“Mommy, Can I Help?”

Sometimes I enjoy cooking with my children and sometimes I do not. Depending on the recipe and the cooking skill we are working on it can be a lot of fun or it can be frustrating. It is almost always messy. Regardless of how it comes out, I know that it is important because they are learning valuable skills.

My children are currently 2, 5, and 7 years old. That means they have vastly different abilities in the kitchen as well as different interest levels and attention spans. So, I need to match up each child to recipes that work well for them. Below I have broken down some age groups and matched them up with recipes that would work well with children in those age groups.


  • Two years old: children this age are good at washing fruits and vegetables. They also like to help with set up and clean up. My little guy loves to set the table and, at the end of the meal, he
    uses his little broom to help sweep up.

  • Three years old: children this age are good at pouring and dumping ingredients. They can also help with clean up by putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher or the sink.
    • Try making Banana Oatmeal Bread with your three year old. They will enjoy pouring all the ingredients into the bowl.
  • Four years old: children this age are good at peeling oranges, bananas, and hard cooked eggs; kneading dough; and mixing with a spoon.
    • Try making Creamy Egg Salad Sandwich with your four year old. They can peel the eggs, dump the ingredients into a bowl, and mix everything together.
  • Five years old: children this age are good at cutting with a blunt knife, cracking eggs, and measuring ingredients. My five-year-old daughter’s favorite way to help in the kitchen is measuring.
    • Try making Our Favorite Chicken Noodle Soup with your five year old. They can peel the carrots, cut the celery, and measure out the water, seasonings, and noodles.
  • Six years old: children this age are developing their reading and writing skills, so they are good at writing grocery lists and starting to follow recipe directions.
  • Older children: as children develop their reading and cooking skills they can become more independent in the kitchen. My oldest son is seven years old and is usually the first child awake
    in the morning, so he has started preparing simple breakfasts on some mornings while I am helping the younger ones get ready for the day.

Remember that kitchen skills are cumulative, so what was learned as a two or three year old carries on into their older years. I especially like this when it comes to having extra helpers at clean up time!

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Kitchen Safety: Hot Stuff

Ovens and stoves are very useful tools in the kitchen. My oven and stove are two of my best friends; we roast veggies and meats together, we make soups together, and we sometimes even make sweets together! Even in all the fun of cooking and baking, it is important to stay safe and follow these tips on cooking safety.

1. Stick around when the stove and oven are on. Be sure to keep an eye on whatever it is you’re cooking to prevent it from boiling over, burning, or catching fire. The leading cause of kitchen fires is unattended cooking.
2. When handling hot pans, always use potholders to avoid burns. Handles hanging over the edge of the stove can be grabbed by children or knocked off accidentally. Turn all handles on pots away from you to avoid accidental spills and burns.
3. Keep all utensils away from the oven and stovetop when it is on. This includes mixing spoons, dishtowels, potholders, and paper products, that way you can avoid accidental burns or fires.
4. Turn off the stovetop and oven when you are finished using them. Once you’re done cooking and ready to enjoy your food, double check that all the stove burners have been turned off, and that the oven is no longer on. Make sure all utensils or other flammable objects are safely away from any hot surface. It never hurts to double, even triple check this step!

We hope you have learned a tip or two during our kitchen safety blog series to help keep you safe while you spend time cooking.

Written by Annie Contrady, ISU Dietetic Intern

On the Counter or in the Fridge?

grocery-bag-and-producewpMy kids and I have been faithfully watering our tomato plant (we’re not getting much rain where we live!) and watching it grow this summer. We’re growing the plant in a large container and it’s the only produce we are growing this year, so we’re giving it extra good care. There are 3 green tomatoes on it so far, but lots of flowers so I think we could get quite a few tomatoes!

If you’re growing your own produce or shopping at a farmers market, it’s just about time for all that wonderful produce to be ready. It’s great to eat when it is so fresh, but when you aren’t able to eat it fast enough, it’s good to know how to properly store the produce so it lasts longer.

