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ideas for cooking with a six-year-old....with type I diabetes

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This winter I'm going to visit family, and I'd like to be able to do some cooking projects with my just-turned-six-year-old nephew, who has Type I diabetes. There are a lot of different reasons for this:

1) I like cooking, of course. :-)

2) I want him to have foods that he can eat and enjoy without having too much fuss and without feeling deprived. The last time I was there, they were having a really hard time balancing what he wanted to eat against massive swings in his blood sugar -- no kidding, banana pudding with Nilla wafers will do that. And everything he ate had to be weighed before he could eat it, so that they could calculate how much insulin to give him. I couldn't help wondering if his food restrictions were one reason that he always was wanting to play "let's pretend" baking games with me.

3) I want to find foods that would be easy for his parents to cook for him -- they're both really busy (two working parents, two kids...no surprise they're busy), and actually one parent doesn't like to cook at all. A lot of what they were eating the last time I was there came from restaurants and Trader Joe's.

But I have very little idea of what a six-year-old is capable of doing in the kitchen, particularly when it comes to diabetes-friendly foods. I did buy him some supposedly kid-safe knives (<a href=
"http://www.amazon.com/Curious-Chef-3-... Curious Chef</a>) and may bring my Thermomix, which could help with chopping and stirring over heat.

Any advice on either what a six-year-old can do or what diabetes-friendly food a kid can make? I'm specifically hoping to find foods that have a low glycemic index/are low-carb and are overall healthful, something beyond your standard stir-fry. Oh, and affordable of course (see above re: family of four). Some ideas I've had so far are chawan mushi, portabello mushrooms with an egg baked on top, frittatas (notice a theme), turkey lettuce wraps, versions of ratatouille, and insalata caprese. For slightly more healthful desserts, I might try chickpea blondies. I'm told he's not into soups lately, or I'd make vegetable soups. I'm presuming I shouldn't let a six-year-old handle any raw meat. :-) Does anyone have any other advice or suggestions?

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  1. Madbaker, my son was diagnosed with diabetes at 5 so I have a pretty good idea what your nephew and his parents are going through. It sounds like he is newly diagnosed and that your visit is yet several months off. By then they will be much further along on the learning curve than your last visit. Part of the reason they may be relying on a lot of prepared foods like TJs now is that everything is still topsy turvy in their home (testing blood sugar, getting a 6 year old to deal with multiple injections a day, plus attending to the needs of his sibling). When our son was first diagnosed, it was just like bringing him home as a newborn; so many new things to deal with. Also the nutrition facts on packaged food actually makes it easier to figure out meal portions when you are counting carbs than cooking from scratch.

    My first thought was to wonder if you were in the habit of cooking at their home in the past. If you never cooked for them in the past and suddenly sweep into their kitchen proposing to start cooking for them now, it may rub them the wrong way -- i.e., that you are judging them

    But if you are the aunt who always cooks when she visits, as my sister was, then continuing to do so now makes lots of sense and involving your nephew -- and his sibling, too, if of an appropriate age -- is great.

    A few thoughts. It is way easier as a parent of a newly diagnosed diabetic if meals consist of relatively discrete elements, rather than stews, stir fries, etc. They are probably counting the carbs, proteins, and fat content of everything that goes into the meal with the goal of hitting a balance of a particular total. This is way easier to do when they are not mixed together. So a meal of pasta and meatballs, which can be doled out (and measured) separately is easier to deal with than lasagna. And, if your nephew's meal plan is anything like my son's was, pasta is a perfectly acceptable component of his meal, so long as it's consumed in moderation, along with proteins, vegetables, etc.

    Indeed, making spaghetti and meatballs would be a terrific project. At that age, our son adored making little meatballs (we were fine with him handling raw meat), as well as helping to add ingredients to the red sauce and stirring it. All, of course under the watchful eye of an adult.

