I love food. Food is energy and nutrition, but it’s also a celebration of tastes and traditions and experiments and seasons. Food is love.
So it’s no surprise that I like cooking, even with kids.
Now, normally I reject the idea of turning every experience into a teachable moment—little life lessons delivered through everyday activity. I am a firm believer that sometimes we should just live in the moment with our children and not worry about what helpful instructions will emerge.
But food is different. Food—gathering it, preparing it, cooking it, tasting it, sharing it—is just begging for us to explore it with kids. Being in the kitchen (or anywhere we prepare food) is a valuable opportunity, and with the potential to have so much fun everyday, there are many hidden teachable moments.
Cooking is culture. The foods we eat—the foods we crave—are rooted in family traditions and community culture. We teach our kids about our families and our history with the tastes we celebrate and the things we reject. Recipes passed down through generations keep experiences alive, and in our ever more global community, the food we eat and the way it’s cooked are a part of our identity. Food is one of the first ways we experience a culture or community that is different from our own, and sharing food is often how we welcome others.
Cooking is math. Without even thinking about it we expose kids to basic math problems. Measuring cups make fractions fun and real. Portions, servings, and timing all need a quick grasp of arithmetic. Cooking translates real-world math concepts into productive daily activity.
Cooking is science. Changing food from its original state into a meal takes a bunch of different science experiments. We use heat and chemistry to shake things up, drawing out new flavours and creating different textures to make food appealing and unique. Cooking is ‘cause-and-effect’ in action; baking, roasting, mixing, boiling, whipping, and whatever it is that happens with gelatin. It seems like magic to a kid; but it’s science and they love it.
Cooking is healthy. Once kids see how easy it is to prepare real food, processed food loses its appeal. When kids discover what goes into food they love and we allow them to make their own choices based on health and flavour—and they get to eat the delicious result of their effort—then food becomes personal. Food is no longer a cheap novelty to fill a gap. Understanding food is a healthy act to complement an active life.
Cooking is playful. Getting messy is part of cooking. Sneaking a taste of everything is part of cooking. Experimenting with flavours and shapes and sizes and textures is part of cooking. Creating something new is part of cooking. Cooking has rules, but one of them is that you don’t have to follow all the rules. And that sounds a lot like play.
Cooking is community. We venture to the markets and stores to find our favourite ingredients and discover something new. We learn to trust the farmer, the butcher, the fish monger and the merchants—often crossing over many generations—and we learn about the community through their products and stories. And, of course, sometimes the food we cook is simply made for sharing with friends.
Cooking is fun. I doesn’t matter if you are naturally organized and deliberate, chaotic and experimental, or any collection of characteristics in-between, there is excitement and creativity to be had when food is being prepared. Cooking is a sensory explosion, giving sight, sound, touch, taste and smell equal time.
Cooking is growing up. With every new skill they learn, we give kids more responsibility. Toddlers can add ingredients, stir mixtures, and scoop portions. As long as they’re stable, it’s safe to help. As they grow up, a child can help with measuring and shaping, breaking eggs, using kitchen tools and even the stove. (At seven years old my son learned basic knife skills from a pro; scary, but amazing.) Demonstrating safe kitchen behaviour—respect for things that are hot and sharp; respect for keeping food clean—is a great test to make sure your kid is ready to be trusted alone at home. Planning and preparing meals, and being in control in the kitchen, is a core life skill; proof that maybe, just maybe, your teenager will be able to survive on their own one day.
Too often we consider cooking a chore—something that we must do rather than something that we can enjoy—and the pressures of life’s other activities tends to push honest cooking aside in favour of just eating something “easier”. There are many advantages to cooking—cost savings and nutrition are big ones—but too often time constraints or laziness override those benefits. Unfortunately, we don’t realize we are also cheating our kids of so many teachable moments.