This summer when you start hearing the whines of “We’re bored,” what are you going to do? Put your kids to work in the kitchen, of course!
Wait, wait! Hear me out.
Cooking is a life skill that everyone needs sooner or later, so when you give your kids opportunities to learn in the kitchen, you’re preparing them for the day when they’ll move out on their own. (And they will eventually move out on their own, right? Right?)
But teaching kids to cook is about more than their independence. It also gives them confidence, teaches focus, fosters creativity, and reinforces fine motor skills and basic math skills. Children who learn to cook become more aware of what goes into their food, which generally means that they’ll be more open to trying new foods and more likely to make healthy food choices throughout their lives. Not only that, but the time you spend with your kids in the kitchen will be some of their most delicious memories.
So without further ado, here are our Top 10 Tips for Helping Youngsters Learn to Cook.
1. SAFETY FIRST
Kids + knives + raw ingredients + hot surfaces = why you need a plan to keep your kids (and everyone else) safe in the kitchen.
- Show your kids how to hold and use a knife. If they’re younger, do it with them. (Danielle, one of our amazing Event Managers, had her very young daughters stand next to her and put their hand on hers as she cut, so they could get a feel for how it’s done correctly, They learned to respect—but not fear—knives.)
- Don’t just warn your kids that stoves and ovens and pots and pans are hot; show them how to handle hot things safely.
- Model the habits of food safety. Make sure they know which foods need to be refrigerated, how often we wash hands and surfaces, how we prevent cross-contaminating raw and cooked food, etc.
2. MAKE IT FUN
Whether your kids learn to love or hate cooking starts with their earliest experiences in the kitchen. Think about how to make it special and fun for your youngsters. Turn on some music. Light a fragrant candle. Keep a few snacks on hand so that they don’t get hangry as they work. Make it a special privilege to wear Mom’s apron or use Dad’s chef knife. Work side by side. Tell stories. Let them talk about themselves. Give them small challenges or make it a game.
If you have the time and want to bond in the kitchen, challenge your child to a competition of Iron Chef: Family Edition. (Chocolate makes a great “secret ingredient” that must be included in every dish.) Invite their friends to be judges, but be prepared for a totally biased decision!
3. SHOW, DON’T TELL
Most kids (and adults) learn better when they’re shown what to do rather than just being told. Watching you peel the first carrot or measure the first cup of flour can help them complete the rest of the job with confidence. YouTube videos can be a great visual teaching tool.
4. GIVE PRAISE
When kids do something highly creative like cooking or writing poetry, they can be very vulnerable. They can easily feel criticized for their efforts, or they can feel proud and encouraged by the feedback they get. Be sure to give them sincere compliments for their successes and don’t make a big deal of their mistakes. Learning to fix errors and roll with setbacks is how kids learn resilience and gain the confidence to keep trying.
5. GIVE AGE-APPROPRIATE TASKS
For kids to have fun and succeed in the kitchen, they have to be tasked with things they can actually do.
Very Young Kids
Children under 5 will struggle with fine motor skills. Still, there are plenty of things they can do like gathering ingredients from the fridge, wiping down a counter, or mixing things in a bowl. Meagan’s and Clayton's son, Tristan, (age 4) loves pouring ingredients and, of course, licking beaters.
Elementary Age Kids
Elementary age kids may enjoy the challenge of fine motor tasks like cracking eggs, juicing citrus, or peeling and cutting vegetables. They might be excited to use their developing skills to read recipes or perform tasks all on their own. Others, like Caleb’s daughter Hazel (age 8), will enjoy cooking most when they can do it with someone else.
Preteens still need some degree of supervision, but when they’ve shown that they understand and follow the safety rules, they’re ready to start using ovens, microwaves, and knives without someone standing over them. Don’t underestimate what kids this age can do in the kitchen! Caleb’s daughter Brina (age 13) decided she wanted to “cook around the world,” so she made a list of recipes from about twenty different countries and prepared them one at a time for the family, entirely on her own. She made everything from British Yorkshire pudding to Tongan lupulu to Danish pandekager. It’s amazing what kids with confidence and basic cooking skills can do!
Cooking skills become even more important as older kids get ready to leave home. Before they’re on their own, make sure your teens have had chances to learn the essentials like planning and shopping for healthy, affordable meals; keeping a clean kitchen; and using appliances like crockpots, toaster ovens, or air fryers. Independent life will be so much easier for kids if they’ve mastered a few go-to recipes and are comfortable in the kitchen.
6. INCLUDE KIDS IN THE WHOLE PROCESS
As you know, making a meal entails more than just cooking. As they gain experience, involve your kids in each stage of the process: meal planning, shopping, prepping ingredients, setting a table, managing their time in the kitchen, cooking, plating, serving, and cleaning up.
7. GIVE KIDS OWNERSHIP
As kids grow comfortable in the kitchen, they can take on more and more autonomy. From an early age, children can be presented with choices. (“Should we have this vegetable or that one?” “Do you want to slice them this way or that way?”) Involving them in meal planning and shopping can further build their sense of ownership. So can giving them opportunities to present the food and talk about how they helped make it.
Older children can be given responsibility for making a specific dish or even for planning and executing an entire meal. Ryan’s daughter, Cayelle, (age 15) likes using her skills to plan and host parties for her friends without Mom’s or Dad’s help. The more initiative and ownership kids are allowed in the kitchen, the more likely they will become confident cooks (and hosts) for life.
8. ENCOURAGE CREATIVITY
As they gain confidence, kids tend to become more creative and curious in the kitchen. If they want to experiment with recipes and try to make improvements, let them! Not every experiment is going to make the recipe better, but it will always be a success if your kids learn something in the process. And sooner or later they’re going to have a win! Matt’s daughter, Ginny, (age 18) refuses to share the secret of the World’s Best Fry Sauce that she perfected as a kid, but she’s always happy to make it for the family. It’s a chance for her to shine.
9. TAKE TIME FOR REWARDS
Even for professional chefs who have been in the kitchen our whole lives, cooking is still work, and it deserves to be rewarded. Maybe keep a supply of Reese’s Pieces or some other favorite treat on hand to reward yourselves for a job well done!
10. TEACHING IS THE BEST WAY TO LEARN
A fantastic way to reinforce lessons and skills your kids learn in the kitchen is by letting them teach their younger siblings. Or, if they don’t have willing younger subjects, let them flex their skills by teaching you a new recipe or technique they’ve learned.
Happy summer, Eat well!