Guest blog: The Yummy Mummy

Kim Foster is the author of The Yummy Mummy, (http://www.theyummymummy.blogspot.com/) a humor blog about cooking and eating with young kids. She is a writer, ghostwriter of several books, and currently finishing up a book proposal about her year of cooking with 20 four year olds in an East Harlem public school. She’ll be back in the classroom with another set of three and four year olds come September, thanks to Stop & Shop, who has generously pledged to under-write a substantial portion of the project for this coming academic year. Kim can be reached at Kim@FosterEntertainment.net and on Twitter as @TheYummyMummy

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I’m going to come right out and say it – cooking with three, four and five year olds in an under-funded NYC public school is an endurance event. It should be its own category at the X Games.
It is nothing short of a marathon that ends with a sink full of impossibly dirty dishes, a floor strewn with debris, flecks of dough ground into the radiator vents and small children with pieces of zucchini tangled into their hair.
Don’t believe those pictures dotting the internet and cookbooks, of mild-mannered, rule-following children in perfectly white, un-stained chefs hats and aprons, carefully measuring out a cup of flour for their home-made banana nut muffins and never spilling a smidgeon of it onto the perfectly clean counter top.
I’m not afraid to tell you, it’s all propaganda.
I guess I can say this with some authority. I spent the last year going into my daughter, Lucy’s East Harlem Pre-K every week and cooking with her and her class. Before I came along, the pre-k class had a cooking program, spreading butter on crackers and then, later, spreading cream cheese onto crackers. They had plastic knives and the activity was designed to provide a snack and also encourage small motor skills. It was a good activity, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t actually cooking.
I e-mailed the teacher, Lisa. It was a longish e-mail, and I included so many details about myself you’d think I was applying to teach at culinary school. She invited me in as a one-time deal. We went through food issues, religious restrictions, allergies. We struck a deal. We set a date. I was making meatballs. She gave me a 45 minute session with them that included prep and cooking, followed by a tasting. I had at my disposal a hot plate, toaster oven, fridge and a griddle I was donating.
The first day cooking with the kids was a blur, a wild ride on a mammoth roller coaster that seemed to end as soon as it started. I remember three things clearly: 1) Three year olds up to their elbows in bowls of raw meat, 2) a boy who would not stop sticking his fingers up his nose, and 3) when I turned my back for two seconds – I mean, literally two seconds – a grated parmesan cheese fight broke out behind me. Before I could stop them, the back third of the classroom was covered in a thick blanket of parmesan.
I spent an hour after school picking cheese out of the radiator vents. Children had cheese in their hair. At this point, there was a good chance I was never going to be asked back into the classroom.
But Lisa did ask me back (bless her) and the kids and I cooked every week that school was open, September to June. We extended the cooking sessions to two 45 minute sessions a day, prep in the morning and cooking in the afternoon. We began with easy things, getting them used to chopping, cutting, boiling, sautéing. We made pumpkin soup in the Fall and apple fritters. We made Christmas cookie dough and decorated them, and guacamole and home-made tortilla chips. We made Chinese dumplings, the dough and all, and three fillings, tofu, shrimp and pork. Enchiladas, beef flautas, vegetable samosas, and pan-fried pizza with our own dough, almost everything from scratch.
Every time we cooked, they learned a new skill and took it with them for the next recipe. They had surprisingly good retention. They started with no cutting in September and then, in October I introduced serrated steak knives and by mid-year, they could finely dice carrots, big chunky root vegetables, onions and garlic without assistance. They made their first dough, pizza and then, every dough after that. By the time, we got to making fresh pasta and home-made bread, it was a cinch for them, something their hands and brains knew how to do automatically. They understood dough.

It wasn’t all success, however. We had our dismal failures, lots of them. When we made Fried Chocolate Kumquat Spring Rolls, the room’s freezer failed to freeze the chocolate ganache into a bar that could be rolled and deep fried. The kids ended up rolling melting, thick, oozing kumquat-laced chocolate into spring roll wrappers. They were covered head to toe in chocolate. The kids spent the cooking time licking themselves.

We were often too ambitious. The three different kinds of wonton fillings took so long to make they barely had time to sample one kind. There was lemon juice and salt that found their way into cuts and scrapes. There were burnt tortillas and flatbread that was hard on the outside and doughy and undercooked on the inside. There were cooking chores they found tedious and boring, like rolling dough into circles, and others they could have done for hours without stopping, like scooping out curds of ricotta from a pot of hot cream, milk and buttermilk. There was food they loved – latkes, matzoh ball soup – and food they barely ate – vegetable fried rice.
It was always a crap shoot and they were maddening in their unpredictability.
They could be amazingly productive and focused one day – as they are in these videos of the kids making fettuccine http://theyummymummy.blogspot.com/2010/05/book-and-four-year-olds-making.html – and the next day, they were unable to produce a single noodle, preferring instead to make the noodles, and then mash them up in their little fists, and run the mashed up dough through the machine again, and smash the noodles, and lay back their heads and laugh, as if it were the most comical thing they had ever done. Then, they started throwing it at each other. I spent an hour on my hands and knees scraping pasta dough off the floor with a razor.

