"Cooking with kids." On one hand, hearing those words might conjure up warm images of you and your child happily working side by side, creating and sharing some delicious dish. On the other hand, you know what can go wrong: a big mess and barely edible food. Then, of course, there's the time crunch. But with some creativity and the realization that it doesn't have to be a daily practice or a huge, time-intensive project, you'll find that inviting your child to help with the cooking process is a terrific way to connect with him. And he'll learn valuable lessons that range from building math, science, and literacy skills to developing creativity and healthier eating habits.
As anyone who's called to order pizza in the wake of a cooking "disaster" knows, cooking requires a sense of humor — especially with children in the mix. Try to keep your attitude light and fun. If you've come home from a long day at work, it might be better to get everyone involved in making sandwiches, rather than trying to create a more elaborate meal and ending up feeling rushed, tired, and stressed. In my family, we have a lot of fun making up silly names for our dishes, like "Monster Mash" for guacamole, and we explore ways to make our food look fun, such as with the "Beastly Burgers."
- Being organized before you begin is key. When it comes to your family's meals, creating a weekly meal plan, shopping list, and organized kitchen can save you time.
- When your child takes part in these tasks, it increases the chance that he will try (and enjoy!) foods you make and, in the process, acquire the essential skills of planning and organization, which are rarely formally taught.
- Working in the kitchen can also lead to important discussions about health and safety, which should always be addressed before cooking with kids.
- Start slow and simple: Provide your child with safe opportunities to spread sauces, butters, or frosting with blunt knives, then move up to cutting as he matures. You don't want to frighten him, but it's important to discuss clearly the risks involved in cooking with heat, including skin burns and fires.
- Show him how to avoid these risks and how to respond should something bad happen. Don't forget to educate him on the dangers of eating raw foods like eggs and meat or unwashed fruits and vegetables. Instill in him the good habits of handwashing, dishwashing, and cleaning of prep surfaces
What Your Kids Will Learn
Of all the aspects of cooking, the most fun involves the development of sensory awareness skills. It's not just professional chefs or food critics who can describe a food's texture or aroma; we're all capable of using our senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch to evaluate food. To help your child notice things about food, ask questions that get her thinking. You might try a simple comparison of red, blue, and yellow tortilla chips with your child. Do chips sound different when they are plain versus covered in melted cheese? Telling you what her senses are telling her will increase her vocabulary skills, too.
Concepts in Cooking
Although kids may never view it as such, the kitchen is an excellent learning lab. Here are some delicious opportunities that arise when your child cooks alongside you:
- Math: There's a lot of math involved in ingredient measuring and pouring. Toddlers and preschoolers can aid in counting, while slightly older children can begin to learn fractions. As children are ready, challenge them with cutting recipes in half or doubling. (Heck, this still challenges me!)
- Science: Consider, for example, the change in mass that occurs when you melt butter, boil water, or bake cake batter. Kids get to see how mixing some substances, such as flour, salt, and water, creates cohesive dough, while mixing other ingredients, like oil and vinegar, causes them to separate. Younger children will enjoy simple observation and discussion. To my 3-year-old, these occurrences are magical. In a low-key way, you might ask your grade-schooler to research why yeast rises or what happens when food burns and explain it to you. There's nothing more delightful to a child then telling a grown-up something that she knows and the grown-up doesn't. (And besides, don't you want to know?)
- Reading: Pre-readers might enjoy matching colorful cookbook pictures with ingredient and dish names. Recipes allow kids to match action verbs and nouns with their real-world counterparts, engaging the kids while they learn. And reading ingredient labels in the kitchen or at the grocery store is an excellent way to open up discussions about nutrition. Another fun way of developing a love for reading and cooking is to host a cookbook family-themed party.
- Social Studies: Food is an excellent way to learn about other cultures. Start with a favorite dish and investigate the country and culture where it originated. Make this learning adventure hands-on and fun by hosting, say, a Mexican fiesta or a Swedish crayfish party. Explore our own traditions of turkey on Thanksgiving or cake on a birthday. The whole family can benefit from this delightful way of broadening horizons.
Try It, You'll Like It!
Fans of Dr. Seuss will remember how difficult it was for Sam I Am to get his friend to try green eggs and ham. The same is true when trying to get out of a family food rut, especially if you have a picky eater. Many a mother's (and father's) motivation to expand the family's repertoire of meals has been stifled by kids who scorn anything unfamiliar.
- Experts generally recommend that parents not pressure kids to eat something against their will, because then the focus becomes about control rather than nutrition. But inviting your child to participate in the steps that come before the meal lands on the table can help you avoid the battle altogether. Whether it's a sand castle or a salad, when a child participates in creating something, he often feels a sense of ownership over the end product. And the good news is that he is more likely to eat it.
- Don't underestimate the value of turning meal preparation into a game, either. It just might turn your picky eater into an intrepid food explorer! A child who hunts down green beans and red potatoes in the grocery story in response to a challenge to find foods of each color of the rainbow is more likely to eat them than the child who simply finds them sitting on his plate.
- Another useful strategy is to re-think your definition of a "new" food. Try starting off with a slight variation on a familiar one. For example, you might blend blueberries into applesauce and serve "blueberry applesauce" instead of just regular applesauce. (Even if your child likes blueberries and likes applesauce, the end creation is still something new.)
- Better yet, encourage your child to help you create new dishes--and then praise him extensively for adventurously creating and tasting them. Success breeds a greater willingness to try new things.
Remember, Have Fun!
Cooking with your child has many wonderful benefits, but perhaps the biggest is the time spent together. Take it from me--and my kids. One day I was driving my sons and a friend in the car and overheard the following conversation coming from the back seat:
"You know what makes me really lucky?" said my 6-year-old to his friend.
"My mom cooks."
"So? My mom cooks, too."
"No. I mean, we cook together. We do a lot of stuff. No. You don't understand. I'm just really lucky."
His friend might not have understood, but I did, and I'll remember the joy I felt forever.