NEW YORK — To get their children to eat a nutritious meal, some parents hide vegetables in desserts, mask meats in sauces or even dye foods their children’s favorite colors.
Why not just ask them what they’d like to eat? And while you’re at it, why don’t you ask the kids to help prepare the food, too?
That’s what Emeril Lagasse did for his newest cookbook, “There’s a Chef in My Soup: Recipes for the Kid in Everyone” (HarperCollins).
Lagasse says he organized several “cookie parties” for children — toddlers to teens — to find out what tempts them to the table. Then he surveyed their skills.
Those ingredients were combined to develop the recipes for My-Oh-My Spaghetti Pie, Junior’s Jambalaya and Make-You-Strong Spinach, among others.
The food, however, isn’t kid stuff. They’re recipes for the whole family to enjoy, Lagasse says, but he’s included some child-friendly incentives such as adding maple syrup to carrots and covering chicken nuggets with cornflakes.
“Until now, kids haven’t been involved in the cooking decisions or the cooking process so food hasn’t been fun for kids,” says the New Orleans-based chef and host of two Food Network shows.
But hand a kid some ingredients, a wooden spoon and a mixing bowl and — bam! — you have a chef in the making. Or at least someone who will probably eat whatever it is that he helped cook.
“In cooking, the end result is always a prize.”
In his “research,” Lagasse, the father of two 20-something daughters, also noticed a few quirky eating habits, including an apparent aversion to sausage casings. (Acknowledging that he never gave casings much thought before, Lagasse did include instructions in the new book on how to remove them.)
Adapting “adult” recipes for this book was a gratifying challenge for Lagasse. “I had to be simple and descriptive because of the kids, but it has inspired me to do more simple recipes. We tend to take something simple and delicious, and complicate them unnecessarily,” he says.
There also are some cooking tasks that kids seem to enjoy more than others, including cracking eggs and zesting fruit. And included on each recipe page is a “caution list,” alerting parents and pint-size chefs to potential hazards such as knives or a hot oven.
Lagasse says he’s tried to anticipate some kid-type questions and offer some answers:
—“Why are soft peaks called soft peaks?” Because when beaters are pulled out of well-mixed egg whites, soft mounds form.
—“Why do dry ingredients need to be sifted?” To make sure there are no lumps.
The recipes consider that a child’s taste buds often evolve over time, he explains. When he gives the formula for scrambled eggs, he suggests some added chopped ham or bacon “when the kids are ready.”
But a family’s culinary adventures probably still will come from the head of the house, Lagasse says. “Seventy-five percent of kids will say they hate veggies but sometimes they haven’t even tried the veggies. It’s their parents who hate the veggies.”
The chef hopes his Oh-Yeah-Baby Glazed Carrots will win over some converts but he’s also realistic: “The vegetables will probably be the least stained pages of the book.”
Bringing kids into the kitchen is a win-win-win situation: The kids are learning a life skill, parents are gaining helping hands, and the whole family will make some happy memories in the process.
2 10-ounce packages frozen spinach, thawed according to package directions
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon Baby Bam (recipe follows)
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups heavy cream
Working over a mixing bowl or the sink, squeeze the spinach in your hands to release any excess liquid. (If your hands are really small, you may have to do this in batches.) Set aside.
Melt the butter in a medium, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring until soft, about 4 minutes.
Add the garlic, Baby Bam, thyme and salt, and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 2 minutes.
Add the spinach to the saucepan and stir to mix well. Sprinkle the flour over the spinach and stir well to combine. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
Add the cream, stir well, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Using an oven mitt or pot holder, remove from the heat and serve immediately.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Baby Bam seasoning
3 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons dried parsley
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
Place all the ingredients in a mixing bow.
Stir well to combine, using a wooden spoon.
Store in an airtight container for up to three months.
Makes about 3/4 cup.
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