This post on five reasons to bake pretzels with Walter the Baker is part of a series of articles on cooking with kids. Cooking with kids forges bonds, grows skills and makes the world of food more fun–but, for many busy parents, knowing how and when to include kids in the kitchen isn’t obvious. // Do you have a story or suggestion from your own experience to share? Contact me here.
Cooking with kids is a hot topic today. It discourages picky palates, according to registered dietician and freelance nutrition journalist Janet Helm, who says “children are much more likely to try something new if they’ve had a hand at preparing it.” Getting kids in the kitchen can grow math and vocabulary skills, according to children’s health and development site KidsHealth. Even British celebrity chef and restaurateur Jaime Oliver, advocated for it, in his 2010-11 ABC TV series, Food Revolution, while he tried to reform American school lunch programs and change kids’ eating habits.
But, as with many good ideas, the biggest challenge is knowing where to start. So here’s a suggestion: Bake pretzels with Walter the Baker.
Why set aside an hour or so to try this baking project? Here are five reasons.
1. It’s Based on a Beloved Book
First published twenty years ago, Walter the Baker is a vividly illustrated children’s book about a baker faced with a unique challenge. His only hope of avoiding banishment is designing a new kind of baked bread: a roll through which “the rising sun shines three times.”
Over the last two decades, this fictional pretzel history, based on a story Carle’s grandmother used to tell, has sold over 41 million copies and been translated into 62 languages. It’s one of more than 70 children’s books created by Carle, an acclaimed author and illustrator whose resumé also includes being a graphic designer for The New York Times and an art director for an international ad agency. Bottom line: If your child already loves The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See, Carle’s Walter the Baker is an easy sell. Read it and bake pretzels to turn your cooking project into a literary one, too.
2. There’s a Short Ingredient List
You can start cooking with your kids as early as two years old, according to The American Institute for Cancer Research, but, let’s be honest, if you’re working with children that young, the simpler the process, the better. Bottom line: Check your pantry. Homemade baked pretzels require only a few basic ingredients such as warm water, yeast, salt, sugar, butter, flour and baking soda–you probably already have them on hand.
3. The Recipe Includes Kid-Friendly Steps
Including kids in the cooking process means finding age-appropriate steps they can handle, according to Katie Reece, RD, who started cooking with her 19-month-old son, Ryan, when he was only around a year of age. “He’s never really wanted to play by himself while I’m in the kitchen, so I’ve had to look for ways for him to get involved,” she says. “We got him a learning tower for his one-year birthday, which allows him to have a safe way to be up at the counter. Sometimes I put water in bowls and give him measuring spoons and cups to try to scoop the water, to distract him while I cook.” Bottom line: your kids have several opportunities to help when baking pretzels, such as sprinkling yeast, sprinkling flour, stirring dough, playing with dough and kneading.
4. It Involves Kneading
An easy and fun activity for kids of all ages is kneading. Just ask Nicole Spiridakis, author of the cookbook Flourless and blogger at Cucina Nicolina, whose “kids have been in the kitchen since they were infants … I think I started actually cooking with my oldest when she was about two or a little younger,” she says. “Now she’s four and I do help her to cut things, but she definitely pours and stirs and whisks. We make bread and it’s a great kid activity–all that kneading!” Bottom line: kneading works for kids because it’s fun and it’s scalable to your child’s capability, whether that means simply pounding and slapping the dough as a toddler or forming pretzels as a school-aged child.
5. Kids Like Pretzels
Everybody knows the best part of helping in the kitchen is getting to taste the end product, and pretzels (twisted, boiled bread with salt on top) are a great reward. The bottom line: pretzels may not expand your child’s palate beyond something he or she would already eat, but, as such, they will plant seeds of cooking being fun, laying a foundation of interest in future food.
To any parent reluctant to sacrifice fast recipe prep with the slower, often frustrating work of including a small child, it’s worth remembering that “there are good reasons to encourage kids in the kitchen at any age,” according to KJ Dell’Antonia and Margaux Laskey of The New York Times. “With young children, that early investment pays off — eventually.” As you take the time to help your child grow more comfortable in the kitchen, you make food more approachable, empower them with confidence and open up a place to talk about healthy ingredients and why they matter. Perhaps best of all, Dell-Antonia and Laskey also point out the inevitable consequence of working together with a child on something new: “For better or worse, you will get to know your children, and they you, more deeply when you cook with them.”
Notes on this post:
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The pretzel recipe pictured in this post comes from Sally’s Baking Addiction. We watched her how-to video, pulled out ingredients and read through Carle’s story one more time while the dough rested. Did the experience develop new skills or expand my toddler’s palate? I can’t say. But within an hour of starting, side by side at the table, biting into soft pretzels, I told him these are our pretzels, the ones we made, and he looked back at me, pretzel in hand, with a smile.