For those of you who have been reading my blog for a while now, you know that I enjoy cooking with my family in the kitchen, especially with my daughter, Maggie. The best part about it is that Maggie enjoys cooking with me. This is a tradition I plan to continue for as long as Maggie wants to hang out with me. From what I hear, once they get into those teenager years, “dads” become nerdy. What kids don’t understand is that some of us have always been nerdy–but we can talk about that at a later time.
Today, I want to share with you some ideas to get your youngsters involved in the kitchen.
If you’re lucky, your kids will want to know what you’re doing in the kitchen and they’ll take an interest in it and even pitch in voluntarily. Maybe you’re not so lucky and your kids think the kitchen pretty much sucks and is just another way for you to torture them. Who knows, maybe they’re right–but it doesn’t have to be that way.
I’m one of the lucky ones. My kitchen conversations go something like this:
Maggie: “Whatcha’ doing?”
Me: “Kneading dough.” (or whatever I’m doing).
Me: “Yep, kneading dough. It’s really sticky.”
Maggie: “The dough is sticky?”
Me: “Yep, it’s sticky, look at my fingers.”
Maggie: “Daddy, you have dough on your fingers!” followed with some laughter.
Me: “Yeah, crazy, huh? Try to pull it off.”
Maggie: “Okay.” And then she tries to pull it off. If it’s something new, she’ll immediately stick it in her mouth. So I make sure to warn her not to eat it if it’s not good for her.
Me: “I like kneading dough. It’s fun.”
Maggie: “Can Maggie knead the dough?”
Me: “Sure, grab your apron.”
Our conversation proceeds from there as I help her tie on her apron, wash her hands, and pull up a chair prior to her punching her little hands into the sticky ball of dough. As you’ve read, Maggie really enjoys cooking with me because it’s a complete sensory experience for her, which now brings us to “10 Ways to Make Cooking Enjoyable for Kids.”
1. Let them touch the food.
Little kids love touching things: windows, television screens, computer monitors, pickle jars while walking in the grocery isle, and especially food. Food provides a great sensory experience. Lettuce is smooth and wrinkly. Broccoli is soft and knobby. Dough can be sticky or elastic. Food provides a sensory smörgåsbord for kids. Letting them touch all the different foods makes for a lot of laughter and fun times.
My daughter especially likes working with sticky and powdery foods like cookie dough, flour, and chocolate. That’s not surprising, really. She’ll plop her hands into the doughs and then pull them out all covered in goo. She’ll then make a fist, hearing and feeling the squishiness in her fingers. Slowly, she’ll stretch out her fingers and watch the goop stretch from the palm of her hand to her fingers. Sometimes she’ll take a wad of it and roll it between her fingers, feeling it’s texture.
Kids love, love, love to experience textures while cooking. Sometimes it will gross them out and sometimes it will fascinate them. It’s all an adventure.
2. Let them smell ingredients and ingredient combinations.
“They” (I think that means scientists and researchers) say that the way something tastes can be be determined to almost a 90% accuracy by the way it smells. I’m not sure, but that may require a super sniffer. I know I always smell spices, fruits, and vegetables to determine how they’re going to taste. Kids are a world of discovery, and because smell is such a huge part of cooking, let them experience it first-hand. Before adding a spice to a dish, let them smell it. As the dish progresses, let them smell each ingredient and also the combinations that ensue. Soups, sweet breads, and desserts are great examples of foods that progressively smell different.
3. Let them taste ingredients at different stages.
I let Maggie try everything, unless it’s raw chicken or something that could cause sickness (bleck!). The other day, I let her taste a flour, chicken seasoning, oregano, paprika, and pepper dredge. She made the worst face ever and said, “I don’t like it.” I told her that I didn’t either, but explained that some ingredients don’t taste good unless they’re added to something else and then cooked. After the meal was finished, she tasted the chicken and said, “This is nummy! Is this the flour food?” She’s getting it, and it’s fun. Let them taste the good stuff and the bad stuff without bias. If they ask, and it’s safe, let them have a dabble. In fact, you might want to try a dabble to. You’d probably be in for a surprise.
