One of the joys of having bigger kids is the many way they can (theoretically) help around the house. Our house still gets messy, but now, I’m not the only one picking up the books and Legos. Same in the kitchen. There are lots of hungry mouths in this house (Byron counts as about three people himself), but now thankfully, I’m not the only one preparing and cleaning up the food and table.
We’ve never had a large kitchen and so inviting the kids into help often created more stress and yelling than useful instruction for a long time. However, once I got out of the way and let the kids make what they wanted, rather than say, help me assemble dinner, the real learning started and all the kids are now on their way to living a life sustained by more than Ramen noodles and frozen waffles.
Now, if the kids complain that there’s no dessert in the house, I can grumble, “Well then go make a cake!” And they do!!! If they want an egg, over easy, for breakfast, they can make it themselves! Or if I ask them to poach an egg for Fulton, they understand I don’t want them to smuggle in illegal ivory for breakfast. Just as important, they know not to use the use chef knife to slice up an apple, but that it’s perfect for dicing celery (that they will insist I should not put in the soup). Our kitchen stays somewhat orderly because along with cooking skills, they’ve come to learn how to use, clean and put away utensils as well.
Maybe this all sounds like some distant fantasy land, or that my children are unicorns, but I assure you they’re not! A few tips to raising kids who cook.
Let them help as soon as they express an interest. Sometimes it’s just stirring batter or dumping pre-measured ingredients in a bowl, but if they want to help, try to let them. If you don’t enjoy the “fun” of cooking with young kids, try to outsource the work. The kids have happily helped my husband make homemade ravioli since they were tots. Both grandmas have shown the patience of saints as they helped the kids bake cookies or cake. And when it comes to Christmas cookies, even I can, usually, not spaz as the kids help drop balls of dough or layer ingredients in a pan.
If you help cook and make a mess, you help clean up. This is essential! Little kids who don’t want to help clean up, don’t get to cook and big kids are allowed to make whatever, so long as everything is put away afterwards. My kids now will look at a recipe and decide if it’s worth the effort. Sometimes, their desire to make a complex dessert will force them to work together….and usually make a double batch (bonus!). I no longer view cooking with the kids (or letting them cook for themselves) as more work for me because tackling the mess is now no longer just my problem.
Allow them to make themselves easy meals. Scrambled eggs, grilled cheese, plain noodles, microwaved nuggets (or substitute your favorite organic, free range Whole Foods options in there) are a great place to start. I let my kids start cooking on the stove probably around the age of ten, maybe even sooner. I was always nearby in case they needed help and it just made my day easier if they could get what they wanted for breakfast or lunch rather than turning me into a short order cook. Sure they burned a few items, but overall I found they left the stove on, or burned items no more than, um, the responsible adults in the house (who are generally going on much less sleep.)
Plan meals together, or let them take on the job entirely for a day. Admission: my kids don’t always select the most balanced meals, so I usually insist they have to choose a vegetable. Otherwise, they select the meal, write the ingredients on the shopping list and then prepare the food for everyone. Casseroles are always a favorite for one child, while another usually prefers some slab of beef (but only because I won’t buy lobster tail). Another child isn’t interested in planning meals so much as making sure we have fresh-baked goods on hand as much as possible. #winning
Create family food traditions. For certain feast days, and holidays, we eat certain food. Now, as those dates approach, the kids anticipate our family’s special meals and treats and as they get older, are helping more and more with preparing. I’ll admit that someday I hope to wake up in my daughter’s house and be treated to a St. Lucy cake she’s made herself, or sitting with my grandkids as they enjoy the cannoli their father learned to make from his father. And if for some reason I find myself unable to cook, I know I can pass the torch to my kids and they will be prepared to take it up whether it’s Easter lamb, Martinmas duck, or Christmas ham.
Enjoy your meals together, and compliment the cook. Sit and savor your meals when you’re able. If eating isn’t enjoyable, why would your kids ever think cooking could be? Eating would be seen as utilitarian rather than a special time to spend with family. I also found my kids started complaining much less about new recipes I tried after each was met with disappointing reactions from their siblings after food they cooked didn’t turn out quite right. Now everyone understands on a personal level the importance of being polite. Everyone makes mistakes and eventually we can all laugh at the cake made with 1/2 cup of baking powder, rather than hold a grudge.
Record their favorite recipes, and the ones they’ve made. A great way to do this is give them their own cookbooks. A modern way would be to save their favorite recipes in a separate Pinterest board as well. Pinterest has been a great lifesaver when the kids want to cook, but aren’t sure what they can make with the ingredients on hand, or if they need to make a substitution in a recipe they’ve found.
Did I forget something? How do you encourage your children to become comfortable in the kitchen?