You’ve got three meals to churn out a day, all the “I’m hungry’s” to deal with in between, and perhaps a picky eater or two in the mix. Much like a full-time job, cooking as a parent can feel exhausting. And yet, it’s essential to life — especially during the quarantine — so let’s talk about how to make the best of it. Is it time to put those kiddos to work?

“Now’s a prime time to start in on some basic skill-building — but you have to be realistic,” says Nick Kennedy, executive chef and co-owner of Suraya and Condesa and Pizzeria Beddia partner. “When I’m in the kitchen as a professional, everything has to be organized and perfect, but with my kids, I go into it knowing it’s going to be messy. Things might be mismeasured, shapes won’t be uniform, and that’s OK. It’s about doing it together.”

We asked five chefs to share what they’re cooking with their little ones, along with recipes to try at home. From loaded potatoes to handmade pasta, take your pick, and prepare to get a little messy.

As Kennedy points out, family cooking can serve not only as a learning experience, but a good opportunity to introduce new foods. “If they’re helping cook it, 99% of the time, they’ll be willing to try it,” says Kennedy.

Jeanne Chang of Lil Pop Shop

Mom to: 11-year-old daughter Leah and 6-year-old daughter Rowan

What they’re cooking: Since the stay-at-home order hit, Chang and her daughters have been heating up the oven far more than usual. “They’ve always loved baking, but right now, it’s especially what they’re gravitating towards. Baking is comfort for them,” says Chang. “They want to make things and eat things that feel special.”

To keep the kids engaged, Chang says she lets the kids play a role in choosing what to make.

“Baking is very tactile, and it’s a great way to incorporate math,” says Chang. “They each want to do everything, so I usually split up the tasks — someone measures the dry ingredients, someone does the wet, and we take turns putting it into the bowl.”

Together, the trio recently baked muffins, scones, biscuits, and even a batch of soft pretzels. “The pretzels were super fun — they took it to the next level and were making fish-shaped pretzels, and letters, and hearts,” says Chang.

But cookies remain the family’s main staple, with recent varieties ranging from lemon cheesecake to shortbread. Although, Chang’s chocolate chip cookie recipe is the variety they churn out the most. “It doesn’t use any eggs, so the kids can eat the dough raw,” says Chang.

Recipe: Chocolate Chip Cookies

Yields about two dozen cookies

  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temp
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • ⅔ cup granulated sugar
  • ⅓ cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon + ¼ teaspoon +⅛ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon + ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 2 ⅔ cups chocolate chips

In a mixing bowl, use a mixer to cream butter with both sugars until fluffy. Scrape down the bowl with a spatula. Add applesauce and mix until incorporated.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt. Add dry ingredients to the butter, sugar, and applesauce mix, until combined. Stir in chocolate chips and mix until just incorporated.

Scoop cookie dough into mounds (one heaping tablespoon) and let rest for at least one hour in the fridge.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking tray with parchment paper. Arrange cookies, about 1 ½ inches apart. Bake for 8 minutes, rotate tray, and add time as necessary until edges are golden brown and dough does not look wet or shiny.

Jeanne Chang, co-owner of Lil Pop Shop, loves to bake with her two daughters. Pictured is 6-year-old Rowan rolling out a batch of soft pretzel dough, left, and chocolate chip cookies, right, a family staple.
Courtesy Heidi's Bridge
Jeanne Chang, co-owner of Lil Pop Shop, loves to bake with her two daughters. Pictured is 6-year-old Rowan rolling out a batch of soft pretzel dough, left, and chocolate chip cookies, right, a family staple.

Aimee Olexy of Talula’s Table, Talula’s Garden, Talula’s Daily, and The Love

Mother to: 14-year-old daughter Annalee

What they’re cooking: Olexy and her daughter have been playing around in the kitchen since Annalee was just a toddler.

“When she was about 4, she invented what she’d call ‘mess-ipes’,” says Olexy. “I’d give her the by-product of whatever I was working with, and she’d be there sitting on the floor, mixing up a big bowl of egg shells, vegetable scraps, and leftover ricotta.”

Annalee has advanced her skills over the years, and since the pandemic hit, she’s discovered the art of hors d’oeuvres. (She still enjoys "making a huge mess” says Olexy.) “We’ll spend time making all these cute little individual bites, mainly based around baguettes and toasts,” says Olexy. “It’s like activity eating, stretches out the time a bit.”

Toasts topped with whipped cheese and hot smoked salmon, corn salsa paired with avocado and tomato, and sliced apples with crushed nuts have filled recent mother-daughter movie nights.

The two also enjoy making crepes, setting up a bar full of toppings and fillings to add as they go along.

“It’s quite simple — you make the batter in the blender with just eggs, flour, and milk,” says Olexy. “It comes out a little thinner than pancakes, and you ladle it into a nonstick pan, and then fill the crepes with bananas and peanut butter, or whatever you want, before folding.”

Sometimes they take the topping bar concept to the dinner table, creating a baked potato bar. (Recipe below.)

“With topping bars, there’s a lot of mise en place that you can task the kids with — even young kids can help out with things like grating cheese,” says Olexy.

Recipe: Baked Potato Bar with Bacon, Broccoli-Spinach, and Cheddar Sauce

Serves 4

POTATOES:

  • 4 (6-inch) Russet potatoes, washed and dried
  • Olive oil or canola oil, to coat
  • Kosher salt, to season

TOPPING BAR:

  • 1 stick of butter
  • ½ cup flour
  • 4 cups milk
  • 4 cups freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese
  • Salt and pepper, to season
  • Paprika, a pinch
  • 4 strips bacon, baked until crispy, and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup of broccoli, steamed
  • 1 cup of spinach, steamed

Potatoes: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. With a toothpick or cake tester, pierce 10 holes in each potato. Dress potatoes with oil and kosher salt, until lightly coated.

Line a baking sheet with foil. Place on lower rack of the oven. Place potatoes directly on the upper rack of the oven, above the sheet.

Bake for 80-90 minutes, or until skin is crisp and interior is soft. While potatoes are soft, prepare the topping bar.

Topping bar: To make cheddar sauce, heat milk in a pan on the stove or in a bowl in the microwave, until hot. In a separate pot on the stove, whisk butter and flour over medium heat. When butter is melted, add the hot milk and grated cheese. Stir until creamy. Season with salt and pepper, to taste, and a pinch of paprika. Remove from heat and spoon into a bowl.

Place bacon in a bowl. Place steamed broccoli and spinach in individual bowls, and season each with salt.

When potatoes are cooked through, remove from oven. Slice down the middle, and place in bowls. Have each family member add the toppings of their choice.

Topping alternatives:

  • Herbs, bacon, and sour cream
  • Buffalo chicken with avocado
  • Braised leeks, sour cream, smoked salmon, everything spice
Restaurateur Aimee Olexy (Talula's Garden, Talula's Daily, and The Love) and her daughter Annalee have been spending time in the kitchen since she was a toddler. Recently, Annalee, 14, has been making all sorts of mini toasts and appetizers.
Courtesy Aimee Olexy
Restaurateur Aimee Olexy (Talula's Garden, Talula's Daily, and The Love) and her daughter Annalee have been spending time in the kitchen since she was a toddler. Recently, Annalee, 14, has been making all sorts of mini toasts and appetizers.

Peter Serpico of Serpico

Dad to: 4-year-old daughter Charlie

What they’re cooking: Charlie helps her dad daily in the kitchen, together making everything from homemade kimchi to macaroni and cheese. She’s also the resident rice-maker, in charge of rinsing the rice and doing the measurements. “I like to put it in the rice cooker, too,” Charlie reminds her dad to say, hanging out in the background of his Inquirer phone interview.

Charlie turns 5 at the end of this month, so, of course, they’re planning a cake-baking day. It’ll feature one of Charlie’s favorite ingredients, whipped cream, to top a white cake layered with strawberries.