Here’s a quick look at how to store some types of produce:


Apples, berries, asparagus, green beans, broccoli, carrots, leafy greens, and anything that is cut up

Keep at Room Temperature:

Melons, tomatoes, squashes (store on the counter but away from direct sunlight)

Onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes (best if kept in a dark area such as a pantry)

Ripen on Counter then Refrigerate:

Nectarines, peaches, pears, plums

For more information on storing fruits and vegetables, watch our video on How to Store Fruits and Vegetables.

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Gifts for the Cook

kitchen scissors

Last week I wrote about food gifts I’m planning to give to family and friends. This got me to thinking about what gift ideas for me I could share with my family. As someone who enjoys spending time in the kitchen cooking, I looked around my kitchen to see what I needed. Here are a few ideas I came up with:

  1. Kitchen shears- I used to have a pair but they seemed to have disappeared. Kitchen shears can be used for many things like cutting up fresh herbs, cutting pizza into slices or quesadillas into wedges, or cutting poultry joints.
  2. Plastic cutting boards- I have put my cutting boards to good use. They have a lot of nicks in them where bacteria could hide even with thorough cleaning so it’s time to get new ones. I will ask for 2-3 so I can keep one for cutting raw meats or poultry and the other for cutting fruits and vegetables or ready-to-eat foods to prevent cross contamination.
  3. Food Clips- I like to use food clips to clamp shut open bags of fresh spinach, frozen fruits or vegetables, or crackers. By keeping them shut tight, less air gets into the bag and keeps the food fresher and better tasting.
  4. Skillet with a lid- I use my skillet a lot when cooking for my family and it is starting to show. I like a skillet with a lid since a number of the recipes I make, like Lentil Tacos, include covering the food while it cooks.

In addition to giving a kitchen tool as a gift, consider sharing the link to the Spend Smart. Eat Smart. website or blog with the cooks in your life so they have a whole new set of recipes to try!

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Healthy and Homemade Meals Calendar – Final Quantity Available Now

2016 Chalkboard CoverHow would you like to start each month of 2016 with a tasty new recipe to try?

Whether you’re just learning your way around the kitchen or you’re an experienced cook looking for some fresh recipes, the Healthy and Homemade Meals Calendar is for you!

Each month features an easy, healthy, low-cost recipe as part of a full meal modeled after MyPlate. Here is a taste of some of our featured recipes:

  • Stuffed Peppers
  • Pineapple Snack Cakes
  • Lentil Tacos
  • Simple Apple Dessert
  • Baked Oatmeal Muffins

The recipes and fitness tips in the calendar make it a helpful tool for those hoping to establish healthy habits in the new year and it makes a great holiday gift.

You can purchase the calendar in English or Spanish for just $3.00 from the Extension Online Store. Supplies are limited, so order yours today!

Here’s to a healthy year in 2016!

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Knives 101

Chef mincing bell peppers with knifeA sharp kitchen knife is a good investment. Good knives make cooking easier and most importantly, sharp knives are safer than dull ones. A sharp knife is going to do what you expect it to do. It will slide smoothly through foods and not slip or get caught. When knives slip, that’s when cuts tend to happen.

You do not have to spend a lot of money to get a sharp knife. If you purchase a knife at a discount store for five or ten dollars it will likely stay sharp for six months to a year. At this price point, you would likely replace the knife when it got dull. If you are looking to spend a little more money for a heavier duty knife in the fifteen to thirty dollar range, you can also purchase a knife sharpener for around $20. With regular sharpening every few months, you can keep a knife in good condition for many years.

Sharpness isn’t the only concern when dealing with knives. There are a few safety principles that every cook should know to stay safe around knives.

S – Securely hold your knife. Grip the top of the blade firmly between your thumb and forefinger. Cut things on a flat surface like a cutting board. Do not cut things while you hold them in your hand.

A – Anchor all cutting boards to ensure they don’t slip. If your cutting board easily slides on the counter, put a damp cloth underneath it, this will help it grip.

F – Fingertips should be curled back. Hold foods with fingertips tucked under away from the knife.

