Tie on the aprons, it's cooking time with the kids. Here are some tips to get you started:
Adjust your attitude. Mealmaking will take longer and be messier. Get a stool for the kid and get over it, says author and cooking instructor Leanne Ely. Learning to cook doesn't have to be a seven-night-a-week, four-course extravaganza. Start small and maybe just on the weekends if that's what works with your family's schedule. Think of your sessions as together time; worry about the cleanup later.
Watch it. The most important ingredient for teaching children to cook is supervision. The oven, like the TV, does not make a good babysitter. Be diligent about watching children as they learn to use knives, peelers, graters and all appliances, especially the stove, oven, toaster and microwave.
Stay healthy. Remind children early and often about the importance of cleanliness and food safety. They probably know to wash their hands before they handle food, but do they know they should clean up afterward to prevent the spread of germs? This is especially important if they are working with raw meat or poultry. Use separate cutting boards: one for meat and poultry, another for produce.
Cook your age. Find tasks that fit the age of the child. Children ages 3 to 5 are capable of tearing lettuce, washing fruits and vegetables, stirring ingredients and helping to add ingredients. You are the best judge of when your child can begin to handle a knife. Some 5-year-olds are okay with butter knives, but others may need to wait. At age 8, most children can handle instructions on sharp knives.
As kids age, they can be taught to measure ingredients, read recipes, assemble ingredients and operate the oven, stove and microwave. With a few years of supervised instruction, a 13-year-old can cook dinner for the family with minimal assistance.
Shop 'till you chop. Let your kids help plan the menu a few nights a week and then take them shopping. Explain how you pick produce, what you look for at the meat counter and how to compare prices. Don't turn the experience into grocery boot camp; talk about fruit this week and save cereal education for next. You shop every week, so spread out the lessons.
Be kind. For the most part, children want to please their parents. Praise them even if only half the cup of flour makes it to the bowl. Harsh words about the inevitable mishaps will not bring your children back to the kitchen for an encore class.
Learn together. If your cooking skills are lacking, take a class yourself. You can pass those skills on to your kids. Also, consider parent-child cooking classes. Check Food File in the Taste section for class listings, or look in the Yellow Pages under Cooking Instruction. Your county's Cooperative Extension Service can be a great resource.
There are many cookbooks on the market aimed at young cooks. They include:
Healthy Foods: An Irreverent Guide to Understanding Nutrition and Feeding Your Family Well by Leanne Ely (Storey Books, 2001, $19.95). When Ely says healthy, she's not kidding. You'll find flaxseed, millet and tofu among the ingredient lists of some recipes, but don't be scared off if you're not in the sprout crowd. There are plenty of flavorful, easy recipes for young cooks to tackle.
The Healthy Body Cookbook: Over 50 Fun Activities and Delicious Recipes for Kids by Joan D'Amico and Karen Eich Drummond (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1999, $12.95). Geared for ages 9 to 12, this book explains how foods affect body functions. For instance, the chapter on the skeletal system includes recipes with calcium-packed ingredients.
Clueless in the Kitchen: A Cookbook for Teens by Evelyn Raab (Firefly Books, 1998, $12.95). Recipes for traditional dishes such as macaroni and cheese are augmented with basic cooking instruction and lots of information about how a kitchen works, including "how not to run the dishwasher."
The Starving Students' Cookbook by Dede Hall (Warner Books, 1994, $9.99) and The Starving Students' Vegetarian Cookbook by Dede Hall (Warner Books, 2001, $11.95) Geared for college kids, both of these books include recipes simple enough for accomplished high school cooks. Send these simply written and smartly designed books off to school with your child, or buy yourself a set.
The Healthy College Cookbook by Alexandra Nimetz, Jason Stanley and Emeline Starr (Storey Books, 1999, $14.95). This book claims to be able to ward off the "freshman 15," those pounds that creep on the first year of college. The authors were in college themselves when they started the book. Simple recipes with ordinary ingredients.
"It's a Fruity World," a free class for school-age children and their parents, will include nutrition information and cooking instruction for fruit. No-cook dishes will be prepared. The hourlong program by registered dietitian Nan Jensen is at 10 a.m. Aug. 4 at the Palm Pavilion in the Florida Botanical Garden at the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service, 12175 125th St. N, Largo. Call (727) 582-2104 to reserve a spot.
Summer Camp in the Kitchen is a weeklong program at La Maison Gourmet, formerly Home Gourmet Kitchen Emporium, 471 Main St., Dunedin. Young cooks ages 8 to 14 meet from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday for hands-on classes taught by professional chefs. On Friday, the students make lunch for a guest, usually Mom or Dad. Sessions are $139.99, and the last week of classes is Aug. 6-10. Some weeks may be filled. Call (727) 736-3070.