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Teaching kids to cook

It’s never too early to get your kids helping you in the kitchen. Long term they’ll be healthier, richer and a sure-fire hit with their friends. Plus you might get some nights off!

Cindy Williams tells us why it’s worth the effort to teach the kids to cook.

Teaching children to cook is a great idea, but the time it takes and the mess it makes puts many parents off actually doing it. It’s so much easier and faster to do it yourself. Recently, when I was teaching a young woman to cook, she told me her father had been a fantastic cook but wouldn’t let anyone else into the kitchen with him. He died a few months ago, taking all his cooking skills and food knowledge with him and leaving his grown children struggling to work out how to eat without relying on takeaways.

This is just one example of why it’s worth making the effort to get your children into the kitchen. When they grow up and move out, it’s easier to cut those apron strings knowing they can throw together a healthy meal or two and won’t have to become regulars at the local fast food joint.

How cooking builds self-esteem

It is wonderful to see the pride and sense of accomplishment children have when they have cooked something. Even if they have only patted out the scone dough or spooned the mix into muffin pans, to them they have made it. Particularly for children who are not high achievers, we can set them up to succeed at cooking and really help build their self-confidence. When the family praises the budding cook for his or her delicious food, they are inspired to do it again. With time and encouragement you may soon have whole meals being cooked. That’s definitely worth the effort.

What they’ll learn

Kids learn when they are having fun – and food is lots of fun because the big reward for all their effort is that they get to eat it. Children can practice just about all the school subjects in the kitchen: reading recipes; maths (measuring out ingredients); chemistry (watching yeast and sugar bubble); and biology (discovering where food really comes from).

They also learn practical skills. My six-year-old’s job is to turn the oven on to the right temperature and to get out the right tin and ingredients. In the past few weeks he has opened cans with the can opener (“Look how strong I am, Mum!”), cracked eggs into the bowl, measured out flour (a bit messy, but easily cleaned up), grated cheese (if his dad lets him use a drill, I figure I can let him use a grater), arranged the topping on a pizza (a bit lop-sided), iced cupcakes (not healthy, but lots of fun) and watched for the bubbles on oatmeal pancakes.

Fussy eaters are more likely to eat what they have helped to grow, gather or cook. They are more likely to take a bite of a carrot they have just pulled out of the ground, try a pea they have just shelled, or taste a berry they have just picked. And it’s not because it’s healthy, it’s because it’s fun. One of the most important habits to build in children is to be adventurous with food so they grow up eating a wide variety, especially of fruit and vegetables. Instead of focusing on the end result, eating their vegetables at dinner turns vegetables into a taste adventure by involving them in the growing, choosing and cooking. The eating will hopefully come naturally.

Knowing exactly what is in a food makes for more discerning eaters. It’s no guarantee we will be healthier or trimmer – there’s plenty of fat and happy chefs – but it can certainly help.

Cooking with children requires focused attention, which is just what most children crave from their parents. It teaches them skills and improves their chances of becoming healthy adults; but perhaps more importantly, it creates memories of time together. These holidays, why not take the time, make a mess and have some fun with your kids in the kitchen.

Sophie Gray starts the kids on the right path in the kitchen, step by step.

Getting the kids to cook from an early age won’t guarantee you turn out the next Jamie Oliver, but practice and encouragement will result in young adults who can look after themselves nutritionally, and in turn, their own families. The more interested they are, the harder they’ll try and the better it will taste.

Kids generally have short attention spans. A ‘special cooking project’ appeals to adults but can be too slow for the kids. It’s really the regular, everyday stuff they need to learn, which means a little task every time you cook. Too many instructions and not enough action will lose them, so think ahead about how to include them in meal preparation.

Cooking stages

Littlies

  • A four-year-old can stir a sauce with close supervision, wield a potato masher, taste and add seasoning, use cookie cutters and rolling pins (not as well as you, but who cares what it looks like?). They can sift and sprinkle, count out five potatoes, add ingredients to a salad, shake dressing in a jar and help choose a menu.
  • If Jessie manages to smash the spuds with you helping hold the pot, they are ‘Jessie’s mashed potatoes’, even if you finish them for her. Next time, Jessie will likely consider mashing the spuds to be something she and only she can do satisfactorily. It becomes her job.
  • Provide a step or box to stand on so little children can reach the bench, pantry and sink. Much of what we call ‘cooking’ is really preparation; young children can frequently be involved without imminent danger from sharp or hot things.

5 years and up

  • At this age give them their own vege peeler. While more hands make light work, they also make more mess. Accept it, then let them get on with it. Doing it with them, rather than taking over when they get fed up, is less frustrating for everybody.
  • Provide a green plastic scouring pad for scrubbing potatoes. It’s easy to hold and will do a thorough job.
  • At this age they can push the button on the processor, learning to ‘pulse’ a mixture (scones, pastry, mince and seasonings for burgers, fruit for a smoothie).
  • Try simple measuring – 1/2 a cup, 1 teaspoon. Choose measuring equipment that is simple to use with clear markings.

