Yesterday I had such a wonderful cooking experience with my six-year-old. It was so exciting to see him bake a cake on his own. It was so fun to watch him separate the eggs, to commiserate with him on how long it takes to beat the egg whites until they’re stiff (I vividly remember how long that felt as a kid), to see him carefully folding those stiff egg whites into the batter, and to laugh with him when he stuck his whole head into the bowl to lick some leftover batter (I know, I know raw eggs are bad). But what was even more meaningful was his help with the rest of the meal. He taste tested with me to check for seasoning balance, he chatted with me about all of the different dishes we would be serving, he was fully engaged in the preparation of the meal as a whole. And then, when we sat down for lunch with friends, he tried every. single. thing.
I would like to say that this experience is due to my genius parenting or that it is because his favorite thing to do in the world is cook (legos and outside play definitely trump cooking), but getting that kind of engagement with him in the kitchen has really been a combination of a natural curiosity about food on his part and a lot of hard work and letting go on mine. You see, I’m a little intense when it comes to the kitchen. I like to keep the things tidy and efficient. I like to have the timing work out perfectly and for there not to be little grains of things under my feet. And this has meant that there have been a number of hiccups along the way, times when I snapped because something spilled, times when I just took over for efficiency’s sake, times when I felt hurt when he lost interest and wandered off.
But there are a number of things that I have learned through all of these trials and tribulations with him and with my younger son who is only just beginning to even show interest in cooking. Here are the top five:
1) Whenever possible, give them choices. Do you want to crack the eggs or mix the ingredients? Do you want to help with the salad or with the sauce? This also means allowing them to choose ingredients, when possible. What vegetables would you like to put into the salad you are making? What toppings should we put on the pizza? Which vegetables should we grill this evening?
2) Don’t hover. When we hover, we send the message that we don’t trust them and they pick up on our anxiety as we watch things happen out of order or differently than we would like. So get them started and then occupy yourself with something else. When you first start cooking with your kid this might look like pre-measuring and then letting them dump and mix, while you put dishes into the dishwasher. When they are more comfortable and confident in the kitchen it might be taking the ingredients out for them and then talking them through what they need to measure and when, while you work on another dish. When they are doing really well it might be deciding on a dish and then letting them go at it, just making sure you are available for questions.
3) Make it fun.Play music, be silly (our dance party in the kitchen yesterday was ridiculous).
4) Allow for escapes. When they lose interest or when something else comes up. Let them go. Don’t guilt trip them or get frustrated with their lack of focus. If they feel like they have to stay, it becomes a burden. The more they enjoy their time in the kitchen with you, the more they will want to stay.
5) Mix it up. Don’t make the same thing every time. It can get boring for them, just like it can get boring for you. So sometimes bake, sometimes make a main dish, sometimes a side. Expose them to different types of cooking and different aspects of the preparation. Who knows, maybe your kiddo will love to make salads and salad dressing, but will hate the noise of the electric mixer. Or maybe they’ll love flipping pancakes but will find building a pizza to be tedious.
What lessons have you learned from cooking with your kids? What do you wish someone had told you before you started?