    In terms of some specific other ideas of what you can cook with the assistance of your nephew:
    Homemade unsweetened applesauce - at this age, he should be able to help peel the apples (get him a y-style peeler if they don't have one). My recipe is very simple; peeled and sliced apples, covered with water and simmered for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and mash with a potato masher - you could use an immersion blender but if your nephew can do the mashing if you use the manual tool. Add cinnamon and set aside to chill. If your nephew is anything like mine was when first diagnosed, he is consuming lots of unsweetened applesauce, so making it himself will be fun.

    Peeling carrots and preparing vegetables in general. Your nephew is probably being encouraged to consume more vegetables. At that age, it's a challenge. The nurse educator whom we regularly saw in those years told me that most of her patients subsisted on carrot sticks. Also just having him rinse vegetables that are in a colander will count as cooking from his perspective. And even if he will not consume them himself, there are other vegetables he can help you prepare -- peeling cucumbers, trimming beans. And, in my experience, if a child helps prepare a dish he might try it even if it is not something he would ordinarily eat.

    Breakfast - your nephew can help make scrambled eggs (beating the eggs and, after they set, scrambling them). Also French toast - omit sugar from the custard and shake in more cinnamon, along with a drop of vanilla, and use whole grain sandwich bread. Top with artificially sweetened syrup, or applesauce (or just a pat of butter and more cinnamon).

    2 Replies
    1. re: masha

      Hi Masha,

      Thank you so much for the detailed and thoughtful response! My nephew was actually diagnosed at age four, but even a year after his diagnosis (which was when I last visited), it still seemed so complicated. I hadn't thought about that reason for their eating packaged food -- I can see why it would be so much easier (I remember weighing out every dim sum dumpling he wanted to eat, and then having to subtract if he decided he didn't like it and left the rest on his plate). I had been thinking that if I made food from recipes and gave them to my sister with nutrition information, she'd be able to manage his diet more easily.

      I am in fact the aunt who always cooks when she visits (you could say my "birthday present" for his fourth birthday was catering the party (-: ), so cooking with him is actually very much a "me" gift. His sister will be 2 1/2 when I visit, so we'll probably have to keep her distracted with playdough while we cook.

      It's very helpful to hear that meals with separate components are easier. (Now I'm trying to imagine how you'd calculate the carbs in chawan mushi, with all those mix-ins that could differ from making to making.) And I love the meatballs idea (now that I hear that he can be trusted with raw meat)...this means that we could also make dumplings, which are even more portion-controlled in terms of carbs.

      Applesauce: Also a great idea. Actually I've done that in a mini slow cooker, without even bothering with the peeling step. I guess the only hard part for a 6-year-old would be having the patience to wait for it to finish cooking.

      It had never occurred to me that rinsing the fruits and vegetables would count as "cooking" (or at least helping with cooking). I did have the idea that if he helped cook, he'd be likelier to eat the result; he's always been a picky eater, and this is another reason I wanted to cook with him. He does like cucumbers -- at least he did at the time I last visited -- and I'm sure we could find other vegetables that he could help trim/peel.

      Anyway, thank you again -- I really appreciate your advice! And I hope that things are going well with your son's health. Even though I work in a related field, I had no idea how complicated diabetes management is until my nephew was diagnosed...

      1. re: madbaker

        You are welcome, Madbaker. There are a lot of threads already on the Homecooking Board about cooking with young children and for the most part my advice to your question is identical to how I respond whenever people ask the question, without regard to the question of diabetes. Focus on healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Too many adults only think of baking cookies when they want to involve young children in cooking.

        Love the idea of making dumplings together. Anything tactile is great with kids. And, while leaving the skin on you apples may simplify making applesauce, it will deprive your nephew of the fun of peeling them.

        I deliberately did not address the question of making sweet desserts, although from you CH name I suspect that traditionally you may have been the Aunt who made cupcakes. Diabetics can have some sweet desserts at least on special occasions. This is a subject you should discuss with your nephew's parents if you are thinking in terms of birthday cakes or holiday cookies. (We made reduced sugar cutout cookies for Santa .). If they are ok with artificial chemical sweeteners like Equal and Sucralose (I found them a godsend), you can substitute out 1/2 the sugar for the equivalent (in sweetness) of the artificial sweetener in cookies or cakes without unduly altering the structure. Of course these desserts still are high in carbohydrates, so your nephew could only consume them in small amounts.

