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Teens in the Kitchen

Teens in the Kitchen
According to chef Rick Bayless, the secret to sharing the kitchen with your teenager is to become a fellow explorer, examining the culinary world from a teen's perspective.

Award-winning chef-restaurateur, cookbook author, television personality and father of a lively teenager, Bayless explored this subject in Rick & Lanie's Excellent Kitchen Adventures, the cookbook he wrote with his daughter Lanie. Researching and writing it, Bayless says, was a years-long journey that taught him a great deal about the rewards and challenges of cooking with teens.

Since the book's publication, father and daughter have continued to spend time cooking together and learning from each other. To inspire parents of teenaged cooks, here are a few of Bayless' tried-and-true suggestions:

Give young cooks the run of the kitchen.
Whether the task is grocery shopping, selecting recipes or preparing a meal, Bayless believes that the secret to fostering a culinary interest in teens is to put them in control. "Kids will happily do just about anything if they feel like they're in charge," he observes. "It's fine to set parameters, but don't stand over them and criticize what they're doing. When you find your teenager is getting sarcastic, it's often because you're providing too much direction."

Allow them to make their own mistakes.
Bayless admits that it's not always easy for him to step back and give his daughter free reign in the kitchen. "I've learned it's really important to let Lanie have her space, which can be difficult because there's so much I could be teaching her. But then I remind myself that the primary purpose of cooking together is to spend quality time with each other. Sometimes I'll say, 'You might find it easier if you do it this way.' But if I offer too much advice, she'll remind me, 'Hey, Dad, this isn't a cooking class, we're just making dinner here.' So I try to let her make her own mistakes and learn from them. That's the hardest thing to do as a parent."

Put teens in charge of a mealtime.
Parents of teenagers are sometimes dismayed when their once-avid young kitchen helpers balk at the prospect of assisting with meal preparation. Bayless' solution is to put them in charge of an entire meal. He shares the story of a friend who told her two teenage sons that they each needed to cook dinner one night a week. Immediately, the two began to regard food from a new perspective, always on the alert for new recipes, ingredients and techniques. They learned from each other and were energized by the sense of friendly competition. "What changed everything," Bayless notes, "is that they were in the driver's seat and so became invested in preparing a successful meal that everyone enjoyed."

Never underestimate teenage ambitions.
Bayless recalls when Lanie insisted upon preparing an intricate recipe for an opera cake. He was sure it would be far too difficult for her and worried that she'd fail. "It was really hard, but she said she wanted to do it, and she did. If I'd followed my parental instincts, I would have advised something simpler. But now she thinks of it as a special dish that she's mastered and is very proud to have in her repertoire."

Help teens to adopt a "signature dish."
If Rick Bayless had his way, "every kid would have at least one really special dish they can prepare entirely on their own." Being able to claim a dish as uniquely their own gives kids a sense of practical achievement and creative pride. Lanie's first "signature dish," mastered at age five, was a colorful appetizer platter of raw vegetables and dip. These days, her signature dish is profiteroles, a mainstay at family parties.

Work with them to build a culinary repertoire.
"I think it's really important to launch kids into college with a few special things that can become an inexpensive centerpiece for a festive occasion because they're going to need it. For example, every teenager should have their ace-in-the-hole breakfast, an impressive 'date meal' and an easy party dish. If you can cook a nice meal, you become the center of the social world. Everybody's going to want to come over to have your special pancakes or lasagna or whatever. It can be really simple stuff; you just have to learn how to do it."

Take time to eat together.
"Since I work in a restaurant, our family doesn't have the luxury of sitting down to dinner together every night, so we have breakfast as our daily time together. Sunday nights we go out for a meal, and on Mondays we have a family dinner at home." He recalls a time when he and his wife Deann had been busy working and traveling, causing them to go for two weeks without a family dinner. When they resumed the regular dining ritual, Lanie exclaimed "Wow, I've really missed good food!" To Bayless, it was much more than just food: "I think what she was saying is that she'd missed the whole experience, the time spent together as a family."

Host celebrations with your teen.
"You know, we're the only culture in the world that separates the food our kids eat from that of the adults. For example, we'll tend to serve pizza or other 'kid-friendly' food for young people, while the adults enjoy 'grown-up' food at a separate table. If you look at the model from other countries, people of all ages celebrate together, serving traditional dishes that say 'this is who we are' as a family or a community." Following this communal spirit, the Bayless family hosts an annual party for Lanie's friends and their parents, where everyone sits down together to enjoy special dishes chosen, prepared and served by the whole family.

Explore global cuisines together.
Bayless notes that travel has made his daughter a more adventurous eater and taught her how to be at ease in a wide variety of social settings. "Traveling around the world with Lanie helped her understand the food traditions of other countries in their true cultural context. On our family trips, we always try to connect with a family who will invite us to watch them cook, then share a meal together. The recipes they give us become our souvenirs from that trip, bringing back delicious memories every time we prepare them." In addition to traveling, he recommends studying food traditions with your teenager. "It's a great family project: Pick a culture and learn what the people eat, then shop for, prepare and eat those dishes yourselves."

Encourage teens to explore new foods with friends.
One way of getting teenagers to make adventurous food choices is to organize intriguing culinary outings. Bayless describes bringing Lanie and her friends to an ethnic grocery, where each person would select five things. "You know teenagers: some would go for the grossest, some would go for the safest, so you'd really get it all. Then we'd go home and do a tasting panel. We'd lay it all on the table and vote for the top five coolest things to bring home from a certain ethnic grocery." He also recommends that parents encourage teens to invite friends over to cook. "Lanie and her friends love to get together to cook, bake and hang out. Sometimes the dish will turn out and sometimes it won't. But the important thing is that they're integrating food with social life."

from an interview with Laura Martin Bacon