My 5-year-old daughter likes to cook. She likes to smear tomato sauce on pizza dough and scrub potatoes in the sink. But the truth is, I don't let her into the kitchen very often. I'm usually pressed for time and trying to get dinner on the table.
So, I signed us up for a cooking class.
At a time when Americans are eating fewer meals at home and consuming more convenience foods than ever, Way Cool Cooking School is teaching families how to slow down and cook together what we eat.
Owner Lynn Elliott, a former food-industry executive, started the school seven years ago in Eden Prairie. She expanded this summer to Woodbury, offering classes in the professional second-floor kitchen in Kowalski's grocery store.
A dozen instructors, with day jobs ranging from classroom teacher to personal chef, teach several classes per week on how to make everything from potstickers to creme brule to ravioli from scratch. We ended up at a class for preschoolers and kindergartners making sugar cookies and quesadillas.
Most kids are naturally interested in cooking, says Elliott.
"The Food Network is as interesting for kids now as Cartoon Network," she quipped.
But Way Cool features none of the competition and swashbuckling knife-work you'd see on "Iron Chef." It was all about cooperation.
Our instructor, Mary Matthews, greeted us in the Woodbury kitchen wearing a white, double-breasted chef coat. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked over the grocery aisles. We sat at a table, and Matthews passed cookie ingredients to the three mother-daughter pairs.
"When you are baking, there are two very best friends," Matthews began. "Sugar and butter. They like hanging out together, and they make cookies very delicious."
Four-year-old Carlie Griffin of North St. Paul poured in the sugar, and her mom, Julie, dropped in a stick of butter. Matthews carried the bowl to a Kitchen-Aid mixer on the counter, and the girls traipsed after her and tipped their heads so they could see the inside of the bowl in a mirror suspended from the ceiling.
Matthews had a knack for explaining cooking to kids, a skill no doubt honed during dozens of Way Cool birthday parties.
"Have you ever used glue at school to glue paper together?" Nods all around. "Well, the egg is like the glue that holds all our ingredients together," she said.
"See these thumbs?" she said, showing the girls how she pressed the tips of her thumbs against the side of an egg. "These are our egg diggers."
Matthews helped 4-year-old Cecelia Goracki of North St. Paul crack an egg. My daughter measured flour, carefully smoothing the top with her finger. I added vanilla and baking powder.
The girls put their noses into the bowl and inhaled. Forget perfume. There's nothing like the scent of cookie dough.
"Can you guess what my favorite cooking gadget is?" Matthews asked. "My fingers!" She wiggled them in the air before plunging her hands into the bowl of dough. "There are some jobs that only hands can do, and one of them is smashing dough."
She handed each girl a few scoops of dough on a sheet of wax paper. Then, they pressed and patted and cut the dough with cookie cutters into cats, bats, pumpkins and witches. "It's like Play-Doh!" my daughter squealed.
One of the girls grabbed an open container of orange sugar and raised her arm to pour it on her cookie. Mathews swooped in to show her how to take finger pinches of sugar to sprinkle.
"You don't want to get too much sugar," Matthews cautioned.
"There is never such a thing as too much sugar!" exclaimed my daughter.
The three girls dutifully put their last scraps of dough into the garbage bowl, as instructed by Mary. We moms waited until the kids weren't looking and then ate our leftovers.
While the cookies baked, we made quesadillas. The girls ripped baby spinach, snipped green onions with cooking shears, sprinkled cheese and fried tortillas on the stovetop. It was the first time my daughter had eaten a quesadilla with spinach and onions, and she loved it.
Matthews says that kids are much more likely to eat something they've made themselves.
"There are kids who come in here who say, 'I don't eat vegetables.' Then we make chicken with onion and mushrooms, something they'd never order off a menu. And they eat it. They have a sense of ownership."
I thought about my 9-year-old son who turned up his nose at black beans until I showed him how to smash them in a skillet with bacon fat. Now, he makes his own refried beans for lunch.
Teaching these basic cooking skills is what Elliott had in mind when she started Way Cool. After she quit her job as a vice president at U.S. Food Service, she was casting about for a new career and asked everyone she knew what they thought she was good at doing.
"My daughter was 10, and she said, 'Mom you're a really good cook,' " Elliott recalled. "She said her friends liked coming to our house because I made really good food, and I cooked with them, and that their parents didn't cook."
"It was eye-opening, and I started thinking that maybe I do something that other people don't."
Cooking was second nature for Elliott. Her grandparents owned a cafe in Montgomery, Minn., and she grew up helping them. She always cooked alongside her own children, now 17 and 13.
