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Families spring forward in the kitchen

Generations share recipes and cook together

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The Anderson family from Port Ewen has fun cooking together, especially during the holidays, including, from the left, friend, Beverly, Anderson's mom, Liz, Erin Anderson, and her daughter, Avi Woerner. 

Like many nine-year-olds, Avi Woerner of Port Ewen could happily live off macaroni and cheese, along with pizza.

So, her mom, Erin Anderson, wasn't sure what would happen when she brought Avi to a cooking class at Nirmala's Kitchen & Farmstead, a spice company and farm in Highland with a cooking school for people of all ages. "Avi's very headstrong, and she never really liked trying new things when it came to food," said Anderson.

But once she got to the class and Nirmala put her to work, Avi engaged with the food. "She was trying new spices, trying olives, things she normally would never eat," Anderson said. "We made a Moroccan spiced chicken, which had lots of new flavors for her, and a little bit of heat. By the end of the class she'd eaten two whole chicken breasts and loved it. I couldn't believe it."

Once they got home, the cooking bug that Avi caught proved to last. She started looking through cookbooks, picking out recipes that looked interesting and asking her mom if they could try them.

"I had never been much of a cook myself, so Avi really started pushing me to be more adventurous in the kitchen," Anderson said. Before, mealtimes had become a standard routine; another box to be checked off in a long list of tasks that had to get done each day. "Now, cooking has become much more of a family thing," Anderson said. "Instead of, 'Alright, I guess I have to make something for dinner,' now we go through cookbooks together, get ideas, make alterations where we need to, and really make it an experience."

Cook together for fun and save time. Although finding time to prepare meals can be a challenge - Anderson is a single mom, and Avi has no shortage of activities that she's constantly running to and from - having Avi's help in the kitchen has made cooking less of a burden for Anderson. "She loves to chop, she likes adding the spices and mixing things together. She really gets involved in every part of the process," Anderson said. 

Cooking together has also helped both of them eat healthier, focus more on using whole foods and eat balanced meals. Avi's favorite meal to make is a fettuccine alfredo with chicken, with a cheese sauce made fresh from scratch rather than from a can. 

The mother-daughter duo also enjoys rolling with the changing seasons and customizing their meals to match the mood of the day. "Once springtime hits, we start barbecuing a lot more, spending more time outside," Anderson said. 

Get creative with sensitive eaters. For the springtime holidays like Easter, Anderson's mother - Avi's grandmother - whips up the feast, with Avi serving as sous chef for a very important part of the meal: dessert. "Avi and my mother absolutely love to bake together," Anderson said. "Chocolate chip cookies are their specialty."

Of course, getting some kids engaged in the kitchen is harder than it is with others. That has been the case for Kristina Mulligan of Highland, whose three-year-old son Flynn has a hard time with many food textures and flavors, making mealtimes challenging. "Not too long ago, he wasn't even able to tolerate purees," she said, although she proudly reports that he is a huge pasta fan.

To get Flynn to open to new foods, Mulligan gets creative. "Recently, I made Flynn his own social story about how his favorite superheroes like to try different foods, and how all kinds of foods are good for our bodies for different reasons," she said. "He seemed to respond to that and will now point out the foods he sees and recognizes from his book."

Building on that momentum, Mulligan got Flynn his own set of mixing bowls for Christmas to get him more comfortable in the kitchen. "He likes to pour the pre-measured dry ingredients and try to mix everything together," Mulligan said. "He also likes to explore foods that have layers, like oranges and avocados. While he may not eat them, he is interested in the process of getting them open," she said.

Take things one step at a time. Because Flynn can be finicky, Mulligan is careful to follow his lead in the kitchen. "I've learned that any type of interaction with a new food - a bite, a lick, a touch with a fingertip, or even just leaving it on the plate - is a win," she said. 

Flynn also has a dairy sensitivity that Mulligan has creatively turned from a barrier into an opportunity. "Learning ways to modify certain foods has been something we can do together," she said. And, with the upcoming spring holidays, she added that she foresees a lot of cakes and cookies in the coming season.

Ultimately, Flynn's food limitations have taught Mulligan important lessons about food, bodies, and parenting. "Before Flynn, I never really understood the complexities of the human body and how much effort goes into every part of us," she said. "I think that a lot of us take that for granted - I know I did. I would have never imagined the creativity, patience, and work from all sides that could be a part of mealtime. Flynn is an incredible teacher and I'm so grateful for him. If you are a parent that also struggles with food and your child(ren), know that you're not alone."

Anderson has also found another parenting philosophy by way of the family kitchen. "The whole process of parenting is about finding time and putting in the effort," she said. "It's really rewarding to see Avi's growth and transformation as opposed to being stuck in a rut with food. I'm not expecting her to have the most expansive palette at nine years old, but it's so nice to see her comfortable and confident enough to try different things and deviate from what had been the norm."

Elora Tocci is a communications director and freelance writer who was born and raised in Newburgh.