Pint-Sized Chefs Get Cookin'

The culinary craze that’s been sweeping the nation now comes in kiddie size.

A growing number of cooking schools (search), grocery chains and restaurants are offering classes and culinary summer camps for little ones. And a school just for kids called Viva the Chef, established last year in New Jersey, will soon open duplicates in 27 states across the country.

“It’s safe to say there’s been an upswing,” said Parenting magazine Lifestyle Director Andrea Messina. “It’s certainly the popularity of celebrity chefs like Rocco DiSpirito (search) and of course Emeril (Lagasse). It’s very trendy to be a foodie nowadays, and there are a lot of parents who want to jump on that bandwagon too.”

Culinary classes aren't as popular as say, soccer or softball, but adding them to a kid's repertoire of activities is the latest in a long list of sophisticated after-school pursuits.

“Cooking is a new sport for the kids,” said Gina Martinez, founder and CEO of Viva the Chef. “Kids are watching the Food Network (search). They’re really interested in this – it’s amazing.”

But unlike some activities that parents enroll their children in like piano lessons or math tutoring, cooking classes are something most kids go to willingly.

“They’ve loved it. They’ve been very happy,” said Short Hills, N.J., mom Mindy Seltzer, whose 12-year-old daughter Rebecca and 15-year-old son David have both taken classes at Viva the Chef. “They try things at home, which is great.”

Aside from Viva the Chef in Morristown, N.J., other places that offer kiddie cooking lessons include the Institute of Culinary Education and The New School in New York City; Equinox Restaurant in Washington, D.C.; Les Petites Gourmettes children’s cooking school in Scottsdale, Ariz.; the Cooking School of the Rockies in Boulder, Colo.; The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.V. and New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt.

Martinez, whose classes run $39.99 each or $190 for six weeks, said when children get experience in the kitchen they learn all-important lessons about nutrition, kitchen safety and culinary creativity. And the menus are kid-friendly with everything from pasta, salad and pizza to a variety of sweets, among the favorites.

Teaching kids about what goes into meals can also help instill in them healthier eating habits, and Martinez hopes, reduce the obesity rates among children and teens.

“We need to change their eating habits. They’re eating junk,” she said. “You instill these skills in them at a young age and it’s going to make a difference.”

This fall, Viva the Chef, which offers classes for children aged 3 to 16 and currently has about 280 students enrolled, will open franchises in Florida, Phoenix, Virginia and another one in New Jersey, with more on the way in other states and even Puerto Rico.

Walter Neuhold, founder and president of the Professional Chefs Association, said there are now thousands of cooking camps and classes for kids that have cropped up across the U.S.

“[Cooking] is one of the basic tools. It’s like learning swimming,” he said. “There are so many possibilities with food. You want to awaken some talent, some creativity. Food is fun to play with.”

Some skeptics wonder whether kiddie culinary classes are just another sign that today’s children are overscheduled and juggling too many extracurricular activities. But most say that because cooking is relaxing, creative and non-competitive, it isn’t likely to add stress to little ones’ lives.

“The difference with cooking classes is that there’s usually a finite number of them,” said Messina. “You’re not constantly upping the ante. There’s a lot less competition. And you get something to show for it.”

And learning culinary skills can make children feel useful around the house, according to Seltzer, whose two kids pitch in with meals.

“It gives the kids a real sense of self-confidence,” she said. “Kids tend to want to be more important. It gives them an opportunity at home to be part of the team.”