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  • Writer's pictureGena Martine Santoni

Three Course Dinner for Junior Chefs!

A Fun Way to Empower Your Child with Important Life Skills

photos by John Santoni

Since we are dining at home more than ever before, why not use this time to empower children with a little dinner prep know-how? When my mother was young, she and her sister were each given the responsibility to plan, shop for, prepare and serve a family dinner one a month - with their mother's help and coaching, of course! Did I mention they also were responsible for cleaning up afterward? Oh yes! The whole shebang! This experience gave them regular practice and helped them to learn how to time dishes to come out together - a real challenge for beginning chefs! It also gave them a small repertoire of signature dishes that they were confident about preparing to carry with them when they moved out of mom and dad's kitchen and into their own.

This is such an important life-skill, and it does not take a complicated recipe to make a special meal. Of course there is more to making a meal special than the food! The table setting, the centerpiece, the attention to detail in choosing special touches are all part of creating a convivial atmosphere - as well as being part of the fun!

Good manners come into play, too. While at the table, the whole family can practice their dining skills. Tall posture, napkin in lap, small bites and chewing with mouths closed in between lively and attentive conversation. No devices allowed! Children can also have fun choosing dinner music to go with their culinary masterpieces!

We have planned a simple three course meal that is easy to prepare, looks beautiful and tastes delicious! We hope you are inspired!


This easy and elegant menu is always a favorite of guests, looks extra special and tastes decadent! It is also easy to modify according to tastes and customs. You might prefer sun-dried tomatoes in place of bacon, or a different vegetable selection. You might want to add bites of chicken for more protein or sautéed mushrooms for a meaty texture. You might substitute your favorite gluten-free pasta or even use zucchini noodles. Whatever sounds best to you! The recipe below is tried and true, and our guests always find it to be delicious!

Throw in a simple salad and a delicious and fun-to-prepare classic chocolate (or caramel or strawberry) sundae and you have a three course meal that is both beautiful and satisfying.

Tortellini with Bacon and Peas

This dish is reminiscent of Carbonara, a very decadent dish - but much easier!

Ingredient Suggestions (substitution ideas are mentioned above)

  • fresh tortelloni or tortellini (we like Buitoni Chicken and Prosciutto Tortelloni best, but their 3 Cheese Tortellini is also wonderful.) One regular size 9 oz.container serves approximately two adults for an entree portion.

  • bacon crumbles - plan two slices per person

  • peas - plan 1/8 cup per person

  • Alfredo Sauce - we usually plan one 15 oz. container for 4 people

  • Fresh basil sprig - optional

  • grated parmesan cheese - on the side

Prepare, mix together and serve!

A simple side salad, such as Caesar (see photo below) a basket of warm bread and a dessert of classic chocolate sundaes rounds out this simple yummy menu.

I am not including step by step instructions because part of this practice is to learning how to deal with ingredients to take the mystery out of them. Cooking instructions are on the containers. Of course, a parent needs to be there to coach and give age appropriate help where needed. (Read: not taking over the whole thing and sending the kids out of the kitchen.) I will say, if you have never tried cooking bacon in the oven, now is a good time to try. No splatter on the stove or on the people. Set the oven to 400 degrees, line a rimmed baking sheet with foil for easy clean up and cook for 15-20 minutes. Use tongs to transfer to paper towels to drain. Voila!


Since this is a three course menu, it is an opportunity for young chefs to practice not just the culinary arts but also the proper presentation of their masterpieces.

Setting the table is a big part of creating a certain atmosphere for a convivial meal. It is fun to think of the dining table as a blank canvas for a work of art. Table cloth or place mats? Or both? Shall we use the everyday plates or dust off the formal china? Will we go with a theme that matches the meal? Or the season? How about candles to help set the mood? All the thought that goes into such planning and preparation is felt by the guests and can be very satisfying to person who successfully brings their vision to life and creates a certain mood for the meal.

For this table-scape, we utilized various clear glass containers and flowers cut from our garden along with a few tea light candles. This is a very easy way to create a casual elegant centerpiece and fun for the kids to collaborate on. Just don't cut any flowers without permission!

If no flowers are at hand, a collection of items can substitute, such as an arrangement of fruit, candles, shells or the like.


This meal is easy to present family style to pass around the table if you wish. A steaming bowl of pasta, a crisp bowl of salad, a basket of warm bread, a dish of grated parmesan cheese and you are ready to go!

To make things extra special, you can serve the dishes already beautifully plated in three separate courses. After the plates are prepared, children can practice presenting the dishes to their diners in the proper way. For correct etiquette, one sets the plate down from the left side of the diner and removes the plate from the right side of the diner. When everyone knows this simple rule, it helps people know which way to lean to give the server more room - and prevents potentially messy collisions!

Here is how to set the silverware if you are serving each course separately. The rule to remember when setting a table is "Outside-In". This means the first piece of silverware the diner is going to use is farthest away from the plate. In this case, that is the salad fork which is set all the way to the left and used first. The salad fork is removed along with the plate and then we move to the next pieces of silverware - the dinner fork and knife. In formal dining, the dessert silverware is set at the top of the place setting to keep it out of the way until it is needed. So the spoon for our ice cream sundae is up at the top. When it is time for dessert, we move it down to the right where the knife is pictured now:

If you prefer to serve the meal family style, a simple place setting will do. Only one fork is needed and the spoon may be left off the table until dessert or placed to the right of the knife:

Speaking of dessert, a classic simple sundae can be dressed up with an elegant container if you are planning a more formal presentation. Here are some ideas:

And speaking of sundaes!

The cherry on top of a fabulous meal!

Whether you follow our suggested menu or devise your own, we hope that you are inspired to make this important life-skill a regular practice. The kitchen is where so many family memories are created, and cooking together is a great recipe for fun!

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