As parents, many of us take great pleasure in feeding our children. But at some point, as our kids get older and more responsible, we need to provide them with the knowledge and tools to begin feeding themselves. Here are some tips to get you started.

By Cheryl Sternman Rule and Catherine Newman
Updated October 04, 2019
TijanaM/Shutterstock

Cooking is a great teacher. Not only do kids learn the techniques themselves, but they also learn 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 a gift of new knowledge. Above all, though, cooking together means quality time that makes lasting memories.

Kid Cooking Tips

Keep the mood light: Kitchens brim with potentially dangerous equipment. From hot stoves to sharp knives, there's plenty around to make you nervous, but steel yourself. Kids can read anxiety, and if you're not relaxed, they won't be either. Supervise them closely and be aware of hazards, but proceed anyway, with an upbeat voice and smiling eyes.

Strike a deal: Kids take to new learning opportunities best when they have a stake in the outcome, so make them part of the process. If they want to make cookies, let them. But the next lesson is yours to choose. Alternate between treats and more healthful, everyday fare, from cookies and pies to salads and smoothies.

Don't neglect terminology: Kids are blank slates, and words like fold, sear, and sauté are meaningless until properly defined. You can use easier words if you like, but why bother? Mastering a new lexicon is part of skill-building; plus, kids are sponges when it comes to language acquisition. Soon they'll be bandying about new words like natives. ("Mom, can I go sauté up and down on your bed?")

Dig deeper: Teaching kids to cook also presents opportunities to talk about culture, family history, nutrition, food politics, and hunger. Depending on your child's age, consider sprinkling your lessons with gentle forays into these deeper waters, avoiding heavy-handed moralizing but introducing your kids to some of the broader issues surrounding food. You're not just educating a future cook; you're influencing a lifelong eater.

Keep your eye on the prize: Your ultimate goal is not the creation of restaurant-quality dishes, but boosting your child's self-esteem and encouraging their burgeoning independence. If, at the end of your lessons, you've got a happy kid who's excited to spend time in the kitchen, you've done your job, and done it well.

Lessons for 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. 

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-sized pieces.

Introduce peeling and slicing: Show him how to peel cucumbers 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 slicing, a wavy knife is the best bet. Let your child decide how thick or thin he wants the veggie slices to be. 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.

Mix dressing and toss: Set up a low-stakes science lab where your child can learn to make salad dressing. Let your child 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!

After he adds dressing to the salad, he can practice his tossing skills with a pair of tongs. Let him taste a leaf to test whether the salad has enough dressing.

Lessons for 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. 

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 preparing 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. 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 with soft, gentle strokes."

Warm things up: Clarify a few rules with your new heat-seeker, 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, 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.

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 jalapeños, or whatever sounds good.

Stovetop safety rules: Before 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.

Lessons for 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.

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 for dry ingredients to help her get it right. (Scoop a heaping measure, then with the flat edge of a butter knife, sweep the excess back into the container.) 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." 

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