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Knee-high cooks grow skilled in the kitchen

Simple recipes, such as homemade pizza, are a good way to introduce children to the creativity and fun of cooking.

By George ErdoshCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 9, 2008

Larry Crowe/AP

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While at a bridge party one Saturday evening, the hostess thoughtfully invited two young girls to keep her own daughter out of the way and entertained in the kitchen. I tried to concentrate on my bridge hands, but I couldn't help glancing through the open kitchen door just a few steps away.

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The girls were having a ball. They were preparing pizza totally from scratch: the hand-kneaded yeast dough, the fresh-cooked tomato pizza sauce, and the toppings – a variety of just-cut-up, nicely arranged items on small plates.

These girls were obviously used to having fun in the kitchen, and I was immensely impressed that they chose kitchen work over watching a video or television. It was also obvious to me that they considered cooking fun, not a chore.

Our hostess did not seem to share her daughter's passion for cooking. In the middle of fresh spring asparagus season, she shamelessly opened a can of asparagus as our vegetable side dish. Making pizza may have been unappealing to her, but her daughter knew that if she wanted pizza, she had three choices: store-bought frozen stuff that resembles pizza, one ordered from a pizza takeout, or pizza of her very own making.

The three girls divided the various tasks among them: One prepared the pizza dough, one created the sauce (from scratch), and the third sliced up pepperoni, mushrooms, and peppers, and measured out grated mozzarella. While the yeast dough was rising, the girls retired to a bedroom to play. Later, the one in charge of the dough came back in the kitchen to punch down the dough and let it rise again after a short knead.

Many bridge hands later, the three returned to the kitchen, rolled out the dough on a flour-dusted work surface, assembled the pizza on top of a pizza pan, and slipped it into a very hot oven. In a few minutes, it smelled heavenly.

Ten minutes later, the pizza was ready to eat.

I conduct cooking classes for children. They always seem to enjoy themselves thoroughly, whether I am demonstrating or let them have hands-on fun.

Even very little children, 2 years old or younger, love to feel raw foods, dough, pastry, and batter with their little fingers. In my classes, my young pupils can focus their attention for a surprisingly long time. They also like to smell and sample anything edible in the kitchen.

Of course, they prefer the hands-on part, but what they love most is to eat what they make. Often we partially prepare foods in the class, and students take them home to finish cooking or baking. Their pleasure and pride at the end of the class are a joy.

My students' most favorite task is preparing something with dough: either yeast dough, pastry dough, or pie dough. I provide them with premeasured ingredients and, after a short demonstration, I turn things over to them. I also bring a ready-to-bake batch of the same thing that bakes in the oven while the kids are at work. By the time they are finished with their task, we are ready to sample our hot, fresh-baked goodies.

But cooking should not simply be about fun: Students must learn about cleanliness in the kitchen, personal and food safety, as well as good nutrition. And there's no cooking without cleanup, especially for projects involving dough.

Many adults and many kids turn away from cooking for one single reason: poor tools. Having good tools and equipment, and instilling the idea of continuous cleanup make kitchen work satisfying. Reading and carefully following recipes is a skill, too, but so is the accurate measuring of ingredients.