Teach Your Kid to Cook!

Scoop of flour
Photograph by Laura Moss
A step-by-step guide for teaching your child how to measure, chop, slice, flip, bake, and more.
Photograph by Laura Moss
Photograph by Laura Moss

Kids Can Cook!

One day you'll lie on the couch with a magazine, occasionally offering helpful suggestions to your children as they make you dinner, and it won't even be Mother's Day. Are you laughing? I understand. My kids are 15 and 11 now, and last night they prepared a meal of baked tofu, mashed potatoes, and salad. But when they were little, I never thought that day would come, any more than I believed those chimps at typewriters could someday write Hamlet.

Yes, there's a learning curve. First it gets worse, and instead of simply making food, you're making food while someone else dumps flour on the cat, confuses salt with sugar, and holds a sharp knife in a way that makes your heart pound. And then it gets better, and your kids become competent. They learn the primal pleasures of mixing and cutting, of seasoning and tasting. After all, there's a reason humans have been cooking for millions of years and Easy-Bake Ovens have been around for 50. Making food is a blend of chemistry, magic, and play (to say nothing of the glamour and drama; thank you, Food Network). Plus, it's true what they say: my kids will eat anything they make, even if it's inadvertently loaded with healthy ingredients.

Cooking is also a great teacher -- of the techniques themselves, sure, but also of a host of other intangibles: problem solving and creativity, improvisation, and even adventurousness. And don't forget the lessons in failure! The deflated cupcake, lip-puckering salad dressing, or quesadilla flopped on the floor is the gift of new knowledge -- in leavening, balance, or spatula handling -- just waiting for your child to unwrap it. Above all, though, cooking together means quality time, the kind that makes lasting memories (yes, even memories of mini disasters will make us laugh someday).

I've organized this how-to guide by skill level and enlisted a few of my favorite experts in family cooking to offer you helpful advice as you move through each lesson. Scan the recipes to see what your child might be ready for, then collectively roll up your sleeves, tie on aprons, and get to work. I'll be waiting on the couch.

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Illustration by Julia Rothman
Illustration by Julia Rothman

Kids' Kitchen Rules

Every junior chef should have an adult's help and follow these simple rules:

  1. Wash your hands before handling food.
  2. Be careful around knives, sharp tools, the oven, and stove.
  3. Clean up after yourself.

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Photograph by Laura Moss
Photograph by Laura Moss

The Novice Chef

Introduce your child to washing, slicing, simple chopping, measuring, tasting, and even improvising. Salad, paired with a classic homemade dressing, is the perfect dish for new chefs. It's not hard, but it has a number of components, and it's an important part of the meal. For kids ready to take it further, making croutons from scratch will not only add scrumptious crunch, it will also introduce your chef to working with heat.

Kids will learn to: wash fruits and veggies, peel and chop, measure liquids, and season to taste

Lesson Plan: How to Teach Salad-Making

Set up your work space: As you explain the importance of rinsing fruits and veggies, set up your child at a clean sink or large bowl half-filled with cold water. If needed, have him stand on a sturdy chair or step stool. After swishing the herbs and lettuce, your child can put them in a salad spinner, whirl the greens dry, then tear everything into bite-size pieces. Have him rinse the grapes and cucumber in a small colander and pat them dry with a kitchen towel.

Introduce peeling and slicing: Show him how to peel the cuke by dragging the peeler lengthwise from end to end -- always away from his body. Jennifer Carden, Playful Pantry blogger and creator of the Little Pretty Baking Kit, offers this advice to beginners: "Always hold a vegetable on a stable surface -- don't be tempted to hold it in the air like a wand! Peel away from your hands and always work right in front of you."

For cuke slicing, a wavy knife is the best bet. Let your child decide how thick or thin (bottle cap or potato chip?) he wants the slices to be. And don't forget to have him use a skid-proof cutting board for extra safety.

Mix dressing and toss: Set up a low-stakes science lab where your child can learn to make salad dressing, first by using our recipe, then moving on to creating his own in future sessions (see how on slide 5). After he adds dressing to the salad, he can practice his tossing skills with a pair of tongs. Be sure to explain that "tossing" means pulling the bottom leaves up to the top, not flinging the greens out of the bowl! Let him taste a leaf to test whether the salad has enough dressing.

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Photograph by Laura Moss
Photograph by Laura Moss

The Novice Chef

Green Monster Salad with Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette

Washing salad greens in a sinkful of cold water is a fun and familiar activity for little ones -- the kind who are still drawn to the water table at school!

Extra Credit: Crunchy Croutons

Turning stale bread into something delicious introduces kids to the age-old idea (and every home chef's goal) of making the most of what you have.

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Photograph by Laura Moss
Photograph by Laura Moss

The Novice Chef

Prep School: Cut Like a Pro

Before your child starts slicing for the first time, share these gripping details. Tell him to hold tight to what he's cutting and to ask for help if the fruit or veggie is rolling around as he tries to slice it. Also show him how to tuck his fingers and thumb so that they don't get scraped.

Test Kitchen: D.I.Y. Dressing Station

Let your child loose to tinker with flavors -- salty, sweet, sharp, spicy -- and invent his own perfect dressing recipe. For the setup, provide him with the required tools, oil, vinegar or lemon juice, salt, honey, and mustard. Adventurous chefs can try adding other seasonings, too, such as pressed garlic, chopped herbs, and spices. Have him start with a 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar in a jar, then add a pinch of salt, and a spoonful of honey and mustard. He can shake it up, give it a taste, and adjust the ingredient amounts until it's just right. And don't forget to take notes so you can re-create the delicious results!

