I love cooking with kids. Most of the time. Okay, well most of the time I love it when my kids just stay out of the kitchen so I can get dinner on the table before bedtime. But when I DO make the effort to plan ahead and let the littlies help me out, it ends up being really fun almost all the time. More importantly, cooking with kids teaches them to make and EAT healthy food. Kids are much more likely to try new foods they’ve helped prepare than if you just put something “weird” in front of them.
Here’s my daughter, Elizabeth, ROCKIN’ and ROLLIN’ out some dough all on her own. At nine, she can now cook quite a few meals all on her own.
A few tips to make the kid-chef experience more enjoyable for all:
1. CLEAN, THEN COOK. Before kids should cook they should learn the value of cleanliness. First, never start cooking in a dirty kitchen. It’s just plain frustrating. Always wash your hands before you start. Also wash all of the produce you’ll be using before you get started on other things. Finally, teach them how to taste without polluting the dish. Let’s face it, most kids are gross and don’t care that much about germs or dirt. Teach them that chefs are clean.
2. GIVE KIDS THE VOTE. Let them help choose what to make. Don’t be a kitchen dictator. I like having just one of my kids help me at a time. They love the one-on-one time with Mom, and it gives them a great chance to be heard and chat it up with a captive audience.
3. SET THE STAGE. When I’m cooking on my own I can usually set the table, clean up as I go, and juggle the ingredients and cooking times for various dishes all on my own. Don’t expect kids to multi-task this much. Get all the ingredients out ahead of time. Have the table set beforehand. Make sure everything you need is ready so no one will be in panic mode when everything takes a bit longer than expected. No matter what, it just takes longer with more “help”!
4. LET THEM DO THE HARD STUFF TOO. I used to let kids add the flour, but not the eggs; stir the pancake batter, but not flip the pancakes; add the croutons, but not chop the vegetables. Then I lightened up.
Kids can chop, saute, and yes-even break eggs. They just have to be taught. I have my kids break the eggs into a little bowl first, then we can easily scoop out any shell mistakes before the eggs are added with the other ingredients. I teach them about turning the pan handles in and staying away from spatters and not reaching over hot burners. I have them practice chopping, first on things like bananas and strawberries before the crisper apples. With a bit of practice, they can do it all.
5. EMBRACE THE CHAOS. Messes happen. Flour will spill on the floor. Clothes will get dirty. A dish will break now and again. Just clean as you go and don’t worry about perfection. One childhood Thanksgiving I dropped the entire bowl of mashed potatoes on the floor. Ruined. But I learned that day (after many tears) that my parents loved me more than all the mashed potatoes in the world.
6. COOKS COOK. DISHWASHERS WASH. If they help cook, let them get out of clearing the table and washing dishes afterward. Celebrate their hard work and give them a break on the other end of the meal. They’re sure to want to cook again.
Most of all, just enjoy it. Lighten up and have some fun in the kitchen. It may seem hard, but my oldest two (9 and 11 years old) can now cook well enough to make simple things like eggs, pasta, pancakes, tacos, and breads all on their own. When I’m under the weather they’ve amazed me by fixing meals and tending the little ones so Mommy can rest. All your patient little chef lessons will pay off!