A few weeks ago, my rising second-grader uttered magical words.
“Mom, can I cook dinner? I want to make tacos.”
I nearly wept. This is a boy whose evening routine consists of watching baseball, playing video games, or riding a scooter. This is also a boy who has subsisted on chicken nuggets and pizza since kindergarten. Picasso had a Blue Period; my son is in an extended Beige Period. But lately he’s been catching “Chopped Junior” in between Red Sox games, enchanted by watching kids just like him cook like adults.
I bundled him off to the grocery store. He selected ingredients, and then he made a meal for the whole family (with a small assist from me), carefully sautéing vegetables and depositing sizzling ground beef into taco shells.
“Need help?” I asked as he gripped a spatula.
“I got this,” he said.
He was clearly proud of himself, even if he was too shy to say so.
So when my budding gourmet was invited to a launch event for America’s Test Kitchen Kids, I yanked him out of summer camp for the morning. A handful of food-loving children would gather in the Test Kitchen’s Seaport headquarters to conduct cooking experiments, taste-test foods, and even help refine a doughnut recipe for a forthcoming kids’ baking book.
The brand officially debuts with the ATK Kids Fest on Sept. 16, featuring cooking demos, food-related science experiments, and samples. Their first book, “The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs,” follows in October. It contains straightforward recipes, such as cheese quesadillas and hot chocolate, with easy-to-digest visuals of kitchen tools, step-by-step guides on how to crack eggs and mince garlic, and a glossary of terms (or “Decoding Kitchenspeak”). Board books for toddlers are in the works, as are partnerships with schools and kid-focused nonprofits.
Molly Birnbaum is the editor-in-chief of ATK Kids, and she has a 16-month-old daughter. It’s clear that people who have actually dealt with children helmed this production, striking a delicate balance between user-friendly and educational. For a company that can sometimes veer into lovably wonky (the phrase “test kitchen” is very no-nonsense), the cookbook is happily manageable. Did you know that “tostadas=supersize tortilla chips”?
The market is gutted with kiddie cookbooks, though, capitalizing on the popularity of shows such as “Chopped Junior” and “MasterChef Junior.” But this is the first with the ATK imprimatur — the culinary equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for vacuums.
“We’ve done a lot of research, and the kids, cooking, and food markets are really growing tremendously. What we’ve found is that there’s a great desire among parents to get their kids away from screens, along with more health-conscious eating among parents,” said ATK CEO David Nussbaum. “Our board is fully behind it. This isn’t something we’re just jumping into.”
Quite the opposite: To prepare for the launch, ATK Kids has begun inviting kids into their kitchen to give feedback on recipes. They’re culled from ATK readership and word of mouth. The company also has roughly 2,000 mini-gourmets in its national database, and parents can enroll their children on the ATK website to test in their own kitchens. Recipes are sent to 100 kids at a time, who then complete a survey and send it back within two weeks. Is the recipe too long? Are the words confusing? Does the dish taste good? Can the average child make it at home without tears? All recipes require an 80 percent approval rate in order to be published. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.
“Everything is kid-tested and kid-approved. I don’t believe many other cookbooks do this to the same extent. Every single recipe has been tested by kids in-house or through our survey process,” Birnbaum said. “We’re not being circus-y. We’re not making animals out of our food. Some of the food is healthy, some of it is sweet, but all of it is teaching kids to have the skills to cook at home — something I believe is the key to being healthy long-term and a way to bring people together and make them happy. It’s real, and serious, but in a fun and playful way.”
But as we sat in the parking lot of the Seaport’s sleek Innovation and Design Building, where ATK expanded and relocated in 2017, my young chef had second thoughts.
“I have butterflies,” he said. “Will anyone be watching me?”
With that simple question, he captured the essence of what keeps so many people from cooking: fear of judgment. Nobody wants to think they’re doing it wrong. It’s easy to feel completely inept and overwhelmed in the kitchen, a land with a foreign set of phrases, apparatus, and directions. What if you leave something in the oven too long? What if you add too much salt or not enough garlic? It’s easier to just order takeout.
But all hesitation evaporated once he took the elevator to the fourth floor and donned a miniature red ATK Kids apron alongside six peers. Even the act of tying the strings made him feel like he was wearing a suit of armor, empowered to do battle in a real kitchen. He was in charge, and that’s a foreign feeling for picky kids.
Finicky eating is about control, says Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic, author of “Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate.” She has delved deeply into what makes some children (and adults) so fussy.
“Beginning at 3, [kids] have the power to say ‘no.’ There’s so much of their lives they don’t get to control: bedtimes, school. It’s very typical for kids to seize control by deciding, ‘I’m not going to eat that. You can’t make me,’ ” she said.
But in this kitchen, kids called the shots, within developmentally appropriate reason — a microcosm of parenting itself. There was 10-year-old Jad Torres, who likes making the cookbook’s buttermilk biscuits. There was Zoe Bates, 10, who enjoys her grandfather’s Snickerdoodles recipe. (“It’s from my great-grandmother, who was Pennsylvania Dutch,” she explained.) Ella Maher-Santarpia, 11, wants to be a pastry chef one day. “There’s a lot you can do with cupcakes,” she told me. Needham’s Suriya Keshava, 10, is also contemplating a cooking career. “But I might want to be an actress,” she said.
In this safe space, they were taught that cooking is grounded in science. What tastes good isn’t a total mystery — not if you follow the directions. You can engineer it. To prove this point, kids first conducted an experiment on microwave popcorn. One kernel sample was dehydrated in an oven for two hours; another kernel sample was soaked in water; and a control, commercial sample was left alone. Kids added oil, shook paper bags, and popped their bounty into the microwave. The commercial sample was fluffiest, with precisely engineered, 14 percent water content.
“Too much water softens the kernel’s hull and makes it weak,” explained Birnbaum — much to the surprise of kids, who figured the soggiest ones would puff out the most.
Next, it was time to create their very own popcorn recipe, a play on a cookbook feature wherein kids can modify a recipe “their” way with instructions on how to add certain ingredients. ATK board members, on site for a meeting, would vote on their favorite popcorn by depositing a jellybean in a bowl in front of the best dish.
The pressure was on: Kids could dip into a buffet of nori, garlic powder, furikake, black sesame seeds, chocolate chips, brown sugar, Frank’s Red Hot sauce — the options were (almost) endless. Then, they would christen their dish.
“Furikake is dried and shredded bonito!” squealed 10-year-old Bates. ATK staffers looked at each other. This kid was clearly going places.
Torres, baseball cap on backward, purposefully mixed melted butter and salt with brown sugar and chocolate chips to create “Melted Chocolate Popcorn.” Tatiana Riggins, 12, plied her bowl with chocolate chips and candy. “That’s a cavity right there,” she declared, stirring gleefully. My own child, a boy whose preferred condiment is Heinz ketchup, drizzled hot sauce across his bowl and named his dish “Spicy Joy.” I beamed.
Next, honchos filed in to assess each concoction. Maher-Santarpia, the aspiring pastry chef, won with “Sushi Sushi,” which mixed nori, salt, lime zest, and melted butter. She’ll have the chance to debut her dish at next month’s festival.
“She loves to try different recipes. She makes meals for us at home. She makes a chicken dish with pancetta that’s out of this world,” dad David Santarpia said later. “We save money by cooking at home.”
Next, the kids donned blindfolds and taste-tested red and green peppers, accurately identifying which was which.
“If a pepper is wrinkly, it’s usually spicier,” Riggins informed the group. The kids nodded.
“I think it’s psychological,” Bates hypothesized.
As for my son? He absently munched a green pepper, something he hadn’t eaten since 2013 or so, blindfold akimbo.
Will he ever make chicken with pancetta? I’m not sure. But when he handed over his apron at morning’s end, he was happily chatting with Torres about his favorite cereal.
“I’m proud of you. You were scared, but you cooked anyway,” I told him in the elevator.
He clutched his advance copy of the young chef’s cookbook and grinned.
“I know.”Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.