Today is Food Day! Food Day is a nation-wide celebration of real food. It is meant to encourage people to eat less of the packaged food, sugary drinks, and over-salted products that are so prevalent in our world and to replace them with more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and sustainably raised proteins. These are all things I believe in deeply and passionately, but the aspect of Food Day this year that has got me super excited is their emphasis on cooking with kids.
There are so many benefits to cooking with your kids: they are more likely to try new and different foods, they gain a better understanding of where their food comes from, food cooked from scratch usually has more nutrients, it is quality time spent together, they feel proud of what they produce and gain confidence, and it can be really, really fun!
But for many of us, when we are rushing to get dinner on the table, the prospect of having kids to oversee while cooking can be overwhelming. We worry that it is going to slow the process down, that it will make a bigger mess, that they might hurt themselves with a sharp knife or a hot stove, and, honestly, that we won’t have the control over the cooking that we might like to have.
So here are some tips and ideas for ways to include kids in the cooking that might help to take away some of those concerns.
1) Prep first, then cook together. If you are worried about time and mess, you can quickly prep the ingredients first and then invite them to join you. Have them dump, mix, knead, scoop, etc. They’ll feel like they contributed and you can take a deep breath.
For example, my boys LOVE to make their own pizzas. So if we are in a rush, I will roll out the dough and have the toppings ready to go. Then they climb up and put the amount of each topping they want on for themselves. If we aren’t in a rush, then I let them make the dough with me, knead it, punch it down, roll it out, etc., but if there isn’t time, then just the toppings is still fun and exciting for them.
2) Clean as you go. As they are stirring or doing whatever job you have set them to, take a moment to throw some things in the dishwasher or sink. That way, the mess at the end might not feel so overwhelming.
3) Let them make the salad. Salad is a great starting place because kids can do it almost entirely by themselves. They can rinse the veggies, dry them, and prep them. For the greens, ask them to rip them into bite-sized pieces. They love this! Bell peppers, can be started by you and then chopped with a butter knife pretty easily. Let them plop in the grape tomatoes, nuts, cranberries. My kids actually fight over who gets to use the salad spinner!
4) Kids are more competent than we think. If we set the right guidelines in terms of safety, kids can do a lot more than we give them credit for. Sure, I still hold my breath every time my 5-year-old cracks the egg to put into a recipe, but he does it beautifully—and can even separate eggs! Yes, I was a bit of a wreck the first time I let him use a pairing knife. But I taught him how to hold the knife and the food he was cutting, I held his hand for the first few cuts, and then stood by his side to let him try on his own. Would I walk away and leave him with a sharp knife? No. But giving him the opportunity to try it out in a safe environment gives him so much confidence and pride.
5) Give them tasks that will be fun and helpful. In almost every cooking project there is at least one task that will be fun for them and helpful for you. What kid wouldn’t love to mash potatoes? Smearing garlic butter on already sliced French bread? That was one of my faves growing up! And one of the bonuses: often times the things you don’t like to do or find boring, are the things they like best. Getting hands dirty is, of course, always a big hit and my kids adore sorting through black beans before I soak them.
6) Be patient. Yes, there are times when the flour goes flying, the cooking moves more slowly, and you just want to grab the spoon and finish the damn thing. I’ve been there! It’s ok. Just take a deep breath and remember: In the end, the benefits and the food will make it worthwhile!
Do you include your kids in the cooking? If so, what are your tricks?