Cooking with kids: Recipes for spring break

Whether you call it spring break, March break or Easter break, the time off from school that comes with the turn of the seasons often finds parents scrambling to think of kid-friendly activities. If you have youngsters looking for something to do, why not spend some time with them in the kitchen?
Shaun Smith is a writer, journalist and former chef in Toronto. He is the author of the young adult novel Snakes & Ladders.

Whether you call it spring break, March break or Easter break, the time off from school that comes with the turn of the seasons often finds parents scrambling to think of kid-friendly activities. If you have youngsters looking for something to do, why not spend some time with them in the kitchen?

I spoke to three cookbook authors to get some great recipes that parents and kids can make together during the break.

Annabel Karmel provides a recipe for tomato soup from her book Cook it Together.

Jean Paré breaks out the sweets with her recipe "S'more Dessert Anyone?," from  her book Kids Do Baking.

Games expert Cynthia Nims delivers some mini pizzas and guidance on family fun from her book Gourmet Game Night.

My recipe this month is called "Nacho Mountain." I don't have any children (my partner and I are expecting our first next month!), but I grew up with three brothers, so I know how hungry teens can get. This mountain of nachos will feed a small army, and the recipe is reasonably healthy, because it uses baked corn chips rather than fried, and it's loaded with vegetables. With a bit of help from mom or dad, any teenager could easily make these for a party or when friends are coming over to watch movies. Be sure to read the note about working with hot peppers at the bottom before starting!

Nacho Mountain

Ingredients (feeds four to six hungry teens)

  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 3 Roma tomatoes
  • 4 green onions
  • 4 jalapeño peppers
  • 1 cup black olives, pitted and roughly chopped
  • 4 cups sharp cheddar, coarsely grated
  • 1 large bag baked corn tortilla chips, salted variety


Preheat oven to 400º F.

Wash all the vegetables well. Cut the bell peppers in quarters lengthwise, then cut out their cores, knock out all the seeds and cut out the white ribs from the insides. Cut the pieces of peppers lengthwise into three even strips, then cut crosswise into an even, large dice. Place in a large bowl.

Cut the tomatoes in half and remove the cores where the stems were attached.  Cut each half lengthwise into thirds, then cut crosswise into an even, large dice. Add to bowl.

Cut the root tips off the onions, and then chop the onions crosswise into slices about the width of a pencil. Add to bowl.

Pit and seed the olives by crushing them one at a time on a cutting board with your thumbs. (Greek Kalamata olives are a great choice for this.) Chop roughly and add to bowl.

Cut the jalapeños (see cautionary note below on handling jalapeños ) in quarters lengthwise and remove the stems, seeds and ribs. Cut each quarter of the peppers in half lengthwise again, then cut crosswise into an even dice. Add to the bowl then use a large spoon to mix all the ingredients in the bowl together well. (Most of the heat in hot peppers is stored in the seeds and ribs. For this recipe I remove the seeds and ribs, resulting in a fairly mild heat in the finished nachos. If you want to crank up the heat, just leave in some seeds and ribs.)

Cover a cookie sheet with tin foil. Distribute a generous layer of corn chips on the foil, mounded slightly at the center, and then sprinkle one third of the vegetable mixture evenly over the chips. Sprinkle one-third of the grated cheese over the vegetables. Add another layer of corn chips, mounding them more at the center. Sprinkle on another third of the vegetables, followed by another third of the cheese. Add another layer of corn chips, building up the mound even more at the center, and then sprinkle on the remaining vegetables and cheese.

Bake for 15 minutes at 400º F, followed by three minutes under the broiler.

Remove from oven and transfer to a large platter by grasping the foil at one end and sliding the nacho mountain onto the platter, foil and all. Serve hot, with sour cream for dipping.

A note about working with fresh hot jalapeño peppers: When touching the insides of fresh hot peppers, the juices will transfer to your fingers. Be very careful not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth, because the acid in the juices can sting quite badly. (Going to the bathroom can also be a hazard!) When finished chopping the jalapeño peppers, use a dry paper towel to absorb the juices off your fingers, and then wash your hands well with hot water and soap.

Annabel Karmel's Tomato Soup

Annabel Karmel.

Annabel Karmel is one of Britain's leading experts on cooking for children. Amongst her over 20 cookbooks are titles about how to cook baby food, cookbooks designed for use by toddlers and school-aged kids, and also books for children to use together with their parents.

In her recent book, Cook it Together, Karmel not only offers instructions for how parents can have fun in the kitchen with their children, but she also provides loads of information about where food comes from.

"The book teaches children how food grows, and how certain things are made, like how sweet corn becomes cornflakes, or how chocolate is made," says Karmel, interviewed by phone from London.

The importance of knowing how to cook is a very important life skill, emphasizes Karmel, so for children it is important to make cooking enjoyable and not a chore.

"When your child eventually grows up and leaves home," she says, "if they enjoy cooking they'll be much more likely to eat healthy food rather than relying on junk food. Also, for very young children, they learn so much when they cook — about things like time and measuring — but in a fun way."

Cook It Together. ((DK Publishing))

When Karmel's own children were young she made sure that cooking activities were a part of their lives.

"During holiday time from school," she says, "my kids used to make a play restaurant for their friends in the house. They'd write out a menu and one would be the chef and one would be the waiter. It was role play, being part of the adult world, and they really loved it."

Planning a day or two ahead is important.

"Get your child involved in everything"" says Karmel, "from choosing the recipes to going grocery shopping with you."

And of course, safety is paramount.

"The stove can still be hot when turned off, and children won't know that unless you tell them," says Karmel. "Tell them that knives have to go upside-down in the dishwasher and warn them not to touch an electrical appliance with a wet hand. And of course teach them how to use a sharp knife carefully. Teach them all the things that adults take for granted."

Tomato Soup

(Excerpt from Cook It Together, copyright 2010 Annabel Karmel/DK Publishing. Photos copyright DK Publishing. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.)

This is tomato soup with a smile. It makes a delicious light meal when served with crispy bread or breadsticks.

Annabel Karmel’s Tomato Soup ((DK Publishing))

Ingredients (Serves four)

  • 1 small red onion
  • 1/2 small red pepper
  • 1/2 carrot
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 400 g (14 oz) tin chopped tomatoes
  • 3 tbsp tomato puree
  • 3 tbsp tomato ketchup
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • small bunch fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 cup (250 ml) vegetable stock
  • salt and pepper
  • 4 tbsp heavy cream
  • basil leaves, olive slices, whipped cream, to serve 

1. First prepare the vegetables: chop the onion and dice the pepper.

2. Peel the carrot, then grate it on the roughest side of the grater. Crush the garlic.

3. Heat the oil, add the onion, pepper and carrot, and cook for five minutes. Pour in the canned tomatoes, and add the tomato puree, tomato, ketchup, garlic, sugar, thyme, and stock. Simmer for 30 minutes.

4. Season the mixture with salt and pepper. Then blend the soup until it's smooth. Stir in the 4 tbsp cream and serve.

Annabel's Tip: Use thyme leaves, not stalk. Somewhere around 10 leaves is about right.

To decorate your soup with funny faces, make eyes from basil leaves and olive slices, then pipe on the rest of the faces using whipped cream. And remember, the cooler the soup, the longer your faces will stay put!

Jean Paré's S'more Dessert Anyone?

Jean Paré.

Jean Paré's publishing firm, Company's Coming, has issued some 200 cookbooks since 1981. With three recent books in a series called "Kids Do," Paré offers recipes specifically designed for children to make.

Kids Do Baking collects recipes for those gooey, sticky treats children love so much. Kids Do Snacks offers recipes that kids can complete with relative ease. Kids Do Healthy Cooking delivers slightly more complex recipes that have a health focus.

"When you understand kids and the way they work, you know that they will eat anything they make themselves," says Paré, speaking by telephone from Edmonton. "It's important for parents to also enjoy what kids make. When I was little, I don't know if what I made was really that good, but boy my dad sure liked it and that kept me making more."

Paré herself, who lives in Edmonton but grew up in rural Alberta, has lots of experience with children. She has four grown children and three grown step-children, as well as 18 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.

"Things have changed today," she says, explaining that when she first learned how to cook it was on a wood stove. "When I was little, I'd get so excited about putting cookies on the next sheet that I'd forget to put wood on the fire and the ones in the oven would stop baking."

Paré emphasizes that in the kitchen, parents need to know when to help out and when to stand back.

"It's up to the parents to judge their children's abilities," she says. "Some kids can do things at a younger age, than others. A parent would know when a child could use a microwave or the electric beaters."

The recipe below is a cake inspired by that favourite fireside treat, s'mores. "Every good time I remember growing up as a kid there was food involved," Paré says.

S'more Dessert Anyone?

(Excerpt from Kids Do Baking, copyright Company's Coming Publishing Limited. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.)

Jean Paré's S'more Dessert Anyone?

All the flavours of your favourite campfire treat! Try some warm with butterscotch ripple ice cream!

Get It Together: cutting board, sharp knife, dry and liquid measures, measuring spoons, fork, large bowl, sifter, small saucepan, 9 inch (22 cm) deep dish pie plate, mixing spoon, cooking spray, wooden pick

Ingredients (serves 8)


  • All-purpose flour 1 cup (250 mL)   
  • Granulated sugar 3/4 cup  (175 mL)   
  • Graham cracker crumbs 1/2 cup (125 mL)   
  • Baking soda 1/2 tsp. (2 mL)   
  • Salt 1/4 tsp. (1 mL)


  • Water 1/2 cup (125 mL)   
  • Cooking oil 1/4 cup (60 mL) 
  • Cocoa, sifted if lumpy 3 tbsp. (50 mL)


  • Large egg, fork-beaten 1   
  • Buttermilk  1/3 cup (75 mL)   
  • Vanilla extract 1/2 tsp. (2 mL)


  • Miniature marshmallows 1 cup (250 mL) 
  • Milk chocolate bar, chopped 3 1/2 oz. (100 g)


  • Whole graham crackers, four,  broken into small pieces


1. Place oven rack in centre position. Turn oven on to 375°F (190°C). Put first five ingredients into large bowl. Stir. Make a well in centre.

Kids Do Baking. ((Company’s Coming))

2. Put next three ingredients into small saucepan. Heat and stir on medium for about three minutes until mixture comes to a boil. Turn burner off. Carefully pour cocoa mixture into well. Stir until smooth.

3. Add next three ingredients. Stir well. Grease 9-inch (22 cm) deep dish pie plate with cooking spray. Pour mixture evenly into pie plate. Bake in oven for about 30 minutes until wooden pick inserted in centre of cake comes out clean. Put pie plate on stovetop. Turn oven to broil.

4. Scatter marshmallows and chocolate pieces over cake. Broil in oven on same rack for about two minutes until marshmallows are golden. Put pie plate on stovetop. Turn oven off.

5. Scatter graham cracker pieces over top. Let stand in pie plate for 10 minutes before cutting. Cuts into eight wedges.

Cynthia Nims' Almost Bite-Sized Pizzas

Cynthia Nims.

Cynthia Nims' new cookbook, Gourmet Game Night, presents a collection of recipes for treats to enjoy while playing games.

"The book grew out of the way we entertain at our home," says Nims, interviewed by phone from Seattle. "We love playing games in our house and I grew up in a family that loved playing board games and card games."

The recipes in the book, many of which resemble canapés, are all designed to be eaten by hand, without utensils, so you don't have to stop playing to eat.

In this age of video games, Nims advises that having an old-fashioned game night can be a great way for families to spend quality time together.

"When you're sitting around the table, looking into each others eyes and sharing and talking, it is so much more focused and intimate," she says. "A big thing about game night is that you're unplugging from all the electronic stuff."

If kids help with the food preparation, it can be that much more fun. The new book offers a number of easy recipes kids and parents can make together for the party.

"The mini pizzas are a particularly fun idea for little hands to put together," says Nims. "You can add things like ham or pineapple or even sliced hot dogs."

She also emphasizes that there's no reason to let the fun stop at just the games and food.

"Get a colourful table cloth and some fun napkins," she says. "Go to a party store and buy some goofy little gifts, like boxing nun puppets or band-aids that look like bacon, and then everyone can win a prize."

Almost Bite-Sized Pizzas

(Reprinted with permission from Gourmet Game Night: Bite-Sized, Mess-Free Eating for Board-Game Parties, Bridge Clubs, Poker Nights, Book Groups, and More  by Cynthia Nims, copyright 2009. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Photo credit: Sheri Giblin copyright 2009.)

Cynthia Nims' Almost Bite-Sized Pizzas.

Who says pizzas have to be round? But if you did cut some small rounds to go with these squares, you could play an edible game of tic-tac-toe!

With three or four easy toppings at hand, you can quickly make up a few different combos for your guests. The tomato sauce recipe makes about twice as much as you need, but it's not practical to make it in smaller batches. You'll be thrilled to have the great sauce on hand, to toss with pasta or sautéed shrimp, or freeze for another batch of pizza! Or shortcut things with a top-quality tomato sauce instead.

Ingredients (Makes 32 mini pizzas)

Tomato sauce

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 (141/2-ounce) can chopped tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil, or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh oregano, or 1/2 teaspoon dried 

Pizza dough

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup warm (about 105°F) water
  • 1 teaspoon (1/2 envelope) active dry yeast
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil 


  • 4 large mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced
  • 2 ounces pepperoni, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup sliced black olives
  • 2 cups grated mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion   


To make the tomato sauce, heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and aromatic, three to five minutes. Add the tomatoes, basil, and oregano and continue cooking until slightly thickened and aromatic, about 20 minutes.

Gourmet Game Night. ((10 Speed Press))

Set aside to cool, then purée the sauce with an immersion blender or in a food processor. Refrigerate until it is needed.

To make the dough, combine the flour and salt in a bowl and stir to mix. Make a well in the center, pour the warm water into the well and sprinkle the yeast over. Set aside until the yeast is frothy, about five minutes.

Stir the dough for a few moments with a wooden spoon, drawing in the flour from the edges, then drizzle the olive oil over. Continue to stir the dough until it begins to come together in a ball. Transfer it to a lightly floured work surface and knead the dough until it becomes smooth and satiny, about 10 minutes, adding a bit more flour if needed. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl (it could be the same bowl in which you mixed the dough) and turn it to evenly but lightly coat with oil. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and set aside in a warm place until the dough has doubled in bulk, about one hour.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper. Set two oven racks on the centermost levels. 

Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and punch it down. Using your palms, press the dough out into a rectangle to get things started, then use a rolling pin to roll the dough to a rectangle about 10 inches by 20 inches. The gluten developed in the dough will resist rolling and spring back at times. If this becomes troublesome, let the dough sit to relax for a few minutes, then continue rolling.

Cut the dough, preferably using a rolling-blade pizza cutter, into two-and-a-half-inch squares. Transfer the squares to the baking sheets, with about one inch between them. Spread a thin smear of tomato sauce over the squares and top with the pepperoni, a mushroom slice or two, and/or olive slices, finishing with a sprinkling of mozzarella and a few pieces of onion.

Bake until the dough is lightly browned and the cheese is melted, 15 to 17 minutes, switching the sheets halfway through for even cooking.

Transfer the pizzas to a platter for serving, setting it on a warming tray to keep warm, if you wish.