It's the middle of the afternoon on a gorgeous day in Manhattan, and Angus Craige, nearly 3, seems restless at being stuck in the family's apartment. "Let's make a pizza," suggests his mom, Leslie, a freelance magazine editor. He climbs on a stool to reach the kitchen island countertop.
Angus isn't the only helper in the Craiges' kitchen today. On hand is Rachael Ray, the perky, down-to-earth host of the Food Network's 30-Minute Meals and author of nine cookbooks, including Cooking Rocks!, a new one for children filled with mouthwatering recipes like Crunchy Chicken Toes and Lemony Pepper-Parmesan Salad. "They're smart recipes for smart kids -- the dishes aren't bland or boring," Ray says. Child invited the popular chef to tell the Craiges how they can save time on preparing meals and still make them delicious and healthy -- something that's fallen by the wayside since their baby daughter, Ellis, was born four months ago. Leslie also enlisted Ray's guidance in persuading Angus, once enthusiastic about trying new foods, to reclaim his adventurous spirit.
Earlier while working in the Craiges' kitchen, Ray prepared the pizza crust, using frozen dough. "You can also ask your favorite local pizzeria to sell you some dough," she told Leslie. "You would hardly ever make your own pizza if you had to make the dough from scratch." Angus's first task: sprinkling broccoli on the pie. He seems wary of digging his hand into a pile of green, but Ray quickly intervenes. "Oh, they're just little trees," she says, tossing the broccoli with her hands. Angus ponders Ray's explanation for a second, then dips his hands in eagerly. "More?" he asks when the bowl is empty. "No," says Ray. "But you can help us put on the other pizza toppings."
While Angus and his mom are sprinkling on chicken, cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes, Ray rattles off cooking tips that have helped make this daughter of a restaurateur a huge success. (She recently signed a multi-million-dollar cookbook deal with Clarkson Potter, putting her in the league of Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse.) One of Ray's major time-savers: not measuring every ingredient. "In baking, you have to be precise -- that's why I don't do a lot of baking," she jokes. When she cooks, Ray rarely uses measuring devices: 1 Tbs. olive oil is once around the pan, 1 cup of bread crumbs is a few handfuls, 1 tsp. paprika is 1/3 of a palmful. Her cookbooks are peppered with these makeshift measurements.
Ray also stresses organization: She moves Leslie's cutting board from her island to the counter alongside the oven so she can chop food and immediately put it into the pan. She suggests Leslie buy Angus child-safe scissors for the kitchen, explaining, "He can help cut herbs, peppers, and lettuce without a knife."
When Angus is done adding toppings to the pizza, he looks proudly at his masterpiece. But the real test will come when he tastes it. Leslie volunteers that Angus doesn't like broccoli and has never tried sun-dried tomatoes. Ray isn't worried in the least. "When I gave cooking lessons in a gourmet food store, kids always wanted to try samples," she recounts. "It's the parents who looked in the pot and said, 'You won't like that.'"
Fifteen minutes later, the pizza is ready. Without hesitation, Angus takes a bite. Soon the slice is gone -- with no mention of the broccoli or sun-dried tomatoes. Leslie and her husband, Jim, a portfolio manager who shares cooking duties, are pleasantly surprised. "I haven't involved Angus in cooking much, but now I'm going to more often," Leslie says. "It makes a tremendous difference."
Before leaving, Ray gives Leslie the instructions for the pizza, which was featured in Rachael Ray: 30-Minute Meals 2, as well as a few recipes from her kids' cookbook and 30-Minute Meals: Cooking 'Round the Clock, another new book. "Getting kids involved in cooking won't just make them better eaters," she says. "It'll build their confidence and pride about contributing to the family."