Kids in the Kitchen: Creating a New Generation of 'Foodies'

The benefits of exposing kids to cooking, food and kitchen skills at an early age.

Gigi Gibbs loves making desserts. "I think she has made almost all of the recipes in the dessert cookbook," says her mother Sue Gibbs. Gigi, 11, can cook a complete meal and isn’t afraid to alter recipe ingredients to suit her taste. Gigi began cooking two years ago after a neighbor gave her some cookbooks that sparked her interest. Gigi is similar to many kids whose cooking skills go well beyond their years.

With primetime cooking competition shows like "Chopped Kids," "Rachael Vs. Guy Kids Cook-off" and "Master Chef Junior with Gordon Ramsey," kids are stepping up their game and serving television judges that are more than three times their age complex dishes like pork chops with rosemary potatoes, sautéed apples and carrots, and lemon and blood orange cream pie with raspberries.

Not only are kids starring in cooking shows, they are also watching. According to Bob Tuschman, general manager and senior vice president of programming for the Food Network, 12 million children ages 2 to 17 were watching the Food Network every month in 2010, and the number continues to rise.

This pint-size cooking renaissance has inspired many local organizations and businesses to offer culinary camps and classes to youngsters ready to don an apron and create a signature dish. Exposing kids to cooking, food and kitchen skills at an early age can also mean making healthier eating choices, increased confidence, curiosity in trying new foods and a lifetime of good habits.

"I think more and more people are realizing the importance of not only getting their kids involved, but the importance of cooking at home," says Shannon Bourret, healthy eating coordinator for Whole Foods’ Salud Cooking School in the SouthPark and Lake Norman stores.

Where Do Carrots Come From?

If your kids think food magically appears in the grocery store and ends up as dinner, they aren’t alone. "It is so important for kids to know where their food comes from," Bourret says. When kids visit local farmers markets or grocery stores, they learn that all food doesn’t come made-to-order and ready to go. "I think when kids get involved in the kitchen, it helps them explore foods a little bit," she says.

She encourages parents to include kids in the entire meal preparation process — from writing the grocery list and weighing in on the menu to setting the table and putting the final touch on a meal. Give your child a choice of two vegetables as a side then allow them to help prepare the food they picked, she suggests. Then when mealtime rolls around they are excited to try what they helped prepare.

And colors matter. Bourret says families should focus on "eating the rainbow." Parents can make fruits and vegetables more appealing by talking about how different colored fruits and vegetables help the body in unique ways. "They learn I’m going to eat a carrot and help my eyesight," she says. At mealtime, talk about where the food came from and make the connection. "They learn it’s full circle."

Susan Caldwell, founder of Flour Power Kids Cooking Studios in Charlotte, Cary and Raleigh, invites parents to throw out the grocery list and go on a food adventure. "Walk around the store together touching the produce and picking out new foods," she says. "Talk about its texture and ask children what they think they can make with it."

Age-Appropriate Kitchen Tasks

So how do you know if your child is ready to handle the responsibility of being in the kitchen? "Pay attention to what they are asking you," says Chef Carrie Hegnauer, owner and culinary director of The City Kitch, a commercial rental kitchen and culinary education center in the University area. "Are they hanging around? Are they interested and asking questions?"

If they do seem interested, there are simple kitchen tasks for every age. Registered dietitian and author Elaine Magee says kids under age 5 can help wash vegetables in a colander, remove husks from corn, break up lettuce or snap ends off green beans. By ages 8 to 10, kids can read recipes, stir food over the stove with supervision, grate cheese, measure ingredients and create their own recipes.

Flour Power Studios offers cooking classes, camps and birthday parties for all ages and interests, however, the school’s preschool cooking class — where toddlers and parents explore cooking together — is usually the first to sell out, says Caldwell. "We recently lowered this age because so many parents begged us to, stating their children were already involved and enjoyed cooking at home with them," she says.

The City Kitch doesn’t rely strictly on age to assess kitchen readiness for kids interested in culinary camps or classes. Instead, Hegnauer asks parents what they let their kids do in the kitchen at home to figure out if they are ready for a course.

"Don’t underestimate your kid," she says. "They are probably more capable than you think." She’s seen many kids rise to the occasion when entering a cooking class. "When you put them with a professional, suddenly they are chefs."

No matter the task, the payoff for starting kids in the kitchen early has many benefits. "When you start them young, it starts a foundation to have a lifetime of positive food choices," Bourret says.

Lifelong Learning

Whether preparing a gourmet meal or eating a can of soup over the sink, you’ve got to eat. "So much can be learned by being hands on in the kitchen at an early age," Caldwell says. "It teaches children reading, chemistry and math skills."

The culinary arts can also provide an outlet for a child who hasn’t found his or her niche yet. Caldwell says that parents call looking for an activity for their child who might not be interested in sports, arts or other activities. "Those children come the first day and are so timid, scared and afraid," she says. "In a very short period of time we see those same children bursting with pride and excitement at what they’ve been able to accomplish."

Patricia DelBello, director of culinary operations at Johnson and Wales University, started a cooking and baking camp for children at the school in 2008. The class has been wildly popular and sells out every year, she says. She sees many of the same kids return each summer, but even if campers don’t ultimately pursue a culinary career she hopes they learn to love preparing delicious, healthy meals for themselves, friends and family.

"It is practical knowledge that will never go to waste," DelBello says. "It creates enjoyment, a sense of achievement, and will have a positive impact on their health and well-being."

Kids also learn what it takes to put a meal on the table, Bourret says. And with all the tasks to cross off the to-do list before you dig in, everyone can help. "No matter what you are into, there is something for everyone," Bourett says.

Courtney McLaughlin is a freelance writer, Charlotte native and mother to a wonderful 9-year-old daughter whose French toast will knock your socks off.


Mini-Chef Culinary Classes

From camps to weekend classes, birthday parties and parents night out, these culinary hot spots are a great place to inspire your culinary master in the making.


Flour Power Studios
Quail Corners, 8438 Park Road

Gypsy Soup
Serving Lake Norman and Charlotte areas

Johnson & Wales University
801 W. Trade St.

Salud! Cooking School, Charlotte
Whole Foods Market, 6610 Fairview Road

The City Kitch
9545 Pinnacle Drive

YMCA of Greater Charlotte
Various locations

Fort Mill

Bakers Buzzin
725 Stockbridge Drive


16740 Birkdale Village Pkwy.

Kitchen Safety 101

The most important ingredient to any culinary experience is safety. Following are rules of the kitchen from area chefs.

Wash hands. Wash hands. Wash hands.
Be sure everyone in the kitchen washes their hands before and after handling food, especially raw meat and seafood.

Be aware when ovens, stovetops, grills and microwaves are in use.
Ask an adult for help or supervision when preparing food on a hot stove.

Curl your fingers under your hand when using a knife.
Learn proper knife skills and invest in finger guards until you get the hang of it.

No running or playing around in the kitchen.
Be aware of what you are doing and what other tasks are going on in the kitchen area.

Gather all the items together you will need before you start cooking.
This helps limit trips around the kitchen.

Know when to ask an adult for help.