E – Eyes on the knife! When using a knife, try to avoid distractions and keep your eyes on what you’re doing. It is also a good idea to keep knives where they are clearly visible, for example, do not put a knife in a sink full of dirty dishes where someone may not know it is there.

T – Take your time. Don’t rush with a knife.

Y – Yield to falling knives. If a knife slips out of your hand or falls from the counter, let it drop. Do not attempt to catch it. This is why it is a good idea to wear closed toe shoes in the kitchen.

There is no reason to fear knives or cooking. Knife safety is as simple as following a few basic rules.

Credit: Utah State University Extension Tips for Teaching Knife Skills

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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It’s Worth a Little Mess

kids in kitchenMy 3 ½ year old son Parker loves to help me in the kitchen. When he realizes I’m cooking, he quickly goes and gets his stool so he can stand and help me. Even though cooking takes longer, and we make more messes, I enjoy spending time with him in the kitchen. He is a picky eater, so when he helps me prepare different foods, he is more likely to try them.

Some tasks that Parker likes to help me with are pouring ingredients in the bowl, stirring ingredients, breaking eggs, putting toppings on homemade pizza, and scooping batter into muffin tins. He likes to have me read him the recipe so we also work on following directions and counting.

There are numerous benefits to having children help in the kitchen. As I mentioned before, it exposes them to new foods and helps them become more willing eaters. Helping in the kitchen also improves children’s fine motor skills, increases their confidence, and gives them an opportunity to work on learning colors, shapes, and counting.

Our new video “How to Include Children in the Kitchen”  has helpful information on how to get children involved in the kitchen, from helping cook to helping unload the dishwasher. Check it out to see how much fun we had cooking with kids along with some tips to get your kids excited about cooking.

Another helpful resource, full of recipes that your children can help you make, is ‘Let’s Cook with Kids’ created by the Northeast Valley Health Corporation WIC Program in California.

How do your children like to help you in the kitchen?

Jodi Signature

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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How to Clean and Organize Your Refrigerator

If you have been reading the SpendSmart blog lately, you know I am on a crusade to get my kitchen more organized.  After creating better centers in my kitchen and organizing the pantry, I started on the refrigerator. I hate wasting time hunting for items and juggling containers to make something fit in the refrigerator. Throwing away food, feels like throwing money in the trash. I save money and time with a more organized refrigerator.

If your refrigerator needs to be cleaned and organized, check out the step by step guide How to Clean and Organize Your Refrigerator.

If you are not ready to tackle this job, here are a few quick tips to properly store food in your refrigerator.

  • Make sure your refrigerator temperature is  40°F or slightly below and your freezer is 0°F or below. Higher temperatures mean faster food spoilage.
  • Air circulates constantly in a refrigerator and foods dry out quickly. Everything needs to be wrapped in foil, plastic, or put in airtight containers. Moisture- and vapor-proof materials are best.
  • Perishables like dairy, eggs, and meat should be kept in the coldest part of the refrigerator (not the door). Fresh meat should be in a drawer or in a container on a bottom shelf so juices do not drip on other foods.
  • Identify a spot for leftovers and label them. Make a plan to use them. If you know you will not use them within four days, freeze them or throw them away.
  • Wipe up spills in the refrigerator when they happen to prevent bacteria (germs) and odors from developing. Use hot soapy water to clean up any spill and rinse with clean water.

How to Organize the Kitchen Pantry

I think of myself as an organized person.  However, I know that I have a problem with clutter.  If you have not gotten to the back of your kitchen pantry in a long time, here is a step by step guide that I used last weekend.

