How cooking with your kids now can teach valuable lessons for later.
By Cynthia Giroux, founder of Storybook Kitchen
For many grownups, spending time in the kitchen can seem like a daily parade of endless casseroles and an ever piling stack of dirty dishes. But for children, the kitchen is a magical place full of shining appliances, mysterious gadgets, and a tempting abundance of ‘don’t touch that’s. What child has not had the urge to plunge their hands into sticky dough, or relish the crack of a smooth white egg?
The holidays provide the perfect opportunity to introduce your child to some of the wonders of the domestic world. Through cooking with your children they’ll learn not only to navigate a recipe, they’ll learn to become more self-reliant and trust in their own abilities, at the same time you’ll also be reinforcing some important skills like measuring, counting, multi-tasking, and time management. Don’t limit your child’s participation to food preparation; try to involve them in every step of the process, from planning and shopping through execution. You’ll be amazed at the amount of information they acquire with very little effort.
Planning for a cooking event, and including the child in the planning, communicates the importance of their involvement and contribution to the family. Consider the age of the child and what cooking experiences are appropriate for them, then start with something simple and gradually work up to more elaborate dishes. Ask the child about some of their favorite meals or treats. Look up and select recipes from cookbooks with the child at your side as you choose the recipes. This helps children see, do, and understand the process of planning for activities – an important organizational skill for their school years and beyond.
Once the recipe is selected, have your child work with you to determine what you have on hand already, and what other ingredients will need to be purchased at the grocery store. If they are able to write (even if a little help is needed with spelling!) show them how to make a shopping list.Otherwise, have them sit with you and watch you make out the list. Talk about what you are doing as you write, and how this will help you get just what you need on your trip to the grocery store. Take that trip to your favorite market together and help them understand that the purpose is to purchase the items on the list. Have your child help you find and select the items, and put them in the shopping cart. These seem like simple things; however, learning through participation teaches many valuable life skills.
Having acquired all of your recipe essentials, read through the recipe with your child and set up all of the ingredients and equipment that you will need. Be sure to read all the way through the recipe, and try pre-measuring your ingredients – it’s a method chefs use called mise en place or ‘everything in place’. Modeling these strategies in following a recipe ensures that you follow the steps in order and have on hand what you need to accomplish the finished product successfully.
When teaching kids how to measure things, first show them how to fill the required measure and then let them give it a try. It is only when the child actually gets to do it themselves that they really learn how. Over time, children learn how to do tasks more efficiently and effectively, which helps them build confidence in their own abilities. Acknowledge what you notice about your child's efforts, and give them as much opportunity as possible to do the actual egg cracking, measuring, and mixing, instead of just watching you do it.
No matter how careful your preparation, keep in mind that kids plus kitchens can often equal upset. Be patient and know that there will probably be messy spills: expect them and plan for them. As you begin cooking, keep a dish cloth handy for accidents and fill the sink with warm, soapy water to let used pots and pans soak. Involve your child in the cleanup as well. The reality is that this, too, is part of the cooking and learning experience.
Don’t forget to share your child’s culinary accomplishment with the family; your child will take pride in seeing others enjoy their food. Make the meal or dish a topic of conversation around the dinner table. Ask questions and listen to what your child has to say. What was a favorite part? What will the next project be? And, perhaps most importantly, remember to enjoy yourself as together you and your child turn some of the simplest tasks into important skills, all the while creating delicious memories.