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Photograph by Laura Moss
Photograph by Laura Moss

The Apprentice Chef

She's graduated from the basics, and now your cook-in-training is ready to make a real meal. Besides yielding a kid-friendly result, making quesadillas will teach her how to grate cheese, assemble ingredients, work at the stove top, and take the first step in developing her spatula skills. For kids ready to take it further, introduce them, very carefully, to wielding a sharp knife by having them whip up a batch of guacamole.

Kids will learn to: use a can opener, grate cheese, work at the stove, and flip with a spatula

Lesson Plan: A Quesadilla Case Study

Set up for success: What's mise en place? Used in many restaurant kitchens, the French phrase "set in place" refers to the practice of prepping and arranging everything you'll need for a recipe. It's a great starting point for assembly-line dishes such as this one. Help your chef line up the ingredients -- open the can of beans, grate the cheese -- and put them into bowls. A rotary grater is a good tool for beginners, but more experienced kids should also learn how to use a regular grater. Amanda Mascia of The Good Food Factory, a kids' cooking school and television show based in southern California, offers this tip for novices: "Keep your cheese cold, removing it from the fridge right before you grate it. Grip it at the top, leaving plenty of room between fingers and the grater. Pretend you are petting a kitten -- soft, gentle strokes."

Warm things up: Clarify a few rules with your new heat-seeker (see Class Rules on slide 8), then show her how when the pan is hot enough, a drop of water flicked onto it will dance and evaporate. Tell your child always to keep a close eye on the heat, says former FamilyFun staffer Deanna F. Cook, now content director at kidstir.com: "Sometimes a recipe says medium-high, but if the food starts to burn, don't be afraid to turn the heat to low or remove the pan from the stove altogether."

Flip and serve: A long, skinny spatula makes flipping easier for beginners. Show your child how (see Prep School on slide 8), then let her try. Give her kitchen shears for cutting the quesadillas into serving portions. If she can use scissors, she should be able to cut the pieces easily.

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Photograph by Laura Moss
Photograph by Laura Moss

The Apprentice Chef

Black Bean Quesadillas

A quesadilla is like a deliciously versatile grilled cheese sandwich. Once your chef gets the recipe down, she can try adding shredded rotisserie chicken, leftover steak, grilled veggies, baby spinach, corn kernels, diced tomatoes, pickled jalapenos -- or whatever sounds good (and fits inside).

Extra Credit: Great Guac

This mash-up makes a tasty intro to working with sharp tools. Kids can use the leftovers as a healthy dip.

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Photograph by Laura Moss
Photograph by Laura Moss

The Apprentice Chef

Class Rules: Stove Top Dos and Don'tsBefore your child gets started at the stove, share these rules with her to keep things fun and safe:

  1. Always get an adult's permission and help when cooking at the stove.
  2. Tie your hair back.
  3. Use a pot holder when touching the handles of pots and pans on the stove.
  4. Don't leave pot or pan handles sticking out over the edge of the stove top; turn them toward the back of the range.
  5. Don't leave anything that could catch on fire (such as a paper towel or pot holder) close to a burner.
  6. Never run or play near the stove when it's in use.

Prep School: Get FlippingTeach this simple technique to keep the quesadilla's filling where it should be -- inside! Slide a spatula under the quesadilla, lift, and turn it over, keeping the folded edge in the pan.

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Photograph by Laura Moss
Photograph by Laura Moss

The Master Chef

Reward your kitchen assistant with dessert! Baking cupcakes builds on the measuring and mixing techniques she's already practiced and introduces her to new skills, such as cracking eggs and creaming. Kids ready for more can try their hand at a simple decorating trick that will turn each cupcake into a monogrammed masterpiece.

Kids will learn to: crack eggs, measure dry ingredients, create correct portions, and test cake for doneness

Lesson Plan: The Basics of Baking

Prep the butter and eggs: Show your child how to soften butter and crack eggs. ChopChop Kids founder Sally Sampson recommends cracking each egg into a teacup before adding it to the batter so that you can fish out shells more easily.

Measure and mix up: Accurate measuring is the key to a tasty result. Show her the "scoop and sweep" method (see Prep School on slide 11) for dry ingredients to help her get it right. Next, explain that creaming -- vigorously blending the butter and sugar -- is a key baking technique. When you beat in air until the mixture is pale and fluffy, the cake will be light and tender. The same applies to frosting: adding air makes it light and creamy.

Teach perfect portioning: Explain that when batter rises in the oven, it needs somewhere to go. That's why you don't fill the cups all the way. Pouring with a spouted mixing bowl or liquid measuring cup will make it easier.

Try out the toothpick test: This trick will hone her powers of observation: Stick a toothpick in the center of a cupcake. If it comes out with very few or no crumbs, the batch is ready.

Finish with frosting: Karen Tack, coauthor of the Hello Cupcake! blog and cookbooks, suggests putting the frosting into a freezer-weight ziplock bag: "All it takes is a small snip in the corner, and voila, you've got a pastry bag that will put the frosting right where you want it." A fun food note to share: the melting point for chocolate is very low -- around 90 degrees -- which is why you can whisk it into the warmed cream right away (and why a chocolate bar melts in your hands).

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Photograph by Laura Moss
Photograph by Laura Moss

The Master Chef

Chock-Full o' Chocolate CupcakesThese rich flavorful cupcakes are good as is -- although you won't likely find a lot of arguments against frosting them.

Extra Credit: Piped Monograms

Kids can use leftover chocolate or colorful candy melts to create distinctive decorations for their cupcakes.

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Photograph by Laura Moss
Photograph by Laura Moss

The Master Chef

Prep School: Measure UpShort of using a scale, the best way to measure a dry ingredient is the "scoop and sweep" method. First, scoop a heaping measure, then with the flat edge of a butter knife, sweep the excess back into the container.

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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