Get your kids in the kitchen early, get them cooking often, and by 10 you’ll not have to fix lunches ever again. That is really my ulterior motive for teaching the boys how to cook (just like Dad introducing them to taking out the trash). My evil, maniacal plan of having little minion slaves is working (muwahahaha).
But seriously, teaching them these skills to be self-reliant is important in their development. Not only are you teaching them valuable skills to help them cope with adulthood, you’re also teaching them to think for themselves, to reason out problems, organization skills, health, and frankly, more skills to help them be better prepared for their own survival. Not that being able to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich will help them survive a zombie apocalypse, unless all the zombies have a severe peanut allergy, but the act of being able to take care of themselves as they grow in skills, will be something that can help save their lives in an emergency.
Actually, the kids LOVE coming into the kitchen to help me cook, and ask often if they can cook lunch or breakfast. I’ve had them in the kitchen helping scoop, stir, taste, sort and plan since they were small. It also helps reinforce motor skills, teaches math, science, social studies, health, botany, and everyday home economic skills. I hope that their future wives will love me for it!
Tips for Creating Young, Self-Reliant Chefs
Until your children are mature enough to understand…no sharp points and no heat. Don’t give them knives until they have practiced the skills, keep them away from all heat sources (ovens, boiling water, heat sources). Use kid friendly wooden or metal spoons, non-glass measuring implements and bowls, etc. This will help keep your time with them more enjoyable if you aren’t constantly worrying whether they’re going to cut themselves with the huge chef’s blade you’ve handed your two year old. Be reasonable in the skills they can accomplish.
START WITH THE TONGUE
I can’t stress enough how important it is to have your baby / toddler tasting a wide variety of food long before you have them whipping up Baked Alaska in the kitchen for your dinner parties by the age of 8. Giving our children a mature palette (that doesn’t rely on carbs and peanut butter – not that I have one of those children. at. all.) helps create good eaters who are interested in food and more likely to want to be in the kitchen helping out for more than just the cookie bakes. When you’re integrating your food storage items into your daily cooking, they might taste just a little different, and it’s good to get your kids used to those changes in flavors to make it easier if that’s what you have to begin relying on if an emergency arises.
LICKING THE SPOON
This is where my kids first wanted to help. Stirring. Tasting. Stirring some more. Tasting some more. As soon as I could, I had a chair or stool pulled up to the table and counter, letting the boys stir. They felt empowered that they were doing something big. And they got to taste the results of all that stirring by licking the spoon! It develops fine and gross motor skills and cause and effect. Some kitchen chemistry happens in there somewhere, too!
MEASURE TWICE, DUMP ONCE
Not only are you developing the beginning math skills with real world examples (fractions, addition, multiplication, sorting, etc.), you’re creating a skill of learning HOW to measure correctly for optimum baking, getting them familiar with what goes into their food, and helping them want to learn more. This was the next big step for both of my guys – getting to do the actual dumping. You’re also reinforcing READING! Who knew recipe cards could be the key to reading success! Here are our favorite measuring cup, pint-sized liquid measuring cup and spoons that my boys know are just theirs. It made them feel special to have their own equipment in the house that only they could use, because it was their cooking time.
Getting to have input on meals for the family allows our children to really think about their food, what they like, why they like it, and how often they can get it on the menu (yes, if we allowed the youngest to plan our meals, we’d have peanut butter and jelly, pizza or grilled cheese sandwiches every meal for the rest of our lives). They get to help guide what happens in the family, which is a big power thing. Usually, our children are given food..and they have to eat it. You can also use menu planning to help have meals that your children will want to help prepare to get them into the kitchen for more than the cookie baking sessions. This is a good time to begin introducing your stored foods to learn how to integrate that into everyday cooking.
TEACH THOSE SKILLS
Before handing your chef’s knife to your 8 year old (you know, that 15 inch long blade that can cut paper and slice a tomato after sawing through a cinder block that you break out whenever you just know the weird neighbor kid is trying to break into your house), teach them the proper knife skills. Generally, it’s encouraged that you don’t hand a knife over to a child until they’re 10-12. But we practice with a small knife with soft veggies early on to give some confidence in handling knives. We teach proper finger placement (curl those fingers UNDER !), proper knife grip, and gentle motions. I’m still not ready to hand over my chef’s knife, but we do occasionally practice with it and build confidence. The same goes with how to handle stove top cooking, getting in and out of the oven, microwaves, etc. This can also translate to knife skills outdoors with pocket knives.
LET THEM EAT LUNCH
After they’ve prepared it themselves! Help your child develop a good, healthy lunch, and then walk away! Let them do it themselves. You can control the type of food that they’ll be preparing – sandwiches are usually a really great first meal. You’re helping reinforce good healthy food choices, as well as giving them confidence that they can do it! This can also be applied to just about any skill that you’re teaching in the kitchen (and in life in general!) Give them the knowledge, then let them do it without hovering. It helps them build confidence that they can do it themselves.
When they’re young, children’s cookbooks can be first great starts in teaching kids how to read recipes and make food that is enjoyable to them. Be sure that you’re using one that provides healthy versions of food. Your local library will have a ton to choose from. However, even more valuable is you teaching basic cooking skills that don’t require a cookbook at all. They’ll thank you for it later!
PINT SIZED UTENSILS & CLOTHES
It can be helpful, in those early years, to have some utensils that fit the grasp of a young child better than adult versions. It will allow them to better gain the skills than being overwhelmed by a huge spoon they can’t control. Same goes for kitchen ware – pint-sized aprons are a must! Daddy’s shirts are good, as well as using an apron that you can get in most craft stores that you can decorate together. Check out these knives, stirring spoons, and other great prep items to help kids master those skills in real equipment to fit their smaller hands.
TEACH PREPAREDNESS SKILLS ALONG THE WAY
In every single lesson we teach our children, in all things that we learn together with them, preparedness can be taught without making a big fuss. Sometimes, instead of just getting tap from the water, use some of your water storage to teach about rotation and filtering. Instead of just using a can of beans, get out the dried beans, teach them to soak and cook them. Instead of just dicing up some onions, get out your dehydrated onions and teach them about re-hydrating. Instead of relying solely on what you’ve already store, get them to help you with the dehydrating and canning ahead of time. They can peel, they can cut, they can chop, they can stir, they can rotate shelves, they can help store. My youngest can now dehydrate mushrooms all by himself. I don’t even need to bother being in with him, though I love that we do it together. He rinses, he cuts (btw..with fresh mushrooms, a great egg slicer, like this one at Amazon, is a great way to cut mushrooms without ever using a knife! We don’t like it if the mushrooms are getting a bit old, but fresh one work wonderfully in it).
TAKE IT OUTSIDE
Not only can you use these skills indoors, but take it to the grill, or the fire pit or any place that you cook outside. Teach those skills that allow them to be able to cook in whatever situation they might ever find themselves in!
If nothing else, just having your children by your side while you’re preparing meals is a great way to get them introduced to cooking. Letting them see how you bake bread, prepare the meals, shop, plan, and eat healthy gives them good guidelines for their lives.
BE WARNED: THERE’S GONNA BE A MESS COMIN’
Yep, for many of us, this is a cringe-worthy reason to not have our kids in the kitchen. I get it. The mess that results seems to overwhelm the fun and learning. But trust me…really trust me (ask me about the 5lb bag of flour on the kitchen floor, the sticky pancake mix on the ceiling, the blueberry stains in my favorite shirt) it’s absolutely worth it. It takes a little time for the little ones to get control and move about the kitchen like June Allison, but it will come, even with a few spills along the way.
Do you have any great tips for helping your kids learn to love the kitchen?
Read more tips to creating self-reliant kids!
Emily as an MFA in creative writing and a strong passion for cooking! She started trying out her mother’s recipes from a very young age, turning the time she spent in the kitchen into a career. She will soon publish her very first cookbook, and in her free time, Emily contributes to our blog with resources for all our readers, whether beginners or advanced chefs.
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