Cecilia Bose, 1, of Portland explores Oakie Acres Farm at the Children’s Museum of Maine. The eggs roll down the conveyor belt, and children can practice counting as they put them in the egg carton at the bottom. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Breakfast of champions

Kids can be picky eaters. It’s a lot easier to coax them to take a few bites of breakfast if it’s shaped like a dinosaur. Or a unicorn on roller skates.

Take it from Dennis Fogg, owner of Uncle Andy’s Diner in South Portland, who has been cooking pancakes in whimsical shapes for other people’s children for 17 years. “My wife and I had four kids, and we always wanted to bring them to a place where they feel comfortable, and that’s why we cater to families,” he said, pointing out that the diner also has a great stash of games, coloring books and toys.

Bring your kids to a restaurant for breakfast this week, and let them order a mouse on skates from Fogg, or a Mickey Mouse Fruity-Face Pancake at Becky’s Diner in Portland. At Otherside Diner in Portland, one of the few local restaurants with a kids menu for breakfast, they can order a kid-sized portion of your triple stack of fluffy, lemony pancakes made with a touch of Greek yogurt, or a kids’ plate of scrambled eggs with toast and fruit. At Union, the newspaper-themed restaurant inside Portland’s Press Hotel, the kids’ menu – “Small Caps Dining” – includes French toast “stix” to dip in maple syrup and egg sandwich sliders. After eating, take your child to the lobby, where tools of the news trade hang on the wall and explain what a typewriter is.

At Uncle Andy’s Diner in South Portland, young customers can order whimsically shaped pancakes like this one. Courtesy of Dennis Fogg

Should you choose Uncle Andy’s, Fogg has got plenty on the menu for the teens and adults to enjoy. But the pancakes are his pièce de résistance – the batter is squeezed out of a ketchup bottle – shaped, for example, into giraffes, squirrels, butterflies, caterpillars or ballerina elephants. Kids choose from flavors like chocolate chip or blueberry. Fogg used to let the children choose the shape they wanted, too, but “we had to stop when a kid asked for a beaver and a camel fighting with light sabers while another animal watched.” After nearly two decades of pancake-making, he has 72 shapes in his repertoire. The “children’s surprise pancake” costs $3.75, and Fogg will keep sending them out as long as your kid keeps eating them. He loves sending a pancake out to a table and hearing the child squeal in delight.

Dinosaurs are popular. But be forewarned: If your child orders a dinosaur, she’ll be expected to declare whether she wants a meat eater or a plant eater.

Mixed Menu at the Children’s Museum 

On a typical day at Coco’s Diner, a parent sits at the counter while their little junior short order cook whips up something for them to eat. The parents will place an order, says Lucia Stancioff, deputy director of the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, “and the kids will say ‘No! You’re having this instead.'”

“I think there’s something approachable and exciting about being the one to be able to serve the food,” Stancioff continued. “And they get to be the expert. Kids don’t often get to choose what they’re having for dinner.”

Caroline Powell, 2, of Falmouth plays with toy lobsters at the farmers market at the Children’s Museum of Maine. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The museum has several food-related permanent exhibits and play areas, designed for ages 1-10, where kids can pretend to be a chef, farmer or lobsterman. It’s an appropriate theme in a town that is so food-obsessed, and it serves an educational purpose, too. The kids get lessons in where their food comes from. They learn basics about biology, and when they weigh a lobster, sort produce by size, and color or count eggs, a little rudimentary math. “Food is such a tangible thing for young children,” Stancioff said. “They’re mapping their world, and food is a major part of their world.”

At the farmers market, kids can “shop” for fish, vegetables and baked goods. On the lobster boat, they can don a yellow fishermen’s raincoat and haul lobster traps. At the farm, they can collect eggs from the chicken coop, or milk a life-sized cow named Maggie. (Maggie’s “milk” is actually water.)  “She’s a little temperamental,” Stancioff said, laughing. “Sometimes she milks and sometimes she doesn’t, just like a real cow.”

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Studies have shown that cows give more milk if they hear certain songs and types of music, Stancioff said. So in Maggie’s barn, a “cow radio station” broadcasts songs that real-life cows love – Moon River and Bridge Over Troubled Water, to name two. And kids can press a button to make Maggie moo.

For older kids, there are sea creatures to touch as they learn about seafood harvested from Casco Bay, and composting worms to hold as they learn how the worms feed the soil and help vegetables grow. (And yes, the kids do hold the worms, Stancioff said.) At the honeybee hive, children get a taste of honey and learn a “wiggle dance” that simulates bees pollinating plants that will grow into food.

IF YOU GO: The museum, at 142 Free Street in Portland, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the Monday of school vacation week, as well as Wednesday through Sunday. Tuesday hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $12.50. Babies 17 months and under play for free.

Candy is dandy

Lots of adults love chocolate fountains and chocolate mousse. For kids, we’ve got chocolate waterfalls and a chocolate moose.

Wilbur’s of Maine, 174 Lower Main Street, will hold tours of its Freeport chocolate factory during school vacation week. Visitors who take walk-through tours get samples, hear about Wilbur’s history, learn about chocolate, and get a treat to take home. The tours are appropriate for children of all ages, according to Wilbur’s staffer Kayla Beam, and walk-ins are welcome.

Hands-on tours mimic the walk-through tour with one add-on: children get to make their own treat, typically an Oreo that they can coat in chocolate at the chocolate “waterfall” (also known as the enrober), then add sprinkles or candies.

For younger kids, Wilbur’s has planned two Edible Chocolate Slime classes during school vacation week. The “slime” is actually a mix of corn starch, cocoa powder and water. “It is technically edible, but I’m not sure you would want to eat it,” Beam said. “It’s mostly just to play with.”

