No More Food Fights

A school chef shares his secrets for coaxing kids to eat their veggies, help in the kitchen, and develop tasty habits for life.

Mystery meat has been booted off the menu at The Calhoun School in New York City. The kids, who munch away on Brussels sprouts and baked rutabaga “fries,” couldn’t be happier. Neither could their chief cook, Robert “Chef Bobo” Surles, who was hired to revolutionize the lunch program and kids’ eating habits at the K–12 private school.

His success is evident in the hundreds of requests received from parents who want to prepare his healthful, kid-approved recipes at home. That’s exactly what Chef Bobo was hoping would happen. (A fourth-grader even asked for a food processor for Christmas!)

“Parents are the gatekeepers for nutrition for their kids,” he says. “Kids’ palates have to be developed just as their physical and coordination skills have to be developed.”

And training a healthy palate is much easier than teaching Junior how to hit a fastball. Children love to eat, so parents should take every opportunity to introduce them to sensational flavors. Never underestimate what your children will sample, Chef Bobo says.

“What kids see is what they eat,” Chef Bobo explains. For example, if parents start their children on whole-grain pasta rather than macaroni made from white flour, chances are those youngsters will grow up loving it.

They’ll also eat their vegetables, Chef Bobo says-if you know a few tricks. Braise them, glaze them, roast them, or sauté them, but never steam or boil them. Most students prefer roasted vegetables that have become caramelized in the oven, enhancing their natural sweetness, he says. At The Calhoun School kids can’t get enough caramelized Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, green beans, and any root vegetable cut in the shape of a French fry.

Spices and herbs help kick up the flavor, too. In fact, the most requested vegetable at Calhoun is roasted cauliflower tossed with cumin and olive oil. Students like to experiment with new dishes, bold flavors, and foods with beautiful, bright colors, Chef Bobo says, and they love to sample the diverse flavors of ethnic foods.

To encourage this, the chef, who trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York, urges parents and grandparents to invite kids into the kitchen. Getting them involved in meal planning and preparations helps them to master important cooking skills at an early age. Helping prepare meals gets them excited about eating their own creations, and helps them develop healthful eating habits for life. At Calhoun, cooking classes are even offered after school for students.

“Anything that involves touching and manipulating with their hands is fun for kids,” Chef Bobo says. A child as young as age 3 can help by placing ingredients in a bowl and stirring them around with a wooden spoon. A 7 or 8-year-old can easily prepare a simple vinaigrette to splash on greens for dinner. Kids this age can work with a plastic knife to trim and cut up some vegetables and fruit. By the time they reach age 12, children can help get an entire meal on the table.

“The earlier you start letting kids help in the kitchen, the better,” says the chef. He recalls starting his cooking career at age 7, helping his grandmother, Mamo, make family meals.

“Cooking with Mamo involved some of the happiest times in my life,” he says. “It made me equate the kitchen with love and laughter. The kitchen truly can be a magical place.”