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This is the time of year when food is front and center in our lives. For some, it's a license to indulge. For others, the focus is about their culinary traditions that reflect their heritage through time worn recipes. We connect with our family and friends through gatherings with celebratory food. Then, when the holiday season is over, we make New Year resolutions to become more fit and lose a few pounds. But, could we use this time to be more intentional around the role that food plays in our holiday celebrations, and in our lives? Can this festive season be approached as a tool to bring our family -  or our educational program participants, together to celebrate with local, seasonal, and healthful food?

What does it mean to be intentional around food? Let's explore some ways to approach meals more meaningfully this holiday season.

1. Consider the menu items critically.
You don’t have to serve dishes just because you have ‘always had them at the holidays.’ Take a moment to pause and consider whether you honestly love every dish. Do your holiday recipes represent what your region has to offer in terms of seasonal, fresh food? Do they reflect the health profile of how you like or would like to eat at this point in your life?  Asparagus on the menu?  It’s really a spring vegetable, so why not swap with winter greens or root vegetables that will offer a more seasonal approach. Do those sweet potatoes really need marshmallows? What is a way to enjoy these sweet and lusciously textured vegetables?  The youth from our Teen Battle Chef program are often asked to help prepare Thanksgiving feasts for the elderly or other group settings. Our policy is to ensure that they are also helping to re-interpret ‘typical’ dishes enjoyed over the holidays by providing one or more recipes that has a ‘twist’ on tradition, such as a delectable butternut squash and apple cider soup with feta and dill. 

2. Who will prepare what?  
Do you take on too much when the holidays come along? Are you tempted to just ‘order out’ because it’s so much work?  Or from a program perspective, does making a group feast before the holiday vacation seem too daunting?  This only has to be the case if you are taking on too much yourself and not involving other family members or young cooks in your program. When our founder, Lynn Fredericks’s children were young, she re-evaluated the holiday menus and offered each of her two sons an opportunity to create their signature dish. She helped them select and cook it. This became their new tradition that continues to this day. It was their special ritual and having her boys’ participation took the pressure off of Lynn to do all the cooking by herself.better and in season during the months of April and May, so why not swap traditional vegetables with winter greens or root vegetables that will offer a more seasonal approach.  

3. Establish new traditions.
In addition to new recipes, what new traditions  could you create around cooking or eating together?  Does one child or age group in a program take on table decorations? Can someone take the lead in planning music and songs to be apart of your celebration? What about shopping? Can your students (or children) help you make the shopping list and then go with you to the farmers market and/or the grocery store? Offering ways to enhance your meal with creative additions that make it festive and special can also add to your enjoyment.  Whether it’s Kwanza, Christmas or Hanukkah, you can find special paper decorations to make from snowflakes to dreidels to paper mkekas.

Use the time of the holidays for everyone in your program or family to: make conscious decisions about what’s important for your celebratory meal. Set goals together about your food priorities for taste, budget, as well as health to ensure your meals this holiday season reflect something that everyone feels great about cooking, serving and eating!

For more thought provoking best practices, sign up for our mailing list. And - click here to learn more about our award-winning programs. 

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Since returning to Europe from Brooklyn 2 years ago, we started a new summer tradition to spend two weeks with my two kids together with their four French cousins in Saint Malo, a beautiful town on the cost of Brittany, France, where their grandfather lives. For part of that time, I am by myself in charge of the kids, three of them in their mid teens. The idea was for them to go to a day sailing camp and spend time together. 

The first year, the children had a great time. I didn’t. Meals were the culprit. Cooking from scratch by myself was a lot of work that went totally unappreciated.  The kids were too busy playing. Cleaning up was a battle if I expected them to help.  After each meal, they magically disappeared. Who to ask to clear the table? Clean the kitchen?  If I caught one and asked for help the eternal question came out: 'why me? What about the others?‘  In the end, it was I who did it.

The transformation occurred the second summer, when I organized a cooking camp for dinners.

To my surprise, we all bonded and enjoyed every minute of our time together  for our last two summers.  We laughed a lot and enjoyed delicious food (better than I expected!) and future family chefs were born. 

THE SECRET? Writing rules, assigning roles and expecting each child to bring their favorite recipes. Dinners were planned in advance, each child took responsibility for their own recipes, and I shifted my energy to make sure the kids were enjoying themselves. What a difference! The rewards far outweighed the couple of hours I invested in advance planning.  Not to mention late dinners (kids cook slowly), and some raucous cooking sessions with loud music!

Benefits far outweighed any inconveniences

As we share in our book, food has a special meaning when it is shared, appreciated and valued. When kids cook they quickly learn to appreciate their home-cooked meals. Kids were empowered by the experience, and got a feeling of accomplishment.  They now know where meals come from and that they can cook them. Additionally:

  • The kids were exposed to wider range of foods. To my children’s surprise, their cousins chose to cook some of their least favorite vegetables. I made sure my kids were the sous-chefs of those recipes to expose them to those foods. I loved how they were watching their cousins eat those vegetables with so much gusto.
  • They became adventurous to try new foods because their peers cooked them. 
  • Children begin to appreciate a clean, organized kitchen (when they are the ones mopping the floor, they´ll complain if you step on it with dirty shoes!)
  • Cooking reveals previously-undetected skills in children!  Who knew Sofia would lead many dinners during the following year, or that David would ever be willing to chop onions?         

Top winning strategies for my successful summer cooking camp

  1. Writing a plan for the whole week, with assigned roles for each kid.  To my surprise there was no need for negotiation. Once written and agreed upon it was sacred. Note: if you leave anything off accidentally, you´ll have to do it.  Note to self: I forgot to assign who empties the dishwasher. Result: too much whining about it – I did it!
    Chore Schedule
     (I did not help cooking but was there at all times giving advice and encouraging.) 
  2. Daily celebrity Chef ‘star’ designation, taking turns: I did this by filming them. Using my smart phone, I recorded snippets of them prepping, cooking and cleaning. Suddenly, when they were in front of the camera,  they wanted to do their best job even if it was dancing and being silly.
  3. Bringing my iPod and player in the kitchen: Listening to their favorite music made them happy to do even the most tedious tasks: chopping onions, washing pots and cleaning. Amazing!
  4. Taking the kids food shopping on day one: Each child was assigned the ingredients from their recipe to find in the market, plus we assigned other foods for breakfast, etc.
  5. Implementing everything the first day: The learning curve to establish and then keep them on task takes a lot of effort. The first day, there were a couple kids who ‘escaped’ to the TV; reinforcing assigned cleaning made me unpopular that night, but it made all the difference to keep everything on track.

And what about the menu?

Risotto, tomate farsi (tomatoes filled with ground meat), ratatouille with chicken au citron, pizza made from scratch topped with sautéed mushrooms, onions and zucchini, pasta with spinach and more. I have to admit that our French cousins impressed me with their adult palate. They do eat almost everything as Karen Le Billon claims. Can't wait to next summer and to next menu!!

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