Like a true kid, Charlie’s favorite cooking projects usually include dough. “She sees it as Play-Doh essentially,” says Serpico. “And she loves throwing flour everywhere.”

Along with pizza, one of the doughy creations they make often is hotteok — a popular Korean street food. (Recipe below.)

“The recipe doesn’t really involve any knife work, so the kids can be involved with almost every part,” says Serpico. “Charlie likes to make the dough. I always tie her hair back before, so it doesn’t get caught in the mixer.” Serpico does all of the stovetop steps, but Charlie always has a hand in shaping the dough into discs.

“She usually ends up playing with the dough more than helping, so I usually have to fix it — but she’s adamant about doing some of it herself,” says Serpico.

Recipe: Breakfast Hotteok

Serves 4

DOUGH:

  • 1 teaspoon dry active yeast
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup lukewarm milk
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil, for shaping

FILLING:

  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon fish sauce (swap with 1 tsp. salt, if needed)
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 4 (2-ounce) pieces of breakfast sausage patty, fully cooked and cooled to room temperature
  • 4 slices American cheese
  • 4 teaspoons olive oil, for cooking

For the dough: In a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment, mix all dough ingredients, excluding oil, for 3-5 minutes, until fully incorporated. (If you don’t have a stand mixer, knead it by hand. You’ll just need to work it together for a little longer.) Cover bowl with plastic wrap or a damp cloth. Let rest for 1-2 hours.

For the filling: Whisk eggs with the fish sauce in a medium bowl. Heat butter in a 9-inch nonstick pan over medium-low heat. Add eggs; sauté until fully cooked, stirring occasionally. Cool to room temperature. Cut into 4 equal pieces. Stack egg, sliced cheese, and sausage into four stacks.

For assembly: Cut dough with scissors into 4 equal pieces.

This is a “wet” dough; coat hands in olive oil so it’s easier to work with. Stretch each piece of dough into a mini-pizza shape; stuff with the filling stack. Pull opposite ends of the dough together and pinch to seal. Repeat the pull-and-pinch four more times, or as many times as needed, until the whole thing is completely sealed, and the filling is completely encased in the dough (like a hockey-puck-shaped calzone with no holes). If it takes you 10 times to pull and pinch the dough, do it 10 times. Cook immediately, before repeating with remaining dough and filling stacks.

To cook: Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in 9-inch nonstick pan over medium-low heat. Cook pastry, sealed sided up, for 2-3 minutes, until lightly browned. Flip and press gently; cook for another 3 minutes. Enjoy with ketchup or your favorite condiment.

Chef Peter Serpico's daughter Charlie, 4, helps make the dough for hoetteok, a popular Korean street food.
Courtesy Peter Serpico
Chef Peter Serpico's daughter Charlie, 4, helps make the dough for hoetteok, a popular Korean street food.

Nick Kennedy of Suraya and Condesa

Dad to: 8-year-old son Luca, and 6-year-old daughter Giuliana

What they’re cooking: Every Friday is pizza night at the Kennedy household, pandemic or not. “They love playing with the dough, and topping it before we put in the oven,” says Kennedy, noting pepperoni is their favorite. Kennedy uses a straightforward dough recipe from James Beard Award-winning Ken Forkish. Simplicity, says Kennedy, is key for when it comes to cooking with kids.

“I try to avoid recipes with superlong ingredient lists, and you want the steps to be manageable,” says Kennedy.

One of the family favorites is gnocchi, with only a handful of ingredients and a largely hands-on assembly process.

“Gnocchi’s really fun for kids because the dough is soft and fluffy, and there’s no stress about all of the pieces being the exact same size or shape,” says Kennedy. “You can finish it with different sauces, or go as simple as butter and cheese.”

Recipe: Gnocchi

Serves 4

  • 3 Idaho potatoes
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 ½ -2 cups flour
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Place potatoes in a pot of cold water and bring to a simmer. Cook 15-20 minutes, or until soft.

