When I talk with people about cooking or my blog, they most often comment about my kids. “That’s so great that your kids are helping in the kitchen. Mine would never help out.” Or “I wish I could get my kid in the kitchen but I really like to keep my kitchen clean as I work.” Or “My kid only eats dino nuggets so I guess I’ll start cooking again once he goes to college.” Or “I’ll definitely have my daughter help cook when she’s older.” It goes without saying if you read this blog regularly that my kids are often in the kitchen. Not just my teens, but my four year-olds help out all the time. They’ve been in the kitchen now for at least two years. They are becoming pro. You’ve seen the photos. You’ve heard the rants. Get those kids in the kitchen.
After talking with a friend yesterday about her experience with parents who seem to fear cooking, I started to think about the parents I meet who are cooking, but not with their kids. Some are afraid of the mess. I’ll give you that one. Some feel so overwhelmed, it is just easier to get the cooking done themselves. I feel that one too. Don’t think that I haven’t turned on PBS kids so that I can get through dinner prep. Some feel their kids are too young to be in the kitchen. It can be a lot of work to find jobs that are age appropriate for your kids while you are trying to get dinner on the table. Let me help you out with that. Here are some things that most kids can do that provide a great introduction to your kitchen:
1. Washing vegetables. Pull that stool up to the sink, get out a colander, and let ‘er rip. Your kid will get wet and your veggies might not be as clean as you would like. That’s ok. Your kid can change while you do the next steps and you can always rewash the veggies. Washing vegetables introduces kids to the vegetable itself. It gives them ownership over that part of the process, which tends to make kids more willing to eat that vegetable. Sometimes when they are washing the vegetables, they will sneak a bite. Snacking before dinner? Not the best idea in general, but I’m totally ok with this if they are snacking on vegetables.
2. Mashing or stirring. Guacamole, bananas for bread, potatoes (not in a hot pot). Mashing any of these things are excellent jobs for little kids. The kids get a little dose of eye hand coordination and you get a helper. This past Sunday night, Gus helped make guacamole for enchiladas. Gus is hit or miss on eating guacamole, but he went crazy eating it on Sunday and he advised all of his siblings that they should thank him for the guacamole because he made it. “Isn’t it so good?” he asked each one of them.
3. Measuring. This is a tough one for you neatniks and for baking because kids will never be as precise as you need them to be with measuring. Having kids get out the right measuring cup or spoon is a great place to start. I ask my little kids to find the “one over four” cup or the “one over three” cup when I don’t want them actually measuring. This helps with number recognition in young kids and with understanding fractions in older elementary kids. Once our older kids were learning about fractions, we would have them double or halve recipes before measuring so that they could practice math skills. You can always have your kids dump the ingredients that you’ve measured into the bowl. And, of course, they can stir.
4. Getting out ingredients. This is a great way for kids to learn what is in their food and where it is in your kitchen. They can also help put things away. Baby steps in the process.
5. Cutting and prepping. No, you are not going to hand your three year old a paring knife. But you can hand her the broccoli or cauliflower to break into pieces. Little hands can also tear lettuce and break the ends off of beans or asparagus or grind spices. Once your kids are older and you are comfortable with them handling a knife, it is a great idea to get that knife in their hands on a regular basis and teach them proper knife skills. Not sure about your own knife skills? Check out the Kitchn’s Cooking School for an awesome quick refresher.
6. Operating the food processor, blender, or stand mixer. Warning! Warning! Sharp blades! Heavy mechanical tools! I totally hear you. All true. But supervised, even little kids can help make salad dressing in the blender or chop onions in the food processor. My kids fight over who gets to pulse the blender when we make smoothies or who gets to turn the food processor on to make hummus. They’ve grated zucchini and carrots in the food processor, made pesto, blended cookie dough…and – I’m beating a dead horse here – they EAT the things that they have pulsed or mixed in those fun tools with buttons. Imagine a four year old liking arugula pesto. Yep. It’s true.
7. Picking out recipes. When all else fails, hand your kids a cookbook and some sticky notes and let them pick something that looks good for dinner. It is empowering for a little kid to be able to choose the meal. And you didn’t have to think about what’s for dinner.