Little hands, big feats
Nov./Dec. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Lori Fusaro
Cooking with kids builds lifelong skills.
More online: Recipes and videos
When it comes to learning, hands-on is often the best. And the pint-sized students at Piccolo Chef in Los Angeles are quick to agree. Kneading dough, mastering a rolling pin, chopping, mixing and stirring are all part of the fun in the school's professional kitchen.
Chef Gino Campagna drizzles olive oil onto pizza dough that 4-year-old Mia Moraccini is preparing for mini-pizzas (pizzettes), while her mom and Piccolo Chef cooking school co-founder Tina Fanelli Moraccini looks on. Campagna said he wants children to learn how easy and delicious it is to cook from scratch.
The school's master chef Gino Campagna, who has been teaching children to cook for more than 30 years, said his young apprentices often say, "I can't wait to tell my mom!" after whipping up something delicious in class. That excited reaction is exactly what he hopes will happen with every child.
The youngsters learn how to make pizza dough using an easy recipe that offers the perfect opportunity for a fun, hands-on cooking experience.
With a little planning, he said, it's easy to generate the same enthusiasm in youngsters for cooking at home, particularly during the holidays when family and friends gather. Cooking traditional family recipes, adding kid-friendly ingredients and coming together around an attractively set table are what the holidays are all about, Campagna said.
"Americans are losing the knowledge of how to prepare foods from scratch," he said. "But more than that, we're losing the benefits of sitting together to enjoy the foods. I see only positives in bringing children into the kitchen and teaching them to cook, especially during the holidays."
What's more, Campagna said, the food IQ of American children needs to be raised.
"We can't just ask kids to start eating differently or try things they don't know about or have never tasted," he said. "We need to introduce them to a variety of foods that are high in nutrition, taste good and are fun to prepare."
The making of Piccolo Chef
Piccolo, which means "small" in Italian, seemed like the perfect name to the school's co-founders, Tina Fanelli Moraccini and Lilian Palmieri. Moraccini, who worked with Palmieri as a cultural attaché to the Italian Consulate in Los Angeles for more than a decade, said, "Being Italian is all about food, and that's what we're bringing to children through Piccolo Chef."
They add flavor and healthy toppings to their pizzettes before baking them.
The working moms started the school about six years ago when their children were small. Palmieri's son loved to cook, but there weren't any culinary classes in Los Angeles suitable for children at the time. So with family as inspiration, the pair teamed up to offer classes for elementary school-aged kids that focus on fresh fruits and vegetables in dishes made from scratch. But the founders say even preschoolers can join in the culinary fun, doing simple tasks planned in advance.
"We're not chefs," Moraccini said. "We're moms who grew up with mothers who cooked three meals a day, in homes where the kitchen was the heart of the family."
Chef apprentices, from left, Annabella Fanelli, 11, Valentina Moraccini, 9, Mia Moraccini, 4, and Peter Fanelli, 9, watch chef Gino Campagna toss pizza dough.
The women know firsthand how busy life can be for working moms, and because meals have to be prepared and eaten, what better place to spend quality time with children than in the kitchen?
Interest in the school has grown and now cooking classes are held in a professional TV-studio kitchen. The company also develops programs for TV food shows, offers demonstrations at community food festivals and home cooking parties, and hosts birthday celebrations. They've even written a book called "The Piccolo Chef Cookbook." (See Book Reviews)
Moraccini and Palmieri find that when children take an interest in cooking—or grocery shopping—they tend to make healthier choices about the food they eat.
And making good food choices has never been more important. A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that childhood obesity rates are declining, but too many preschoolers in the U.S. remain obese, posing a major health risk as they grow up.
"We believe wonderful foods don't come out of boxes and microwave ovens," Moraccini said. "We know from experience families can enjoy healthy meals that are fresh, quick to prepare and stay within budgets."
Piccolo Chef founders believe teaching children to cook, including chopping and cutting with kid-safe tools, builds self-confidence, educates taste buds and strengthens family bonds.
Every kitchen is a classroom
For youngsters and teens who spend a lot of time interacting with electronic devices, Moraccini said inviting them into the kitchen gets them back in touch with their senses through seeing, touching, smelling, listening to the sounds of cooking and, best of all, tasting.
"The kitchen is a place where self-confidence and useful life skills are built, along with an understanding of good nutrition," she said. "We don't cook 'kiddie food.' We prepare dishes that deserve to be presented at the table to adults."
But pizza? Moraccini laughs when the school's popular pizzette class is mentioned. She points out the healthy ingredients in her recipe—canned tomatoes, fontina cheese, garlic, baby arugula, prosciutto and olive oil. All are part of healthful, Mediterranean-style cooking, she said.
Balancing calories and ensuring children get adequate nutrition is a discussion over most children's heads, Moraccini said. She recommends parents help their children enjoy the process of creating meals that support good eating habits and look for ways to make healthier dishes more appealing.
"Involve your kids in the meal planning, grocery shopping, preparing, cooking and table setting," she said. "Our message is simple: Bring your family back to the table and begin with what goes on in the kitchen."
Tips for cooking with kids
Piccolo Chef co-founder Tina Fanelli Moraccini offers these tips for buying, cooking and serving farm-fresh foods, with kids in mind:
- Keep it clean: First and foremost, have kids wash their hands before and after cooking. Also, keep a sponge or rag close by to clean up any messes as you go.
- Treasure time: Take your kids grocery shopping. Make it a treasure hunt, finding aisles and reading nutrition labels. It's a great time to teach colors, shapes, letters, numbers—and good nutrition.
- Keep it real: Let your little ones select their own fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmers market. If they pick it out themselves, they are more likely to eat it.
- Focus on fun: Invite playfulness into the kitchen—tell stories about ingredients, sing songs and play counting games. The kitchen is a great lab for interactive learning—with adult supervision, that is.
- Read the recipe: Encourage your children to read it aloud before they begin. Together, set out all ingredients and equipment on the table, leaving enough space for cooking.
- Use kid-safe knives: Lettuce knives, sold in most kitchen gadget departments, are the same size and shape as a metal chef's knife, but made of plastic. They can cut through a carrot, yet they're safe enough for a 3-year-old.
- Make a bear paw: Teach children to fold fingers in, away from knife blades and sharp edges, like a "bear paw." It's good practice for when they grow up, too.
- Dress for success: Kids love to rock a chef's apron and look the part. If they're wearing long sleeves, roll them up. In the kitchen, closed-toed shoes are best. If their hair is long, tie it back.
- Do it by hand: Encourage kids to use their hands—after they're washed, of course—to add and mix ingredients. It's a fun part of learning to cook.
- Keep it tidy: When you finish cooking, have the children help clean up. It's a good habit for life.
- Eat together: As Moraccini says, "It's so enjoyable to savor what you and your kids have created."
Cooking with Chef Gino
With boundless and contagious energy, Gino Campagna dedicates himself to "helping children at school and families at home recognize, appreciate and cook farm-fresh ingredients." The Italian chef wears many hats, including as a cooking show host, volunteer advocate for school gardens and master chef of Piccolo Chef cooking school in Los Angeles.
Here are a few links so you can catch the busy chef in action: