● By Robert Frey
By Amanda Jean Elliot
For many years I was an expert at cooking exactly one half of a meal – the first half. My mother worked until 4:30 p.m. with a commute that made an on-time dinner impossible most nights without the help of us kids. And so, each day before she left work to begin the drive home (because so old am I we had no cell phones) she would call with instructions on how to begin a meal. It’s a skill that served me well (especially once I mastered how to finish cooking those meals). It’s a skill that everyone really needs. And it’s a skill that can be honed at a very young age. Just ask Mandy Armentor.
“My 8-year-old daughter and I cook together. It started with cookies for holidays and special little things. Now, it’s growing to where she’s helping me in the kitchen with tasks she can do — pour, stir and measure,” Armentor says.
Armentor isn’t your average mom in the kitchen. She is the LSU AgCenter’s area nutrition agent. If her name sounds familiar it’s because you’ve seen it at the Iberia Library where she hosts cooking classes for parents and kids together.
“People have to look at it as a way for you and your kids to bond and it teaches them healthy eating habits in the long run,” she says. “Dishes with fruits and veggies and they are more likely to try new food and can become accustom to healthier eating habits.”
Paul Ayo agrees. The man at the helm of E’s Kitchen, named after his two girls whose names both begin with E, hosts kid and parent cooking classes and has long cooked with his girls.
“The Benefit is that they will eat things and try things they may not normally want to try because they made it,” Ayo says. “Some people don’t want to cook with kids because it takes extra time and they are always in a hurry trying to get them fed.”
But, he points to the value of the time spent together that reaches beyond those extra minutes at mealtime.
“I look at it as time spent with them doing something I love and teaching them to love it because it’s a skill they can use for the rest of their life,” he says.
If dinnertime seems impossible, Armentor says to think outside the box and find other ways to include kids in the kitchen.
“In our cooking classes I challenge them to try one night every week. Tell the kids ‘It’s going to be your night to pick and you get to help.’ It’s family time and it’s so important as we get busier and busier and we are in 100 directions to take time. Sometimes it’s simply working together in the kitchen … and they can help with little things. ‘Can you turn the oven on? I’m on the way home.’ And when I get in it will be preheated and I can pop in a dish. It gets them more independent to do these things and as adults they are not going to have to say ‘I don’t know how to cook.’”
Instead of dinner she suggests breakfast on a weekend like pancakes and fruit. Try letting them help prep their lunch.
“Maybe ya’ll make a picnic as a family thing. It doesn’t have to be dinner.”
Armentor also points to the benefits outside of the world of food learned via culinary experiences.
“You also teach them math and science,” she says. “They feel like they are doing something and they are learning as they go.”
Ayo says learning is a part of the process. A messy part. And it’s time for parents to basically get over it.
“Make it fun,” he says. “They are going to make a mess so you have to get over it. Let them have fun and enjoy it and they will enjoy cooking. Let them use a knife, but guide them. Most people are very afraid to let them use a knife. My daughter has since she was about 4. There’s no set rules. My two children are very different. It’s like riding a bike. They are going to fall and they will learn.”
Over the years his girls have learned to make a few things on their own and thanks to a multitude of online recipe options they can go online and find recipes easily.
“Make them a part of the picking process so they basically have a sense of empowerment. They get to do something they want to do and make something they want to make. It comes down to you having to have the patience to take a step back. It’s going to take more time and it’s worth it in the long run just like with anything you teach a child.”
He says teaching kids in a cooking class is no easy task, but it’s time the children will remember for the rest of their lives. After all, even culinary experts of the adult variety don’t cook without fail themselves.
“Even I have to look up things …. And once we swapped salt for the sugar in a recipe,” he admits. The two do look quite similar.
“It’s part of the learning curve and kids have to make mistakes to actually learn. I still make mistakes when I’m experimenting and coming up with something new. It’s exciting and fun and there’s nothing that brings people together like food,” he says.