  1. Clear off and clean your countertops.
  2. Take everything out of the pantry including food storage containers and other junk that may have accumulated.
  3. Working from the top shelf down, wash and dry the panty shelves including the corners or cracks, to remove crumbs and food particles.
  4. Evaluate the places you store food.  Food stores best in cool dark spaces. Try to rearrange so that your food is kept in the cool dark spaces in your kitchen. Keep your pots, pans, utensils, and tableware in the cabinets near the oven, stove, hot pipes, or refrigerator exhaust.
  5. Sort your food on the countertop by categories. The ones I used were canned soups and broths, canned fruits, canned vegetables, canned legumes, condiments (catsup, pickles, salad dressing, canned sauces, etc.), canned meat/fish, dried beans, and rice and pasta.
  6. Find a place in the pantry for each category. Check the “used best by dates” on the food before putting them back on the shelves. Next week we will have tips on how to decide which foods should be discarded.
  7. Use the same principles as we talked about in The Basics of Kitchen Organization last week. Create centers, get rid of what you are not using, and use your prime space for the most used items.
  8. Use bins and baskets for items like dry pudding mixes, sauce mixes, and bags of dry beans.
  9. Before you quit for the day decide what you what to do with the items you removed from your shelves.

What did I gain from this exercise?

  • Oil, vinegars, and syrups were moved from above the stove where it is warm to another cupboard.
  • 4 bottles of balsamic vinegar were found?!? I think part of the problem was I could not see to the back of that cupboard.
  • Expired can of cream soup that said “best used by” 4 years ago was found. The soup is probably safe but I decided not to chance it and threw it away.
  • Canned goods were organized by putting multiples on the shelves and one of a kind on the shelves on the back of the door.
  • Through this process I found some pizza crusts and rice noodles I forgot I had. Menus were made to use them next week.
  • I do not need to buy canned tomatoes, black beans, or canned green beans for a while.

The picture to the right shows some of the things that I am removing from my kitchen:

  • I am throwing away the old food.
  • My niece who has a new apartment is going to check out if she needs any of my utensils or dishes.
  • I am taking the rest to the Free Store which takes household items. They give them to families who are moving out of Children & Families of Iowa’s Domestic Violence Services. Most communities have a center to give away items you don’t need.

Doesn’t it feel good to help someone else AND have a kitchen which is easier to work in?

The Basics of Kitchen Organization

In the last few days, I’ve been reading a lot about organizing kitchens and how kitchen organization relates to saving money.  The three common themes I found are listed below:

1. Create “centers” in your kitchen around common activities. Common activities include: food storage, cooking and serving, cleanup, planning/messages, and eating. The idea of centers is that you group all the items that will be used on a task close to each other. For instance silverware, plates, and glasses,  are stored close to the dishwasher or drying area so you can just stand and put them away rather than carrying them across the room. Baking ingredients including flour, sugar,  leavening, and baking tools are grouped together in another location for a baking center.

I thought I was doing pretty well creating “centers” but I made a couple of changes that I think will help my organization. I moved my rolls of foil, plastic wrap, and plastic bags directly across from the refrigerator so I can easily prepare foods for the refrigerator or freezer. I included marking pens to write what is in them plus the date (so as not to have more UFO-unidentified food objects).

I moved my colander and cutting boards under the sink. To make room for them, I moved the vases and plant care items that I won’t use until spring to a box in the garage.

2. Get rid of items you are not using. The old rule about getting rid of clothes you haven’t worn also applies to serving dishes, utensils, and small appliances: If you haven’t used it in a year you probably don’t need it. I was ashamed of my cooking utensil drawer so I decided to do what all the experts say: lay everything out, clean, remove duplicates, remove items you do not use, and remove items that belong somewhere else. I like the results of my work and I think I can keep it in order now that the drawer isn’t so full.

Utensil Drawer Before
Utensil Drawer After
Removed From Drawer

3. Store the items you use the most between your shoulders and knees and in the front where they will be visible.  This way, it is easy to find what you are looking for and quick to put items away.  I moved my flour and sugar canisters to the bottom cupboard instead of using prime space in my top cupboard because I don’t bake every day.  In their place, I put the coffee filters, tea bags, and travel cups that I use often.

I am happy with the changes I made. I think it will make food preparation and clean up faster and less stressful. The key, of course, will be if I can follow through and put things back where they belong.

If you would like to read more on this subject, here are 2 great resources:

Essential Kitchen Tool kit This kit from the Canned Food Alliance has great tips on kitchen organization.

Dealing with Clutter in the Kitchen This page is part of a website that includes ideas for clutter reduction all over the house

Next week: How to organize your pantry and how to tell if food is still good.

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