I recently watched a chef whip up an Arugula (rocket) and Pea Pesto to serve with pasta that I knew my kids would love. He made the pesto with a mortar and pestle (no food processor) and it was really fast. My first thought was - a toddler could do that!
Yes, a toddler could do that, but they would need little guidance. My toddler (2.5 years) has done some mortar and pestle work before but it's been more like free play and exploration. This time I decided to work along side him as we needed to turn the arugula (rocket) and peas into a paste. We needed to be persistent and do a lot of smashing and pounding.
In addition to all the smashing and pounding there was also a little squeezing (lemon), pouring (oil) and pinching (salt). The most amazing thing was the fragrance of the arugula (rocket) as we pounded away, it was wow!
After making a (rustic) paste with the arugula, lemon, salt and olive oil, Otto added the (cooked) peas. This is so toddler friendly because it becomes a little soft and squelchy and it is so fun to pound the peas and combine it with the arugula paste.
At this stage my toddler left to do something more interesting and I cooked some wholemeal spaghetti, mixed in the pesto and served with some extra peas, arugula and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese.
Naturally I'm now searching for more toddler friendly pesto ideas and thinking perhaps even Guacamole could be made with a mortar and pestle, or would it just be easier to mash? I've had a quick look through Inspiring Learning Through Cooking (UK link) and they have three recipes using a mortar and pestle, one involving smashing fruit for yoghurt lollies, one for making Falafel burgers and one for making Hummus (the last two involve crushing chick peas).
Some tips for working with a toddler and a mortar and pestle:
- stay close - depending on your mortar and pestle you do not want them dropping it or throwing it.
- demonstrate the process - to begin with use your actions, not words, to show the child how effectively use the mortar and pestle together (to smash, pound, grind, mix). Working along side the toddler helps although not everyone is going to have two mortar and pestles, I bought two specifically so my children could use them together in the kitchen.
- allow the child to add all the ingredients - my toddler loves the parts where he could pour the oil or add a pinch of salt and all of the transferring work.
- allow the child to be part of the entire process - if the child's attention and concentration will allow for it.
- draw your child's attention to the release of fragrance - if the child hasn't already noticed it. This is perhaps the most powerful part.
The benefits of a toddler using a mortar and pestle include:
- exposure to a new method of food preparation.
- potential to make a meaningful contribution to the family meal.
- can demonstrate where food comes from and how it it made - we most often use pesto from a jar, this is just one way to help us feel more connect to our food and where it comes from.
- to build hand and arm strength and coordination.
- to satisfy a natural desire that some children have to transform things from one form into another - a solid into a paste (as mentioned below perhaps the transforming schema).
- the child is able to feel the process - it is a very hands on and an active way to make many products like pesto or grind spices as opposed to using an electric grinder or food processor.
I know a lot of readers have been asking for activities for older children. It is almost impossible to make a good pesto from a recipe only. You need to feel and watch the ingredients, how much oil you will need will differ every time. We need to add the salt and lemon (if you are using them) to taste. This is a wonderful activity for children of all ages, the older the child the more independent they can become at making it.
What would it look like if I presented a Pesto Making activity on a tray? Below is a tray that has been successful for making Basil Pesto. On the tray we have olive oil, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, salt and fresh basil. You could also add some garlic. With the basil I find the younger, more tender leaves are easier for the toddler to work with (make into a paste) than the larger tougher leaves.
My toddler couldn't stop eating the cheese! Everything on the tray this is approachable for a toddler. Make sure you don't add too much oil as my toddler likes to pour it all in.
I like to add as much fine motor work as I can, I also offer mini tongs with this activity.
A pinch of salt. I don't like to use a lot of salt but a little is helpful for the grinding process, as it works like an abrasive.
Pine nuts. All of this transferring is interesting for the child!
Then of course the smashing. It takes persistence from a toddler to get it to this stage and also a few different actions. We 'tap', 'tap', 'tap' and also 'swirl' where we grind the pestle around in a circular motion. It isn't going to be as smooth as a food processor but I don't mind. If it bothers you just give it a little help before you serve it.
I love these perspectives on using a mortar and pestle:
"Pesto gets its name from the Italian word pestare which means “to crush.” Traditionally (before food processors and electricity were invented!) it was made by crushing all of the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle. These days, it’s much more convenient to make pesto in a food processor or blender, but you could still try using a mortar and pestle if you are up for the challenge!" - The Kids Cook Monday!
"If your child does not already have access to a mortar and pestle it is time to get one now! Such a useful tool for developing a child's gross motor and fine motor coordination, as well as encouraging concentration and attention to detail. The mortar and pestle set can be used as an isolated activity or can be utilised in real cooking experiences to help your child feel empowered and involved! The mortar and pestle activity can be easily adjusted for a wide range of purposes and skill-levels. A young child can begin by learning to crush small quantities of soft substances (such as 'popping' Rice Bubbles) before moving on to crushing harder items (such as turning salt crystals into powder) and then eventually grasping the motion of grinding (such as grinding mint into paste or turning wheat grain into 'flour'). " - Montessori Child.
For more ideas about using a Mortar and Pestle read my post Give the child a Mortar and Pestle! (2017).
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