Once, I made a kid cry after he threw a ball of home-made pasta dough through the air (picture a pint-sized Russian shot-putter) and onto the dirty public school floor. I was pissed and lost it for a second. I barked at him and his face crumpled, tears came. I was horrified. But we talked it out. We came out better on the other end.

And I got better at being a teacher. I learned an even deeper level of patience. I got very Zen about “meeting them where they are”. I mentally prepared for the sessions like an athlete before a game. I had little mantras I liked to recite about being patient, no matter what happened, and I had to train myself not to follow behind them making their food look more appetizing, spreading out that big clump of cilantro in the middle of the enchiladas, or making that dumpling look a little less like a testicle. I learned to sense a cheese fight coming on long before it happened. It became very clear to me that leaving an open bag of flour on the table would never end well. Lesson learned.

And I got to know the kids. I stopped being “Lucy’s mom” and became “Kim”. We knew each other, our limits, our gifts. We had been through the wars together. We had a real relationship, shorthand, inside jokes, the whole thing, and that felt pretty damn amazing.

By May, I knew they could make a lunch for their parents. We set the date for the last week in June. We made everything from scratch and we froze or dried whatever we made ahead of time. The kids made pasta dough from scratch, hand cranked the fettuccine noodles, and hung the noodles to dry on Lisa’s laundry rack. We had to put it up high on the desks to keep the mice from eating it.
The following week, we made marinara. A lot of it. The week after that, we made bread dough and I froze it. The day before the lunch, we cooked the dough into flatbreads in a cast iron skillet on the hot plate and the kids made fresh ricotta cheese. The day of the lunch Yahia, a boy who learned to speak English in class, brought to the table at the center of the classroom, a platter of home-made noodles topped with marinara and flecks of basil. Immanuel served the flatbreads, cut into messy triangles, and drizzled with butter, salt, shreds of basil and generous dollops of ricotta cheese.
The lunch was supposed to be for the parents, to give them each a little taste of what the kids made this year, a taste of what they could do, an opportunity to see them as extraordinary. But that wasn’t what happened. When the platters went out, the kids ran from every corner to the big table in the center of the room, pulling up chairs and chattering lively. A little girl named Anise grabbed a spoon and fork and started filling her plate with heaps of noodles. They all followed behind her. The kids had completely forgotten about their parents. Most of the parents never even got to taste their noodles.

I had packed several boxes of linguine in my bag, as a plan B in case it all went to hell, and the day turned into a spaghetti boil served with the kid’s marinara. Every piece of flatbread and dollop of cheese was devoured.

You‘re probably reading this and thinking that I did most of the cooking for the kids, that I let them stir the pot or let them watch me flip the latkes in the frying pan, but I didn’t. Truth is, I’m as blown away as anyone. These kids can’t tie their own shoes, but when given some direction and supplies, they can make dumplings, dough and all, from scratch. Most parents can’t do that.

And maybe that’s the lesson here – cooking with small kids isn’t about learning math by measuring cups of flour, or following a picture recipe, or being able to tell an olive from an avocado. It’s about the pure enjoyment of creating something together, the process of being a part of something that is occasionally ugly, filled with disappointments, frayed nerves and monotony, and sometimes outrageously funny, happy, surprising and satisfying.

It’s about a kid standing back with his arms folded across his chest and thinking, ” I did that…I did that…I really did that.” And listening to his family and teachers, the people who mean the most in his world, rave about how awesome he is and then, just getting to take that feeling to bed with him at night, letting it melt into his heart a little as he falls asleep.

I’m not telling you that you should start packing up your pots and pans and head to your kid’s school to cook with them this September. But if you do, it’ll be worth everything you have to do to make it happen.

And when you take your clothes off at night, and you look down and see that you have melted chocolate chips stuck to the inside of your bra, you’ll still think it’s worth it. I promise.
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32 Responses to Guest blog: The Yummy Mummy

  1. Beth July 27, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    My little guy isn't even two, but he loves helping me in the kitchen. He is great at shelling peas, snapping beans, sprinkling sugar on top of zucchini muffins, mashing avocados for guacamole, and a few times has even had the patience to spoon pre-measured flour into the bowl I'm using to make bread dough. He also loves helping add salt and pepper and olive oil when we're roasting veggies. He runs to get his stool as soon as he sees me getting ingredients out of the fridge, and when we're making bread he insists that we both wear our aprons. It makes the job take a bit longer, and it's way messier, but it's so worth it to spend time with him.

