For kids, cooking is much more than making a meal. It’s a boost of confidence.
By Ann Levelle
From the time they are given their first set of play food, kids are thrilled to play in the kitchen. Whether they cook us lavish imaginary meals or create their own restaurants, they love to emulate adults by creating food. As they age out of play cooking and move into the real kitchen, it’s important to help them keep that creativity going.
But when do you start the move from “playing kitchen” to helping in the real kitchen?
“Including them in the process as young as two is amazing,” says Kelsey Brandt, Director of Culinary Entertainment at Tastebuds Kitchen in Chester. Brandt develops content and teaches courses to kids and adults at Tastebuds, which is a “Kids Kitchen by Day, BYOB Adult Kitchen at night.”
“There’s always a task that you can put a spin on that the kids will think is fun,” Brandt says. The more responsibility you give them, she adds, the more special they feel.
Linda Heiss, owner of Basil, Garlic & Rosemary in Annapolis, says “You’re empowering the kid by teaching them they can actually do something. Also, if they make it themselves, they’re more likely to try it.”
In addition to the confidence they gain by creating and cooking, kids learn all kinds of skills in the kitchen, from following directions to math to chemistry. On top of the STEM skills, kids can learn about new cultures by cooking dishes from around the world. And as they progress from measuring a cup of flour to chopping veggies, they tune their fine motor skills.
For many parents, having kids in the kitchen is stressful. Between the messes and worry about proper safety, sometimes having a toddler “help” is less than helpful. And it can be hard to hand over control to somebody who doesn’t understand how to measure yet.
Heiss says she tries to give her kids freedom in the kitchen. “I don’t like messes. So it takes a lot of supervision, but my kids love to cook.”
No matter their age, kids can be empowered in the kitchen. And if you as the parent are having trouble relinquishing control and worrying about messes, try these simple steps in letting go.
Give Kids a Workspace
Setting up a workspace for your kid chef can be as simple. “Just get an extra cookie sheet that has a little bit of a raised side,” says Brandt. “Then you can have them sitting at the dining room table, working on something, and it all ends up on a tray and it’s easy to pick it up and clean.”
Add a bench scraper to your kitchen tools. “A bench scraper,” Brandt says, “will scrape almost any surface clean. I’ve had kids drop chocolate on the floor and jam on the floor and just scoop it up with a bench scraper.”
And, set the kid’s workstation as close to the sink as possible. When it’s time to clean up, take that bench scraper and scrape everything into the sink.
Ages and Stages
“Six is a really good age to start talking about the math aspect,” says Brandt. You can start teaching them fractions and explaining the difference between one cup and a half cup. Between the ages of six and eight, she adds, is when to let them “actually cook and be in charge.”
When they’re ready to start cooking a little on their own, consider getting your child what’s called a lettuce knife. These plastic, serrated knives (Brandt recommends the Curious Chef brand) are next to impossible to cut skin with, but do quite well at chopping vegetables and fruit. You won’t get a fine dice with them, says Heiss, but the point is to start them on basic knife skills, not precision cuts.
“With little kids, tailor the work to them,” says Brandt. “If they’re not ready for a knife yet, give them scissors and let them snip herbs or spices rather than chop them!”
Once your little chef has the basics down, you can move on to a regular knife. “I’ve done cooking camps in the past with eight- and nine-year-olds, and I give them a real chef knife and parents would get mad at me,” says Heiss. “But they have to learn the right way to use it—how to hold it, what to do if it falls on the ground. You know—don’t try to catch a falling knife!”
What if they don’t Engage?
If you have a kiddo who isn’t interested in following recipes or directions, you can still let them get creative in the kitchen. “When they get to design things is their favorite,” says Brandt. “Whether it’s cake or cupcakes or donuts.” You can give a child a plain vanilla cupcake with no icing and a bunch of sprinkles and decorating items and they’re bound to have fun and creating something fun.
If you find that you and your kids are not compatible in the kitchen, but they still want to learn, consider some options.
Take a Cooking Class
Brandt says during Tastebuds’ Let’s Make Dinner class, “Parents are encouraged to be in the kitchen, but to let the kid do everything,” she says. During the class she teaches the kids step by step instructions, and teaches the kids how to clean up along the way. This way, the kids get to make dinner and don’t leave the entire kitchen filthy for their parents to clean afterward.
Try a Subscription Box
Whether your kid is interested in trying foods from other cultures, hard-core baking, or just needs ideas on what to do in the kitchen, a monthly subscription box can be a great way to get engaged in the kitchen.
There’s always YouTube
Kids love to watch other kids doing their thing on YouTube. Find some cool kids’ cooking shows (competition shows can be fun as well), and encourage them to cook along.
No matter what level of cooking skills your children have, and how much patience you have with them in the kitchen, just remember what Heiss tells her adult students, “In terms of the food, what’s the worst that can happen? It might not taste good at the end. So what? I think that’s a very important lesson for kids, too.”
Kids Cooking Gear
Curious Chef Knives—No need for Band-aids with these kid-friendly knives
Bench Scraper—the ultimate mess picker-upper
Kitchen Helper Stool—Prop up your littlest chefs with these safe kitchen stools
Cookie Cutters—Want to make a sandwich more fun? Turn it into a new shape!
Live or online cooking classes
Every Kid Can Cook
Want to keep cracking on teaching your kids helpful skills? Check out these Life skills to teach at home!