School is back in session — which, in this most paradoxical of times, means a lot of kids are still at home.
This year, for many families, school lunches are home lunches.
But school is a time for learning. And, let’s face it, it can get pretty monotonous making lunches for the young ones all the time.
So why not have the kids make their own lunches? It’s a great way for them to learn — not only about cooking, but also about math and chemistry and physics.
But mostly about cooking.
I made five child-friendly dishes, food that not only kids would love to eat but also that they can make themselves. The dishes are of varying degrees of difficulty; older kids should have no problem making any of them, while younger kids can at least help measure out the ingredients and stir the mixtures.
Obviously, parents should supervise younger children in the kitchen at all times. Kitchens can be dangerous places: Do not give children kitchen tasks that they are not yet ready to perform, especially involving heat or knives.
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Because I have been blessed with no children myself, I recruited a neighbor’s grandchildren to make three of the dishes, too. I wanted to make sure the recipes were not over their heads and that they found the food appealing.
I began with something called Cheese Dreams, which I guess is as good a name as any. You’ve probably made a version of it yourself, and it is certainly something that a child can do.
It is an English muffin topped with a slice of tomato, a couple of half-slices of bacon — be sure to cook the bacon yourself if your children are too young to do it — and topped with thin strips of cheese. The dish is then cooked in a toaster oven or under a broiler until the cheese melts.
Personally, I prefer Cheddar cheese, but American cheese melts easier and more satisfyingly. Either way, the dish is indeed a cheese dream, all gooey and yummy and delicious.
Yuri Malone, 13, made them (her grandmother fried the bacon). “I thought they tasted very good. They filled me up. As a snack, they were filling,” she said.
“It was easy. It didn’t require a lot of ingredients — that was nice. It made it fast, too.”
The next dish I tried, Toasted Cheese-Bacon Sandwiches, may at first glance seem similar to the Cheese Dreams. But I think it as actually more akin to Welsh rarebit.
On top of toast goes a spread that is a mixture of processed or American cheese, a beaten egg, paprika and Worcestershire sauce. The sauce-covered toast is then heated under a broiler or in a toaster oven until the cheese melts. Then it’s topped with a couple of slices of bacon.
This dish takes a little more effort to make than the Cheese Dreams, and the result is a bit more sophisticated. But in the grand scheme of things, we’re still talking about bread, melted cheese and bacon. You can never go wrong with that, for children or adults.
Inspired by a kids-cooking contest I hosted a few years ago, I next decided to make drop biscuits. One of the contestants, who I believe was 11 at the time, made them and won the contest.
The secret to drop biscuits, or at least the way I make them, is that they are made with buttermilk. Biscuits made with buttermilk taste better than biscuits that are not made with buttermilk. It is an indisputable fact.
The other secret to drop biscuits, or at least the way I make them, is that they are made with melted butter. The hot melted butter mixes with the cold buttermilk until the butter solidifies into little floating globules. When the dough is baked, the globules create steam, which in turn makes the biscuits flaky.
You can use this lesson to teach your kids about surface tension, melting points, steam points and pressure. See? I told you that your kids could learn about physics.
And not only is it educational, but also the biscuits are terrific.
Eleven-year-old Kyle Malone, Yuri’s brother, made them. He said the whole process was easy, from gathering the ingredients to mixing them together to the cooking.
Best of all, “They tasted great. We put on some raspberry jam,” he said.
The next dish I made is based on the principle that children enjoy food that is presented in unusual ways. Egg Salad Sandwich Rolls take a simple (but well balanced) egg salad and places it inside hollowed-out hot-dog buns.
That’s all there is to it. The egg salad is easy to make, too, though young children should not be allowed to mince the onion themselves. It requires hard-cooked eggs, too, of course. There have to be at least a dozen ways to hard-cook eggs; mine is foolproof but it requires a steaming basket, and not everyone has one.
If you don’t want to go to the trouble of hard-cooking your own eggs, some stores now sell them already cooked.
The last kid-friendly dish I made was, to my mind, the best. It is also the hardest and most involved, but smaller children can certainly help with measuring ingredients and the like.
Ricotta, Blueberry and Grape Toasts are lightly sweet, reasonably healthful treats. On top of toasted baguette halves, you or your children place a smear of ricotta cheese (my store didn’t have any so I made my own, because why not?). The ricotta is topped with a mixture of seedless red grapes and blueberries, sweetened with a mixture of honey and a little bit of lemon juice. And on top of that goes a sprinkling of toasted slivered almonds.
It is an elegant dish that would be welcome at any cocktail party.
Will and Eva Malone — they’re Yuri and Kyle’s cousins — made the toasts, dividing the work between them. It took about 10 to 15 minutes, they estimated, plus the cooking time.
“They were good,” said Eva, 11.
“They were really good,” said Will, 13.
Though they were already familiar with ricotta cheese, Eva said this was the first time she had ever had something like this — the bread plus the cheese with the fruit and the almonds, all together in one dish.
“It was loaded. It was messy, too,” Will said.