The Secret to Kid-Approved Meals? Love and Spice and Everything Nice

girl holding bowl of oatmeal
Photo by Kelsey Foster

By Carolyn Sweeney Hauck

"Food is love." 

Every once in a while, you meet a person who truly embodies the meaning of the phrase—a person like Clara Franklin. Franklin has been cooking meals for children at a KinderCare in Forth Worth, Texas for over seven years, and, inspired by her mother’s adoration for food and family, every meal she makes is infused with love, love, love.

“You have to cook food in a way that you know kids will eat and enjoy it,” says Franklin. ”They have to enjoy it.”

Get Franklin talking about the food of her childhood, and she’ll describe every recipe in mouthwatering detail: homemade hamburgers, spaghetti and meatballs, and (oh!) the yams. “My mother made sure we ate a full-course meal at every single meal. I grew up in a family that valued eating together and home-cooked meals,” she says.

The trick to her mother’s cooking was the spice. “She wasn’t shy about seasoning,” explains Franklin. “She had all these little tricks and used spices, and that made her food come out so good. So that’s what I do. I add a dash of garlic powder here, and maybe a touch of salt or pepper there.” Her oatmeal doesn’t get served without a dash of cinnamon on top, and to get the yummy, creamy consistency that makes her kids gobble it all up, she adds a touch of milk to the water while it boils.

Ask the center’s director, Tonya McKinzie, about Franklin’s cooking, and she’ll swoon as she rattles off lunches the kids love: black beans and brown rice and Franklin’s yams (of course!), but it’s the green beans with crunchy onions on top that really steal the show across the board, according to McKinzie. “If a mom or dad happens to be here at lunchtime and they smell the green beans wafting down the hallway, they’re asking for a bowl!” In other words, there’s no such thing as kid food at Franklin’s center. It’s family food, made to bring people together (and make mouths water).

boy raising hand for seconds
Photo by Kelsey Foster

For Franklin, getting kids to try new foods isn’t just about nutrition, it’s about the pure joy that food brings to our lives. Food is an adventure: If she serves something her children haven’t tried before, Franklin tells them to try just one taste. “With my kids, they try it and that’s it! They love it. They just have to try it, and soon they’ll be asking for seconds. My kids eat!”

Take a page from Franklin’s book: Don’t forget the dash of joy when you cook for your kids—and don’t forget a dash of joy for yourself. 

cooking together
Art created by Amy Martin Illustration

Home Guide to Cooking with Love

One of the best ways to infuse your meals with love? Draw from your own family experience! Recipes are special traditions that get passed down from generation to generation, but even if you’re short on those, you can always start a new tradition or make culinary memories with your kids. Here are a few ideas to give them a sense of family when you sit down to share a meal, and to get them excited about whatever’s on the menu.

1. Cook from Our Family’s History.

Cook a memorable recipe that your mom or dad used to whip up. Can’t find grandma’s special meatloaf recipe? Research and find something similar online. Cooking from your past, as long as there is fondness there, can reconnect you to cooking at a deeper level, and that shows through to your kids.

2. Serve It with a Family Story.

Kids loooove to hear stories about when their grown-ups were kids, and that can be a great tool for getting them to connect with what’s on the plate at dinnertime—even if it’s just a simple dish of steamed carrots with butter and basil, just like your dad made when you were little. Talk about the dish and how you remember eating it as a child.

3. Make a New Special Tradition.

Drawing a blank? Start your own tradition! Whether it’s baking cookies during the holidays, making blueberry pancakes on Saturday mornings, or designing a three-course dinner for Sundays, pick something you enjoy cooking and make a ritual out of it.
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