12 Cooking Lessons You Should Teach Your Kids
Although I don’t have children, for the past two years I’ve been working as a personal chef, cooking lunch and dinners for a family with three young kids under the age of 5. As a food professional used to crafting meals for adults, I quickly had to change the way I cooked to be kid-friendly. However, this didn’t involve swapping almond-crusted salmon for frozen chicken fingers (kids eat what their parents eat, so if their dad loves Thai curry, chances are the kids will love it too, as long as it’s not that spicy!). The biggest changes I made in the kitchen revolved around the kids themselves. They wanted to be a part of the process, so I had to figure out a way to get them cooking. Thus, here are 11 lessons that I have taught the kids in the kitchen.
Before any children can help in the kitchen, they must wash their hands. Especially if they have been playing outside. It may seem like a no-brainer, as this is basic adult etiquette, but it has to be drilled into young children’s minds. Having the kids wash their hands beforehand will help them get in the mind-set of cooking. If you’ve got child-sized aprons, have them put those on too.
A good cook knows that the sharper the knife, the easier it is to use, but this presents quite the conundrum when small children are involved, right? Make it a strict rule that they do not touch the knives. Ever. Period. No questions asked. Look the kids in the eyes and tell them that knives are not toys. If you’ve got an eager young boy dying to cut something, give him a butter knife and ask him to slice some butter, soft cheese, or bananas.
Another no-no for the kiddos? Opening the oven when there is something in it. Also touching the stove. Kids love to watch things cook, so if they want to check out the pizza that’s in the oven, stand next to them and turn on the oven light. Let them have a look, then make sure they step away from the oven.
Kids love cheese, and one of the easiest, most rewarding tasks for 5-year-olds is grating a block of cheese. The key is to give them a large block of cheese and tell them that their fingers can NEVER ever touch the metal of the grater. Keep an eye on them, and when their fingers are getting too close, have them stop grating. Give them another task, like assembling the quesadillas, to keep them occupied.
One afternoon I was left with the 18-month-old baby for about 20 minutes while I was trying to prepare dinner. Sautéed chard was a part of the menu, and I had to pick the large leaves off the stems before chopping them. Since the baby was fussy for attention, I grabbed two large cookie sheets and sat down on the floor next to her. On one, I placed the recently washed chard. I held up a stem, looked her in the eye, ripped off part of the leaves, and set them onto the empty cookie sheet. I showed her several more examples, and soon she was helping me pick the chard. Learning to cook before she can even speak! Kids can pick parsley, cilantro, basil, and kale. If you have a garden, let the kids (using children’s scissors, of course!) cut the herbs or greens before they start to cook.
Kids love baking and kids love desserts, so every couple of weeks, reward their savory participation in the kitchen by making a sweet treat. Have them get out the mixing bowls and all the necessary components, from the flour to vanilla. Then teach them how to measure out ingredients, pour them into a bowl, and stir. If the child is too young to measure and level out 3/4 cup brown sugar, measure it out, then hand it to the child and let her pour it into the bowl. If cooking with siblings, let them take turns. One gets to measure, pour, and stir the dry ingredients. The other gets to measure, pour, and stir the wet ingredients. When combining them, they each get their own whisk and can stir for 10 seconds at a time.
Cracking open an egg is a fun and exciting job for a child. Have them hold the egg in one hand and confidently crack it against a bowl or countertop before letting the contents drop into a bowl. Make sure you have extra eggs, as one may end up on the floor! Remember to be lighthearted and kind with the children. It’s a batch of brownies, not rocket science. If some shell pieces get into the batter, it’s no big deal. Teach the child how to scoop them out with the remaining shell.
Or blueberry muffins. Or banana bread. Or special sauce for burgers. Give them a signature dish that they also happen to love to eat and make, and let them be in charge of making it every time you’re going to have it. The 4-year-old boy I cook with loves avocados, so he always wants to make guacamole. I do the chopping, and he does the mixing. I even let him scoop the avocado flesh into the bowl. For a milder, child-friendly version of guacamole, omit jalapeños.
“Do you wanna do a taste test?” This question has averted many a temper tantrum and sibling war. Nothing sparks the kids’ interest more than sampling what the chef is cooking. Give them a small spoonful of the tomato sauce or minestrone soup that’s simmering on the stove. Or if you’re making something like meatballs or burgers, have everyone make a tiny meatball, then quickly cook them and let everyone taste the meatball that they made. Adjust the seasonings of the meat mixture accordingly. Taste tests are also a great way to introduce them to new flavors and ingredients. The next time you’re making grilled cheese sandwiches or macaroni and cheese, pull out several different kinds of cheese. Slice a small bite-size piece of fontina, cheddar, and provolone and let the kids try each one. Explain where the cheeses originated and what animal they generally come from. Let them pick their favorite cheese and use it in the grilled cheese sandwiches.
Unless you cook everything in the microwave, cooking takes time! So while you’re waiting for baked sweet potato fries to cook, teach children the virtue of patience. Then distract them by making a delicious dipping sauce for the fries.
Children find machines to be absolutely fascinating, so the next time you’re making pesto, have them pick the basil leaves, peel the garlic, and toss both into the base of the food processor. Let them hit the pulse button to grind everything up and, if old enough, to slowly pour in the olive oil while the machine is processing. Same goes for making smoothies. Have them peel the bananas and scoop the yogurt into the blender. It will seem like magic when they hit the button and everything blends together!
Like washing their hands is the first step to cooking, setting the table is the last. Conclude each cooking session with them setting the table with placemats, plates, napkins, silverware, and glasses. Then sit down and enjoy the food together. Shop our favorite kitchen accessories for the little ones!