Children cooking
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For me, back-to-school means back to the kitchen. It's not just that the cooler temperatures make me start thinking soups and apple pies (although they do), but that as school gets up and rolling, I'm always reminded that so much of our at-home learning takes place behind our counter or at the stove. I love to cook with my kids, and although it's too soon to say whether any of the four have the kind of personality that sees a recipe for Bacon Candy and thinks "I have to try that," I'm determined that none of them turn out like the college babysitter we had some years ago, standing bewildered in the kitchen when confronted with a pan and a box of macaroni and cheese.
So cooking lessons are frequent—but as my oldest progressed from circle time into reading and math, I realized that the kitchen offers the opportunity to teach about more than just food. When you're cooking together, lessons in everything from cooperation to fractions just naturally arise, and with a little forethought, you can teach nearly anything to kids who are so excited to be using the mixer or scooping the flour that they don't even realize there's learning going on.

When kitchen school is communal, the lessons are social: take turns, follow directions and accept that not everybody gets to pour in the chocolate chips. But when I'm only working with one kid, I can add lessons geared to each sous chef. The younger kids (I have two 4-year-olds) are still learning the basics of foods and nutrition, while my first-grader is learning to read simple recipes and grasp the concept of fractions and my 9-year-old likes to see the science of baking in action. Nearly any recipe offers an opportunity for a little home school kitchen curriculum, but here are a few ideas to get you started.

Kitchen lessons for your pre-schoolers: what's inside a chicken nugget? 

For Pre-schoolers: what's inside chicken nuggets?

Homemade chicken nuggets offer a bonus lesson for future chefs—food that have been industrialized, like nuggets, still taste far better if you make them yourself (a point you wont even have to make aloud once your kids taste these). And there's another subtle lesson in the home made nugget: making them is work. No one who had to make their own chicken nuggets and French fries ever got fat off of chicken nuggets and French fries (especially if they also raised the chickens and grew the potatoes). There are no bad foods, but there are bad ways to eat them.

Lesson 1: No wimps in the kitchen. If you like chicken nuggets, my friend, then you will help to handle the squishy chicken meat, and dip your fingers into the egg, and get messy in the flour. Two of my kids loves this, two need a towel nearby to endure it, but they all love the results. I add into this a lesson in where meat comes from and one in food safety—no licking your fingers!

Lesson 2: The set up. Each nugget goes through a process: flour, egg, breading. The flour sticks to the nugget, the egg sticks to the flour, the breading sticks to the egg. Skip any step, and you will have a naked nugget. A nice thing about this project is that the child can practice breaking the eggs (it's easy to pick any bits of shell out) and, if you use the cornflakes, smash them up in a freezer bag.

Lesson 3: The assembly line. What's easier—putting all the chicken into each step at once, or bringing the chicken pieces through one at a time? What do you think McDonald's does? Like Family Chef blogger Naomi Shulman, I chose to pan-fry these rather than bake them, so our assembly line ends with prepped nuggets sitting on a cooling rack (the breading sticks better if it dries on anyway). I put a splatter cover over the pan, and added another lesson in hot, splattery stoves to stay away from. If I'm feeling ambitious, I might talk about how the hot oil cooks the breading and makes it crunchy and brown. Or I might just tell them to go set the table.

Kitchen lessons for your 5-7-year-old: cheesy fraction biscuits

For 5- 7-year-olds: Cheesy Fraction Biscuits

At this age, most kids aren't necessarily working with fractions in school, but the concepts of half and quarter transcend math and play important roles in telling time and counting money. This Cheesy Biscuit recipe offers multiple ways to make halves and fourths real.

Lesson 1: Measuring. The recipe calls for 2 cups of flour—an ample amount for showing that two quarter cuts fill one half cup and two half cups a whole. You can do the same with the teaspoon of baking soda and the 5 teaspoons of baking powder (that's one tablespoon plus two teaspoons, if you prefer).

Lesson 2: Fractions and Science. Use the half and quarters concept again when cutting the sticks of butter. This is where the science comes in: (big kids like this too) we cut the butter and cheese into the fat so that the fat will coat some of the flour molecules and keep them from absorbing the liquid too fast. If we do it right, our biscuit will be light and fluffy.

Lesson 3: Follow directions! Stir these too much and you'll break the structure created by the fat coated flour, leaving you with flat pancakes instead of fluffy biscuits. Cooking is an art; baking a science. Master biscuits and one day you'll master chemistry.

Kitchen lessons for your 8-10-year-old: bakery science
For 8- 10-year-olds: Bakery Science: Vanilla Meringues

A recipe so simple that 3rd-graders and up should be able to read and follow it themselves has more to teach than you'd think. Print out the recipe for Peppermint Meringues and (unless you're doing holiday baking) cross out the peppermint extract and replace it with vanilla, using sugar (sparkling if you've got it) for sprinkling instead of crushed peppermint candies.

Lesson 1: Read the directions. All of them. Even experienced junior cooks tend to just dump the ingredients together in a bowl and then check to see what comes next, and that won't work here. If your kids learn nothing from kitchen school other than to read all of the instructions before starting any project, they'll still have learned a lesson most adults are still struggling with.

Lesson 2: Separating eggs. Why do the yolk and the white come apart so easily? There's actually a small membrane separating the yolk from the white, and as long as this membrane is intact, the white will slip off the yolk. There's a lesson in patience here as well—do this quickly and your yolk will break. And, finally, a lesson in caution: you must put the egg whites you've already separated aside, or the one you're working will inevitably break and ruin the whole batch.

Lesson 3: Air—the secret ingredient. Whipping the egg whites stretches their proteins and allows them to trap air within the structure created by the bonded, stretched proteins. When you add the sugar while whipping, the sugar bonds with the egg white proteins but not with the air. Baking the meringue at such a low temperature allows the network to solidify around the air. (Bake it any hotter, and the air bubbles will expand so much that the protein structure will collapse). Some form of this air capture happens in most baking, which is why you almost always have to whip ingredients like eggs, butter and sugar.

Once kids have made these with you, they can make them without you and flavor them with nearly anything from almond to peppermint to orange to cocoa. They can be piped from a gallon-sized baggie into letters or kisses or nests for berries and cream or flat cookies for ice cream sandwiches. They're both easy and impressive, and make your kids feel like accomplished chefs for whom anything is possible—a lesson that's always worth learning.

For more recipes, cooking and healthy eating advice, visit AOL's KitchenDaily.


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