Introducing Children to Cooking at All Ages
Teaching your kids to cook helps develop confidence and builds problem-solving skills.
Bryan Richards makes pizzas at home with his 2-year-old son, Deacon.
Photo courtesy of Bryan M. Richards
As our son transitioned from a peaceful, napping baby into a gets-into-everything, mobile toddler, our family dinners transitioned from the highlight of our day to the most dreaded hour. We eventually threw our hands in the air and resorted to the one thing we vowed never to do as young parents — use the television to babysit while we cooked.
A neighbor suggested that we borrow their learning tower (an adjustable height kitchen step stool) and incorporate our son into our passion for food. While he wasn’t quite old enough to help, the ability to watch us kept him occupied until we were ready to sit down to dinner as a family.
The next night, as we started to prep dinner, we heard a scraping noise across the kitchen. Our son was pushing his learning tower into place so that he could help us cook dinner. Since then, he continues to join us in the kitchen while we’re cooking, and we are enjoying benefits that extend well beyond keeping his active body occupied.
“There’s a lot of research that shows that teaching your kids to cook helps develop confidence and builds problem-solving skills,” says Sarah Schlichter, registered dietitian and blogger at Bucket List Tummy. “It also models balanced food choices.”
Ginger Cayson, owner and operator of Charlotte’s Flour Power Kids Cooking Studio, cautions not to be afraid of the mess that often follows kids in the kitchen. She admits it’s a struggle when her own three daughters help in the family kitchen.
“But the mess from cooking together is a lot less permanent than that from arts-and-crafts projects,” Cayson says.
Once you become OK with the fact that the kitchen might be a little messier than normal, let your kids help plan meals.
“Start with a lunch-box planner and have them help pack their lunches,” says Kristen Chidsey, the mom and mind behind the blog A Mind "Full" Mom. Move on from lunch to letting the kids help plan the weekly dinner menu.
Erin Brighton, director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council and supervisor of FoodCorps for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, posts shopping and meal wish lists to the refrigerator that her five children can add to.
“If they have a role in the selection, kids will make healthier choices,” she says.
For older kids, meet them in the middle with technology. “My daughter loves to look through Tasty and Yummly videos to help pick recipes,” Cayson says. “Once kids watch those videos, they get excited.”
Schlichter then suggests taking the show on the road — or, in this case, to the grocery store.
“Bring kids to the grocery store and let them pick out ingredients using their own carts. It helps develop autonomy.”
Let the Cooking Begin
Ingredients in hand, it’s time to cook. There’s really no age too young to start inviting your kids into the kitchen.
“You can start as young as 6-months old,” Schlichter says. “Bring their high-chair into the kitchen to watch. It forms memories.”
Options of age-appropriate tasks are endless. Think ahead and assign tasks your kids can handle. At age 2, my son pinches spices out of a bowl to sprinkle over vegetables, and stirs marinades and sauces.
Brighton says that at age 3, her kids were cracking eggs. By age 7 they were opening cans, and at age 12, they were cutting vegetables.
“Don’t be afraid to teach kids proper terms and techniques,” Cayson says. “If they’re braising, tell them that they’re braising and what that means. Tell them cinnamon is from the bark of tree. It makes the food more interesting.”
Once there’s excitement in the kitchen, start to introduce new flavors and textures through experimentation.
“Since there are many, many ways to prepare a single item, it’s the discovery of texture and flavor that brings a dish to life,” says Alyssa Wilen of Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen.
A simple way to do this, suggests Chidsey, is with broccoli. Try roasted broccoli one week, steamed the next, and sautéed the following. Ask your kids what they thought of the differences.
“Look at what’s seasonal and inexpensive like kale,” Brighton says. “Add it into other dishes like meatballs and meatloaf.”
What About Picky Eaters?
Introducing new foods can be a problem for picky eaters. A rule that Cayson enforces at Flour Power Studio classes is “don’t yuck somebody else’s yum.” All kids have to be a part of putting the recipe together even if they don’t think they will like the end product. She tells her students to think of it as a science project. Most kids will try the food at the end of class and often ask for seconds or thirds, she says.
“I’ve never seen a child not eat something that they made themselves,” Brighton says.
Wilen agrees. “Oftentimes, a parent will drop off their child to a cooking class or camp thinking they don’t really like a certain type of food, and then they’re surprised to watch them eat it. All it takes is their involvement in the dish to be convinced it’s not so bad.”
Cooking together can build memories that last a lifetime. Take some pressure off yourself by focusing less on perfection and more on the shared experience when cooking with children.
“Give grace to the kids,” Cayson says. “You want to set high expectations, but it’s not going to be perfect. The dice might not be perfect on the onion. You might get chunks of garlic in the sauce. That’s all right. It will still taste good.”
Remember, too, that not all meals have to be extravagant. “Cooking doesn’t have to be an hour-long meal experience,” Schlichter says. Break it down to something simple.”
For example, when in a pinch Brighton suggests picking up a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and prepping some simple sides at home. A favorite in her house is to mix a can of black beans with fresh squeezed lime juice and garlic.
“You might not think that’s cooking, but they do.”
Bryan M. Richards is a craft beer, food and travel writer who lives in Charlotte with his wife and their 2-year-old son.