Gumbo On Call

When my wife was in college, years before we met, Saturday mornings boys would knock on her door: “Make us a gumbo!” This was in Wyoming where gumbo was rare, and she and her roommate, also from Lafayette, were popular for their cooking. And  after a night of partying, apparently gumbo was what was needed. Bleary-eyed themselves, the girls set the conditions: “Go to the store, get a chicken and some sausage, and we’ll see.”

Cooking is an important skill kids should learn. This winter there’s no better indoor activity. They’re home from school more, and it’s sometimes too cold to play outside. Eating home-cooked food is healthier for the whole family too, rather than eating take-out or processed food from a box. Of course, if the parents are lousy cooks, maybe kids should learn from another family member. My mom was an average cook, but an excellent baker, so that’s how I turned out. My wife’s mother was solid in the kitchen, and so is she. Now my son is a better cook than I, having his mom to teach him gumbos and etouffees.

Learning to cook goes hand-in-hand with learning which foods are better (fruits and vegetables, low fat, high fiber). Children are also happier, stronger, less sick, and less overweight when they eat three meals per day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some kids  don’t like breakfast; their stomachs and heads aren’t awake before they go out the door to school. However, children learn better with fed brains, so get them up earlier to eat something, like at least half a banana, a small muffin and a glass of juice. Some other kids don’t like to eat at school, where many get their breakfast and lunch. These kids should take food with them- granola bars and fruits to keep them going.

We see lots of issues in the Pediatric Emergency Department due to poor diet. Constipation and gas pains result from low-fiber foods. Not eating three meals daily contributes to headaches, fatigue, and depression. Snack-filled diets cause obesity, leading to leg and back pain, among other problems. Gumbo to the rescue?

On the TV show Chopped, four chefs compete to make gourmet meals from “Mystery Baskets,” with time limits to cook each course. The baskets contain regular ingredients like fish or lamb, but also whacky items like gummy worms. It’s fun watching the chefs try to make tasty food as time ticks down. Then they stand there as judges critique their dishes and decide who gets “chopped.” Pressure really ratchets up when a chef slices himself with a knife, and precious seconds waste away while his wound is dressed.

Kitchens can be dangerous places for kids. There’s knives and whirring blades in blenders, pots and microwaves full of boiling liquids, and lots of traffic to bump children into these hazards. On Chopped chefs call “behind you” to each other as they pass, lest they collide and get burned. Few teens yell “behind you” when going to the fridge while parents are dicing vegetables.

However, like we discussed above, it’s important for children to be there, where they learn the life-long skill of cooking and families hash out the day’s events, and other important life issues. Besides learning how to feed themselves in a healthy way, kids also need to be safe when kitchens get frantic like on Chopped.

The most common kitchen injury we see in the Pediatric Emergency Department is burns from microwaved liquids. Those big, clumsy microwave doors are targets for passers-by, bumping the child who’s retrieving a bowl of hot noodles, scalding her in the face, chest, and hands. When this happens, immediately remove burning clothes and run cold water on to stop the burning process. Better still, closely watch kids when they use microwaves.

Knives injuries are second. Kids should learn how to use them, but with supervision, ensuring they cut away from themselves. It seems obvious to not hold the object you’re cutting in your hand, putting it on a cutting board instead, but it wasn’t obvious to that kid we saw last week. A final checklist for toddlers: keep pot handles and electric cords out of reach, and lock cabinets with poisoning hazards like detergents. Kids shouldn’t get chopped in real life.

Industrial Nightmare

It’s the stuff of nightmares: your child is wandering around a busy factory floor.  She walks past red hot surfaces and open flames that threaten to burn her, or catch the place on fire.  There’s cauldrons of boiling liquid, machines full of whirring blades.  Crowds of workers bustle about, threatening to bump her into anyone of these dangers.  Some of these people do sinister things- encourage your child to play with the knives lying about, or pick up broken glass.  Is that candy down there too?  No!  It’s poison in disguise, don’t eat it!

Wake up, and welcome to your kitchen.  The red hot surfaces and open flames are your stove, topped by pots of boiling liquids. Teaching kids food prep explains the knife handling, and who do we expect to clean up after they break a glass?  Whirring blades: blenders and sno-cone makers.  It’s a high-traffic area too, with parents cooking and kids going in and out to get something to eat.  Someone’s bound to bump somebody into something bad.  Poison disguised as candy?  Look under your sink at those dish washing detergent pods.  Why do they have to make them look so tasty?

It’s surprising there’s not more kids in the Emergency Department with kitchen injuries.  The most common injury we do see is scald burns from liquids in the microwave.  It happens like this: the child heats up some noodles, goes to take out the bowl, and gets bumped by that big clumsy microwave door.  They often get burned on some of the most sensitive places- faces and hands- as well as on chests and bellies. The second most common kitchen injury is knife cuts.  Kids are often supervised when this happens, but aren’t quite respecting the sharpness of the knife. The third most common injury is toddlers eating rat poisons and detergents from under the sink.   

Why don’t we see more injuries?  First, parents are generally pretty good about watching their children in this potentially dangerous environment.  The second reason is that these days kids and parents are spending less time in the kitchen. While this may be better for injury prevention, it’s not so good for overall family health.

