A few weeks ago I did a cooking demonstration at the DC Convention Center with an audience of adults and kids. When I asked the kids how many of them like to cook, lots of hands shot up. When I followed up by asking how many of them cooked savory food or meals rather than baking cookies, only one lonely hand stayed in the air.
The kids were enthusiastic audience members, so when I asked why they didn't cook more, some said their moms didn't want them to make a mess, and others said their parents didn't want them to cut themselves. I wondered: Are we parents unintentionally driving our kids out of the kitchen with our worries and fears?
I cook with kids whenever I can, whether it's our son and daughter, our nieces and nephews, or my friends' children. In my many years working with kids, I have never met a single one that didn't want to try cooking, even if they never had before. But I have met many parents who unwittingly squelch their kids' desire to cook.
For example, when I talk to parents, many of them say they don't cook with their kids beyond baking cookies or making brownies. Yet they wish their kids would learn to cook, even make dinner for the family once in a while.
There's a place for making cookies and cupcakes with our kids, and it can be a lot of fun. But if we REALLY want our kids to love good food and be able to shop for and prepare meals when they are living on their own, we need to involve them in making more than sweet treats. And we need to embrace ways to welcome them into the kitchen rather than inadvertently driving them away.
Here are 7 mistakes I find we parents often make when approaching cooking with kids, and how we can turn them around.
(And one caveat first: Obviously, bigger kids can do more than smaller kids, and safety is paramount. But in general, kids can do more in the kitchen than we think, no matter what their age.)
1. Just baking cookies: Many of us cherish memories of baking with our parents and we want to share that experience with our kids (and let's be honest—who doesn't love fresh, hot cookies?) But to really inspire our kids' inner chefs, we must delve into other foods they may enjoy eating, like baked potato chips, sweet potato fries, nachos with homemade cheese sauce, corn bread, and creamy ranch dressing, which will give them a bigger repertoire. Ideally we want to show kids that it's easy to make almost any food they like to eat.
2. Not giving them enough responsibility: Too often parents end up taking charge in the kitchen and stay in charge for too long. Instead, let the child take the lead by helping to decide what to make, how to season it (kids love smelling spices), what to serve it with. Let them do the actual work, including reading or thinking the entire recipe through first. If the child acts as head chef and we serve as their sous chef, they are more likely to feel empowered to enjoy the process and ultimately be able to cook independently.
3. Not trusting them with sharp knives: At first, kids are often shocked that I will let them cook at the stove and wield a knife, because some have been scared out of it at home. Yes, we most definitely need to teach our kids basic safety skills around heat and sharp objects, but we also need to stretch beyond our fears and comfort zone and empower and trust them to cook safely and responsibly so they won't get bored by just mixing and measuring. It will help them feel a sense of accomplishment and mastery when they are able to make a recipe independently from start to finish.
4. Insisting on cleanliness: Our kids should learn that cleaning up is an inevitable result of cooking and they should help clean up the kitchen after cooking (although in our house we have a rule that the person who cooks dinner is exempt from cleanup duty). But be careful not to suck the joy out of cooking during the process by grimacing or groaning every time your child spills some flour on the floor or splashes some soy sauce on the counter. We can tweak their technique later, but let them get in their flow without worrying about making a mess along the way.
5. Cooking with them when we are stressed out: If you are stressed out or rushed when your child wants to cook with you and you know you need to have dinner on the table in 15 minutes, you may be inadvertently sending signals to your child that cooking is stressful or you don't want their help. If you find yourself snapping at them or correcting them constantly while they are in the kitchen, think about saving your cooking time together for a calmer evening, a snow day, or a weekend. Of course once your child gains cooking skills, she or he will actually be able to help you get dinner on the table in a hurry.
6. Not holding our tongues: In cooking with kids (and perhaps parenting in general), the most important lesson I've learned is that the less we say, the better off we all are. Sure, if they ask us a question we should answer, but it's important to keep quiet as often as possible when we feel like directing or correcting, and let them figure stuff out for themselves. When you do speak up, try to make all your directions and responses encouraging and positive to the kitchen doesn't become another zone for criticism.
7. Not getting out of the room: Just like the first time they get on the school bus or drive a car without us in the passenger seat, it can be terrifying to let our kids cook when we're not standing right there. I remember when my daughter texted me a question about using the food processor alone for the first time while I was at my son's basketball game and I wanted to tell her to wait until I got home--but I held my tongue. The more we can let our kids take risks, take charge and embrace their newfound kitchen skills, the more likely it is that their inner chef will come out to play.
With a few tweaks to our own behavior and calming of our nerves, we parents can inspire our kids to cook. Even if our child doesn't become a Top Chef, she or he can become capable in the kitchen and learn perhaps the most valuable life skill of all.
Aviva Goldfarb's bestselling cookbook: The Six O'Clock Scramble Meal Planner: A Year of Quick, Delicious Meals to Help You Prevent and Manage Diabetes.