Most nights, Andrew McCarthy lets his wife and three daughters each pick a random item from the kitchen to serve as the main ingredients for their dinner. Sometimes it's a predictable choice like corn, but other times it's something surprising — like flaming hot Cheetos.
His family's culinary chaos can certainly lead to some interesting food combinations. Yet he continually chefs up 5-star worthy recipes for his family with the help of his three daughters, Riley, 7, Teagan, 4, and Emery, 2.
How it all started
One memorable night, the girls picked waffles, kiwis and walnuts. To top it all off, his middle child grabbed an unexpected choice from the freezer — halibut. He lovingly calls her the "wild card," because she's known to throw a curveball ingredient in the mix.
McCarthy, who's a high school teacher by day, decided to give this unusual mix of ingredients a go. With the help of his daughters' tiny hands, he coated the halibut in waffle breadcrumbs and topped it off with fresh kiwi. Then, he served the fish with a side of roasted broccoli and walnuts — as well as crunchy potato chips.
He documented this concoction in his fifth installment of his "chopped with kids" series on his TikTok account, @cookingwithkids321. The video quickly racked up almost a million views.
This surprising meal got the stamp of approval from the harshest food critics on the internet: His daughters. McCarthy was gratified because, as he says, they "are not filtering anything."
McCarthy — who has no formal culinary background — says his idea of cooking after college was opening up a can of chili and mixing it with a box of mac and cheese. In other words, McCarthy became a chef — at least on TikTok — as a way to bond with his wife and four children.
Now, McCarthy is bravely taking the kitchen on one bizarre ingredient at a time. When handed fruit snacks one night, he melted them down into a vinaigrette. Another time, when his kids handed him pretzels, he ground them down to powder in order to make fresh pretzel flour pasta.
The kitchen is also a classroom
The "constructive play" of engaging his little sous chefs in the kitchen and making the process of cooking enjoyable for everyone is crucial to McCarthy. "I truly believe that if a kid has any kind of like choice or if they are part of the creation of something, then they're going to own it more," he tells TODAY.com.
McCarthy says his plate is never too full when it comes to spending time with his family. "It doesn't matter if it takes a half an hour or two hours because they're there with me cooking with me," he says. "There's nothing I'd rather do than just be with them, if we're kneading dough or whatever it is."
McCarthy and his wife, Amber, are always looking for ways to make their creative cooking educational. For example, the couple use the metaphor of a campfire in the kitchen to help their kids understand how their bodies use the food they're cooking.
They explain that a campfire needs both logs and twigs to burn for a long period of time. The body, much like a campfire, needs twigs for short-term energy and logs for long-term energy. In this case, logs are proteins, fats and fibers. And twigs are like carbohydrates and sugar, which will make the fire grow quickly, but it won't last.
"It just leads to really good in-depth conversations that are like way above their level, but they can understand because you're putting them on a level that they understand," he says. They are gaining crucial knowledge about how their bodies work and how to use that knowledge.
His kids are learning to love healthy food
McCarthy says his daughters will oftentimes pass on a “twig” item such as ice cream in favor of a “log” item like chicken. And he makes it clear the couple are not depriving their children of any foods -- they just genuinely enjoy eating "log" items. Part of this parenting genius is giving the kids a choice.
This creative education really seems to be working. Take McCarthy's eldest daughter, for example. If you were to ask her what her favorite food is, McCarthy is sure she would say broccoli. "In her mind, she knows that broccoli makes her healthy, makes her feel good and makes her bigger and stronger and all that sort of stuff, and she's attached to that," he says.
He wants to help other parents teach their kids about food
McCarthy says he hopes he's teaching his children to like the "right food for the right reasons." He says he wants his children to have a positive relationship with food from a very young age — and a playful one. And by sharing these lessons with the world, he's helping other parents, too.
The devoted dad hopes his videos inspire other parents to cook with their kids and have good conversations with them at a young age. When one user commented on his video "I'm going to have to try this with my kids tonight," it was a special moment for McCarthy.
As McCarthy says, "If even just one parent is more likely to cook with their kids or spend more time with their kids or have a conversation about food with their kids, then it's worth posting 100 videos of this kind of thing."