In high school, my husband was the slowest eater I had ever met. Although his future as a professional cook seems like a surprising turn of events, I often comment that they actually had something very important in common – Chris playing with his food. While that observation is half-joke, we both like to think of cooking as play instead of a chore. We want Sprout to enjoy cooking healthy, delicious, sustainable meals as he grows older rather than merely tolerating it. With this in mind, we gave him a toy kitchen and food for Christmas. What we didn’t realize is how many real-life skills we could teach him as a result.
I spent a lot of time researching and considering the options for toy kitchens before I made my final decision. I wanted one that was sturdy, gender-neutral (along with the pink drenched options, there are also ones designed to be acceptable to “manly” dads), had a lot of different play options and looked somewhat realistic.
What I like about the one I bought is that it functions in many ways like a real kitchen. There’s a “cutting board” and sufficient counter space (with “granite” countertops!) for preparation, which a surprising number of toy kitchens lack. It has a knife block with tiny chefs’ knives so we can discuss the proper storage of kitchen cutlery with him. It has a little sink that you can pretend to fill up a pasta pot or (ugh) wash dishes. It came with different types of pots and pans, allowing you to match the right kind of dishware with cooking techniques, whether that’s boiling water in a pot or searing a burger in a pan. To help Sprout learn good safety techniques, I cut apart an old dish-rag so he can use little towels to take items out of the oven. The kitchen even comes with little baskets that you to collect and empty “food waste” into the invisible compost bucket.
Unlike most toy kitchens, this one even has “food waste,” even though it’s non-compostable plastic. In addition to the hamburger and hot dog that came with the kitchen, I bought my little (sometimes) veggie-lover a basket of toy produce that requires preparation. You can peel and section the orange, cut the tomato, peel the banana, cut the cauliflower, and shuck the corn. All of the pieces are held together with Velcro, so they’re easy to put back together. What’s really neat about it is that you can introduce actual knife techniques with them. Pushing down on most play food with a play knife usually causes it to slip and cause what would be a nasty gouge in real life. In contrast, this set rewards good knife skills – cutting with the curved “sharp” side is much easier than the straight, “blunt” side. The toy food also allows us to teach him safety skills, like choking up on the knife to improve control and curling under the fingers on his holding hand so you don’t slice them. While he’s far from that level of comprehension, it’s absurdly cute for now to watch him “cut” through fake vegetables with his little plastic chef’s knife.
To further practice his skills, we recently allowed him to help us prepare a snack. A few months ago, we found a recipe for Chocolate Almond Date Energy Balls, which we found were both delicious and semi-healthy. We originally found the recipe on Sweet Happy Life, but because she’s taken down her blog archives to protect her kid’s privacy, I’m going to share our version (slightly modified from hers) here.
Based on an original recipe from Sweet Happy Life (Ariela Pelaia)
1 cup whole, raw almonds
3 tablespoons chocolate chips
1 cup dates (can often get from the bulk section in natural foods stores)
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup almond butter
1 to 3 tablespoons water
4-5 tbs shredded coconut
Using a food processor, grind the almonds, chocolate chips, dates, vanilla and almond butter, until it the combination creates large chunks that separate out from each other. If needed, add water slowly until it reaches that consistency. Pinch off a good-size chunk and roll into a ball with your hands. Roll each of the balls in the shredded coconut. Eat immediately (although they’ll be a little sticky) or refrigerate.
The first time we made the Energy Balls with Sprout, he was very engaged and enjoyed sprinkling coconut over the balls. This time, he was a little more distracted. He didn’t really want to form the balls and seemed more interested in pushing the coconut off of the plate than anything else. Oh well. We’ll keep trying to teach him to play with his food.