Becky from a Sweet Hot Mess is with us today to share some great tips about cooking with children as well as helping them to develop important life skills…
I was raised with the old fashioned notion that children were to learn at their elder’s elbow – ie: I learned to make biscuits and jams and eggs and stuffed peppers – all at my grandmother’s elbow, pressed up against her as I watched her deft hands and quick movements and took in all the lessons I could learn. Years later I would learn the fine art of cooking healthy and for many in my mother’s catering kitchen. And when she moved abroad, I took over her clients to put myself through the last few years of high school and the first few years of college.
My modern interpretation of this inherited family value is quite simple – I invite, I teach, I let go, I step back.
From their toddlerhood I have involved my children in cooking by repeatedly inviting them into the kitchen with me. I would sit them on the counter and give them a spoon and let them mix the cookie dough or spread frosting on their hand poured cupcakes. I played up how exciting it was it was to watch muffins rise, sitting on our little chairs and singing songs and telling stories as our little oven window gave us a view onto this whole new world.
As the kids have grown, as well as their interest, I have found that I know longer have to extend an invitation. My children are grabbing their aprons and pulling up their stools as soon as they hear the first mixing bowl touch down on the counter. If anything, this is a time when I have to make myself stop and take a deep breath and resist shooing them out of the kitchen as I struggle to finish a meal or don’t want them underfoot as I put up this year’s salsa. I have to remind myself that my children may not always want to stand next to me cutting strawberries or washing dishes with gleeful, soapy abandon…these early years are the ones where curiosity is sated, knowledge acquired and like skills learned. Not only do I need to invite my children to join me in the kitchen more often, I must also allow them to join me when they invite themselves.
This is tricky and could be a bit controversial to some. At this point in our culinary endeavors, I let my children cook their own eggs, cut their own apples and make their own popcorn. And so far there has been no blood and only one minor burn (which didn’t even require ice). Here is how we reached this point – early on, I developed a set of rules that would allow my children to learn basic techniques, but with safe boundaries.
When I can, I set up scenarios where if mistakes are made, they are correctable. We crack eggs into a test bowl first and retrieve any extra shells before we add them to the dough in process. We have repeatedly dumped flour back in the canister and started over after a certain little one kept forgetting how many cups she had measured. Sometimes I give the kids soft, overripe fruit, a cutting board and a dull paring knife and let them practice their knife skills. We started with my hand over theirs and over the past few years, they have needed my constant supervision less and less. I find that I barely have to create teaching opportunities anymore, as the kids frequently come to me with a request to learn a new dish or create a new recipe that they have been thinking about.
It pains my perfectionistic heart to watch muffin batter get dribbled all over the pan, each muffin a different size. I find that 90% of my parenting lately is simply biting my tongue as my kids struggle to figure out how to do things correctly.
I’ve come to realize they want to do things as well as I do them and that if I give them enough examples, opportunities and support – they will eventually catch up as their coordination, concentration and capacity evolves with each passing month. So, as with many things in life, set a good example and let your kids figure out how to replicate it. It will take a while, years even, but it will be worth it the first time your six year old makes perfectly scrambled eggs and serves them to you with nary an eggshell in sight.
In our kitchen, I like to introduce new recipes and techniques every week or so. We’ve sifted flour, separated yolks, made meringue, stir caramel constantly, roasted vegetables perfectly…And yet, the everyday repetition of life in the kitchen is where my kids really hone their skills. I love watching my two kids mirroring back all these life lessons I’ve taught them, as they get up in the morning and set the table, whisking and cooking their eggs as they set up the toaster and push the lever down. These mornings are possible because after teaching my children the basic skills, hovering for the appropriate amount of time, correcting where it is needed – I stepped back. Stepping back is the fine art of assessing our kid’s abilities and knowing where calculated distance can be made. For my kids, at this point in time, I step back for nearly half of our breakfasts and lunches. Dinners are my time to teach the kids new techniques and talk about the food and get them to taste new things.
My children have learned at my elbow, they have shown creativity and innovation, they have made mistakes and huge messes, I have yelled at them and cuddled them, I have learned patience and how to let go and laugh in the moments of chaos – all in our kitchen. Cooking together is a foundation practice, a life step that should not be missed. Who are children will be as adults will be greatly defined by how they were taught as children and I cannot think of a better place for our children to learn so many different aspects of maturity and responsibility then in the kitchen – especially since we have to eat to survive.
Eating well, cooking well, learning well – that is how we thrive.
Here are a few of our favorite recipes and an important reminder: