To some, baking holiday cookies with kids sounds like a recipe for disaster. It’s not difficult to imagine all the mess and the drama. But with a pinch of preparation and a dash of extra patience, baking with your children can be educational and, yes, even a lot of fun! Here are some mom tested tips for a successful baking experience, reminders about why baking together is so beneficial, along with a couple of classic holiday cookie recipes that are perfect to make with children.
WHY BAKE WITH KIDS?
- FOLLOW DIRECTIONS – A child’s health and safety can depend on her ability to follow orders and kids function better in school and sports when they know how to carry out instructions. Not to mention, mom and dad are much happier when their children do as they’re told. Following the directions in a recipe together offers a chance for positive, upbeat instruction with a tangible outcome.
- WAIT YOUR TURN- Baking together offers a great opportunity to help your children practice taking turns. Your turn to pour in the flour, my turn to add the sugar, your sister’s turn to add the salt. It’s an important life skill with which young children can always use more practice.
- MATH SKILLS – What better way to learn about fractions than to measure out a half a cup of milk and see in person that two halves make a whole? Younger children can help count the number of eggs going in the bowl and the number of cookies coming out of the oven. Yet, it’s all so fun they won’t even realize they’re learning math in the process.
- PRACTICE READING – Recipe reading offers potential for new, challenging words and the opportunity to build on your child’s vocabulary.
- FINE MOTOR SKILLS – Pouring, scooping, measuring, and mixing are all excellent tasks for building a child’s coordination of small muscle movements. Practicing these fine motor skills when it’s ok to get messy, allows kids to be successful when serving themselves food at meal time.
- SENSORY EXPERIENCE – The feel of soft dough in your hands, the smell of your creation cooking in the oven, the taste of your finished product and the “oohs and aahs” of happy taste testers; baking is a feast for the senses. Children learn best and retain the most information when they engage their senses and many of our favorite memories are associated with one or more of our senses too.
- LEARN ABOUT REAL FOOD – Cooking together is the best lesson in how to eat a “real food” or “clean” diet. By adding in each ingredient individually, it offers an opportunity for discussion about where real foods come from, like the milk that came from a cow, the eggs that came from a chicken and the flour that came from wheat. Yes, baking almost always includes sugar too, but it is a valuable time to talk about balance and moderation. In my book, this is one of the most important lessons you can teach children when it comes to healthy eating. If you always say no to sweets, it becomes the “forbidden fruit” and when they do have access to it, they will not know how to self regulate.
- ADVENTUROUS PALATE – Children who prepare food with their parents are more likely to eat a variety of different foods. Cooking together offers kids the chance to taste the ingredients as they are going in to the dish, thus making the end result less scary and more appealing.
- A LESSON IN ANCESTRY- Most of us remember baking with our parents or even our grandparents as a child. Preparing these time honored recipes with our own children allows us the chance to tell stories about family they may not have known and pass along traditions from generation to generation.
- BUILDS CREATIVITY – Cut out cookies are like a blank canvas for creating a colorful masterpiece. The more sprinkles and decorations the better!
- BUILDS CONFIDENCE – When they see that their hard work resulted in a beautiful and tasty treat, they’ll feel satisfied in their effort and gain confidence in their abilities.
TIPS FOR STAYING SANE
GET ORGANIZED – Set up the kitchen by bringing out all the tools and ingredients you’ll need before you call them in to get started. To minimize bickering, set up each child at a separate area of the counter (with a stool for young children). Consider buying child sized tools. Give them each their own little bowls of sprinkles and other decorations to choose from. They will most certainly dip their dirty little fingers in each of them and lick and dip again. If they aren’t cross contaminating or fighting over who got more gum drops, you can relax… a little. Try creating a sort of “batting order” listing in which order they will take turns adding ingredients.
BREAK IT DOWN – When setting out on your baking adventure, try breaking it down into stages to keep their interest and minimize fighting. For example, with cut out cookies, try making the dough together before nap time. Refrigerate it while they’re sleeping. Then let them roll, cut and bake before dinner. Set the cookies aside to cool while the kids play and eat dinner. Decorate the cookies after dinner or even the next day. Some moms even recommend doing the baking yourself and just letting the kids do the decorating.
