Cooking is a deeply satisfying process for anyone, and that includes children! This ancient and natural activity grounds us and heeds our logical and creative aspects and help to balance our mind. When teaming up with children, adults will bring the practical and logical side while children can bring unrestricted creativity and enthusiasm. So it can make for a mutually satisfying partnership – if done right; done wrongly it can leave you pulling your hair while wishing you had never got the idea!
I have had many positive experiences with children in the kitchen. Hopefully, I can encourage more of us to invite children into the kitchen space.
Introducing a child to the kitchen is opening a new world to them. Up until that point the kitchen might have had some strict ideas associated in the child’s mind, like, “adults only”, “dangerous”, “Keep out!”. Show them around, let them know where things are, tell them what they can do and also what they should not do (yet).
On some level we are saying to the child, “You are growing”, “You are being trusted”. Which is great because that’s what we want for our children: to grow and to learn to be responsible.
From the Adult perspective, we can usually do with a little loosening up. Take some deep breaths, relax as you prepare yourself to go with the flow, opening to all possibilities. There is a fine chance that something is going to happen to make us feel stressed or even to anger us, prepare your mind in advance to accept and forgive. Ready a technique that you can readily employ to handle heated situations, like counting backwards slowly from 10.
Age is just a number, sometimes…
My Nephew and Nieces are ages between 2 and 12. How I cook with the youngest one will vary greatly compared to how I cook with the eldest. But my approach is similar for both of them: encourage them to do as much as they can themselves.
My youngest nieces are twins, aged two, my sister recently brought them into the kitchen space to decorate a cake with chocolate icing. I was at first taken aback when I saw how concentrated they were at the task at hand, you would be forgiven to think that they were sculptors creating their masterpiece! They were so into it that they seemed to have transcended all temptation to grab at or eat the chocolate! It reaffirmed to me that children mature faster when we give them more credit (not without risk of course!).
When cooking with my niece of 9 years, I found that she could be trusted to use a sharp knife, she cut the garlic with it when she made Mint sauce for the first time. Her elder brother, aged 10 followed a recipe himself with minimal guidance from me when he made us all Stuffed peppers with Rice. My eldest niece cooks more frequently with her Mum and is quite capable. I encourage her to take more responsibility, like reading the instructions for the food blender and then to operate it herself. She is already at the stage of being interested in the presentation of the food and enjoys styling beautiful fruit platters.
Age is a good reference as a starting point when deciding how children should be involved in the kitchen. In practice, there are more factors than age and every child is different. The best thing is to keep feeling it out and adapting. There is something for everyone, as my sister showed me that even children as young as two years old can be involved in some way.
Role play and Responsibility
As the adult my aim is to pass as much responsibility to the child up to the point I feel might become overwhelming for them. When given achievable tasks,they will enjoy meeting our expectations and they will even try to exceed them. But if we give them too much then we risk knocking their confidence.
Starting small is always a good idea. Begin their involvement small, with like washing produce and then a next step could be to involve them with preparation such as measuring ingredients . As you work together, share what you know about the ingredients, health benefits and how they can be used in dishes.
As trust builds, we can introduce them to the very fun task of mixing ingredients. Allow them time to feel and learn, I still remember being fascinated with textures of ingredients as a child, such as eggs and dough. They will want to touch and squish. Go with it, perhaps also a good time inform them something about hygiene(!). Another good idea I have used with the younger ones is to entrust them with a smaller portion of the total ingredients so that they can work unrestrained. They can watch and mirror you and only later will you need decide whether you should use their mixture based on some degree of quality insurance, including whether reasonable levels of hygiene were maintained!
Operating machinery like blenders can be safe for even the youngest and it is also very exciting; When they start it will be just a case of pressing pushing buttons but as they grow they can learn to do more with the machines and be more independent with them.
All the time we are pushing the boundaries of how much we are trusting the child to do. The more they do, the more I see their self esteem expand. It’s encouraging to see.
Chaos and Order
Children invariably will bring at least some chaos and unpredictability. Try not to resist – I try to find ways to incorporate it. We have to guide, advise and sometimes console when it all goes wrong but if we are too strict we risk limiting joy and learnings and also block untold possibilities to emerge – after all wonderful inventions have come from mistakes! Here’s a few examples of working with chaos:
Letting them learn: My eldest niece wanted to melt the butter on the popcorn by putting it into the microwave. I warned her that it might not be a good idea, but she insisted. Turns out that the texture of the popcorn became stiffened from the microwaves which poorly affected the taste. I did not predict this would happen either, so we both learned something!
Preventative measures: If you think a task has the potential to become messy or dangerous or perhaps it is just a very technical recipe, then the first consideration might be to think of a more appropriate cooking task. If you decide to go with it then explain the risks to the child in advance. In doing so you will have managed both yours and the child’s expectations which will hopefully result in protecting the child’s confidence, and your patience!
Failure fun: When my Niece was making mint sauce, she put in too much paprika, her confidence got a little shaky as she realised how easy it is to spoil a dish. It was really not her fault, I had not been giving her adequate guidance while I was distracted in helping my Nephew. I explained all of this, which calmed her. Then we had a lot of fun salvaging the recipe, going completely off the beaten track, we threw away the recipe as we both came up with ideas on re-balancing the flavours and how to dilute the sauce. I was glad to show her that cooking can also be free like this, spontaneous and creative.
We want to avoid diffusing the child’s enthusiasm for trying new things or to diminish their natural creativity. We can find ways to embrace their energy and incorporate it as best we can, even if that means going off track for a while.
Get everyone involved
Age is not a barrier as we have seen, nor is the number of children (to a point)! It’s a matter of choosing an appropriate recipe, and good organisation. For example, a simple way to involve everyone is to let them decorate their own pizza. Prepare the sauce, base, and toppings in advance and then let them loose! I have done the same with pasta too, the children make their own in a pic n mix style, they can select and pour in from a choice of tomato and cheese sauces, then they select and mix their preferred veggies, and finally adding flavour from a choice of herbs and spices. Everyone makes their own unique creation without too much risk or effort from the adult perspectives. The Children will be inspired and have fun trying each others’ creations and talking about them. * The older children who can do more can be invited earlier into the kitchen to help with the preparation.
Food and eating has traditionally been linked with love and nurturing, so cooking together with children is a wonderful way to spend time together and it creates bonds that will be treasured for time to come.
As you see their confidence and self esteem growing, it is inevitable the same happens for you! Relax into it, take a peek at the world through the eyes of the child, return to innocence, step into the moment and fun will come uninvited!
From the child’s perspective, when they are invited to help with cooking I see them stepping into a real living breathing laboratory-playground where adventure and discovery are the sails of their voyage. It is chemistry, biology and physics rolled into one but without the overwhelming language. Instead they have real results that can be seen, smelled, tasted, felt and shared. Our job is to help them to steady their sails and show them how to steer their ship.