The Good Plate

Satisfying bites and tasty extras on good food and healthy living.

The Truth about Kids in the Kitchen

Six practical ideas for helping children gain lifelong skills.

by Lisa Golden Schroeder

My first memory of kitchen life was scoring little treats—like the end of a raw carrot or potato left from the vegetable shredder. Or watching my mom make her own hamburger in a heavy metal meat grinder that clamped onto the edge of the counter. My grandmother actually took time to stir up scratch brownies with me and my sister, but my mom was so busy trying to get dinner on the table that the kids’ role in the process was relegated to setting the table and pouring the milk. We did bake the secret family cookie recipe at the holidays, and I eventually expressed a desire to help my mom knead bread every week. But my message here is that even though my mom never actively set time aside to teach us, we learned by just being in the kitchen. And her personal passion for good food was absorbed by osmosis—my sibs and I are all quite proficient in the kitchen and really care about how we feed our families.

As a mom I’ve operated in a similar manner. When my kids were young I was terrifically busy too. And often brushed off my boys when they expressed a whim to bake just as I was in the frantic final moments of dinner prep. But more often they were just under foot; seemingly bored or uninterested in how that dinner came to be. So I learned to slow down and seize any smidgen of attention. Here are a few thoughts about how to happily coach your kids toward a cooking life.

Abandon an “all or nothing” attitude. Cooking full recipes with your kids every day is unrealistic—but involving them as much as you can sets the stage for when you have more time. Showing them how to scramble eggs, chop fruit for a morning smoothie, or top and tail green beans for supper helps them and you.

Go grocery shopping. Because of what I do for a living, my kids have spent more time than most buying food. Most of the time they were not thrilled to stop at yet another market, but my answering their questions and just showing them what and why I chose certain ingredients were easy lessons in making good choices. And if they wanted to know how to crack open a coconut, I bought one.

Set aside time. Dig deep into your reserves of patience and budget time to harness individual interests in specific foods or styles of cooking. Have a kid who loves cinnamon rolls? Maybe this is the path to learning how to make yeast dough (and if you don’t know, find a good video and learn together). Or one who can’t get enough mac ‘n cheese? Teach them how to make a cheese sauce. Make it fun!

Start at the beginning. I believe that teaching even very young children how to handle sharp knives safely is the most basic first step to kitchen proficiency. Instilling your trust in their ability to be safe is a huge boost to kitchen confidence. I have photos of my very young boys chopping with a big chef’s blade—and we never drew blood! Of course a 4-year-old should start with a plastic knife to slice bananas or a veggie peeler to slice carrots or zucchini into strips before you hand over your Chinese cleaver. And be sure kids of any age understand kitchen dangers. The basics of using the stovetop and oven properly and how to put out a kitchen fire are as important as when you childproofed your house when they were toddlers.  

Don’t let recipes dictate. As you engage your kids, focus on techniques that need no written directions. Following recipes is an excellent way to learn how to be organized, follow directions and measure accurately. But starting with washing greens and making a salad, cooking spaghetti to the right doneness, or sautéing onions and garlic establishes a familiarity and comfort in the kitchen that builds a foundation for more complicated cooking. 

And don’t forget the end. Eating is not the end of the cooking process, cleaning up is. Kids need to be part of the entire process, from the chopping and stirring, to loading up the dishwasher or drying plates at the end. The concept of “cleaning as you go” is my favorite lesson.

So my very humble goal for my boys was that they wouldn’t starve as bachelors nor have to depend on someone else to feed them. My last son left for college last year. And his biggest frustration is not having a kitchen to cook in. My oldest son calls me as he walks to the grocery store—asking how much chicken to buy for a DIY dinner with his friends. And my middle son asked for a wok after his first year at college—and makes stir-fries for himself nearly every night. Mission accomplished.

 

Free download: Teaching Kids To Cook. Pro tips for three age ranges.

PDF iconJBC_Teaching kids to cookv2.pdf

Leaf

Raising Goodness ®

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