Kitchen Skills: Spaghetti & Meatballs
Kitchen Skills is our kids cooking series. It’s important that we teach our kids how to whip up a healthy meal that doesn’t come out of a package with microwave instructions. Kitchen Skills will get you and your kids in the kitchen, making kid-friendly food for the whole family. Another bonus: picky eaters are more likely to eat a meal they helped prepare.
Spaghetti and meatballs is a kid favourite. It’s a standard option on a lot of kids’ menus in restaurants, and it tends to be bland as a mouthful of cornstarch. You can do better!
- For the meatballs
- Lean ground beef
- Salt & pepper
- For the sauce
- Tomato sauce (plain)
- Baby spinach
- Sweet onion
- Salt & pepper
- For the pasta
- Olive oil or butter
- Lemon juice
- White wine vinegar
- Salt & pepper
Kids can help: Ask your child to go over the list with you and see what’s missing from the fridge and pantry, and make a shopping list. At the store, your child can help put items in the cart.
Start with the meatballs…
Put a large non-stick pot on the stove on a medium-high heat and let it warm up while you make your meatballs. If you only have one big pot, you can use a deep pan for this step, but watch out for grease splatter!
For each 500g (1lb) of beef, you want one large egg and a half a cup of breadcrumbs. Mix all those into a large bowl and add the parsley (chopped fine) and a little bit of salt and pepper. The easiest way to mix is by hand. You want your meatball “dough” to be mouldable, but not too sticky. If it’s sticking too your hands too much, mix in a few drops of olive oil. You want enough fat in there to prevent the meatballs from sticking to the pot.
Roll the mixture into balls that are roughly the size of a golf ball then drop them in your pot. Keep them moving so they cook evenly.
Now is a good time to put your pasta pot on the stove, full of water, and start it boiling.
Kids can help: [Safety first! Make sure your child knows the raw meat isn’t safe to eat!] If your child is old enough, he can get his hands dirty and mix this up. You can teach him how to use the food scale and measure out a half-cup of crumbs too!
While the meatballs are cooking, chop up your onion. You want to dice it into quarter-inch pieces. Here’s a good technique. Crush a couple of garlic cloves with the broad side of your knife, and chop them up. If you’re using fresh herbs, you can chop those up now as well, but keep them separate from the diced onion.
Kids can help: Handling a knife is one of the most important kitchen skills there is. So you should teach your child how to be safe with one. Only hand over the chef’s knife to older children who you’re sure will be responsible with it.
At this point, you can drain out a little of the grease from the meatballs if you want. I like to leave at least some grease and juices in the pot to lend extra flavour to my sauce. Throw the onions and garlic in the pot with the meatballs and turn down the heat. Keep everything moving until the onions start to sweat and go clear. Then dump in your jar or can of tomato sauce and add the herbs and spinach. I don’t like chopping up the spinach, because I like my sauce to have whole leaves in it—makes it more interesting. Your kids might object to that. In that case it's better to chop up the leaves and have your kids eat the spinach than to leave the green veggie out altogether.
As your sauce simmers, the juices from the meatballs will lend it some great flavour. The spinach leaves will go limp and dark—which is what you want. You’re not making a salad!
Give it a taste and add salt and pepper if you want. Turn the heat down low and cover the sauce to simmer, stirring it once in a while.
Kids can help: Stirring is one of the first things you can teach your children, and this is a great opportunity for that! Older kids can learn about how changing the heat level changes what happens inside the pot too.
Who’s this Al Dente guy?
By now your pasta pot should be boiling away happily. Toss a few pinches of salt in there then put in the pasta. Reduce the heat a little to avoid the water boiling over. Pro tip: splashing a bit of oil in with the water helps prevent your pot boiling over as well.
The cooking instructions on the package will tell you how long to boil your spaghetti. Usually 7-8 minutes gets you a perfect noodle—not too mushy and not too crunchy. That’s al dente (which is Italian for “you still need to chew it, but it’s not going to break your teeth”).
Kids can help: Have your kid set the timer on the stove and experiment with the heat level to keep the pot boiling, but not boiling over. Figuring this out requires some attention, but after a few tries, you learn your stove’s habits.
Use tongs to pull a couple of noodles out and make sure the pasta’s cooked to your liking, then turn the heat down low and strain the noodles. Don’t rinse them or you’ll lose most of the flavour from the salt you added. Put your pasta pot back on the stove and pour a little oil or butter in the bottom. When it’s heated (which won’t take long) dump the strained spaghetti back in the pot and stir, coating the noodles in the oil or butter. Keep it moving and don’t let it stick.
Sprinkle some white wine vinegar and lemon juice over the pasta and toss it, letting the flavours mingle. Add a little pepper if you want. Flavouring the pasta this way means every bite of your meal will have something interesting going on.
Time to eat!
Use tongs or a fork to get your spaghetti on the plates, and then ladle your sauce on top. Make sure everyone gets enough meatballs! You can grate some Parmesan cheese over the sauce, and/or garnish with a couple of basil leaves.