Children are not little adults, but they are little humans. How can we help them develop their palates and gain lifetime skills? Get them cooking!
Rules #1 and #2, when it comes to cooking with kids: don’t stress and keep things simple. Evenings when you’re trying to meet the workday deadline for getting dinner on the table are not good times to offer calm, supportive advice to novice cooks. Think weekends, think Hamptons vacations by the sea, when the living is easy.
Children can and should be involved in every stage of a meal’s preparation—shopping, locating all the ingredients and equipment, cooking, serving and cleanup.
So before you head into the kitchen, why not visit your local farmstand or farmers market? Studies show that the more choice children feel that they have in decision-making, the more likely they are to continue with a project. Let your kids choose what they want to cook from the array of vibrant seasonal produce. The best fruits and vegetables require little effort to make them delicious—after all, many of summer’s best dishes are simple and produce-centered.
Kids are also far more likely to eat new foods if they have had a hand in choosing them. And who doesn’t love “weird produce?” Purple broccoli, green striped tomatoes and sweet, white carrots, anyone? Shop “the rainbow”—the range of natural colors of produce—for a healthy variety of built-in vitamins and minerals. And don’t forget those fresh, local herbs!
Yes, the kitchen is a place where flames, steam and sharp objects abound. Safety first! But little hands can do many things—like peeling fresh ginger with a spoon, stirring, kneading, plating, mixing dressings. And they can be really good at removing corn silk. How about some corn-on-the cob? Sliced tomato salad? Fresh salsa?
Older kids can be allowed to peel vegetables with a peeler and to set timers. Everyone can measure ingredients. Why not measure twice?
All children need to be supervised at all times when using the stove or oven, food processor or blender. Immersion blenders and kitchen torches are strictly for use by grown-ups. These devices should be stored away when kids are in the kitchen. Able grandparents and aunts and uncles should be encouraged to supervise children and teach them family recipes.
Some of the fundamentals of cooking, like the other arts, include prepping and cleanup. The cooking isn’t over when dinner hits the table, it’s over when all the dishes and ingredients have been returned to where they belong after the meal is over. Reminder: don’t stress.
Setting the table can be a group effort. Napkins, flatware, plates, glasses, bowls, butter, salt and pepper, don’t forget the trivets! It can take some time to figure out where every piece goes and to learn cooperation.
Grown-ups should bring any hot or heavy dishes to the table. Kids can bring the rest. And they can clear most of the dishes when everyone is done eating.
Older children can load the dishwasher, while young children can dry some of the hand-washed dishes. Mom and dad can have a well-deserved digestif when the only thing left to do is wipe off the table and snuff out the candles.
Did we mention that all of this activity can have the effect of helping kids get a good night’s sleep? And, one of these days, you just might wake up to breakfast in bed!