Though my kids are ages 25, 23, and 21 years, they still get dragged into our traditional  Christmas cookie making.  While I prefer traditional decorating, like icing the Christmas trees green and the stockings red, the kids think it’s hilarious to make gIngerbread men with five eyes and bullet holes, sheep with missing limbs, trees iced to look tie-dyed, whole trays of cookies decorated like some LSD-fueled acid trip. My wife and I have apparently raised some sick puppies.

But we did something right getting our kids into the kitchen: they all can cook for themselves, and know healthy eating.  There’s many dangers in the kitchen enumerated above: hot stoves and liquids, sharp knives, lots of traffic, broken glass, poisons under the sink.  Though these come with the territory, the kitchen’s also a great place to learn important life skills.

People aren’t feeding themselves enough anymore, relying on packaged, pre-prepared food, or fast food, rather than on home-cooked meals from natural ingredients. For the world to feed itself in a healthy and sustainable way, the next generation must learn how to cook. Kids should how to use knives without cutting themselves.  They need to learn to make meals with fruits, vegetables, good starches and proteins.  They should know how to handle raw meat using non-wooden cutting boards, washing their hands and tools afterward, and disposing of the wrappings and skins safely.  They need to learn how to use the stove, oven, and microwave without setting themselves or the rest of the house on fire.

Besides knowing how to make good food, the kitchen is also a place for healthy interactions. It’s where the family cooks together, learns together, eats together.  Cooking is a creative art, and exercising creativity grows healthy kid brains.  Children develop pride in their new-found abilities, and of course, everyone likes to eat.  Families talk better while eating a meal together, rather than separately in front of TVs, games, or computers.

So make your next meal at home and get those kids into the kitchen with you, to learn what you know.  And I guess it’s okay to let them screw around with the Christmas cookies.

Don’t Get Chopped In Your Own Kitchen

My family loves the cooking show “Chopped,” where contestants make dishes using “mystery basket” ingredients, their creations judged by famous chefs.  The prize: $10,000.  Though it’s interesting enough to see how creative the cooks can be, the show injects more drama by queuing up exciting music when someone burns an ingredient or drops their food on the floor.  But the really big artificial moments come when someone cuts themselves, or starts a fire on the stove.

Kitchens can be dangerous, particularly for kids.  Ovens and stoves stand ready to burn little hands.  Microwaves produce boiling liquids to spill.  There’s broken glass, raw meat, sharp knives, poisonous powders and liquids under the sink, blenders and garbage disposals.  Since parents spend lots of time preparing meals and kids want to be around them and everyone is getting something from the refrigerator, it’s a high-traffic area where collisions happen.  Watch Chopped and note how chefs warn each other when passing; they know it’s dangerous bumping each other with pans of hot oil.

Yet kitchens are places for families to get together.  Ideally, parents and kids meet there at breakfast, and discuss what-happened-today at dinner. Parents can monitor their kids’ homework at the counter.  Also, kids want to help with food prep- if weren’t entertaining, they wouldn’t have cooking shows!  Kids want to learn skills like chopping and baking. And of course, they want to eat!

It’s important then to teach food safety.  First is frequent hand-washing.  Most illnesses are contracted from hand-to-hand contact. In the kitchen hands are touching raw meat, dirty vegetables, raw eggs, which can carry illness-inducing bacteria.  And people are always touching their faces and licking their fingers, putting those germs into their bodies.  Everyone should be washing hands after handling raw foods, before forgetting and inadvertently infecting themselves.

Kids should learn to wash dirty utensils and cutting boards too.  Keeping clean in places like the kitchen and surgery is like a kid’s game, where the bad guys (bacteria and viruses) are invisible, and you have to work a certain way to not get contaminated. Change or wash knives after cutting raw meat or vegetables.  Use only plastic cutting boards for meat- bacteria-laden meat juice soaks into wooden boards and stays.

I use my microwave a lot, but I hate others having them.  Sounds selfish, but the most common kitchen injury I see is kids burned when taking food out of the microwave. Usually mom is in another room; the child heats soup or noodles, opens the microwave’s big clumsy door, and someone bumps into it.  Screaming and blistering burns ensue.  If the child gets splashed on the face or hands it can be disfiguring.

Kitchen safety is something that is taught- kids aren’t born knowing ovens are hot, microwave doors are big targets, and dishwasher pods aren’t edible.  My mom loved to tell the story about my genius brother who, when she explained that the red stove was dangerous, he had to touch it for himself.  Yow!

After modeling kitchen cleanliness like above, next show kids how not to get hurt. Teach about the dangers of hot liquids, stoves, and ovens, and those damn microwave doors. If you have a gas stove, kids need to learn not to turn them on unknowingly, and about fire hazard.  People often store poisons under the sink- cleansers, dishwasher detergent, rat poison.  Dishwasher pods look particularly appetizing. If you have babies and toddlers, install toddler-proof locks on the cabinet doors.  Even better, put those things high and out of reach.

Kids want to handle knives.  They should learn basic rules like always cutting away from themselves, and not holding food being cut in their other hand. Knives should be used slowly and carefully- no hurry when slicing!  Leave the high-speed dicing to the cooking shows.

Finally, supervise kids when using blenders, garbage disposals, and snow-cone makers. It’s a life-long disability when kids lose fingers by reaching in these machines while they’re running.

Everyone needs to learn how to cook and to be safe in the kitchen.  We all learned cooking from our parents, and I’m proud of my son when he makes gumbos and stews, or when my daughters bake a cake.  It’s a joy to be together in the kitchen.  But teach them not to get Chopped.