Cooking with Kids: Mac & Cheese

In addition to the extra hours of daylight, the beach, and all of the fresh local produce, one of my favorite things about summer is the extra time that it affords me.  As a teacher, I get the benefit of having my summers off, which allows me to focus on things that I don’t have as much time for during the school year.  Cooking is one of these areas for me, and I decided that this summer, I was going to get the kids more involved.  My twins are now 6 1/2, and while they have been helping me out with small tasks in the kitchen for years, I decided that this is the summer that I am officially going to start to teach them how to cook.  And since my brain works better when tasks are organized, I set up a system to make this happen.

Each week, one child will have the opportunity to choose what we will eat for one of our dinners.  The catch is that whatever they choose, they have to help me prepare it.  I’m hopeful that this will get them a little more invested in the cooking process, and will also start to teach them basic skills that they can use for the rest of their lives.  It also allows me a little bit of one-on-one bonding time, which is always challenging to come by when you have twins.  We started last night with my daughter’s pick.

My daughter tends to love carbs and anything with cheese, so I was not the least bit surprised that she chose to make mac and cheese for her first dinner.  It was actually an easy meal to begin with, as this is one of the few meals that I make where I don’t consult a recipe.  It also allowed her to practice several basic kitchen skills, which was another bonus.  We started by shredding the cheddar cheese and cooking the pasta.  While the pasta was cooking, I helped her mix up the sauce.  She added the butter to the pan, stirred in the flour and the spices, and then slowly blended in the milk.  We took turns stirring the sauce while it thickened, as she wasn’t a big fan of the heat coming from the burner.  Once the milk had thickened, she stirred in the cheddar cheese, and then mixed it together with the pasta in the baking dish.  A few handfuls of breadcrumbs, and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese on top, and our meal was ready to slide into the oven.

While the mac and cheese was baking, we prepared some kale chips.  We discovered kale chips several years ago and I think they are one of the best ways to get kids to eat more leafy greens.  My daughter literally praises kale whenever we find it at the farmers market.  Honestly, expressions like, “Yay, kale!  I LOVE kale!” often have other shoppers turning their heads.  In addition, this is one of the kitchen tasks that the kids have been helping me with for more than a year.  They love to tear the leaves off the stems and then rip them into smaller pieces.  Massaging the oil into the kale satisfies their need to get a bit messy, and we literally have to fight them away from the bowl once we sit down to dinner.  In the past, I’ve actually caught myself saying, “Slow down on the kale and eat your other food please,” which is just a ridiculous statement when you stop and think about it.

For our final step in the meal-preparation process, my daughter snapped the ends off some green beans that we found at the farmers market.  Then she eagerly posed alongside her carefully crafted dinner.  Week one’s experiment was a total success!

aubrey dinner

Here’s our rough mac & cheese recipe, which is based off a great recipe I got from my friend Sarah back in grad school, in case you are interested in duplicating at home:

12-16 oz whole wheat pasta (we like elbows or rotini)

2 cups shredded cheddar cheese (plus a bit more for sprinkling on top)

2-2.5 cups whole milk

2-3 tbsp butter

2-3 tbsp whole wheat flour

spices to season (we use ground mustard, paprika, garlic powder, salt & pepper)

enough fresh breadcrumbs for topping

1.  Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Cook the pasta until it is al dente.  While pasta is cooking, shred the cheddar cheese and melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat.

2.  Add the flour and spices to the butter and stir until a paste forms.  Remove the pan from heat and slowly add in the milk a bit at a time, stirring until the paste is incorporated into the milk.

3.  Return pan to medium heat, and continue to stir regularly until milk thickens (usually takes 5-10 minutes for us).  Once sauce has thickened, remove from heat and mix in the shredded cheese until melted.

4.  Combine the cheese sauce and pasta in a greased baking dish.  Sprinkle the top with small pieces of breadcrumbs (we often use the heels of the loaf) and cheddar cheese to form the topping.  Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the topping begins to brown.

5.  Optional: If you want to increase the veggies in this meal, you can mix 1 cup of pureed butternut squash into the sauce when you add the cheese.  It adds some nice sweetness and gives the mac and cheese a bit more of that orange color that many kids like.  I also like to mix in broccoli, but my kids usually turn their noses up at that, so I simply steam 2 cups and add it onto the plates for my husband and I.

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