Presumably, you’re prepping your cutoffs, beer koozies, and charcoal chunks for the Fourth Of July weekend. You may also be prepping an impenetrable playpen for your kids, so you can stand around a roaring grill all afternoon without worrying about them getting grill-shaped scars on their foreheads. But the Fourth is a great time to instill a love of cooking in the kids – so says New Yorker editor John Donohue, author of the cooking anthology Man With A Pan and the food blog Stay At Stove Dad. Unless you have two food-related honorifics to your name, you’ll want to heed his advice.
Start At The Bottom
The bottom line when it comes to cooking with kids is that you want them to have fun. “It’s a creative thing and you don’t want them to think of it as a chore,” says Donahue, whose daughters are 7 and 9 but have been with him in the kitchen since they were toddlers. “If they see that you enjoy cooking, they will, too. The Fourth is a good time to learn that.”
Cooking anything with kids takes more time than you think, so start early. “It’s swimming with your clothes on,” says Donahue. “Just relax – it’s harder, but it’s also more fun.” Beer, he points out, can be useful for the relaxing part. See? The guy’s an expert.
Distraction Is King
Until your kids are old enough to actively participate in the process, your job is to distract them. In the kitchen, Donahue plays magician, methodically pulling out every safe object in the cabinets – pots, pans, tupperware, wooden spoons, whatever – and lets his kids bang away. Once the action moves to the backyard, water is your friend. Bring a dishwashing bucket and deputize them to wash the corn, potatoes, cucumbers, and anything they can’t squish. “The point is to give them a fun task because they’ll want to help. They’re outside, they’re out of your hair, and they can splash around and make a mess. At some point, you’ll need to rinse all the dirt off the food, but that’s a lot less work than a burned kid.”
What You’re Feeding Them
Donahue doesn’t go in for hot dog octopuses or other food-with-faces antics. He sticks to the basics of burgers, hot dogs and corn scraped off the cob, then mixed with some butter and salt. “This isn’t the day to watch what they’re eating carefully or make sure they get their veggies. Let them have the chips.”
What You’re Feeding Everyone Else
When Donahue wants to impress a crowd, he has a few unexpected dishes that don’t require Jedi-level grill skills. The first is a leg of lamb – he has his butcher remove the leg bone and butterfly it so it lays flat on the grill. Then he seasons it with salt, pepper, rosemary, and olive oil, and grills it 10 minutes per side, until it hits 145 degrees at the thickest part. “It’s a big piece of meat, so it feeds 10 or more people. And it’s not evenly cut, so there will be well done pieces and rare pieces for everyone.” He suggests serving with a raita sauce.
His second go-to are soft shell crabs. Have the fishmonger clean them, then use a light batter of flour and cayenne pepper, and grill them 2-3 minutes per side. Whether you allow the kids to name them before grilling is a personal decision.
Being as you’re the one doing the grilling, feel free to guilt your guests into bringing all the sides. If you want to lord that part of the meal over them as well, a few of Donahue’s favorites include basil, green bean, and potato salad and corn salsa.
A Note About Eating Contests
Encouraging competitive gluttony in your kids is clearly irresponsible. Then again, nothing says Fourth Of July like an eating contest. Donahue’s suggestion to square that circle? “Watermelon.”
8 Go-Anywhere Grills For The Camping Man (Or Just The Guy With A Small Apartment)