EXPECT A MESS – It goes without saying that baking with kids is messy. There will be flour and sugar and icing on the floor and on their clothes, maybe even in their hair. And there will be lots of dishes! Don’t schedule a baking session just after you cleaned your house or gave them baths. Wear old clothes or maybe even a full body aprons! Embrace it if you can. Messy can sometimes be fun if you’re in the right frame of mind and it does make for a great photo op.
BE PATIENT – Baking with children always takes longer than it would if you were to do it all on your own. While there will be recipes that you do want to make alone, try to remain patient even just through one recipe and remind yourself of all the reasons why it is beneficial for them to help out.
DON’T LEAVE THE KITCHEN – To avoid any trips to the emergency room, never leave the kitchen while baking with your kids. Children need constant supervision around hot stoves and sharp knives and to ensure they don’t lick the bowl of icing clean before you decorate the cookies.
LET GO OF PERFECTION – Your finished product will likely not be magazine cover worthy or ready to be “pinned” on your favorite social media sites. Perhaps you shouldn’t plan to use the cookies you made with the kids for your upcoming holiday dinner party. Us Type A, perfectionist moms do struggle with this. Focus instead on the fun you’ll have together. Your cookies may not be “perfect.” In fact, cookies made with kids are virtually a spot-on metaphor for life with children; messy, busy, colorful and oh so sweet. Like your life, cookies made with kids are “perfectly imperfect.”
If I only get around to making one batch of cookies each holiday season, cut out cookies are it. Here is my favorite recipe passed down from my mother.
ICED CUT OUT COOKIES
•3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
•1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
•1/2 teaspoon salt
•20 tablespoons (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
•1 cup sugar
•1 large egg
•1 tablespoon milk
•2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
•1/4 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (optional)
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 2 to 3 Tablespoons milk
- 1 tsp. vanilla
* Decorations of your choice.
(e.g. sprinkles, red hots, chocolate chips, coconut, marshmallows, etc).
In a large bowl, whisk together thoroughly the flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl beat together the butter and sugar. To the butter mixture, add the egg, milk, vanilla and lemon zest and beat well. Gradually beat the flour mixture into the butter mixture until well blended and smooth.
Place the dough on a flat surface and shape into a large ball. Divide the dough in half. Place each half between two large sheets of wax or parchment paper. Roll out to a 1/4 inch think, checking the underside of the dough and smoothing any creases. Keeping the paper in place, layer the rolled dough on a baking sheet and refrigerate until cold and slightly firm, about 30 minutes. (Or longer if you want to split up the job to keep you kids’ interest).
Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease cookie sheets. Working with one portion at a time (leave the other refrigerated), gently peel away and replace one sheet of the paper. (This will make it easier to lift the cookies from the paper later.) Peel away and discard the second sheet. Cut out the cookies using 2 or 3 inch cutters. With a spatula, transfer them to the cookie sheets, spacing about 1 1/2 inches apart. Roll the dough scraps and continue cutting out cookies until all the dough is used; briefly refrigerate the dough if it becomes too soft to handle.
If you’re not planning to ice all of the cookies, decorate some with colored sugar or nonpareils. Decorating a dozen or so before we baking them is nice because there aren’t quite so many to decorate with icing later on. Young children seem to get bored after doing just a few.
Bake, one sheet at a time, just until the cookies are lightly colored on top and slightly darker at the edges, 6 to 9 minutes; rotate the sheet halfway through baking for even browning. Remove the sheet to a rack and let stand until the cookies firm slightly. Transfer to cookies to racks to cool.
Stir together icing ingredients until desired consistency. Decorate cookies when completely cooled.
If you just don’t think you can muster the patience to handle cut out cookies with your kiddos, Magic Cookie Bars are a perfect treat to make with young children. You get the same benefits of baking together, yet there are fewer steps and less mess. These have always been a favorite cookie at our house over the holidays.
MAGIC COOKIE BARS
1 stick butter
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup chocolate morsels
1 cup butterscotch or peanut butter morsels
1 cup flaked coconut
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Melt butter in a small bowl. Add graham cracker crumbs and stir until well combined. Spray the bottom of a 13 x 9” baking dish and press crust into dish. Pour condensed milk over crumbs. Sprinkle with morsels, coconut and nuts. Press down firmly. Bake for 30 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool all the way through and cut into squares.
This article was published in the December 2016 issue of Northeast Ohio Parent Magazine.