“Home for the holidays” means lots of unstructured time with your kids. Instead of their spending hours in front of a computer or TV, why not lure them into the kitchen with one or more of these food-inspired activities? The kitchen isn’t just the workstation for family dinners; it can also be the “play station” for many fun and creative projects.
1. Cookie baking and decorating When I ask my 20-something sons about their all-time favorite memories of childhood, baking cookies as a family is at the top of their lists. Over the years, we have collected many recipes for holiday cookies, but this one, from my mother-in-law, is the best. These cookies make excellent holiday gifts or a centerpiece for a party. Confronted with a platter of these colorful cookies, guests alternate between thinking they look too good to eat and diving right in to bite off a chocolate head.
Sugar cookie recipe from my mother-in-law, Mary Daly
2/3 cup unsalted butter
¾ cup sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon grated orange peel
4 teaspoons milk
2 cups flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
In a mixer, thoroughly cream the butter, sugar, vanilla and orange peel. Add the egg and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy. Stir in the milk. Sift together dry ingredients. Stir these into the creamed mixture, blending well. Divide the dough in half. Put each ball of dough in a piece of floured wax paper and store in the refrigerator for at least an hour, but can be kept for weeks.
When you’re ready, take one dough ball out, warm it briefly in your hands until it is pliable, and then place it on a floured counter. Roll it out so the dough is about 1/8 inch thick. Cut with cookie cutters. Some of our favorites are reindeer, dogs that look like our golden retriever, Christmas trees, dreidels, stars, musical notes, moons, dog bones, mother, father and children shapes. Bake cookies on a lightly greased cookie sheet in a 375-degree oven for about 8 minutes. (Watch them!) Cool and then decorate.
Glaze: In little ramekins pour about a half cup of powdered sugar, with a drop or two of milk, and then a different food coloring in each, until you get a consistency that will spread on a cookie. Go very slowly, adding liquid to the sugar. You can also melt chocolate to decorate such things as the base of the tree, the fur of the dog, the horns on the reindeer, or the pants of the father. Some cookies look like Jackson Pollock stopped by to add some colorful splatter, and others have the careful, folk-art approach more suggestive of a visit from Grandmother Moses.
2. Make a restaurant: Turn your kitchen over to the kids and ask them to make dinner for you. They may need help finding recipes that are appropriate to their age (Molly Katzen’s Salad People and More Real Recipes or Pretend Soup are excellent resources) and you will likely have to shop for them or with them. But, on their own they can create a menu and transform the kitchen or dining room into a restaurant. In a role reversal, you and your children will enjoy having them take your orders, bring the food to the table, and serve you.
3. Explore mystery foods: Take your kids to the supermarket and ask them to pick out a fruit or vegetable they’ve never seen before or never eaten at home. Years ago, my kids picked out a coconut, and we spent a whole afternoon trying to figure out how to open it. After taking hammers and chisels to it, we finally cleared out the street below and hurled it from a third-floor window.
I recently made a fruit bowl of Hachiya persimmon, bitter melon, banana flower, dragon fruit, June plums and kumquats – none of which I had ever tasted. I then went on the Internet to find out something about each food and to look for ways to prepare it. Dragon fruit, grown in the warm climates of Southeast Asia, Mexico, Central and South America and Israel, was my favorite. With a spiky red exterior, it has an equally wild interior—it looks like a grey kiwi with little black seeds. You can scoop out the inside flesh or use it in frozen blended drink to give a pear- like flavor.
4. Make crazy pretzels: These are inspired by the hot, doughy pretzels that are sold from pushcarts in New York City. In your own kitchen you can go crazy making them into different shapes.
1 package yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
4 cups flour
1 egg beaten
Pour the warm water into a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle on the yeast and stir. Add the salt, sugar and flour. Mix and knead the dough. Give each child a small ball of dough to roll and twist into letters, numbers, animals or shapes without names.
Grease a cookie sheet and place the pretzels on the sheets.
Brush the pretzels with the beaten egg and sprinkle with salt.
Bake at 425 degrees for 12-15 minutes.
5. Turn your kitchen into a Chemistry Lab: Kids love to make concoctions from leftover food and cleaning supplies. These unexpected chemical reactions create bubbling, strange aromas and weird colors that are dramatic and require careful vigilance so your kids don’t try to eat or drink these brews. If you want to guide your children toward more purposeful chemistry projects, here are a few:
Play dough: Add two cups flour, 1 cup salt, 2 cups water, 4 teaspoons cream of tartar, 2 tablespoons oil and food coloring. Mix and stir constantly over very low heat until a ball forms.
Sugar water for brighter chalk: Add ½ cup water and 2 Tablespoons sugar. Dip chalk into the mixture and you’ll find that it is brighter and less smudgy. Try making pictures and hopscotch courts on the sidewalk.
Goop or puffy paint: Add 1 cup of flour, 1 cup salt, 1 cup water, and tempura paints. Mix and place in squeeze bottles. Paint will puff up when dry.
Soap: Use a few bars of glycerin bar soap (available on-line, or at a craft store). Melt the soaps in a microwave or a double boiler. Then add an essential oil with a fragrance you like. Next add a color. You can use natural colors, like cinnamon or orange juice. For added zip, you can add a leaf, a flower or a small plastic trinket. Then pour the mixture into a mold, like a paper cup, or Tupperware container, and wait for it to harden.
6. Create a literary event: Have you ever noticed how many foods are introduced in children’s books? I’m thinking about noodles in Strega Nona, pomegranates in the Greek myth of Persephone, Turkish delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, maple syrup on snow in The Little House in the Big Woods, and of course, Green Eggs and Ham. What might quidditch stew taste like for Harry and his friends, or the high teas described in Mary Poppins? You can make foods with your children from some of their favorite books, and then read them aloud while they dig in.
7. Play with color and taste. Ask your kids to think up a menu in all one color and then help you make it. Or, ask your kids to think up a menu that has all five tastes- bitter, sweet, sour, salty and umami and help you make it.
Once you launch your kids in these kitchen-based activities, solitary screen time may look much less appetizing. And there’s no reason to confine these activities to the holidays. Your kids will likely want to “unplug” during other times of the year, preferring, at least some of the time, to play with food rather than with their video games.