IF YOU GO: Wilbur’s walk-through tours cost $3.50 per person. Tours begin every hour, on the hour, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday and Thursday. Hands-on tours on Saturday are on the hour, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m, for $4.50 per person. Chocolate Slime classes are scheduled for Wednesday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The price is $3 per child.

At Haven’s Candies, 87 County Road in Westbrook, your kids can watch the chocolatiers at work on the factory floor at any time, through the big windows in the store. The store also offers 45-minute guided factory floor tours. Alas, Haven’s needs at least a week’s notice, so by the time you read this, it will be too late to schedule a tour for school vacation week. (There’s always spring break.)

If your child has not yet laid eyes on Lenny, the life-sized chocolate bull moose at Len Libby Candies, 419 U.S. Route 1 in Scarborough, this could be the week to remedy that. Lenny, according to the company, was molded out of 1,700 pounds of milk chocolate during four weeks in the summer of 1997. He stands eight feet high and nine feet long from nose to rump. Bonus for your little wildlife watchers: Lenny’s since been joined by Libby, a dark chocolate black bear (in color and actual makeup), and her cubs, Cocoa and Chip.

Powell plays in Oakie Acres Farm at the Children’s Museum of Maine. Maggie the cow can be milked and fed hay, and she moos, too. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Kids culinary camp

Maine is known for its summer camps, but here’s an option for winter break: a three-day cooking camp for children ages 5 to 13. Measuring Up! Cooking for Kids, 25 Plaza Drive, Scarborough, is run by Michele Howard, a registered dietitian. She’ll be holding a “party camp,” and as of this writing, she still had openings.

On Day 1, a Cinco de Mayo party, the children will make enchiladas, even rolling their own corn tortillas. On Wednesday, they’ll make pasta, and on Thursday, ice cream sandwiches. They’ll take home recipes, leftovers and an apron.

The children work in groups, Howard said, usually sorted by age and experience. “It can be all abilities,” she said. “It’s all hands on. They do it from scratch.”

Some kids sign up because their parents want them to learn to cook but don’t have time to teach them, Howard said. Others already love to cook, but their parents prefer they make a mess in someone else’s kitchen. “A lot of the kids watch cooking shows, but then don’t cook at home because the parents don’t want the stress,” Howard said.

TO SIGN UP: The party camps are scheduled for 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday through Thursday. The three-day series costs $170 per child.

Standing in front of the lobster boat at The Children’s Museum of Maine, toddler Cecilia Bose shows her mom, Jennifer Rupnik, a crab. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Chopped: The Youth Episode

There’s a moment when participants in Fyood Kitchen come up for air – they’ve cooked from their mystery boxes of ingredients and plated the dishes they’ve made with their team in round 1 of this Chopped-style competition. That’s when they look up to see what the other teams have created, says Maddie Purcell, owner of the business, and you can practically see their confidence soar. “I did it,” their expressions seem to say.

“It’s a pretty cool moment when people realize they’ve outperformed themselves,” Purcell said.

Children need to be at least 12 to participate in the culinary feuds, which are held in the commercial kitchen at Fork Food Lab, 72 Parris Street, in Portland. The minimum number of participants is nine, so team up with another family, or get your teens to invite friends they’d like to battle. Purcell likes working with teens because, unlike adults with high expectations for themselves in the kitchen, “there are fewer kids coming in feeling like they should have all the answers.” Purcell said she’s also found that those with less experience in the kitchen tend to be more inventive.

Mystery baskets are customized for each competition. Purcell has hosted a lot of 12th birthday parties, including meeting a request for a cupcakes-only battle. But teens generally get the same kind of mystery ingredients as adults. When the competition is over, they present their dishes for judging, then eat their work.

Each member of the winning team gets a wooden spoon with the Fyood Kitchen label emblazoned on it. “We tell them to use it creatively,” Purcell said.

TO SIGN UP: Fyood Kitchen contestants under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult. (One chaperone per group should be fine, Purcell says.) Reservations can be made 48 hours in advance as long as Purcell is not already booked. A classic two-round competition with both savory and sweet baskets costs $99 per person and runs three hours, including the multi-course meal the teams have cooked themselves. One round takes two hours and costs $59 per person.

COCO’S DINER CREAM OF BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND SWEET POTATO SOUP

While children play in Coco’s Diner at the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, their parents can peruse a collection of healthy, kid-friendly recipes; they are welcome to take copies home. This soup recipe, which we have lightly adapted, is courtesy of Hood’s healthy food specialist, Elizabeth M. Ward. (Hood is the sponsor of the diner exhibit.)

Makes 8 servings

2 medium butternut squash (about 6 cups cooked butternut squash)

1 medium sweet potato (about 1 cup roasted)

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 medium onions, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt, optional

1 cup low-sodium chicken broth or stock

2 ½ cups Hood Half & Half or any other Hood cream

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the squash lengthwise and scoop out and discarded the seeds. Spray a baking sheet with cooking oil and place the squash on it, cut side down. Place the sweet potato on the baking sheet, too. Roast until both are soft, about 45 minutes for the squash.

Meanwhile, heat the oil over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add the onions and cook until they are translucent. Add the ginger, cumin and optional salt and stir for about 30 seconds until fragrant. Add the chicken broth. Stir to combine.

When squash and sweet potato are done and cool enough to handle, scoop them from their skins and add the flesh to the saucepan. Stir. Transfer the mixture in batches to a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Return the pureed mixture to the saucepan. Add the cream and heat gently until warm. Serve.


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