Cooking with Kids

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I live in a house with three girls—my wife and two daughters. And a female poodle! The whole casa is filled with dolls, shoes, lipsticks and fashion items. The only manly touches here are my biking gear and my kitchen knives (and those, too, are lipstick/nail-polish red).

When my daughters ask me to play with them, I have to dress up dolls, wear butterfly wings, and very often pretend that I am passionate about Camp Rock and the Jonas Brothers. Thank God I have been spared the whole Justin Bieber thing up until now—I hope it lasts.

When the tables are turned, and my kids want to enter my playground, they join me in the kitchen.

I started spending time at the stove with my Mom and Grandma when I was about 3 years old. By age 6, I was let alone on Sunday mornings to bake and experiment with my first recipes. My parents were fine with this, as long as I was quiet and did not wake them up.

My philosophy for cooking with kids is very simple: If your kid knows how to use a remote control, can navigate the menu of a DVR or excels at playing a video game, he or she should be able to handle a knife in the kitchen.

My daughter Giulia, who's nearly 5, already handles a 5-inch chef's knife pretty well (obviously under my supervision). Every evening she drags a chair to the kitchen counter and asks: "What are we making for dinner?" To her, it is not just about sitting down in front of a delicious meal. She takes pride and care in knowing that she plays a very active role in preparing what she will eat and feed to her sister and her mother.

Baking is one of the easiest ways to get kids cooking in the kitchen, and pizza comes right after. But once the interest is sparked, it is easy to get them involved with more complex stuff. Children like to impress their parents, they only need a jump-start.

It goes without saying that the prospect of preparing pancakes or biscotti brings kids to the front of a stove quicker than a vegetable soup does, but I believe that the secret is just to break them in. Cooking is a never ending experiment with ingredients, numbers and quantities, and new words that for sure are not spoken in school: braising, toasting, folding, broiling... the list goes on!

We do not have a TV set in the kitchen, only a dock for the mp3 player, which is always on. The music sets the tone for the chopping, the sautéing, the stirring… and the occasional mistake. Our kitchen is the core of our home, and it makes me proud that my girls intend it as a playground for the whole family.

I use the time I spend with my daughters in the kitchen to pass on to them all I know about feeding loved ones. Giulia and Evelina have started to inherit my family recipes, and they have already acquired a very specific sense of taste for all things Italian. They know the ingredients we have in our fridge and pantry, and they are always very curious about new entries on the menu. I am having a fish taco moment these days, and we started frying fish at least once a week in beer batter. It was an incredible novelty to them, all of us together developing our family recipe. It has sparked conversation, creativity and pride. My mom will be visiting us in Los Angeles soon, and my daughters asked me if we can make her our new tacos when she is here; they care about her feedback and they want to impress her at the same time, with food!

Food heritage is an incredible tool to spend time with your family, and it allows you to share old memories and create new ones. And it does so much more for your kids than an hour of Nickelodeon programming.

Also, I often consider teaching my daughters to cook as part of my retirement plan. There are not too many more things I expect from life: I have love, health and a job that makes me happy. But I can tell you one thing I will need when I am older: my daughters will have to start cooking for me!!!

So tonight or this weekend or for the next birthday party, pretend your TV set is broken. Get your kids in the kitchen with you, and share your love by helping them discover a whole new world through cooking. Make all together a long distance phone call to grandma, and ask her for a recipe or a tip. Or just tell her you are cooking something together that she used to make for you a few decades ago, when you were the kid and she took time and immense pride in doing with you what you are now doing with your kids. Trust me, it will be an emotional phone call, especially for grandma!

I always took for granted what I learned from the women in my family when I was younger. Now, I often pause to deeply enjoy the fact that this time, I am inspiring my kids, I am sharing my family history, and together we are making new discoveries.

Less Video Games, More Chopping!

Watch Gabriele and Debi Mazar cook meals from their home every Wednesday night at 10pm ET/ 9pm CT on Cooking Channel.

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