Celebrity Kids’ Chef Cricket Azima on Fun, Healthy Eating with genConnect

 Turn picky eaters into more adventurous ones, and teach them math and science skills at the same time.

Your kid will only eat mac & cheese? Your little ones or grandchildren refuse to cook with you in the kitchen? With a growing obesity epidemic threatening our children’s safety and nationwide concerns over the unhealthy foods served in school cafeterias, it’s more important than ever for children to understand the difference between healthy and fatty foods.

genConnect recently caught up with celebrity chef Cricket Azima, an expert in cooking with children. Cricket is the author of Everybody Eats Lunch, founder of The Creative Kitchen, and the co-founder of Kids Food Festival, which is held in New York City every year to help fight childhood obesity. This year’s event’s was held in Bryant Park last in January. In this interview, Cricket divulges the benefits of getting kids to cook, tricks to get them to eat healthy, and the one kitchen utensil you need today to get them cooking with you in the kitchen…

genConnect: Please tell me a bit more about your cooking philosophy and the benefits of cooking with children.

Cricket: There is so much to learn from cooking beyond just the traditional perspective of nutrition. You can use cooking to supplement so many disciplines, like math, science, social studies, foreign language, art, geography. I have a four-year old son who has special needs and we do a lot of cooking at his school and I have developed a special needs cooking pre-school program because there is so much in cooking that helps with motor-skills development, following directions, socialization.

gC: Can you tell me more about how cooking classes can enhance a child’s learning?

Cricket: Depending on the age group, for preschoolers you can focus on colors and numbers and shapes and counting. They can learn the basic food groups, where foods are coming from, and as you get older you can really develop a full education about food. And when kids are using all their senses in a cooking activity, the likelihood of them retaining the educational content is so much greater. So, for example, rice: boiling temperature is 212 degrees. So, when your cooking with rice you can talk about the scion of boiling. The kids can look at the rice when it’s hard and talk about how it gets soft, and how hot the water is. They can compare that temperature to the temperature outside in New York on a really hot day. And the next time you ask kids what temperature boiling is, they will remember. And I know a lot of adults who don’t know that.

It’s the same thing with measuring. There is so much math involved in recipes. Often times the recipe calls for a cup of rice. I’ll say, ‘Ok, we have some problem solving to do. You have 1/4 cup measuring cup on the table. How many of these do you need in order to get one cup.’ So it’s a math lesson. It’s great to look at a recipe with a different set of eyes and see what you can teach through it.

gC: So, what are some of your favorite meals to cook with kids?

Cricket: It varies from child to child. It’s a matter of ‘know your audience.’ I have this group of fourth and fifth graders that I teach weekly and they love cooking foods that are deemed ‘restaurant foods.’ They love making homemade pasta from scratch. They love making sushi, and dumplings. Did you see my book Everybody Eats Lunch? That was inspired by this age group.

gC: Yeah, when I was reading it I saw some things that I wouldn’t typically think young children would eat. This actually perfectly segues into my next question: Do you have any helpful tips to get kids to become more exploratory eaters?

Cricket: Well, once they get their hands on the food, they are more likely to eat it. A lot of parents will come to me and say their kids will only eat mac & cheese, but after they learn to cook, they just want more of whatever vegetable they have been preparing. It’s important that kids are involved; and whether that’s with the hands-on activity or simply with the choices. So for example, you can ask your child, ‘Do you prefer broccoli or carrots tonight?’

gC: Ah-ha.

Cricket: Yes, you see ‘ah-ha’. But a child doesn’t see ‘ah-ha.’ They see that they have been empowered to choose. They get so excited and they want to eat the vegetable because they chose it. And I chose it because I wanted to eat it. It’s helping them make the right choices by setting boundaries that lead them that way.

gC: What are your top kid-friendly kitchen tools?

Cricket: Silicone rolling pins are very important. They are great for cooking as well as playing with Play-Doh. And they help kids do activities with success, because the dough doesn’t stick to the pin like a traditional rolling pin. With supervision, kids can do a lot with a plastic disposable knife. They don’t need anything fancy. I also love having lots of Ziploc bags. They make things easily accessible. I also just did a post about my top 10 products, so I can share that, too.

gC: Columbia just released a study confirming that children who have frequent family dinners are greatly impacted; they form healthier habits, are less likely to use drugs, and get better grades in school. Why do you think family dinners are so important and what is your favorite thing about your family dinners?

Cricket: I love the dynamic. My family eats dinner together because I think it’s an important time to come together and talk about your day. Just have fun, have that dynamic – that family dynamic. It can be really easy to miss out on with everybody’s busy schedules. With certain kids having sport practices and others having dance or gymnastic, and mom and dad, it’s hard. It’s hard to get everybody to the table, but it’s important to have a catch-up time. I think it’s key for a family’s communication.

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