        As to my son, he is now 25, healthy, and a great cook. Thanks for asking!

    2. A six year old can handle raw meat - especially with supervision re: hand washing. And they're not so fragile wrt immune systems as babies are. What about veggie gratins? Fennel, or cauliflower.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Savour

        Thanks! I'm not around kids a lot, so I'm probably underestimating what they can do in terms of food safety/hygiene.

        And would never have thought of veggie gratins -- great idea! Gotta find some recipes now...

        1. re: madbaker

          One thing my daughter (who is six) loves to do is play with dough. If we're making something together (like pie, or pizza) I'll give her some of the dough to "cook with" while I make what we're actually eating.

      2. I am only somewhat familiar with diabetes, as my friends with type 1 are all adults.

        That said, I do cook with my nieces who are in that age range. Two things immediately came to mind:

        1) Guacamole (serve with veggies instead of carb heavy chips) - the avocados are so easy for kids to cut, even with a plastic knife - just have them cut them while they are in their skins and then they can scoop them out and mash. And yes, both my nieces love guacamole.

        2) Portobella pizzas. Take a whole portobello, scrape out the gills (not 100% necessary but I do it) - I bread them with cornmeal (flour - egg - corn meal - not sure how the plays with diabetes, you could skip that all together I guess too, but there isn't a heavy coating, so you could figure that out with the insulin) - bake in oven for about 10 minutes, top with pizza sauce - toppings - cheese - bake for another 5-10 minutes - and you have a mushroom pizza. I love them and do them for vegetarians now and again too.

        You could have them coat them and top them and only bake once, it should work fine too, the cornmeal keeps a good crunch which subs for the "crust' part. My vegetarian, type 1 friend, makes them herself now too.

        1. I don't know about diabetes, but when my nieces were ~6-8, I made foil wrapped chicken and won ton. I put together the ingredients and we wrapped them.

          I let them handle raw "meat".

          1. Madbaker, a few more thoughts that I had in re-reading your response.

            First, as mentioned, there have been many threads over the years on the Homecooking Board about involving young children in cooking. Here is one example, http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/3930.... While they may not specifically address the menu issues for your nephew, they will give you some ideas about the kinds of activities (stirring, measuring, etc) and preparations that are child-friendly.

            One other thought: I am not that keen on the part of your idea where you develop and write up recipes for your sister. I doubt that the reason she relies on packaged foods is because that she lacks the resources to find appropriate recipes. It's more likely that she lacks the time, like many working parents with young children. Especially if your sister lives in a major metropolitan area and your nephew is getting his treatment from a pediatric endocrinologist, I suspect that your sister has plenty of resources in terms of access to a staff nutritionist, support groups, publications, and cookbooks that are full of recipes for diabetics, not to mention the internet. Of course, if you cook something delicious during your stay, she may ask you to write up the recipe, but I'd be hesitant to do so otherwise.

            1. Hi madbaker,

              I think it is great that you are being so proactive about your nephew's T1D and wanting to cook healthy meals with him!

              I am a T1D and I have 2 kids and most of my cooking is relatively low-carb (I rarely eat pasta and almost never pizza but some T1D's do and that's fine).

              My kids love Asian lettuce wraps and they are very low carb (I always like having a meal that I don't have to take any insulin - it's nice to not have to dose up before digging in). I found this recipe several years ago from Gourmet mag. It's easy and full of flavor. http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

              Another weekly staple at our house is roasted chicken thighs. My kids are very active and we are always on the go. I can toss 4 organic chicken thighs in a dish w/ some wedged sweet potatoes & onion, cumin, chili powder, Adobo seasoning & oregano and roast at 450 degrees for 50 mins. Steam some green beans and toss in butter or a vinaigrette and it's a quick and healthy week day dinner that we enjoy.

              This flank steak recipe is great and my kids eat it like candy as I slice it. You could serve it with brown rice or sweet potatoes and broccoli. http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

              I love the frittata idea too.