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A Top Food Writer’s Advice: Let Kids Explore Food—And Accept the Mess

From cracking eggs to cake, uh, experiments, Sarah Copeland says an open mind is key to raising keen cooks and eaters.

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Sarah Copeland built a career out of making home cooking more accessible for the masses. The former food director of Real Simple magazine and Food Network vet just released her third cookbook, Every Day is Saturday, offering recipes and strategies for elevating weeknight dinners from “good enough” to great. Sarah, a busy mother of two, recently chatted with Little Sous about raising adventurous eaters—and gave us a great, kid-friendly recipe for chocolate-chip banana pancakes! (Keep reading!) Here’s what she had to say:

On starting them early: “My kids have been in the kitchen with me since day one. I was pregnant with my daughter, Greta, when I started writing my first cookbook. When she was a baby, she never wanted to sleep, so I would put her in a sling as I cooked, and that movement put her to sleep. When she outgrew the sling, I’d put her in a baby carrier, face out. Before long, she was reaching her tiny baby fingers in and helping me pinch butter into flour to make biscuits. I’ve never set out to make my kids into chefs—and I don’t always want them underfoot when I’m cooking—but cooking is what I love to do, so it feels natural to have them at my side.”

On teaching safety: “People come into my kitchen and say ‘wow, your kids are very intimate with hot things and knives.’ Yes, accidents can happen, but I explain everything to my kids and work very closely with them, so they’re prepared and know how to cook safely. I believe any parent who loves their children can support them in letting them try things they naturally gravitate towards. The kitchen can be a really welcoming place to let them build some autonomy.”

[Note: Check out some Little Sous-approved kitchen safety tips!]

On opening minds and palates: “When you have a baby, doctors and gurus and magazines throw all this information at you about what not to feed kids. But I was lucky that we lived next to a family from Bangladesh when Greta was very small. They had four beautiful kids, and I’d ask my neighbor what she fed them. ‘They eat everything we eat … everything.’ I started giving Greta a taste of whatever I was making. One time we had sushi, and I dipped my finger into the soy and then into her mouth for a taste. I totally forgot that I had already stirred in the wasabi! Her eyes went huge and she shivered, but then she smiled. Flavor! When she was three, we went to an oyster bar—my husband and I love oysters—and she had one. She swallowed the thing whole and said ‘I like it!’ And ate another one. Yes, it was a couple years before she asked for one again, but now she loves them. I think that when we anticipate a negative reaction, we will get that reaction. But if we let this darling little human explore how they feel about food, they will often surprise us.”

On developing curious cooks: “I think the best way to get kids interested in food is to let them make decisions. There was a time recently when my kids were pushing back on dinner. So I brought out some cookbooks and had them thumb through to pick a few things they want to eat the next week. All of a sudden we had a fun project to do together.”

On exploring new food cultures: “My husband and I love traveling abroad, but we all know that it’s difficult with little ones. Between trips, we satisfy our wanderlust by having little cultural adventures in our own kitchen. A year ago, we starting getting the kids involved by letting them pick a new country every Friday night. One would pick Italian, so we’d learn about Italian food and go to the store and cook an Italian dinner and listen to ‘Mambo Italiano.’ [Note: we endorse all of this.] We all loved it, but to be honest, that only lasted about six weeks; when we got to Russia, we cooked an epic, time-consuming feast and after that were like, ‘we’re done.’”

On embracing the mess: “I’m a perfectionist, so stepping back and letting my kids cook can be a challenge. My son, Matyas, will march into the kitchen and pull out all kinds of flours and spices and tell me he’s making a cake (and when he wants to make a cake, there’s no stopping him). It has taken me years to accept that there’s going to be a huge mess on the floor. But then he’ll put something together and have me taste it and, my word, is he proud—and sometimes it’s even good. I attribute this to my mom, who didn’t love to cook but who could see that I did. She let me make those messes, so I let my kids make theirs.”

On the payoff: “Cooking with kids gives them a sense of ownership and autonomy. Cracking eggs is such fun. Greta is so proud that she can now crack an egg one-handed and not get any shells into the bowl. Stirring and whisking is super satisfying, as well. I remember the first time Greta stood behind Matyas and helped him whisk flour. Watching their four arms intertwine gave me this sense of wellbeing, that no matter what I get wrong in parenting, everything is going to be fine.”

The Little Sous Kitchen Academy box teaches kids to become creative, confident cooks. Check out our subscription options—and get ready for some hands-on family fun!

Chocolate Chip-Buckwheat-Banana Pancakes

When it comes to breakfast, there are two kinds of moms: those who put chocolate chips in their kids’ pancakes and those who don’t. I’m a blueberries kind of mom. My sister is a chocolate chips kind of mom. Her chocolate chip pancakes have us whole heart and soul.

My kids don’t have any shortage of sweets … but sometimes I want to be a chocolate chips at breakfast kind of mom. For those days, I have these pancakes.

It would be unfair to call these pancakes either indulgent or healthy—they are a little bit of both. Most of all, these pancakes are a feeling my kids have when I’ve made them. They’re about me being that kind of mom, if only once in a while.

Reprinted from Every Day Is Saturday  by Sarah Copeland with permission from Chronicle Books, 2019.

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  • Yield: Serves 2-4 (makes 6 small pancakes)

Ingredients:

  • 1 ripe banana
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup whole milk or almond milk
  • ½ cup buckwheat flour
  • ½ cup quick-cooking or plain rolled oats (not thick)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • Unsalted butter or coconut oil
  • Scant ½ cup (about 80 g) bittersweet chocolate chips
  • Honey, pure maple syrup, or powdered sugar, for serving

Steps:

  1. Step 1

    Smash the banana with a fork into a smooth pulp (don’t be tempted to add the other wet ingredients before this is done). Add the vanilla and milk and mash together. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buckwheat flour, oats, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Add the wet to the dry ingredients and stir gently, being careful not to overmix; you want to keep these pancakes light and airy. Too much stirring will make them gummy and dense.

    Note: Chances are your regular grocery store will only carry one kind of buckwheat flour, and whatever kind you get will work, but flours from different brands yield slightly different results. If your buckwheat flour seems coarse, and flecked with dark gray bits, you’ll get slightly darker pancakes (it’s what I used for the photo, and what I prefer). Buckwheat flour can also be labeled light, which is finer, a subtle gray color, and yields a more delicate pancake. It can also lend an odd greenish hue, but they still taste delicious. My family never complains.

  2. Step 2

    Heat a cast-iron griddle or skillet over medium heat until evenly warm. Add a bit of butter to coat the surface. When the butter sizzles, drop a scant ¼ cup (60 ml) of batter onto the skillet in batches, leaving 2 inches (5 cm) between the pancakes. (Don’t make your pancakes big; they are tender because there’s no egg to bind the batter.) Cook until just starting to bubble around the edges. Dot the pancakes with chocolate chips, then flip (they should release easily from the griddle).

  3. Step 3

    Cook on the second side until just done, usually a minute or two (if the pancake stays on the heat too long, the chocolate will scorch), turning the heat to low if needed. Repeat until all the batter is used. Serve warm with butter and honey.