps for children ages 7 to 12. sproutscookingclub.org.
In private classes for small groups, participants 12 and older prepare a main, side dish, and dessert in the chef-owner’s home kitchen in San Ramon. vivacucina.com.