"Whether it was setting the table or cutting carrots or stirring something, they always helped," she said. "I think cooking is a great way for families to be together. You accomplish something together and enjoy the fruits of your labor together."
As an added bonus, she found out what was going on in her kids' lives.
"When I'd ask, 'How was your day,' all I'd get was, 'Fine.' When we cooked with each other, they'd tell me all sorts of things - what their friends said, what the teacher did. It's a special time when you can be one on one with your child."
As a working parent who often rushes to get dinner on the table, I don't regularly enlist my kids' help.
"I don't always want help," said Carlie's mom, Julie Griffin, echoing my philosophy. "I just want to get it done."
Watching our kids in Way Cool's kitchen gave us ideas of how to involve even young kids in making food. My kids set the table every night, but now I'm thinking of having each of my three children help make dinner once a week.
When we got home, my daughter wanted to make more quesadillas for lunch. I scrounged a few limp scallions from the back of the fridge, and she stood on a stool at the counter and sliced them with a fat-handled paring knife. She sprinkled the hot tortilla with grated cheese, and when I started to flip it, she shouted, 'No! I want to do it myself!' "
And then she ate it, green onions and all.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Classes at Way Cool Cooking School
Where: Kowalski's kitchen, 8505 Valley Creek Road, Woodbury
Information: 952-949-6799, waycoolcookingschool.com
When: Classes most weekends
Cost: $55 to $65 for one adult and one child
Target audience: Those stuck on mac 'n' cheese
Crowd pleaser: Eating your creation
Avoid: Drooling. Snack before class.
Tip: Harness your kid's new skills and make a meal together at home.
Coming up: The next adult-child classes are Halloween-themed food (kids ages 7 to 16) 10 a.m. to noon Oct. 29; breakfast pancakes and mini muffins (kids ages 3 to 6) 2 to 3 p.m. Nov. 12.
More info: Read previously published Family Outings under "family fun" at MinnMoms.com.
COOKING WITH KIDS
Here are Twin Cities stores and cooking schools that offer occasional classes for kids or adults and kids together.
THE CHEF'S ABODE
Where: 805 Sibley Memorial Hwy., Lilydale
Info: 651-406-5401, chefsabode.com
Classes: The Twin Cities newest culinary school cooks up classes on big colorful ranges overlooking the Mississippi River. Next up: "Hello, Cupcake!" 1 to 4 p.m. Oct. 29, making cupcakes decorated to look like corn-on-the-cob, sunflowers and spaghetti and meatballs. Adult/child, $80.
COOKS OF CROCUS HILL
Where: 877 Grand Ave., St. Paul
Info: 651-228-1333, cooksofcrocushill.com
Classes: The upscale cooking shop offers classes, along with Emile Henry cookware, Wusthof knives and pink salt mined in the Himalayas. Next up: "Brunch for Teens," 1 to 4 p.m. Nov. 13, making kefir smoothies, peanut butter French toast, cinnamon poached apples and breakfast burritos. Teens, $65.
KITCHEN IN THE MARKET
Where: Midtown Global Market, 920 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
Info: 612-586-5486, kitcheninthemarket.com
Classes: Molly Herrmann and Tracy Morgan run a commercial kitchen and cooking school in the bustling, indoor ethnic market. Next up: "Lunchbox" 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Nov. 5, making hummus with cool veggies, cupcake mac 'n' cheese, rice eyeballs and apple pie bites. Parent/child,
Where: Calhoun Square, 3001 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Info: 612-824-4417, kitchenwindow.com
Classes: The two-story retailer in Uptown doubled its classroom space during a recent remodel. Next up: "Cookies With Santa," 9 to 11 a.m. Dec. 18, making sugar-cookie cutouts, gingerbread people, cornflake wreaths, sandwich reindeer and marshmallow snowmen. Adult/child, $50.
MISSISSIPPI MARKET NATURAL FOODS CO-OP
Where: 1500 W. Seventh St. and 622 Selby Ave., both in St. Paul
Info: 651-690-0507, 651-310-9499, msmarket.coop
Classes: You're likely to use organic ingredients and local produce in these occasional classes offered by the St. Paul co-op. Check website for latest classes.
Where: 3060 Excelsior Blvd., Minneapolis
Info: 612-927-8141, wholefoodsmarket.com
Classes: Minneapolis location offers a kids' cooking club, runs Saturday child-only classes and occasional adult-child classes. Next up: "Tricky Treats!" 1 to 2 p.m. Oct. 29, making dead man's fingers, crunchy spiders, goofy teeth, squishy eyeballs and a monster mask. Ages 5 to 14, $8.