young chef The Culinary Institute of America

Cooking tips from a CIA pro: “Kids aren’t dumb”

CIA Chef-instructor Mark Ainsworth on writing a kids’ cookbook, school lunch challenges and finally moving on from “ants on a log.”

When The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) comes out with a new publication, you can be sure it’s well researched and on target. That’s definitely the case with the recently released new cookbook “The Young Chef: Recipes and Techniques for Kids Who Love to Cook” by Mark Ainsworth and The Culinary Institute of America.

Mark Ainsworth, professor of culinary arts at the CIA, is the author behind a new book for cooking with kids, and it’s been praised as not talking down to kids, and even serving as a resource for adults who have never cooked before.

Ainsworth, who has two teenagers of his own, took time out to talk with us about kids and food.

Q: One review of your book says that you didn’t do “dumbed down” kid recipes. Pizza starts with dough, not an English muffin. That’s a departure from typical kids’ cookbooks. Why did you choose to do it this way?

A: As I was getting started, the publisher was always asking what comparable books there were. I would always tell them there weren’t any. They’re always “bugs on a log,” the celery sticks with cream cheese or peanut butter and raisin “bugs.” Or they’re just pretty books like the Williams-Sonoma books with beautiful recipes. So my book is just written; it’s not written just for kids. Kids aren’t dumb.

Q: What was the testing process like? How did you determine which recipes to include? 

A: I tested a lot of recipes at home and decided on things that my family likes and I asked a lot of people what their favorite recipes were when they were kids. We tried to make it nutritionally sound as would sell. We kept the ingredients minimal. There are apple pies that have six ingredients. There’s even a recipe for broccoli. My kids don’t like broccoli, but if I put butter on it or the sweet sauce from Chinese takeout, they like it. So you spend the calories and get the nutrients. 

Q: Your new book has quite a few recipes with global influences, like the Chinese “takeout” broccoli you mentioned and Mexican street corn. What are some cuisines from around the world that translate best to kids’ cooking?

A: Parents and kids now are eating a heck of a lot more international food than before. Kids eat sushi. My kids like to go out for Thai, Indian, Japanese…it’s just how do we transfer that into the kitchen? Thai satay is a good way to do it; they love things on a stick. Ramen stir-fry is really simple; just take the package and get rid of the flavoring packet and use the noodles.

Q: I know you’ve done some work teaching school foodservice chefs, cooks and directors. What are some of the challenges that they talk about with you?

A: There’s a problem making “healthy food.” People won’t want it. So you have to really want to make delicious food that happens to be healthy. Our Menus of Change [the CIA’s initiative for healthier menus] addresses that, but that’s mostly for colleges. It’s hard for K-12 operators because they’re so regulated. First by the government and second by their customer, which is the kid and also the parent. It’s really hard, and I think the big manufacturing companies are doing a pretty good job to make a good product. But you can make a good product and then just get laughed down by parents that don’t understand that it’s probably more nutrient-dense than what they make at home. But the parent just says, “That’s disgusting, that’s processed food.” But for the price…it has to be processed because no one’s willing to pay $8 for their kid’s lunch.

Q: A lot of foodservice pros who cook for kids every day cite fast-casual places like Chipotle for really influencing what kids want to eat. Do you think that’s true?

A: It certainly influences what they eat; places like Chipotle open up a lot of things they might not have at home, something as simple as beans. A lot of parents don’t make beans. So kids go to Chipotle and eat beans, and learn, “By the way, I like beans.”

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