It’s 5:00 p.m. and my 2-year-old is walking out of daycare holding the cucumber she picked herself from my provider’s garden.
Me: Wow, did you pick that?
Her: Yeah! It’s a big one, not a little one! The ‘potatoes’ (tomatoes) are not red yet.
How wonderful that I’ve found a child care provider who gardens with the preschoolers in her care, encouraging the healthy lifestyle I so passionately work to instill at home. But…in my head I’m thinking, it’s 5:00 p.m. I’ve spent my day rushing, working, commuting…not imagining a spontaneous farm-to-table dinner lesson. Her pride-and-joy cucumber and her smile helped me switch out of rush hour gear to recognize the opportunity at hand.
Not only does the chopping, squeezing, and stirring of cooking build a child’s small muscle and hand-eye coordination, it inspires curiosity, and cognitive problem-solving skills. With all three of my children’s early development, I learned that spending a little extra time engaging them in simple and healthful recipe prep translates into a less finicky and less stressful mealtime – quality family time.
So she and I set out on a mission to make dinner with the cucumber. We made Cucumber & Tomato “Rice.” (It was really a salad. But she’s in an “I don’t like salad” phase, so we call it rice):
Cucumber & Tomato “Rice” (Salad)
6 oz. package pearled couscous (or quinoa, wheat noodles, whatever you have on hand)
3 Ripe tomatoes seeded and chopped
1 Cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
½ Medium red onion, ¼” dice
1 Clove garlic, minced
1 Cup fresh basil, shredded
¼ Cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 TB white balsamic reduction (red wine or balsamic vinegar will also work)
¼ Cup shredded parmesan
Fresh-ground black pepper and kosher salt to taste
Cooking with a Preschooler Directions
Prepare couscous according to package and set aside. Talk to your child as you read the directions together; measure the water; and even set the numbers on the timer. (Had this not
been a last minute recipe, I would have chilled the couscous.)
Try cutting the tomatoes and cucumbers together. My daughter and I doubled up at the cutting board with one knife, being careful to keep my hand on top, doing the actual work. I’ve also had my kids cut tomatoes with a plastic butter knife, using a sawing action with the knife’s serration.
My daughter sampled every end segment of cucumber, tomato, and even basil. Around garlic and onion time, she had lost interest for a stretch, giving me time to tackle the more difficult prep work.
Mix remaining ingredients in a bowl, repeating measurements aloud, and allowing your child to pour and stir as much as they can and want.
Stir in chilled couscous or serve as an accompanying salad.
The End Result
This was one of our more pleasant weekday mealtimes of late. At two, Georgi is climbing in and out of her seat; and somewhere, she picked up, “I’m full,” and “I don’t like that.” She’s a great eater with a massive amount of independence to test and a short attention span to boot. She spent this meal proudly asking, “Is this my cucumber?” for almost every one that hit her fork. The extra time spent working through preparing dinner with my preschooler was well worth it when we all sat down together.
On a side note: We made a quick stop to the fish counter at the grocery store on our way home. Of the wild-caught, fresh options available, I was able to sell her on pink (tuna) fish by leveraging her favorite color (pink).