The more kids help in the kitchen, the more likely they are to eat well. Vegetables won’t seem so weird once they’ve been selected, scrubbed and nibbled. Flavors won’t seem so foreign if they’ve been sampled far from the high-stakes dinner table. When kids are allowed to help, meals stop being cause for suspicion and turn into an object of pride. (As in, “Look what I made, Mommy!”)
Still, it’s hard to let kids help. Flour ends up on the floor. Eggshells wind up in the batter. When we do let them sit on the counter, we often give them bit parts like dumping in the sugar. But last night, my kids and I reversed roles. They were in charge and I helped. My five-year-old declared the dinner that followed to be “the best dinner ever, by a million, trillion, billion!”
What was the object of such raves? Nothing other than — get this — stone soup.
If you’re a teacher, librarian or parent of young kids, you might know Marcia Brown’s Stone Soup about three soldiers and the war-weary French peasants who are reluctant to share their food. One by one, the villagers hide their goods and then lie to the hungry soldiers, telling them they have nothing to eat. So the soldiers offer to make stone soup, and command a kettle to be filled with water and a few stones. If only there were some carrots, they say, then this good soup would be even better. Mysteriously, one villager finds a few carrots. Then another finds cabbage, then potatoes, beef and barley, until the soup is fit for a king. Soldiers and villagers end up feasting together well into the night, a classic case of generosity, of something from nothing.
My son loves this story. So when he discovered a turnip and two carrots we’d overlooked in our tiny garden, he excitedly asked if we could make stone soup. Why not? The littlest one scrubbed potatoes. The middle one cut them with a butter knife. The oldest grabbed the peeler and the sharper knife.
The pot eventually got so full it was more like thick stew than soup, but the kids didn’t notice. They were too proud of their new scrubbing, peeling and chopping skills to care that the potatoes were overcooked, that the broth was under salted. I didn’t care, either. All I saw were their huge smiles and their pride at being the Big Kids Who Cooked Dinner for Mommy.
First, find a smooth stone and wash it well. We let ours boil for 15 minutes, too, just to make sure it was clean. Put at least 32 ounces of chicken broth in a saucepan, and add the stone. Then, depending on their age, let your children wash, peel and cut a variety of vegetables and add them to the pot. An onion, carrots and potatoes make a good base. The rest is up to you: turnips, cabbage, spinach, zucchini, green beans, whatever you have. Cook until tender, season to taste, and add parmesan cheese at the table for extra flavor. You can make this project even more fun by letting kids choose their own Stone Soup vegetables at the grocery store.