There’s nothing more rewarding for parents and their children than working together to complete a task. In my household, my husband and I do many projects with the kids, but my favorite ones are those that happen in the kitchen! To see the look of pride and amazement on their faces after they have made something with their own little hands fills my heart with joy-and it also fills our tummies with the delicious creations they make!
I started cooking with my children when they were old enough to hold a wooden spoon and today I am proud to say that they both enjoy cooking as much as I do. All of the moments we used cooking as “play” in our house really had an impact on my girls and they have grown up knowing some basic skills that I think will take them far.
It’s always a good rule to be present when your kids are cooking, especially when they are using the range. However, in my house a little confidence and lots of practice goes a long way! I almost fainted the day that my oldest daughter told me that she was going to make roll-up pancakes (crepes) one morning and I told her to wait and that I would be there shortly to assist her. Truth be told, I completely forgot what she was doing as I was consumed by the thrilling chore of folding laundry-a very glamorous and exciting job! The next thing I knew, she was bringing me a plate of crepes! I must have looked absolutely shocked because she started laughing and proceeded to tell me that not only had she made the batter (from memory no less), cooked the crepes, fed her younger sister a few jelly-filled rolls, but also cleaned up after herself. It was like I was watching her grow up in that very moment. A very proud mama, indeed! And the best part of that experience was that the crepes were perfectly made-delicious to the last bite!
If you are unsure of how to start cooking with your children, here are some easy things you can do:
*When your kids are toddlers, allow them to sit on the floor of your kitchen as you prepare meals and play with bowls, spoons, pans, empty oatmeal and spice containers, and measuring cups. This is a great way to keep them entertained and in your sight while you get something accomplished! I found that it was helpful to have a special lower cabinet dedicated to the kids’ kitchen tools-make this the only cabinet that you do not put a child lock on and also make sure that the things you give them are the same as the ones you use-kids have a keen way of knowing when they are playing with the “real deal” instead of the lovely, but not real, PB Kids collection.
*When they are old enough to follow very simple directions, allow them to pour and stir things for you. We started by having our children help us make pancakes on Saturday mornings, that way we weren’t in a hurry to get off to preschool and there were plenty of hands on deck for clean up. Additionally, a very satisfying task for the younger kids is filling muffin tins with paper liners-and baking cupcakes is also the perfect opportunity for stirring and pouring!
*Another simple early cooking task is to have the kids help prep your food for meals-Have them wash vegetables in a colander, tear pieces of lettuce for a salad and then toss the greens in dressing, fluff up rice with a fork, put fruit and spoonfuls of yogurt in a blender for a smoothie, shuck ears of corn, take peas out of the pods, or even scramble some eggs. Don’t forget to have your little ones retrieve the things they are cooking with! Ask them to get the flour out of the pantry, grab the beans out of the crisper, and even locate certain spices in your spice rack!
*Embrace the power of decorating for all ages! Probably the most fun family cooking moments happen when we allow our children to help out with baked goods. In our household, we always have a glass jar full of cookies or other coffee accompaniments so we are constantly mixing, shaping, and decorating. The traditionally preferred cookie to decorate is of course the cut-out sugar cookie, which also gives the kids an opportunity to roll and press designs into the dough. The designs that your children choose can be as simple or complex as their imaginations allow, which is why this is the perfect way to engage the entire family! And as is true of many households, the holidays offer many opportunities for the little ones to unleash their creativity and is a lovely time to spend with all members of your clan. Oh, and by all means, don’t forget about the traditional gingerbread house construction! In recent years, we have been making our own gingerbread and assembling the house ourselves, but in the past we relied on the kits you find at any grocery or craft store. This is a magical family tradition and the great part of it is that is really doesn’t have to be perfect-after all, as soon as it is constructed it starts losing pieces to hungry little mouths!
*When your children get old enough to pay attention to details and have strong hand dexterity, allow them to start peeling vegetables (carrots are the easiest to start with), and introduce them to beginning knife skills. What we did with our oldest daughter is give her a little tutorial on how to hold a paring knife (firm grip on knife handle with all fingers on deck and fingers turned under for the other hand) then gave her some very soft fruits and vegetables to practice on. I remember eating lots of fruit salad when my oldest was beginning her knife skills-plenty bananas and strawberries were the early victims of her knife! As they get more comfortable and confident in their skills, have the kids progress to a chef’s knife and give them the same tutorial on how to use it first. You should also have plenty of recipes on hand that benefit from their knife education-dinner salads, soups and stews, pizzas, and even fresh vegetable pastas are great ways to use the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors!
*When your kids are old enough to read and follow more complex directions from text, it is time to get them their own cookbook or binder of kid-friendly recipes that you collect from different sources. We have many kid cookbooks, but the one that my girls enjoy the most and has the tastiest results is by Williams Sonoma, The kid’s cookbook: A great book for kids who love to cook. This particular book targets children who are about 9 years old because it is meant to be used independently (that means that parents are only supposed to watch). I know that it is quite the leap of faith to allow your child to make a recipe completely by themselves, but by the time it is all over and the last mess has been wiped up-hopefully by your child-you will witness a transformation in your kid. You will now be the proud parent of a confident little chef!
I’m not saying that all of these things will be successful and mess-free, but if you are reading this and have kids, you know that already! It is important to remind the little ones that nothing in life is perfect and that sometimes things don’t always go as planned. It is also very important to stress that you have been cooking many more years than they have, so your experience comes from just that-experience! You will also need to allow twice the time (and patience) for the things you are preparing. If you are a parent, you know that already, too! But honestly, the rewards far exceed the time and energy you will spend getting the cooking done!