At the Hillsborough home of Charity Curley Mathews, it would not be unusual to wake up to the smell of steel-cut oats with chocolate chips or a cheese omelet with cherry tomatoes. What might seem unusual are the ones making the breakfast food: children ages 5, 7, 9 and 10 years old. Such is often the setting at Mathews’ home where her four children have learned early on the value of food, eating and the joys of cooking for themselves and others.
Mathews, who is a family food writer for Food Network, also has her own website — Foodlets.com — that offers recipes and tips for kids in the kitchen. She has also written three books, with a fourth due out in July. She cautions readers that the books aren’t always about eating healthy.
“It’s about making things that kids can get excited about,” Mathews said. “You can learn how to feed yourself, and feed and share that with people you love. Those are really valuable life skills.”
Mathews’ kitchen is a testing ground for her books and website, with her children serving as sort of lab technicians. The recipes are simplified, often having fewer than 10 ingredients. The steps are broken down and written out for Mathews’ children to follow to see if they can understand what they’re supposed to be doing, and whether the instructions make sense.
“Of course, all of the recipes have to be really forgiving,” Mathews said. “Because not every beginning baker is following all the instructions. Maybe they’re not yet great at measuring. So there’s nothing that’s going to be ruined if you accidentally put a little more sugar, a little less flour. That’s been the process of trying to translate recipes that I’ve known and loved as an adult, and then trying to make it doable for little kids. The main thing they need is confidence.”
Mathews’ love of cooking began early in her life and has blended well later as a parent. She marveled at how her mother would make meals “from scratch,” and tuned in to the “Barefoot Contessa,” a cooking show on the Food Network, to figure out meals of varying difficulties. Mathews and her husband moved to Italy for several years and had three of their four children. It was her time in Rome that she developed a greater passion to mix the full food experience with family.
“I felt pulled to creating a family environment where food is valuable,” Mathews said. “It’s something that matters to us, and not just the eating of it, but the experience of sitting at a table. When we were in Italy, we would go for three-hour lunches every weekend with our friends. We all had toddlers and they would just play right there in the restaurant. Maybe they would just sit in a corner area. There was no playground. But the waiters were delighted to see the little kids. It was not frowned upon. Maybe it was unique to that experience, but I just loved it.”
While her books are not about parenting, Mathews believes the food experience is an effective means for nurturing skills and characteristics that will help children become compassionate and thoughtful.
“One of the unfortunate aspects of that can be kids who may not appreciate all the things they’re given or all that you do for them,” she said. “When we have a lot of complaining at diner time, for example, that’s when I know I need to reinstitute my ‘cook-of-the-week’ program. It’s where I have one of the kids help decide what we’re having for dinner, make it and serve it. It really cuts down on the complaining because they don’t want to hurt each others’ feelings and then they also understand. They get that empathy going. It’s much more about parenting than it is about food, honestly.”
But kids are kids, and sometimes they need the guidance of an adult to keep them from serving banana splits for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “I try to keep the confines pretty doable. I know my nine-year-old is going to pick macaroni and cheese. And I love the macaroni and cheese that I make. It has a bunch of pureed veggies in the cheese sauce. As long as we have the ingredients, or the ability to get the ingredients, we can do it,” she said. “Usually they have a couple of things in their back pocket that they really want to make, like spaghetti. And then we’ll look at cookbooks, or we’ll look online, even my website. I get a bunch of magazines and they’ll pull out a couple of things. The hardest thing is — my second daughter has a big sweet tooth — I let her look through one of my magazines and she only picked desserts. I couldn’t get her fired up about any of the dinners.”
Another benefit of kids gaining the full food experience is in picking up skills in a method that doesn’t come across as a typical learning experience.
“That’s something I try to talk about in the book, in the headnotes for the recipes. I talk about how baking is science, and that it can be fun to see it transform from something that’s gloppy in a bowl into a beautiful cake. There’s a ton of science, and the math part is really interesting. My kids are all in elementary school and they’re in the thick of fractions. It’s fun to say, ‘let me show you. Let’s get out the measuring spoons.’ In this time where I’m having to help them all the time with their school work, it’s been interesting because all along they’ve known what half a teaspoon is. Now you know what 1 over 2 means when you see it on a piece of paper. Probably a third of each book is information about tools and what to do. Like how to measure flour and things that you might not explain to adults because they’ve had more experience. I usually say that when you start stirring you’re going in slow motion. I tell them to pretend they’re in a slow motion video. Because if you just start whipping the spoon around everything will go everywhere. It also helps with fine-motor skills. Even the skill of thinking through your actions, like explaining why you go in slow motion because if you don’t, all your ingredients will go flying. It just plants these little seeds. Kids don’t think things through. They don’t have enough experience. Cooking can teach all these soft skills, like patience and service. Like ‘I’m going to make this for you.’ They’re so proud of whatever they’re pulling out of the oven. Kids will also get a lesson in perseverance. What if something didn’t turn out they way that they really thought it would or wanted it to. It’s like holding all of those feelings and the tension of having to wait to see what it is and to accept the circumstances and say ‘it can still be delicious even if you don’t think it appears as beautiful as you wanted it to.’ That’s part of doing anything.”
RECIPE FOR SIMPLE SOFT PRETZELS
For the warm water, think of a nice bath temperature. You need something to activate the yeast but don’t overdo it.
Prep Time: 1 hour 35 mins
Cook Time: 8 mins
Total Time: 1 hour 43 mins
Yield: 12 1x
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon white sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water
5 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 cup baking soda
4 cups hot water
3 tablespoons coarse salt
In a large liquid measuring cup, combine yeast and 1 teaspoon sugar. Add 1 1/4 cup warm water. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, mix flour, 1/2 cup sugar and salt. Make a well in the center; add the oil and yeast mixture. Mix and form into a dough. If the mixture is dry, add one or two more tablespoons of water.
Knead the dough until smooth, about 7 to 8 minutes.
Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl, and turn to coat with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C). Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Meanwhile, pour 4 cups of hot water into a large bowl and stir in the baking soda.
When the dough is risen, flip it onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 12 equal slices.
Roll each piece into a rope and twist into a pretzel (or whatever) shape. Once the dough is shaped, dip each pretzel into the baking soda-hot water solution and place on baking sheets. Sprinkle with kosher salt.
Bake in preheated oven until browned, about 8 minutes.