4. Forget about messes.
My wife and I are clean people. We like to keep our house clean, dishes washed, and counters wiped. When I cook solo, I also try to keep the kitchen clean as I go about preparing the meal. Kids are the enemy of cleanliness. Their ability to wreak havoc on cleanliness makes some cooks tremble in their shoes. Use that to your advantage when letting them help cook. Besides, most kids still lack a lot of coordination. It’s okay.
Praise them for doing a good job stirring instead of scolding them for slopping mixture out of the bowl. For a kid to enjoy doing something, he/she needs to feel loved and encouraged. You can even make it into a little game whose goal is to make the mixture even without getting any on the cupboard.
5. Give them their own apron.
Maggie always has enjoyed cooking with me. I’d fold up one of my aprons so it fit her, and then wrap the waste band around her 3 or 4 times. She didn’t mind, but it was a pain and it would get in her way. This last Christmas, my wife and I began looking for an apron for her but didn’t find one we liked. We were delighted (and Maggie was REALLY delighted) when for Christmas her Grandma had made her and her sister matching aprons. She wore it all the time and still does.
The apron has changed the way Maggie likes to cook. She’s now wearing something that fits her, and it makes her cooking experience personal, and that’s what it’s all about. Whenever Maggie puts her apron on, her younger sister runs and grabs hers too. If you spend some time on the blog, you’ll find some posts where Maggie and her sister are wearing their matching aprons, here is one such post: Donuts in 15 Minutes.
6. Name a food after them, and let them help cook it.
For example, a certain chocolate cookie recipe could be called, “Maggie’s Chocolate Pockets.” It starts with the shopping. Make a special list for your kid and their food, let them hold it, walk with it, and help find the ingredients. If your grocery store has them available, use a little kid shopping cart just for their special food. The goal is to make it a personal experience for them.
When you’re cooking it, make sure to involve them in every step of the way–minus dealing with hot splattering grease, hot pans and burners, or using the oven. Let them stir it, mix it, knead it, pound it, twist it, measure it, pour it, and crack it. Picking out a few egg shells from some cookie batter is worth spending the time together. They’ll be talking about it for a long time, and even be eager to help cook in the future.
7. Take pictures of them while they cook.
Most kids love cameras, and they love seeing themselves in pictures. Take a few pictures while they cook and record it for history (you never know when you’ll need persuasive material later). Taking pictures while they cook helps them feel like it’s a special experience and helps them be excited.
8. Bring it to their level.
Kids are the same as adults in this regard. We identify with things that are on our level. I’m talking physical and visual level, although verbal and mental still applies. When I cook with Maggie, I like to move the cooking area over to the dining table so that she can reach it and work with it easier. Tall bowls on high cupboards can be intimidating for a kid and make it difficult to enjoy cooking. Another thing I sometimes do is just lift Maggie onto the cupboard itself. This is especially helpful when you’re having them knead dough and they need some weight behind it, or if you’re using a mixer and they want to see inside the bowl. When kids see what they’re cooking and can identify with it at their level, cooking becomes a personal thing and they have much more fun.
9. Explain things simply.
This goes off a little bit of #8, Bring it to their level. I want to refer you back to that conversation between Maggie and I at the top of this post. I’ve learned that Maggie understands cooking (and many other things) much better when I break up my explanations into single ideas. When she understands it, she enjoys it more.
Resist the urge to bombard them with information; they’ll learn it in time. One of my favorite things about cooking with Maggie is how many questions she has and that it becomes a period of learning and exploration for the both of us. She enjoys cooking with me because she can ask any question she wants and I give her an answer, even if it’s simple, for example:
Maggie: “Why is it sticky?”
Me: “Because when you add water to flour, it makes the flour powder stick together.”
Oversimplified? Yes, but that’s what makes it effective.
10. Let them share their food with family and friends.
If you child helps you make a dessert or a meal, invite people to eat it with you, and let them know how great of a job you kid did helping you prepare it. Children loved to be praised by their parents. I like to have Maggie call her Grandma and tell her about the things she’s made. She often gets very excited about it.
Just the other night, my wife and Maggie made rice crispy treats and Maggie was very excited to tell me about it. Let them share their experience with other people, and they’ll find an added measure of joy in the kitchen, and so will you.
Now it’s your turn
All of us would love to hear your thoughts about cooking with kids. Please share them with us in the comments below.