Cooking with Kids: Advice from a Professional Chef

Dec 5, 2012

For more than a decade, being a chef really defined me as a person. This is a profession that absorbs - even consumes - one. I was a chef first and foremost, and a lot of other things second (friend, son and husband). It was great. When I began cooking professionally, food was just beginning to become hot. The Food Network was in its infancy. Emeril and the famous "Bam!" were a new novelty. Anthony Bourdain had recently blown minds with his best-selling book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Food was interesting, sexy and mainstream. It was amazing to enter a field surrounded by so much buzz and passionate discussion. I cooked food. I thought food. I talked food. I argued food. And I dreamt food. It defined me. Chef Patrick.Then I had kids.Remember what I just wrote about being defined as a person? Being a chef first and foremost? Substitute the word "food" with "kids" and the word "cooking" with "parenting," and you've got the new and improved me: Chef Daddy. Or simply "cheffer," as I'm known at home.

Becoming a parent has changed, or rather expanded, the way I look at food. As a chef, priority one is taste. As a parent, priority one is nutrition - coupled with getting kids to actually eat - so, nutrition must be tied to taste. And the one thing I'm most passionate about as a parent and a chef?

Eat real food. It doesn't need to be organic, fat free and sugar free. It just needs to be real food. Simple ingredients - fruit, vegetables, meats, dairy and grains - are user friendly and ultimately uncomplicated. Kids recognize these foods when they see them. They know apples and bananas; they don't know sodium tripolyphosphate and maltodextrin. Food should come from a farm, not a factory. Real food isn't boxed and barcoded. And food isn't just fuel for the body. It's art, science, comfort, and as we say in our house, food is love.

My recipes are simple, wholesome, easy to prepare with your kids, and healthy ... for the most part. (See my recipe, Festive Chocolate Truffles. Most of us are bound to have some chocolate during the holiday season, and my chocolate truffles have only four ingredients. As I like to say, everything in moderation, including moderation.)

The most important ingredients are a sense of adventure, patience and a jumbo pack of paper towels. If you're a novice in the kitchen, no problem. You and your kids can learn together. You don't need to be a professional chef to make real food for, and with, your family. One warning, though. I've discovered through experience that a kid's interest peaks at "licking the spoon" and fades right around clean-up time!

Now head to the kitchen and get messy! You and the kids are making chocolate truffles.


Patrick Engel has been cooking professionally for 15 years. After graduating from George Brown College in Toronto, and training in the kitchens of Rodney's Oyster House and Bymark Restaurant, Patrick relocated to Niagara's wine region, working at Inn on the Twenty, followed by six years as resident chef instructor at The Good Earth Cooking School. Patrick is currently the chef at Hospice Niagara's Stabler Centre and associate chef at The Garrison House in Niagara-on-the Lake. Patrick lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, with his wife, Marnie, and their two boys, Charlie (7) and Johnny (5).

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