TV stars Ashley Williams and Alysia Reiner blog about how they make sure their kids Gus, 2, and Livia, 8, have a safe, creative hand in the kitchen
The television stars — Reiner is known for her role as Natalie “Fig” Figueroa on Orange Is the New Black, and Williams from her roles on How I Met Your Mother and The Jim Gaffigan Show — are real-life pals who are both parents. Reiner’s daughter Livia Charles is 8, while Williams (whose second son is on the way) is mom to Gus, 2.
In addition to being successful actresses and producers, Williams and Reiner are also Tastebuddies: two friends who connect over food.
They make messes.
They lick salad dressing with their fingers.
They play with their food. A lot.
And they cook dinner (REALLY!) for the family right alongside us.
Have we scared you? Are they too young for this? Nope, according to Kerri Glassman, MS, RDN: an expert on nutrition, health and wellness and founder of Nutritious Life.
“Changing habits later on is much harder than establishing them early,” she says. “If kids only know healthy food, they will eat only healthy food. It’s your job to introduce them to healthy!”
We’ve found it’s best to get them cooking with you early, as young as 2 years old, before they go through the dreaded white-food-only phase, which could leave you buried under a pile of plain pasta for years.
But is this safe? Yes. If you’re reading this, you probably have already taught them about potential kitchen hazards. You’ll keep them away from hot ovens, stoves and sharp tools. And they’ll never be out of your sight. And cooking with young children is better than planting them in front of the TV while you make dinner.
The bonus: Your youngster will feel empowered and start to look at food in a whole new light, paving the way for lifelong nutritious eating.
Here are our top five tricks and tips for how to cook with a child as young as 2.
FROM COINAGE: 9 Healthy Kitchen Staples That Cost Less Than $1 Per Serving
1. Embrace Messy
Toddlers love to get sloppy while they do anything, so be prepared to make a big old fun mess. Clear off the kitchen table to create a clear work space for all the beautiful chaos to come. Wash all hands before your start. Throw on a ratty T-shirt yourself, or strip your toddler down to just a diaper. Being a mom is way more relaxing if you are okay with not looking like Martha Stewart — just know you might need a sponge and a spritz once dinner is in the oven.
A plus? During cleanup, most 2-year-olds will love to sing a clean-up song while they pump the all-purpose spray to the beat. Following along behind the trail of sprays with a dishtowel will leave your kitchen cleaner than when you started. Win-win!
2. Make Your Plate a Rainbow
It’s fun to create art with food. Try designing tonight’s menu with your son or daughter using foods with rainbow hues: red tomatoes, blueberries, green snap peas, purple grapes, yellow peppers, pink watermelon.
Colors boost an appetite for healthy eating. (And not so healthy: There’s a reason Fruit Loops, Starburst and Kool Aid are so brightly colored! Colors are FUN.)
Using inspiration from the rainbow is an opportunity to teach wee ones new words for every tint, but it’s also an opportunity to pack in a variety of nutrition.
We also love to make fun designs on the plate like erupting volcanoes or silly faces — you get the picture (literally). It only got complicated when Alysia tried to explain the mashed-potatoes mountain in Close Encounters of The Third Kind to Livia one night …
3. Designate a “Personal Workspace” For Your Child
As much as our kids may love to wear onion goggles, we simply can’t allow 2-year-olds to chop their own vegetables. There are other inevitable tasks in cooking that a toddler can’t help with, so we’ve found it’s best to give them jobs and their own “workspace” to do the tasks they excel at while we take care of some of the more potentially dangerous tasks elsewhere.
Set your child up with a bowl of root vegetables and a vegetable scrubber brush at the sink (but stay close, obviously!) and let them wash away. Follow that up by arranging a bowl full of the freshly washed root vegetables at the kitchen table, where they can roll all the produce evenly in olive oil and spices with their hands.
Other jobs for young assistants: pumping the salad spinner, whisking a marinade (tasting as they go is encouraged!), separating celery stalks, pulling leaves off of the stems of rosemary, marjoram or any herbs, etc. Giving them their own job empowers them and allows Mom or Dad to complete the things they can’t help with.
4. Create a Cooking Cabaret
“Once upon a time there was a sweet potato named Gus,” Ashley began one recent night. The story followed Gus the Potato’s growth all the way from a bud to a grown-up yam. One day, a handsome farmer named Ryan Gosling (What? That was his name) picked him and put him in a cart. “That’s when something CRAZY happened.”
Gus was rapt. When you notice your toddler getting bored of a monotonous task such as washing potatoes, try telling him or her a story, or make up a song to sing as you work with the food.
Try out, “The butter in the pan goes sizzle, sizzle, sizzle,” to the tune of “Wheels on the Bus.” Don’t judge yourself — the sillier, the better. It’s an opportunity to use fiction, music and PLAY to keep things light and silly. The part that makes our heart swell? As they grow, our kids are starting to tell and sing US the story!
5. The Big Finale
We think it’s important to create a ritual in your house of setting the table, lighting a candle or two and sitting down together once the food is prepared. This is the time not only for the big reveal of tasting the food, but also allows for space — no phones allowed! — to talk about likes and dislikes of what you’ve made together, with a complete review of the textures and flavors. This sets the stage for future menu conversations, depending on your child’s palate.
As you listen to food preferences, preach the “Don’t yuck my yum” philosophy of respecting each other’s choices. “I don’t care for this” is understandable, but “EWWWW!” is a no-go. It’s also an opportunity to ladle praise onto your little one for being such a good helper, or even showing off to another family member who is just arriving home to a beautiful meal.
Spending time together and connecting over food can generate some of the greatest memories from childhood. As our kids age, we encourage them to engage with us at a table daily, whenever possible, to talk about good and bad days, news and stories, sadness and joy: a feast for the soul.
What are your favorite things to cook with your kids? Have any tricks or tips to share? Please send us a pic of you and your Tastebuddy!