8 years and up

  • Time to have a go. Reading and comprehension are essential to using recipes. Re-write recipes using simple language and omitting all cooking jargon. Kids this age often enjoy baking for the family and helping with dinner.
  • Try some assembly-style dishes if they can’t yet manage a simple recipe. Fresh fruit salad, jelly, a simple marinade for the barbecue, kebabs – keep them interested.
  • At this age kids should be able to use some of the hot things with less supervision. Let them make pancakes for breakfast or toss the stir-fry for dinner.
  • Teach them safe kitchen habits: never hold anything with a damp cloth (a wet cloth conducts heat); never try to catch something you drop, instead jump out of the way (in case it’s sharp or hot); never put a knife in a sink of water (someone may not see it and cut themselves).
  • Establish a ‘kitchen code of practice’:
    1. Ask permission
    2. Wash your hands
    3. Read the recipe first
    4. Check you have enough time
    5. Clean up your mess!

10 years and up

  • Now we get into making regular real meals. Help and supervision will be needed, tears will be shed (probably yours), but every meal they make is one you won’t have to, so persevere.
  • Choose recipes with only one side dish or one-pan-type dinners. Co-ordinating several different dishes takes a lot of practice.
  • Reverse the roles. Lay the table and do the dishes for them if that is what you expect them to do for you.
  • Eat what they have made and sing their praises, whatever it tastes like.
  • Link recipes with another interest such as a book or TV character – Lemony Snicket’s young heroes cooked pasta puttanesca; Harry Potter loves sausages and treacle tart.

14 years and up

  • Onto the regular cooking rota. In a few short years they’ll be fending for themselves, so make sure they know how to make the kinds of foods they like to eat: healthy potato wedges, burgers and pizza, pasta sauce, chilli, chicken etc.
  • Talk about fruit and veg and serving sizes so they know what their ‘ideal plate’ should look like.
  • Let them cook for their friends as well as the family.
  • Include all the kids in meal planning. What does everyone like? What is in season? What should we be eating more/less of? Who would like to try cooking this or that?
  • When shopping, let them help select the fresh items. Even a very young child can choose a nice looking apple over a ‘yucky one’.
  • Drag older children around the supermarket from time-to-time and discuss the grocery budget, or they won’t know there is one.
  • You’ll be amazed at the pride that comes from preparing a meal for the family, their pride in themselves for doing it, and your pride in them for trying. So go on, teach them to cook. This is one gift we can give that will last a lifetime, nourishing and comforting them, and blessing those they live with.

Let your budding young chef try these great recipes!

Easy beef and bean quesadillas
Sticky zinger chicken
Chicken pick ’em ups with spicy apricot dipping sauce
Spaghetti bolognese

Enticing uninterested kids

  • Start with their favourite foods. Don’t worry if the food is not healthy. Get them interested first then slowly expand the variety of foods used.
  • Take them shopping. Let them choose a favourite fruit or vegetable to turn into vegetable fritters, muffins, or a filling for burgers.
  • Bake biscuits, little cakes, bread or fruit buns. Wrap beautifully and give as gifts. This especially appeals to children who love to give and receive presents.

Assemble-your-own fast foods

Packaging is half the attraction of fast foods. Serve pizza in a pizza box, wrap homemade fish and chips in greaseproof paper, serve Asian noodles or rice in noodle boxes, and chances are it will instantly be appealing.

  • Pizza: wholemeal pita bread base or whip up your own base with 2 cups flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, a generous dash of olive oil and milk. Top with tomato paste or canned spaghetti, grated cheese, chopped ham, capsicum, tomato, spinach leaves.
  • Burger: bake mince patties with lean mince, grated carrot, parsley, capsicum in the oven. Let children assemble the burger with beetroot, tomato, lettuce or spinach leaves.
  • Burrito/taco: make lean mince filling. Let children assemble with chopped tomato, grated carrot, grated cheese, mashed avocado.
  • Chicken strips: mix soy sauce, honey and garlic. Marinate chicken strips for an hour and bake in the oven.
  • Ice cream: in a food processor, with adult help, blend frozen bananas for instant banana ice cream; for berry ice cream use frozen berries, berry yoghurt and icing sugar.
  • Ice blocks: freeze juice or milk, a little sugar and vanilla essence to make ice blocks.

Table manners

Cooking and eating go together. Feeding ourselves may be instinctive, but doing it nicely must be taught. Table manners vary from culture to culture but in NZ and Australia, these are common ‘good manners’:

  • Don’t start eating until everyone has their meal.
  • Don’t talk when your mouth is full.
  • Don’t chew with your mouth open.
  • Don’t lick your knife or plate.
  • Don’t reach across other people at the table.
  • If there is cutlery laid out for several courses and you aren’t sure what to use, simply start at the outside and work your way in. The first set is for the first course and so on.
  • When you have finished, place your cutlery side-by-side on the plate.
  • Don’t start clearing until everyone is finished.
  • In European culture, burping/belching, picking teeth, spitting etc are done in private.

Learning table manners is an ongoing process. Our mealtime conversation is peppered with questions like: “How did you do in cross country today? Please finish your mouthful before you answer…” or “Don’t use your fork like a shovel.” This stuff is much easier to notice and model if you eat at the table rather than in front of the telly.

First published: Dec 2007



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