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U.S.A. Popcorn Adventure #75
January 07, 2009

Of Swords and Soup

The Tale of Despereaux + Cooking Minestrone with Kids

The Tale of Despereaux, a lusciously animated film adaptation of Kate DiCamillo's Newbury Medal-winning novel, opens as the royal chef is presenting a new soup to the King. As part of an annual tradition, the entire kingdom gathers to taste the chef's latest creation. When the Queen dies during the soup-tasting, the king banishes all soup from the kingdom, and suddenly, the people's happpiness also disappears. Enter Despereaux Tilling, a mouse with over-sized ears who won't cower at the sight of a knife, and wants nothing more than to live a chivarlous life. Turns out, our mousy hero has read noble tales of knights and princesses, and so sets out with his sword and his wit to save a damsel in distress and rescue a kingdom from life without soup! Our kids loved their new whiskered friend and the movie's simple message that even the smallest amongst us should always dream big.

As parents who love to cook, we know that soup appeals to everyone's inner chef - it's comfort food that is forgiving on whomever is tossing veggies into the pot. We turned to our friend Caroline Styne, a mom and restaurateur, for some culinary wisdom. Caroline loves to make Minestrone Soup with her kids and not just because they slurp down their veggies with glee; her recipe is versatile enough to allow whatever produce is in season to find its place in the pot. We started off at the grocery store where we let the kids choose whichever veggies they wanted, showing them how to select the very freshest. Once home, we divided our crew into work stations (older kids chopping, younger kids measuring) and before we knew it, the kids were fighting for the chance to stir the pot. We made sure that they taste-tested the soup frequently, giving them free rein to add a pinch of this and a dash of that. While the flavors simmered, our chefs set the table for a special meal and even created a colorful menu. Our day was such a soup-to-nuts success that we decided that cooking with kids will become a one of our New Year's traditions.

Film Title: The Tale of Despereaux
Directed By: Sam Fell & Ross Stevenhagen
2008, Rated G, 87 minutes

Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about this Film:

  • Why It's Worth It: Those who love the novel will appreciate the care taken by the filmmakers to remain true to the spirit of the book. The animated kingdom has an elegant pastel palate that enchanted us all. While those unfamiliar with the novel's characters may find the plot a bit confusing, we enjoyed a break from the typical, joke-driven animated film. So, don't expect a laugh fest; instead, prepare to enjoy a leisurely and Big Idea-driven film that delivers on the morals of the book.
  • Red Flags: Although it carries a G rating, we don't recommend this film for kids under six. There is one scary scene in which the princess is kidnapped away to the rat's underworld and strapped down so she can be attacked. Of course, she is saved in the nick of time but the sight of her body contained with ropes with rats waiting to chew is alarming for young kids. The rats in this film aren't as clean and lovable as the Ratatouille rats, and their underworld is particularly nasty! It has a has a lovely but leisurely pace that might be too slow for kids older than ten,so the sweet spot for viewers is pretty narrow.

Our tips for talking with your kids about this film:

  • Literary Savvy: Kate DiCamillo's novel is spectacular, and many a family's favorite choice for reading aloud since it appeals to listeners of all ages, including adults. She has written many other popular and award-winning childrens books, notably The Tiger Rising and Because of Winn-Dixie, both great choices to read aloud, or to listen to over a long car ride.
  • Cinema Savvy:  If your kids loved this movie, they will also enjoy Ratatouille. (Click here for our review and cooking adventure).  There are lots of films, appropriate for teens and adults, that revolve around cooking -- Click here for our list of favorites.


Cooking With Kids in Your Own Kitchen

Age Recommendation: Everyone
Time Commitment: As much, or little, as you have
Ingredients for Success: Keep it simple, tactile and in the words of Chef Suzanne Goin "Always look for what's best at the moment, and let the produce itself guide you."

(From her cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, 2005)

Caroline Styne co-owns our two favorite Los Angeles restaurants with celebrity chef Suzanne Goin. At Lucques and A.O.C., these women are committed to quality ingredients, sustainable farming and to making each meal an unforgettably delicious experience. Caroline, a mother of two, is a big proponent of expanding kids' culinary worlds by getting them involved in the kitchen -- kids who eat little more than buttered pasta may surprise parents if they can take little tastes of something more exotic during the cooking process.

  • Caroline's Advice about Making Soup with Small Cooks: 1. Measuring is Math: Let the kids do all the measuring of olive oil and beans for soaking - they'll get some practice for thinking in fractions, and using a ruler to measure the vegetable pieces. 2. Develop their Seasoning Palate: Have the kids be your official salt and pepper adders -- dipping their spoons into the broth throughout the cooking to see how, for instance, pepper really boosts flavor. 3. There's Pasta in my Soup: Let your kids choose their favorite pasta shape for the soup. 4. Grater Advice: It's easy to scrape little fingers on a cheese grater, so consider purchasing one that grates the cheese by turning around a drum. 5. Start the Questioning: See if the kids can guess why ingredients get added in a particular order. What do the onions and garlic have in common? Why does pasta and red pepper get added last?
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 carrots, cut into small chunks
  • 4 stalks celery, cut into 1/2 inch inch pieces
  • 2 cups haricots verts, cut into 2 inch pieces
  • 2 cups small red potatoes cut in half
  • 1 can whole plum tomatoes, drained, tomatoes cut into fourths
  • 1 cup dried garbanzo beans, soaked overnight (use canned beans if necessary)
  • 1 cup white beans, soaked overnight
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup dried pasta (any shape you prefer)
  • 2 cups zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch circles
  • 2 red bell peppers, cut into 1 inch chunks
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • parmesan cheese
  • In a large sauce pan, heat olive oil over high heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until they are translucent (approx 8 minutes). Add the carrots and celery and continue to cook until for 10 minutes. Add haricots verts and potatoes and sauté for 10 more minutes. Add tomatoes, beans and chicken broth, reduce heat and allow to simmer for 25 minutes. Once the soup has simmered, add the pasta, red bell peppers and oregano and continue to cook for 10 to 15 more minutes. Taste soup and season with salt and pepper, adding as much as your palate desires. (Styne feels that soups are often under-seasoned, and gladly gives her kids a chance to pepper the soup up quite a lot!) Add chopped basil and parmesan cheese to the soup as a garnish when serving.

Our City Editors' tips for extending this Popcorn Adventure beyond your own kitchen:
  • New York: The Institute of Culinary Education has fabulous cooking classes for kids ages 10 and over with courses on everything from pizza and bread making to workshops for parents and children to learn to prepare full Italian or Asian style family meals. For younger children, try the classes at KidFresh, or Mini Chef. For toddlers, check The Jewish Community Center (JCC), or look into other community centers or YMCA's in your neighborhood.
  • Houston: Mimi Kerr, co-author of The Young Chef's Nutrition Guide and Keys to Children's Nutrition, offers thematic children's cooking classes all year.  Click here to check out her website for the next offering or schedule a semi-private group lesson with friends.  Mimi has many "kid-friendly" healthy recipes on the website, so you and your little chef can get cookin'!
  • San Francisco: Kids Culinary Adventures based in San Mateo and Apron Strings based in San Francisco both offer “design your own” style private parties. KCA also offers an interesting assortment of specific private party concepts.
  • Washington, D.C.: The Young Chef's Academy in Rockville, MD has classes for preschoolers to tweens. Kids explore different cuisines while learning kitchen techniques, presentation, manners and more. Weekly classes, camps, and memberships are available.

Want more? Here are KOTC's picks of films, books, music, and websites that connect your family to more culture.

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