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How to ‘fun’ cook for — and with — your kids during the extended coronavirus school closures

May 28, 2020

School closures due to the novel coronavirus outbreak mean millions of children are about to spend a lot more time at home. That’s challenging on any number of levels, and food is at the top of the list. What will you cook for your kids? Will your budget hold up under the increasing economic strain many families are facing? How can you keep children occupied for days on end?

We turned to a few experts for their advice. Here are their tips:

Inventory and prioritize your food. Alicia McCabe, the Massachusetts director of Share Our Strength’s child-focused Cooking Matters campaign, says that before you run to the grocery store and fill your cart, take a look at what you already have in your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. If your kids are old enough, involve them in the inventory process. Start meal planning and thinking about what you can make with your current supplies and be prepared to substitute, improvise or try new recipes.

Be sure to use any fresh, perishable food in a timely manner. The last thing you want to do in a situation like this is waste food, McCabe says. Even if you don’t plan to use produce right away, roasting and refrigerating or freezing it – or putting it into something like soup or chili – can extend its useful life and save money.

Look for hidden gems. McCabe recently went grocery shopping and noticed how much was out of stock, including a lot of fresh produce and pasta. But those aren’t the be-all, end-all for feeding your family, especially on a budget. It’s time to seek out other ingredients that can help you stretch your dollar and fill you up. McCabe espoused the virtues of cabbage, which is versatile and long-lasting (and maybe a tougher sell for some kids?), as well as sweet potatoes. Take a serious look at frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. In general, they’re cheaper and just as nutritious as fresh. Frozen vegetables are particularly ideal for stir-fries (fried rice) and soups.

Rice is an obvious choice, but food writer, blogger, and cookbook author Katie Workman says don’t overlook other grain options, such as bulgur, polenta or cornmeal, farro, and quinoa. They’re inexpensive per serving, versatile and can help bulk up a meal, she says. Plus, they freeze well.

Much has been made about beans, but McCabe still advises you to not overlook dried beans, especially now that you will probably have more time to cook them. Cooked or canned make great kid-friendly dips and spreads. They can also help stretch a meal. McCabe likes to incorporate beans (whole or mashed, depending on the kid) into ground turkey for tacos.

Workman says lentils often get left out of the bean discussion, so be sure you consider them when it comes to a hearty garnish or as a starring ingredient.

Cook smartly for the short- and long-term. No parent wants to become a short-order cook for their family three times a day during school and work closures. Workman says most of us aren’t used to doing that even in normal times. Be prepared to use food in a variety of ways. Maybe pulled pork is for sandwiches one day and then repurposed for burritos or nachos. Cooking different dishes and then stashing some in the freezer means you’ll be able to better incorporate variety rather than being stuck eating the same things for days on end.

McCabe likes to take advantage of ice cube trays for freezer storage, which allows her to portion out smaller amounts of, say, tomato sauce that can be thawed and reheated as needed.

Make the most of your spices. Workman suggests mixing up how you season your food is a great way to avoid palate fatigue. The good news is that spices last a long time, and you probably have a decent supply in your pantry. And if not, pick up a few new ones to try, as they’re a relatively cheap investment – an unlikely to be out of stock at the store.

At Cooking Matters, McCabe likes to turn flavors into a sort of interactive experiment. She suggests prepping one ingredient, such as steamed carrots, then seasoning them in three ways. This lets kids try something new in a low-pressure environment (try snack time instead of the dreaded dinner battle) and allows them to better express their likes and dislikes.

Get the kids involved. Many of us will be spending extended, even unprecedented, amounts of time with our children. “It’s a moment where we can start to give our kids life skills that most people are too busy to do, frankly,” Workman says. “We know we should teach our kids to cook.” Kids who are involved in cooking may be more engaged with their food and, fingers crossed, more likely to try new things.

Whether your children will be participating in remote learning or not, McCabe sees many teaching opportunities when families cook together. While cooking, talk about numbers, math and colors. Children will pick things up naturally; there’s no need to drill them. One of the primary goals, McCabe says, is to make positive memories in what will be an otherwise emotionally fraught time.

She emphasizes that it’s important to give children control where you can. Let them help you meal plan. When vegetables are part of dinner, let them pick the one they want. Come up with theme days to inject a sense of fun. Breakfast for dinner – frittatas are perfect for stretching ingredients in a healthful package – is always on the table.

And do your best to comfort them. Many kids’ worlds are being turned upside down at the moment, and it’s important to do your best to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Workman recommends thinking about essentials your children rely on and seeing if you can stock up. Will they only eat vegetables with a certain type of ranch dressing? Meat with a specific barbecue sauce? While “the whole idea of a picky eater is going to have to be shelved a little bit,” if supplies run low and we have to stick close to home for a long time, it’s nice to give comfort when you can. Oh, and if your little ones have a favorite boxed brownie mix, Workman endorses picking up a few extra packages for designated treat days.

Now is also not the time to forget those who need help in the community, a message worth sharing with your kids. Donate and volunteer where you can. As Workman says, “the need is exploding.”

By Becky Krystal