  2. MH July 27, 2010 at 1:13 pm #

    AWESOME.

  3. Gail July 27, 2010 at 1:17 pm #

    This post is so poignant that I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I, too, have taught kids' cooking classes and know first hand the mayhem that Kim's talking about here.
    But, she's a far better person than I am, because she saw it through to the happy ending. Kim's funny and self-depricating and that's only part of why we love her. Her devotion to raising healthy, happy, well-fed children is another. After reading this post, I'm sure all readers will love Kim, too.

  4. Shannon July 27, 2010 at 1:25 pm #

    Love it!

    I hate blogs and books that make cooking with children look so easy, so neat. Like I should be wearing heels and pearls while we're in there together. It's NEVER like that in this house and most of the time I end up frustrated and don't do it.

    I really, really appreciate this post. Thanks 🙂

  5. Losing Weight After 45 is a Bitch July 27, 2010 at 1:29 pm #

    Mrs. Q:

    I won a little award and wanted to pass it on to you because I really love your blog, and in a way, my success is your success.

    The award is:
    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_9ZJVi-gWcPk/TEyHsTzjPgI/AAAAAAAAALo/uDHH2cbhvM4/s200/blogawardsubstance.JPG

    The 3 rules for it are
    1) thank the person that gave it to you
    2) describe in 10 words your blogging philosophy, motivation, experience, etc..
    3) Pass it on to 10 blogs you love

    I know these things can be a little bothersome to do, so if you don't want to display it or pass it on, no hard feelings… just wanted you to know you were in my top 10, and whether you do it or not, you deserve it.

  6. Free to be me: Danielle July 27, 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    I'm going to keep it very simple…

    I LOVE this.

  7. Kathy July 27, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    This is by far the most compelling, most interesting, most well-written guest post I've ever read on this blog. This is where the rubber meets the road. Thanks for rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty, Kim. These children are much richer for your efforts.

  8. Viki July 27, 2010 at 2:11 pm #

    Kim, you have enriched those little lives so much. You have given them something that can't be taken away, a feeling, a crumb of "I can do it" that hopefully will feed their little attitudes in to the future and help them on the way to "greatness".
    A lesson all parents and teachers need to take to heart. Kudos to you.

  9. Anonymous July 27, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    Great post! So many people are afraid of the messes kids might make that they lose sight of the masterpieces they also might make if given the opportunity.

    For example, I taught a 2 yr old parochial preschool class for a number of years and I always had the kids dye Easter eggs. The other teachers were almost vicious in their criticisms of this project, but the kids always did a great job and I could never understand the negativity.

    I don't know if I'm brave enough to be this ambitious, but I do think if you're willing to let it take a little longer and be a little messier, kids really can do amazing things.

  10. Jenna July 27, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    What a great story. I have tears in my eyes!

  11. Erin McGuire July 27, 2010 at 2:57 pm #

    Great story, really fascinating! 🙂

  12. Becki D July 27, 2010 at 3:18 pm #

    Absolutely awesome!! I can't believe the school and the parents all agreed to let their little ones participate….but I am so glad they did!!

    Where do I sign my kids up?? 🙂

  13. Sweet Virginia July 27, 2010 at 3:19 pm #

    Wow–you rock!

  14. The Table of Promise July 27, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    Amazing post. I am speechless. I am so happy to hear that you can have success if you keep at it. Cooking with my almost 3 year old has ended is spilled oil, broken eggs, glass chards, etc. There are moments where I have to question it. Thanks for telling such a great story.

  15. A. B. England July 27, 2010 at 4:00 pm #

    Okay, you've just inspired me to get my four-year-old involved in making the loaf of bread and open faced "meatloaf" burgers I was planning to make this evening. Normally she either just watches or helps with pounding the toasted up bread scraps into crumbs. But, there's absolutely no reason she can't roll up her sleeves and help with the mixing and shaping after I've diced up the veggies. (Our meatloaf burgers are about 50% peppers, carrots, onion, and celery all finely diced.)

    What a lovely story!

  16. My Kids' Mom July 27, 2010 at 4:08 pm #

    I had only a hot pot and electric fry pan in my preschool classroom, but we cooked something (simple) every week, plus cooking up our own playdoh once a month. They had such great attention when we started to cook a new project. Cleanup was hardest, but worth it.

  17. Zhana Sandeva July 27, 2010 at 5:52 pm #

    You are a hero! To think you have taught those kids to prepare such complicated foods! I totally admire your project.

  18. Anonymous July 27, 2010 at 6:06 pm #

    This paragraph-

    "And I got to know the kids…We knew each other, our limits, our gifts. We had been through the wars together. We had a real relationship, shorthand, inside jokes, the whole thing, and that felt pretty damn amazing."

    is the reason why teachers go back every fall, eager to start over with another group of students. Well put.

