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Jan 21 2013

8 Tips for Raising Competent Little Chefs

By at 12:45 pm

Back when my bigger boys were small, it seemed we had plenty of time at home to hang around. What we needed was stuff to do.

So, along with reading and doing puzzles and playing with trains, I took my cue from cookbooks like Molly Katzen’s Pretend Soup, a bright cornucopia of recipes explained with words and pictures like those simple picture books that preview reading with images in the place of certain words. Together, we made bagel faces and carrot pennies. We baked. We sampled the batter. As the boys got bigger, things got busier; school schedules and activities filled up that unstructured time–and another baby arrived. Our together-in-the-kitchen projects evaporated like so much steam. And then, another baby–years later–joined our family. She is 4, and this time I’m heading back to the kitchen more conscientiously.

Because when the little kid tasks, you know, like stirring or dumping sugar in the bowl, got too uninteresting to my big guys, I was unwilling to substitute “next level” culinary tasks, ones involving chopping with sharp knives or working in close proximity to a stove. My foot dragging and fear didn’t stop my second boy–the one who really loved all those kid cookbooks. He took it upon himself to learn about cooking. He walked into the kitchen, pulled a knife from the knife block, and got started of his own accord. I panicked and hovered and worried and argued with him; I mourned my semi-clean kitchen. Eventually, he’s become, at 14, a fantastic chef–and I’m determined to raise my 4-year-old to become a competent, safe, and tidy child cook.

These days, she loves pulling out the pots and pans drawer and playing. Up next are actual kitchen projects. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Start out right. Those easily followed kids’ cookbooks support your initial forays into cooking together by offering manageable, colorful, and fun ways to take baby steps in the kitchen. Already, my daughter enjoys it when I bake; she stirs and pours and tastes. As your child becomes more capable, ask for input about which recipes to try. Most of ours will likely involve chocolate at first.

2. Serve at least some of your kids’ food “family style” so they begin to take responsibility at the table. I spent time when my first two were small setting up perfect little fruit medleys on the plate rather than getting them to serve themselves.

3. Encourage–expect, really–your kids to clear their plates. This sounds basic; I will ‘fess up that I often do this in harried mum fashion, opting for speed over the longer view of nurturing responsibility. It’s good to have expectations of your kids in the kitchen. Setting the table works, too.

4. After the easy (and non-anxiety producing) tasks like stirring or pouring into a bowl, do have your kids graduate to those “next level” culinary tasks I felt so reluctant to have my kids try. There is infinite value in fostering independence-building tasks. One bonus to having a caboose child is that I’m already comfortable letting her do things that scared me with the older ones, like using scissors or crossing the street near me rather than needing us to hold hands at every single corner. She already “helps” me wash apples, unload the dishwasher, and wipe the counter. Of the three, her unloading skills are truly suspect (see my cutlery drawer for proof); she does actually wash a mean apple and wipe a semi-mean counter.

5. Enlist your children’s help and solicit their input in planning meals and having ingredients on hand, too. Competence in the kitchen is really all about process–the shopping and planning, the preparation, the cleanup–and all those skills must be learned in order to appreciate the kitchen as more than a room that holds a microwave. Consciousness about budgeting, too, is a learned skill. When my 4-year-old wants something at the store, she knows to ask, “Is this on sale?”

6. Don’t limit your culinary education to the kitchen. It’s important to take your children outdoors so that the seasonality of food becomes tangible to them. A farm share at a local farm allowed us to pick tomatoes, herbs, peas, and beans. The farmers’ markets, too, demonstrated that concept of produce being “in season.” Chef and food educator Amy Cotler says, “The most important thing parents can do with their kids in order to cultivate awareness about where food comes from is to harvest food together; be it apple picking at an orchard or strawberry picking in a field or growing basil in your windowsill.”

7. Embrace your children’s attempts at cooking, even when the result is failure. Recipes do go awry. Cool ideas don’t always work. My motto: if the kitchen is still standing and the ER avoided, I’ll call any kitchenfail an ultimate win. How many things have I messed up over the years?

8. Cook together. Groom your kids for “head chef” status. Make the kitchen a fun–even social–place. Witnessing my middle two sons and friends take a box of tomatoes seconds from the farm and turn them into huge batches of tomato sauce, a full-day, utterly messy, useful, and delicious endeavor, reminded me that adventures in the kitchen can be social experiences.

Even though right now my daughter is small and her palate is relatively narrow (quoting her at bedtime last night: “I love chocolate ice cream and chocolate chips the best.”) one day she too will be interested in more ambitious meals. I am taking a long view this time around, with an appreciative nod to the gourmet boy in my household. So far, he’s promised me that I’ll be able to eat at his restaurant for free. If I do right by my little girl, maybe he’ll even hire her someday.

For more tips on wrangling kids in the kitchen, check out our interview with the Shiksa in the Kitchen, and some recommended recipes for cooking with kids.


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