Julie Negrin is a nutritionist and culinary instructor in New York City and the author of Easy Meals to Cook with Kids. Julie ran the culinary program at the JCC in Manhattan for 5 years, transforming the fledgling culinary program into one of the most popular cooking programs in Manhattan. Julie has her own blog, My Kitchen Nutrition that can be found on her website, www.julienegrin.com.
1. Your book is for adults who want to cook with kids ages two years old and up. What made you decide to write this cookbook?
The inspiration for my cookbook came from my students and their parents. In my cooking classes, I discovered that kids, even picky eaters, are much more receptive to new foods if they are involved in the meal preparation. While the parents of my students watched in awe as their kids tried brown rice, sautéed vegetables, beans, tofu, and salads, they encouraged me to write down my recipes for other families.
2. How do you decide that a recipe is kid friendly?
The first step to determining if a recipe is kid-friendly, is assessing the presentation. Most children prefer foods served separately and in familiar shapes like patties or dips. Consistency is important too. Many kids prefer puréed soups rather than chunky ones. Finger-foods, like pot-stickers or mini burgers, are an easier sell than new dishes that aren’t fun in some way.
I’ll then review the flavor, since spiciness and strong flavors can be off-putting to kids. Spices are often adjustable – but it’s important to consider if the recipe is flexible enough to be modified. The flavor of a Cajun Quinoa Salad can be tweaked, however, it’d much harder to modify curry soup.
3. You ran the cooking department for kids and adults at the JCC in Manhattan, what was the most rewarding experience during your tenure?
By far, my most rewarding experience while running the JCC in Manhattan program was watching my students transform into talented little chefs. Parents still contact me to tell me that my classes turned their kids into more adventurous eaters and that they are still cooking – often for the entire family!
4. Why is it so important for kids to be in the kitchen?
With our busy modern lives, it’s rare for kids to learn scratch cooking at home or at school. Cooking meals at home as a family, with fresh, whole foods, means that kids are learning a life skill that enables them to feed themselves nutritious meals rather than depend on others for sustenance. Other benefits to cooking with kids are: they will develop a more sophisticated palate for high-end food rather than processed products, homemade meals are typically healthier than take-out, and preparing meals together means quality time as a family.
5. You write, “If they cook it, they’ll eat it!” Why do you think this is true?
Many modern children feel unsure about exploring new foods and that’s normal. It’s an evolutionary safety mechanism so that they didn’t put strange foods in their mouths while wandering outside the cave thousands of years ago. Bringing them into the kitchen eliminates the fear of the unknown. They feel empowered when they convert raw ingredients into a beautiful meal. Plus, it’s like an art project – and what’s more fun that eating your own creation?
6. Any tricks for getting kids to clean up the mess they make in the kitchen?
The younger they are, the less tricks you’ll need. Pre-school kids often perceive clean-up just as fun as cooking! For older kids, be sure to teach cleaning skills at the same time you’re teaching them how to cook. Cleaning together can be quality family time. Play music that the kids like and ask them about school. Like everything else, I suggest when working with kids, make it fun!
7. What are your favorite ingredients?
My favorite ingredients are vegetables and fresh herbs. They are so versatile – they can be turned into any kind of feast, used in every kind of cuisine and each one contributes its own wonderful flavor.
8. What is your earliest memory of cooking? Were you a kid in the kitchen?
Like many kids, I started out as a baker. The first thing I remember making was chocolate chip cookies (which I still love). As the oldest of four kids, I helped my mom (and my aunt, who lived across the street) prepare dinner by peeling carrots, rinsing and cooking rice, and doing simple tasks that contributed to the final meal.
9. When you are not wearing an apron and standing behind the stove, what do you like to eat?
I love to eat the same foods that I teach my students. I’m a pesca-tarian (a vegetarian who eats fish) so much of my diet is vegetables, beans, grains, and just a little dairy. I gravitate towards Greek, Israeli, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Latin cuisine.
10. Can you please share with us a few creative ways for parents to get their kids involved in the kitchen?
Even the smallest kitchen task can be exciting for kids. They love cracking eggs, mashing, whisking, stirring, scooping, grating, slicing, scooping, forming patties, washing produce, sprinkling salt and herbs, using a pepper grinder, “painting” oil with a pastry brush, using a rolling pin, dicing fruit and vegetables (with a butter knife), greasing pans, and garnishing.
For kids who are not very interested in the cooking part, suggest that they help wash the product, pick out serving platters and bowls, serve as “recipe-tasters,” garnish the final dish, and set the table.
One lucky reader will win a copy of Julie's book! Post a comment about this article or tell us how you get your kids cooking in the kitchen below or on Facebook for a chance to win! Contest ends Sunday Februrary 20th!
Thank you to Julie for sharing a few kid-friendly recipes with instructions on how to get your kids involved: