NEW YORK - Find yourself spending a lot of time in the kitchen lately?
Instead of meal preparation being a chore that takes you away from your family, it can just as easily be a family activity that helps cement relationships among generations, teach good eating habits and even boost children's self-esteem.
The kitchen already is probably the center of household's daily routine, with children, guests and pets passing through on their way here or there, so invite them to pull up a stool and pick up a spoon. They're sure to learn something, says Food Network star Rachael Ray.
"I got my love of food from my experiences in the kitchen as a kid," says Ray, who has written "Cooking Rocks!: Rachael Ray 30-minute Meals for Kids" (Lake Isle Press).
The kitchen is informal and filled with conversation starters, including interesting smells and recipes from faraway lands, so it puts people at ease, according to Ray. "Food mellows people out, it's the great communicator," she adds.
"You're in this state of mind where you want to chat.... Parents will get to know their kids. And kids spend so much time on the computer, if they've made the food, they'll want to sit at the table and eat it."
There also are valuable lessons to be learned while cooking, ranging from nutrition and measuring skills (including the ability to "eyeball" or estimate) to cultural traditions. At the table, children will be making a human connection, practicing their verbal skills and even improving their eye contact, that will help them their whole lives, says Ray.
Of course, the food has to be good to tempt everyone to the table and that's why Ray says she picked recipes that use familiar ingredients. She hopes to open some minds (and mouths) by using chicken, cheese and popcorn in innovative and interesting ways.
"This isn't stupid food - it's not cupcakes that look like animals. It's food for all ages. No matter how small you are, you can make a whole meal that the family can share," Ray says.
Cooking is one of the few ways children can give back to their family, she says. Young kids can't have a job and they can't do a lot of complicated household tasks but they can stir a sauce or mix the batter for chocolate- and peanut butter-chip cookies.
"It feels good to contribute. You'd be surprised how many kids want to do something for their families but don't know how or what," she says. "Plus, they (children) will be more likely to try new foods if they make it."
"Cooking a meal is a huge ego boost. When else can you take a big pile of raw ingredients and put together something great in half an hour?"
Even if it's not so great, Ray says it's a parent's duty to eat what the children have prepared. "Suck it up and eat it. Your kids ate the baby food you gave them when they were little and that baby food is horrible!"
Good food should be fun and tasty, says Ray, who serves all these "kid" recipes to her grown-up friends, including cinnamon-apple nachos made using pita crisps, an alternative to corn chips loaded with cheese.
2 whole pita breads
1/4 cup butter, melted (1/2 stick)
1 green apple, such as granny smith, cored and diced
1 banana, halved lengthwise and slices
(Let an adult do the slicing and chopping if children are too young or haven't mastered knife skills.)
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon honey
Preheat over to 400 F.
Cut the pitas in half with kitchen scissors, so you have two big pockets for each pita. Cut each half into triangle shapes (four triangles per pocket). Each triangle still has two layers, so separate and pull the pita bread apart at the edge where it's still attached.
Place all the pita chips on a big cookie sheet. Brush melted butter onto the chips with a pastry brush. Mix sugar and cinnamon together and use your hands to sprinkle the cinnamon sugar over all the pita pieces.
Bake chips until crisp and lightly browned, about 5 to 7 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the peanut-butter sauce. Put peanut butter, milk and honey in a small pot. Melt together over low heat while stirring to combine the mixture. Remove sauce from heat. Pile cinnamon-pita chips on a platter and pour the peanut sauce all over them. Top with chopped up banana and apple and serve.
Makes four servings.
Other cookbooks that cater to families, offering quick, nutritious recipes that still use foods that appeal to most children include "Chef Bobo's Good Food Cookbook: Smart Recipes for Happy, Healthy Kids" (Meredith) by Robert W. Surles and "The Working Parents Cookbook" (Chronicle) by Jeff and Jodie Morgan. In addition to straightforward cooking instructions, both books also address picky eaters, using leftovers and healthy alternatives to fast food.