Every fall, circumstances in the typical homeschool family line up to create a perfect educational opportunity. First, Mom is wistfully remembering how Dad grilled all summer as she tries to put some sort of well-balanced supper on the table with a toddler clinging to her legs. Second, the produce at farmers’ markets and grocery stores is both abundant and reasonably priced during and right after harvest. Third, the children really need to learn some practical life skills. Finally, in my own experience, children who moan about having to mop floors or take out the trash actually seem to enjoy meal preparation. All of these factors ensure that Mom can feel good about herself when passing on some kitchen responsibilities because she is training her sons and daughters in necessary adult skills.
Start with Snacks
Even the youngest children, Pre-K and K, can help prepare snacks. Give them a snack schedule and put them in charge of prep, service, and cleanup. Several skills are involved here. They will need to count how many brothers and sisters will be snacking, and how much food they need to prepare. Encourage them to present their food in an attractive manner on a pretty dish or platter. A practical idea is to serve the food on a platter, but give each sibling a paper napkin or paper plate, not individual dishes that need to be washed. After the snack, the same children are in charge of throwing out the paper goods, loading the dishwasher, and wiping down the counters or table.
Here are some simple snack ideas that are appropriate for this age group:
- Monday: peanut butter and jelly on crackers with some apple slices. Mom might need to help cut the apple.
- Tuesday: pre-cut veggies, such as carrot sticks, celery sticks, broccoli, whatever else, with dressing on one side of the dish with some dried fruit on the other.
- Wednesday: “ants on a log” consisting of celery sticks filled with peanut butter, covered with raisins.
- Thursday: crackers and cheese served with grapes.
- Friday: fruit with vanilla yogurt dip.
Besides inculcating kitchen skills and giving the little ones confidence in their own abilities, there is another advantage to letting them prepare daily snacks. I can tell you from long experience that a child is far more likely to eat a celery stalk if he himself filled it with peanut butter and rolled it in raisins.
God’s Bounty from the Harvest
Many modern parents were not taught the culinary arts as children and are not quite sure how to train their children to prepare all the beautiful produce that is available in autumn. Learn more about winter squash here. Squash are readily available this time of year, store well, are a thrifty purchase, and have many uses. Best of all your school age children can help to prepare nutritious dishes and mom can get a bit of a break.
Spaghetti squash is regularly shaped oblong with a uniform yellow color, and is a good choice to start. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Mom, Dad, or an older sibling will need to cut the squash in half lengthwise, as any squash can be tough to split, but grade school children can handle the rest. Scoop out the seeds and the con- nective fibers into a colander. Put the halves, cut side down onto a baking sheet (lined with foil means easy clean up), and cook for around 40 minutes or until a knife passes easily through the skin and flesh.
In the meantime, wash the seeds and discard the strands. Dry the seeds a bit, and put them onto a jellyroll pan (cookie sheet with sides). Toss them with a bit of olive oil and your favorite spicy sprinkle, like garlic and herb, or taco seasoning. Put them in a single layer into the oven, but keep an eye on them. After 10 or 15 minutes, the seeds on the outside will begin to brown faster than the rest, so stir them up and put them back into the oven until all the seeds are nicely browned. Serve hot for a deceptively healthy treat.
The children can use the same technique with chickpeas, which are also known as garbanzo beans. Rinse the water from the can off the beans in a colander; toss them with olive oil and your favorite powered seasoning; cook in a single layer in a 375 degree oven for about 40 minutes, stirring the beans every 10 minutes or so until they get brown and crunchy. This recipe is a Trojan horse of nutrition, getting the goodness of beans into the children without them ever realizing it.
After 40 minutes or so, the spaghetti squash is soft enough to pass a knife through. Teach the children how to remove the halves from the oven safely with oven mitts. Turn the squash over carefully as some steam has built up. Let them rest a few minutes and then the fun begins. Scrape a fork around the flesh to get the characteristic spaghetti strands of squash. You can transfer the strands into a serving bowl or just use the squash shells to serve them. The strands are a bit bland, so top them with: dots of butter and grated cheese, or a bit of olive oil with garlic and herb sprinkle, or tomato sauce; or meat gravy.
This is another Trojan horse as kids are more likely to eat squash when it is presented as pasta. Remember though, that it is, in fact, not pasta. Apply topping sparingly and do not stir in the butter, oil, or sauce, or it will become mushy.
Make Food Prep a Permanent Assignment
Teach your children safe use of knives and then let them prepare all the side dishes for family meals. It is easy to cut up fresh greens and veggies for a salad, and a salad spinner will even make it fun to wash and dry them. A steamer makes it easy for children to chop up veggies and cook them, topped with butter or olive oil and some seasoning. Root veggies like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions, can be chopped and roasted in the oven with a bit of olive oil and seasoning. If you add some sausage or chicken thighs, you have a one-pot meal. Sweet potato “fries” can be made by tossing the fry-shaped potatoes with olive oil and taco seasoning and baking them single layered until crispy.
Notice none of these ideas call for frying which does give me safety concerns for younger children. Nevertheless, these recipes are healthy and delicious. Mom can enjoy a break from the chores of homemaking, and students will learn some practical life skills. Best of all, making a real contribution to family life gives children a self-sufficient and confident attitude about life.