The first time I baked bread with my eldest child, Asher, he was about 2. He stood on a sturdy kitchen chair at the counter before a big white plastic bowl of pliant dough. I'd mixed the ingredients the night before, then let the dough rise for us to knead together in the morning.
"Ready, set, go!" I said to Asher, dumping the big, beige ball of dough onto the clean counter. His little fists punched the dough again and again, his chubby cheeks pulled into a wide grin. Then, I lopped off a kid-sized blob with my metal pastry cutter, and he set about shaping his first loaf of bread. He shoved it into a small pan, gleefully brushed it with egg wash, and sprinkled way too many sesame seeds on top.
Our family soon grew, with the birth of my daughter Eliana and my son Shaya. Our collective cooking experiences expanded with our family. Every Tuesday morning, we baked. We baked muffins and cookies and twisted dough into pretzels, which became a favorite snack. Later, I bought pint-sized rolling pins and pans and colorful aprons for all of us. For our weekly pizza dinner, the kids chopped olives in a plastic chopper and spread sauce and scattered cheese on dough they'd rolled out themselves. They gobbled up leftover spoonfuls of sauce and strands of cheese.
Being involved in the cooking made them adventurous; they eagerly tried new foods like soy pepperoni or rosemary-enhanced dough. And because of their involvement in the process, my children learned everything from self-reliance and confidence to healthful eating. In fact, dinners tasted better to them, and they were more satisfied because of their role in the food's preparation.
I started cooking with my kids because it was a great way for us to connect with each other. Plus, involving the children in meal prep meant I didn't have to plop them in front of the TV in order to get dinner on the table. On top of that, I realized it's more than practical: Kids learn subtle lessons by cooking — math equations and the science of combining ingredients that create chemical reactions, not to mention kitchen safety and nutrition.
Cooking is one way that organizations like the Girl Scouts and the YMCA stress the importance of teaching science and math, encouraging kids to measure, mix, and witness the results. Complex fractions and ratios crop up all the time; even I have to think about how to cut a recipe in half or double it. Small children catch on quickly. It's such a natural way to learn.
Recently, Asher, 5, and Eliana, 3 ½, helped bake brownies. I looked at the recipe, which called for four ounces of chocolate. Unwrapping the bittersweet bar, I counted ten rows. "Kids," I said, "we need four ounces of chocolate. This bar has ten ounces and there are ten rows. That means each row is one ounce. So, how many rows do we need?" Asher smiled, his eyes alight. His curly brown hair shook as he clapped his hands. "Four rows!"
My kitchen becomes a chemistry lab as they mix baking soda with vinegar and watch the foam bubble up in the cup. They learn what happens when we forget important ingredients, too, like baking powder for muffins or yeast for bread. Speaking of bread, they love standing guard over the bubbling yeast, watching it ferment, and letting me know when it's ready for mixing with flour, eggs, and oil. They enjoy "painting" a shaped loaf with egg wash so it will be shiny and radiant, too.
The lessons are not just restricted to the kitchen. Sometimes, late in the day, we turn on the Food Network for half an hour. My favorite is Giada de Laurentiis, and we watch "Everyday Italian," talking about which recipes are healthful, which are not, and why. I take the kids to grocery stores and farmers' markets, and, when possible, we spend mornings at orchards, picking berries and apples, freeing ripe tomatoes from their vines. There's no better way to teach about eating local and the glories of fresh, ripe crops over foods shipped from half a world away. In the process, they're learning politics, philosophy, and living off the land — hands-on.
As for me, knowing I'm serving my family homemade meals without sacrificing the ever-fleeting time with my kids is key. I started cooking in my 20s because it was the only way I could unwind after a busy day of work. You can't rush recipes. The soothing slowness of bringing a meal from conception to the family table is another important life lesson I hope my children take away from our time cooking together. We run to school in the morning, where the kids move from activity to activity, and I do, too. By the end of the day, we're tired and in need of loving connections. As the mixer beats butter, flour, and sugar into cookie batter, or the oven hums itself warm and we press our fingers into whole-wheat pizza dough, it's as if the simple act of creating good food energizes us. Life passes quickly. But I will always have these quiet moments full of smiles — a powerful metaphor that the destination really is the journey.