Small tasks can help budding chefs grow
As kids, my siblings and I only occasionally cooked—but when we did, there was drama. It usually took the form of fights or messes involving FEMA-level cleanup. One episode in particular stands out. My brother and sister made a pie together and broke into an argument over the crust. My brother wanted to try a lattice top, but my sister adamantly opposed it. She grabbed the pie, ran to another room, and hid with it under a desk. She refused to emerge until my brother reconsidered.
Fast-forward 30 years, and now it’s my own kids (ages 7, 6 and 3) who want to be in the kitchen, though they couldn’t care less about piecrust. When the older two were preschoolers, they started to plead, “Can I help you with dinner, Mom?”
To be honest, I hesitated to say yes. I knew all the research—kids who cook eat a greater variety of foods, live healthier lives and feel more confident when confronting challenges—and even then I felt reticent. My kitchen is my studio, my sanctuary and (let’s be honest) occasionally my panic room.
And cooking with kids can be complicated. There is, of course, the specter of additional mess, which no sane parent desires. There is the fretting about the sharpness of the knives and the searing heat of the stove. And perhaps most daunting, there is the daily imperative to get some freaking dinner on the table before everyone in the house stuffs themselves with cheese and crackers.
So we started small. I let them push the buttons on the blender, and I turned on the oven light so they could watch muffins puff up while they baked. I showed them how to crack eggs, slice a banana with a plastic knife and, to their great delight, seed a pomegranate in a bowl of water.
And while doing all of these small tasks together, I’ve been surprised by just how capable they are and even more surprised by how capable they’ve become. My 7-year-old started packing her own school lunch. My 6-year-old made buttered toast for his little brother. I started to realize that our small efforts in the kitchen could eventually result in kids taking over dinner prep one night a week.
We’re not there yet. But for the most part, we’re learning and having fun. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
Your food doesn’t need to be adorable. I’m not above the occasional cookie-cutter sandwich or teddy bear toast, but in a household like ours with two working parents, making “kid food” doesn’t happen very often. We prepare things that everyone in the family wants (and needs) to eat as a normal part of their days: weeknight dinners, homemade snacks for lunchboxes, morning smoothies.
If you can manage it, set up, chop and measure some of the ingredients ahead of time to streamline the process.
Give your kids the most simple, tactile tasks: seasoning with salt and pepper, whisking dry ingredients, tearing fresh lettuce, squeezing lemons and limes or washing produce. Even something like using a peppermill is a big deal to them.
Purchase a few kid-sized items to make kitchen tasks easier for small hands: a peeler, small lidded pitchers for pouring milk and water and a knife with a finger guard to protect little fingers. (Montessori catalogs have great kitchen tools for kids.)
If your kids aren’t interested in cooking, try watching kids’ cooking shows together, such as MasterChef Junior or Hey Kids, Let’s Cook!
Purchase some kids’ cookbooks or borrow some from the library. (See page 58.) Pay attention to which recipes interest your kids.
Keep lots of dish towels and a broom close by so you can quickly clean as you go. Try to have a sense of humor about the mess—it’s not going to be that bad.
Click here for some fun recipes to try with your kids, and here for our rundown of recommended kids' cookbooks!