Growing Healthy, Happy Eaters
By Camila Chaparro
As I sat in the emergency room, pressing an ice pack to my eye, I wondered if I had gone too far. Since my son was born almost three years ago, I looked forward to the day he would be able to help me in the kitchen, learning to cook the way I did–at my mother’s side. Yet, a collision with my overzealous toddler wielding a butter knife to cut cherry tomatoes gave me pause. Had I been too foolhardy in getting my child in the kitchen so soon?
While my visit to the ER didn’t dissuade me from inviting my son back into the kitchen–fortunately, there was no damage to my eye that an ice pack wouldn’t heal–it did make me stop and think much more carefully about which kitchen tasks and tools are most appropriate for a young child. Many of the resources geared towards teaching kids to cook are for (understandably) slightly older age groups—school age and up. But from my own experience, and talking to other parents who involved their children in the kitchen from toddler-hood, there are tasks that even preschool aged children can do safely. At an age when they are looking to help and do things on their own, cooking is a great way to meet those needs, while also exposing them to the ingredients that end up in their meal while teaching lots of great life skills.
Here are five ways to get started cooking with your child:
• Start with food shopping: Involving children in the cooking process can start well before the kitchen scene. Farmers’ markets are great places to discover new and interesting types of produce, and also talk about seasonality with your child. We joined a CSA last summer and my son loved picking out the ears of corn for our share which the farm stored an old claw-footed bathtub. Even the regular grocery store can have interesting items to be found by even the youngest shopper.
• Explore ingredients you already have in the pantry: You might not even have to go shopping to engage your children in the kitchen–my son is fascinated with the spice cabinet. Whenever I start taking spices out for a recipe, he wants to see and smell them, and sometimes taste them too. I generally choose whole spices for him to explore—cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, star anise, cloves, whole nutmeg. If you don’t have whole spices, make sure the jar has a shaker top to avoid (or at least reduce) spices spilled all over the floor.
• Involve them in fun prep tasks: Children love water. Washing vegetables in the sink is one of my son’s most favorite “cooking” activities. If we’re making salad, I let him use the salad spinner too. Other parents I’ve talked to have had success with prep tasks like snapping green beans or sugar snap peas, which make a satisfying “snap” sound. Giving them responsibility for a task also gives them ownership in the process: this past summer, my son learned to shuck corn with his grandpa which became his job whenever we had corn afterwards. And who knows? Maybe soon they’ll even want to do the dishes.
• Let them pour and mix: If you like to bake, mixing and pouring are great ways to develop motor skills. My son still needs a guiding hand to help pour and dump ingredients into a bowl, and all the ingredients don’t always stay in the bowl while mixing, but he’s definitely improving. (Tips: use a LARGE bowl, and put a silicone potholder, or a damp dish towel under the bowl to keep it from spinning).
• Have them choose and add toppings: Homemade pizza is a frequent dinner at our house. In addition to rolling and patting out the dough, adding the toppings—smearing out the tomato sauce, sprinkling on the cheese, pepperoni, peppers and mushrooms—is a great activity for little hands and gives them some choice in how their food is prepared. Letting your child make their own little pizza gives them the satisfaction of saying, “I made that!” And maybe they’ll even try a new vegetable topping. You could also use this same approach for salad, or soup with garnishes (tortilla soup maybe?).
I’ll be honest though—some days go better than others, and those days when you just need to get dinner on the table, or everyone is cranky, hungry and tired, are probably not the best days to cook with your child. I admit that many attempts become power struggles (“I can do it all by myself!”) which are frustrating for everyone and make me question whether it’s really worth it at this age, or if I should just wait a few years and try again. For some, letting go of perfectionism and the way the final dish looks can be a challenge; for me, I cringe more at the added mess that comes with involving your kids in cooking (I’m fortunate to have a husband who loves to do dishes). And even letting them help out does not guarantee they’ll eat it.
Yet, I still believe the benefits of knowing how to cook outweigh the messy path to get there, and one day, when our children are cooking us dinner, we’ll be thankful for our persistence (or so I’m told). So for now, we’ll keep on mixing and pouring, adding toppings and washing produce. We’ll leave the knife skills for later.
Do you cook with your children? What are your tips for getting your kids in the kitchen? Please comment below or email me your ideas at email@example.com.
Camila Chaparro is a recent transplant to Massachusetts; she lives in Milton with her husband and two young sons. Her interest in food and other cultures led to a career in international nutrition, shelves overflowing with cookbooks, and entirely too much kitchen equipment. An ideal day for her would include coffee, a trip to the farmers’ market, exploring a new place (city or country) and a delicious dinner shared with family and friends.