I am all about taking shortcuts in the kitchen. Give me pre-chopped vegetables, one-pot meals and simple side dishes, please. I used to love puttering about and exploring new recipes, but now that I’m a parent, I just don’t have time.
One of my favorite easy and healthy meals is baked salmon with roasted vegetables. You’ll find the recipe below, but in a nutshell it’s: sprinkle salmon with breadcrumbs and a seasoning blend, toss veggies with olive oil and a seasoning blend, bake everything at 400F. I make it about once a week and I can usually get it all into the oven in less than five minutes while my husband is on the way home with our girls in tow.
One day recently, I didn’t quite have everything into the oven by the time my kids got home. My three-year old spotted the raw salmon on a sheet pan on the counter. “Can I touch it?” she asked?
Who lets a toddler mess around with raw fish??
Oh geez. Who knows what kind of grime this kid has accumulated on her hands throughout the day? I just needed to sprinkle some seasonings onto the fish and get it into the oven so I could focus on the rest of the evenings to-dos. And anyway, who lets a toddler mess around with raw fish? But she was so eager, and I knew that tactile experiences with food and cooking will help her develop into a confident eater and cook herself one day. “Okay,” I sighed. “Let’s wash your hands first.” I hoisted her up to the sink.
“I want to paint it!” she exclaimed after a few minutes of sliding her hands over the raw salmon flesh. Uh oh. Once, months prior, I’d let my daughter brush the salmon I was cooking with olive oil. Toddlers and their memories, huh? The method I was using that night didn’t even call for brushing the salmon with oil. It would be a totally unnecessary step that would ultimately delay getting this cooked meal onto the table…
But who could say no to that face? Coming back to my belief in the importance of these experiences, I poured some oil into a ramekin and passed her the pastry brush.
At this point, she was essentially cooking the entire meal, so I hoisted her over the sink again, washed the raw fish off her hands and let her finish prepping the dish by putting the “sprinkles” on top. She stood a safe distance away while I slid the fish and vegetables into the oven, then I’m sure she dashed off to play while it all baked.
I’d love to say that taking the time to give my kid this experience made her a salmon fan for life, that the extra time we spent on dinner that night helped her consume a larger portion of fish, packing her little body with essential omega-3 fatty acids. But the truth is, she took a few bites of fish like she normally does, messed around with a piece of salmon skin for a little while and then asked if she could go play.
It would be really easy for me to rush my toddler (and soon, her one-year-old sister, too) out of the kitchen each night so I can focus on the task of feeding my family. It would also be easy to give my kids one or two tactile experiences in the kitchen, notice that it’s a hassle and it doesn’t change much about their eating habits and give up on ever doing it again. But inviting your kids into the kitchen and allowing them time and space to discover food and cooking in their own way is a long game. A life long game, in fact, with a relatively mundane payoff – hopefully – of her enjoying a varied diet and cooking for herself one day. And yet I encourage you to do it anyway, knowing that it’s one of the most important experiences you can give your children.
Please know that there are plenty of nights when my toddler doesn’t cook with me. I either succeed in getting everything prepped before she and her sister get home (the luxury of which is not lost on me!) or, equally as often, I invite her to cook with me and she’s more interested in a game, a popsicle, or releasing the stress of her day with a tantrum. But that only makes the infrequency of the moments we do share in the kitchen – when I have the time to spare and she’s in the right mood – that much more important.
I will always remember the night when she was three years old and she wanted to touch and paint and put “sprinkles” on the fish.
And to me, that’s what cooking together is really about. We will have thousands of crazed evenings together over the course of her childhood. I’ll never remember them all, but I will remember the night when she was three years old and she wanted to touch and paint and put “sprinkles” on the fish. I hope you’ll pause and take the time to let special memories like this unfold in your kitchen, too.
Easy Baked Salmon
1 large salmon filet
Olive oil (optional)
Seasoning blend of choice (I love Penzey’s Fox Point)*
Panko bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 400F. Line a baking sheet with foil and oil it lightly. Place the salmon filet on the sheet.
Optionally, brush the salmon with olive oil. Sprinkle the salmon with seasoning and Panko.
Bake at 400F for 12-15 minutes depending on thickness of fish.
*Consider whether your blend includes salt and add salt accordingly.