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Simple recipes help ease parenting during the pandemic while kids learn to cook

"I want my daughter to grow up with a love for food, and the process of making it."

Jessica van Dop DeJesus and her daughter prepare dinner. With preschool on hold, Lu, 3 1/2 is learning to cook at home.
Jessica van Dop DeJesus and her daughter prepare dinner. With preschool on hold, Lu, 3 1/2 is learning to cook at home.Read moreJessica van Dop DeJesus

My husband and I believe Lucila (Lu) was born with the foodie gene. We both come from cultures that appreciate food. Martin is from The Netherlands, where dishes are simple but with a strong focus on the ingredients' quality, especially when it comes to dairy and vegetables. I am from Puerto Rico, where the food is as colorful as the blend of the multiple cultures that make up our roots.

Lu, 3 ½, has always been around food. Terrified with the thought of my travels coming to an end upon birth, I waddled around the globe. From eating Sicilian pizza in Palermo to spicy laksa in Malaysia to giant Caribbean avocados in Grand Cayman, little Lu took in the global flavors in my belly.

When Lu was a baby, she spent a lot of time in the carrier, taking in the scents of simmering soups and rice and beans in our kitchen. As she got older, she started to develop a palate. And like any toddler, an unpredictable taste in food. She turns her nose to mashed potatoes but will tear up a plate of broccoli. When nothing else fails, we know we can give her a plate of red quinoa cooked in chicken broth. However, she hates leftovers, something I believe she inherited from my mother.

We’re fortunate not to have a picky eater, which helps when you have a family that is always on the go. As long as we don’t give her mashed potatoes, we’re good! We always turn to the basics: frozen veggies like broccoli, green beans, peas, which we pair with rice, and chicken or fish cuts.

In early March, our world changed when our country finally acknowledged the dangers of COVID-19. Travel and dining out came to a screeching halt. Our daycare closed, and as a travel writer, many of my pending work also came to a stop. When the future seemed so unclear, food brought me comfort. I started to call my mom every day and asking her for recipes. I began to open cookbooks that I bought but never read.

Since I am now working from home, I’ve begun to include Lu in the food prep. We want her to be part of the cooking process. As a kid, I was always in the kitchen and it gave me an appreciation for food. I want her to grow up with that same love not only for food, but for the process of making it.

Anyone with a pre-schooler can tell you that they are a lot of work and they are always watching. As I cook, Lu watches me, sometimes peering over her iPad (don’t judge me, mama has to work) and then lowering her gaze when I make eye contact with her. As a lively toddler, I can no longer hold her down in the kitchen with a high chair.

She’s now at an age that she is starting to understand how a dish comes together. I give her small tasks like shredding the cheese or tossing the veggies for her to feel like she’s part of the process. Sometimes she insists on pouring milk or other liquids, which sometimes lead to a mess, but that’s the price of teaching! I like to walk her through the ingredients so she can learn how dried pasta feels before I place it in the boiling water.

Lu makes her “recipes” in the bath. Using her bath toys as her “ingredients,” she pretends her tiny bath cubes are eggs and mimics cracking them into the “batter.” She is recreating what she sees us doing in the kitchen.

This time at home has come with its challenges, but it has also given us time to witness her growth. It has also given us time to experiment with different dishes, not only for her but for us. We still have to get work in during the day, but working from home has allowed us to check the oven between calls and feed the sourdough starter twice a day. The approach we’ve taken in the kitchen is to combine intricate and straightforward dishes that can last us several days.

We keep three essential pantry items — pasta, rice and quinoa — for a quick meal if we’re stuck in work calls all day. Lu loves them, and they are easy to dress up or down. One of her favorite Puerto Rican dishes is arroz con pollo, chicken with rice. The annatto seed and tomato sauce give the rice an orange-yellow color, and the chunks of sofrito-seasoned chicken are quick to satisfy. The dish takes less than an hour from start to finish. She loves it, and the scent takes me back to my parent’s kitchen.

When I feel overwhelmed with work, the pandemic, and a demanding child, I like to make quick, comfort food. My go-to recipe is a pasta with a creamy cheese sauce. I call it lazy mac 'n cheese. I prepare a quick roux with butter and flour, add milk, and whatever shredded cheese I have on hand. I then mix the sauce with salt, pepper, green peas, and cooked whole wheat pasta. It takes only 20 minutes start to finish. It makes her happy, and my husband uses the leftovers for lunch. Sometimes she asks for seconds, which I consider the best compliment ever.

Sometimes, we lose battles. Recently, my husband made delicious fried rice with chicken, scrambled eggs, and veggies. She usually loves it. This day she was not having it. We tried to negotiate, but she was just not in the mood. “But you love fried rice,” my husband says, exasperated after a long day filled with Zoom meetings. “Not today, papa, not today.” We try not to give in easily, but there are days we’re completely spent. Those days you just whip out some greek yogurt, granola, blueberries, and honey, and call it a day.

Lu’s Lazy Mac 'n Cheese

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup milk

1 cup shredded cheese, plus more for serving



8 ounces (1/2 box) whole wheat pasta

½ cup frozen peas

In a medium saucepan, bring salted water to boil and cook pasta until al dente. Drain and set aside.

Melt butter in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-low heat; whisk in flour until smooth. Add milk and cheese stirring until smooth. Add cooked pasta, stirring to cover. Add salt and pepper to taste. Toss in frozen peas. To serve top with shredded cheese.

— From Jessica van Dop DeJesus