  19. Anne July 27, 2010 at 6:23 pm #

    I teach special ed preschool and we cook every week (like My Kids' Mom, we make our own playdough every month – kneading warm playdough is very, very relaxing).

    There is so much value in cooking with kids!

  20. Lisa R. Suriano July 27, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    Awesome post! Really well written and funny! I truly appreciated reading someone tell the realities of cooking with kids. Kids are so unpredictable sometimes! Its not easy. Kudos to you for persevering!!! You are helping to foster an early love and appreciation for food. So important 🙂

  21. Kim July 27, 2010 at 7:14 pm #

    This is The Other Kim here, not the Wildly Talented Uber Generous Blogger Kim.

    I found this story very encouraging. This is exactly the type of grass-roots project that we need more of in our schools. Those kids are so lucky to have someone willing and able to donate the time and effort you've put into this, Kim!

    And Girl, you need to get yourself a wet/dry vac.

  22. Healthy In Heels July 27, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    You are a saint. Honestly, I get irritated cooking with my little brother and I personally know him! I wish you could have come to my school when I was younger and shared some of your culinary skills/patience!

    -healthyinheels.blogspot.com

  23. La Rêveuse July 27, 2010 at 9:16 pm #

    I love this. Thank you for sharing your story. Beautiful. Bless you!

  24. Rachel July 27, 2010 at 10:18 pm #

    Awesome post! Cooking is such a great lifeskill to have. In my experience cooking with kids is all about getting OK with having a less-than-spotlessly-clean kitchen. But the payoff is so worthwhile. Now if I could just get OK with the havoc they wreak in the garden… that's what still makes me start yelling and stressing out!

  25. Krisfromparis! July 28, 2010 at 12:25 am #

    Kathy wrote: "this is by far the most compelling, most interesting, most well-written guest post I've ever read on this blog."

    i was going to point out the same thing : what an awesome post…what a great sense of humor..and what a great message! the BEST on this blog, so far!!! 🙂

  26. Christina @ Spoonfed July 28, 2010 at 1:12 am #

    Just terrific. I've read this three times and it just keeps getting better. So poignant. So funny. So absolutely in the moment. Thank you for this, and for this passage in particular:

    "It’s about a kid standing back with his arms folded across his chest and thinking, 'I did that…I did that…I really did that.' And listening to his family and teachers, the people who mean the most in his world, rave about how awesome he is and then, just getting to take that feeling to bed with him at night, letting it melt into his heart a little as he falls asleep."

    If the rest of you haven't also checked out Kim's blog, go do it now. I just spent way too long there, but enjoyed every minute.

  27. Mrs. H July 28, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    Oh my! Kim and Mrs. Q – you made my day!

  28. jwg July 29, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    I love this. Can't wait to read the book. In a show of the stupidity of power we are no longer allowed to cook with kids in day care classrooms. The Suffolk Cty. Dept. of Health has ruled that even heating a kid's lunch in the microwave is cooking, and you can't do that unless the classroom sink has indirect drains, the teacher has a food handler's certificate, the kids wear gloves, and all the other restaraunt cooking rules are followed.For a while, programs were told that they couldn't serve family style-meals had to come out of the kitchen preplated and wrapped. They did back down on that one. Kids are missing out on what is arguably one of the best parts of a good early childhood curriculum.

  29. Erin O. July 29, 2010 at 2:49 pm #

    This is amazing. Kids don't get enough credit! It just shows how much they can do when we give them the tools. I love that they chopped the veggies but no one got cut. Schools and playgrounds seem so sanitized- thank you for giving the opportunity to be creative and learn!!

  30. Maria July 29, 2010 at 8:41 pm #

    Cooking is a beautiful and wonderful thing. Like crafts, it encourages creativity and pride in one's workmanship, but even going beyond that, it lets children really connect to food in a healthy way. One can hope that this will stay with them and down the line they see the value of rolling up your sleeves, grabbing a knife, and actually preparing a meal instead of relying on it to come straight from a box.

  31. Is Dis Normal or Dysfunctional? August 11, 2010 at 8:58 pm #

    Kim you are so unbelievably inspirational! Thank you for that wonderful account of what I can only imagine must have been quite treacherous at times.

    I'm heading into the kitchen now to start the cooking classes with my children.

    That school is oh so very lucky to have you and your children there!

  32. Amy H August 28, 2010 at 1:03 am #

    I got a little teary reading this. I have two girls, 6 and 4, and they always want to help in the kitchen. I usually give them something super easy to do because I'm scared of the mess, but tomorrow I'm going to let them dive into bannana bread with me. I can't wait (wet/dry vac will be standing by)!

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