Drain potatoes. While still hot, peel with a knife and break into chunks. Pass through a ricer or food mill into an even pile on a counter. (If you don’t have a ricer or food mill, push the potatoes through a sieve or a fine strainer with the back of a spoon.)

Season with a sprinkle of salt and a few grinds of pepper.

Sift flour over potatoes, a little at a time, and mix gently with your hands, lifting and letting potatoes fall through your fingers. Keep adding flour until the grains of the potatoes are evenly coated and it feels dry. Less flour makes a lighter gnocchi but too little makes the potato hard to roll.

Drizzle egg yolk over the floured potatoes and use your hands to gently bring the dough together. Avoid over kneading; you are only trying to bring it together.

Roll into a thick (4-inch diameter) log, and cut into six pieces. Cover with a towel. Let rest for two minutes as you clean your counter.

One at a time, roll each piece of gnocchi dough into a rope until approximately ½-inch in diameter. Cut into individual, bite-sized pieces. Then shape into pillows, using a fork or other pasta tool. Lay on a floured tray. Use fresh or freeze for later use.

To serve, bring a pot of water to a boil, adding salt until it tastes like a salty broth. Add gnocchi; they should float. Cook 3-5 minutes; they are done when no longer raw in the center and the insides look like a baked potato. Drain, and then toss with sauce of your choice.

Chef Nick Kennedy, left, helps shape gnocchi with his 8-year-old son, Luca, right.
Courtesy Nick Kennedy
Chef Nick Kennedy, left, helps shape gnocchi with his 8-year-old son, Luca, right.

Nick Elmi of Laurel, ITV, and Royal Boucherie

Dad to: 10-year-old daughter Grace, and 8-year-old son Wesley

What they’re cooking: “I’ve got my chicken nugget and pizza guy, Wesley, and then there’s my daughter, Grace, who will eat anything — and she loves to cook,” says Elmi of his two kids. Grace’s two favorite projects are pasta, of all varieties, and pastries, like cupcakes and apple crumble.

“We choose simple recipes, but she really gets into the step-by-step process,” says Elmi. “And she loves making people happy, which, that’s easy to do with baking.”

For pasta, Elmi uses a recipe that lets kids dive straight in with their hands, no pasta machine needed.

“You can use it for a multitude of different shapes,” says Elmi of the recipe (see below). “Grace likes to figure out how to put together the different shapes, and then she tries to perfect each one. If a piece becomes even the slightest bit off, she scraps it.”

Recipe: Orecchiette “Little Ears” Pasta

  • 200 grams (about 2 cups) durum flour (can use all-purpose flour if necessary)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Water, a splash
  • All-purpose flour, for dusting

In a mixer fitted with a dough hook*, add the flour and turn on low. Add one egg at a time, emulsifying each. Slowly add the oil and allow the dough to come together. If it is still a little dry and crumbly, add a tablespoon of water until the dough comes together.

Allow mixer to run on low for 7 minutes. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap; let rest at room temperature for an hour.

(*If you don’t have a mixer, lay the flour on a dry counter surface. Make a well in the middle of the flour; add eggs in the center. Incorporate and knead until smooth, about 10 minutes.)

Cut off 2-ounces of dough (about the size of a small candy bar) and lightly dust with flour. Using your hands, roll into a thin rope, about 1.5-feet long and 1-centimeter thick. Cut the dough into small nuggets.

Use your thumb to push down on the flat side of each nugget to create a circle, then rub your thumb around in a circular motion. Release the pasta from your thumb and repeat. Dust the small ears lightly with flour and set aside.

Boil a pot of water and lightly salt. Cook for 2-3 minutes, or until tender. Strain and toss with favorite sauce.

Chef Nick Elmi's daughter, Grace, 10, helps craft handmade pasta.
Courtesy Nick Elmi
Chef Nick Elmi's daughter, Grace, 10, helps craft handmade pasta.