There are few domestic tasks that also allow for as much creativity, skill and pleasure than cooking. You can execute a chore; put a few ingredients together to create a simple meal with minimal preparation and flair. Or you can turn a meal into an event; an experiment in flavours, presentation, culture and indulgence. Or anything in between.
Taking a kid into the kitchen is an adventure. As dads, we get to show off our skills, ensuring the next generation carries forward any delicious habits we’ve honed over the years. But if you’re inviting kids into your kitchen to help, prepare to have inexperienced little hands doing the helping.
Here are a few things I’ve learned, and a few of the special tools that make your time a little easier, and a lot more fun. One disclaimer, though: I am not a chef. I am not even a cook. So take this advice as a ‘Really-Cool-Dad-who-tries’. With a grain of salt, as they say.
As a general rule, you should buy the best quality equipment and ingredients you can afford. There are some items (such as wooden spoons) that trick you into paying for style rather than substance, but often there is a real advantage to paying for better quality. As for food, fresh and local are good rules. Explore a market with your kid; a market owner who loves to share their knowledge with children is a good clue that they care about their product and their customers.
Let’s assume you have the basic set of sturdy pots and pans. That’s good. Depending on how strong your kids are, you may look at getting a few extra pieces that are smaller and lighter. If you’ve ever tried to lift a large cast iron pan, you know that it can be tricky even for an adult. The compromise on heat quality won’t be an issue, and the kids will get more chances to be involved.
Knives are dangerous. Knives are powerful. Knives are cool. Knife skills are the benchmark of respect in a kitchen, and it takes practice. Lots and lots of practice.
Your 8” chef’s knife is your best friend in the kitchen. Invest in a good one and take care of it. You should also make sure you have a good paring knife, one that their little hands can manipulate easily. Learning how to handle these two knives safely is important for kids.
Here’s the challenge: sharp knives are safer. While it may seem backwards to keep the knife sharp for little hands, dull knives slip easily, creating nasty opportunity to miss the mark and slice into a finger or two (or worse). And they cut poorly, making it frustrating and not fun. Teach your child to respect the knife with proper holding, cutting and storing techniques.
Only you will know when you can trust your little kid with a knife. Like many things, it will probably be sooner than you would like.
The iconic KitchenAid™ mixer.
Mixing. Whipping. Kneading. Licking the beaters. What else can I say?
Making fresh pasta is easy, and kids are always excited to eat the results. It’s easy to use, and will last a lifetime if you take care of it. A basic, fresh tomato sauce is fine at first, but different shapes allow a kid to experiment with different sauce textures and tastes. You can make green pasta and red pasta, paring it with sauces in exciting ways. Stuffing pasta takes a little more patience, but it’s a good step forward when linguine becomes a little too routine.
We use both an air tray and a pizza stone. The air tray cooks the pizza through and gets a thicker, sturdy crust, then we transfer to the stone to crisp it up. Cooking with the stone takes the pizza from good to amazing.
Pizza is big round taste experiment. Get creative; it’s easy for everyone to make their own combination and then share the results. While I won’t ever pretend that pizza is actually a health food, it’s easy to get vegetable into the mix.
This should be one of the easiest tasks to get little ones helping. Get a peeler that fits comfortably in little hands so they can learn good technique. (I’ve heard the Y shaped peelers are easy and effective, but I haven’t used one yet.) (UPDATE: We finally bought and tried the Y shaped option. I didn’t like it. I’ve bought a classic straight one, again.)
Get devices that are easy to handle and easy to read. As adults, we can have lots of complicated multi-function devices, but these can be confusing to new cooks. Simple, basic sets help kids understand the task at hand without having to decipher a cook’s codes.
Herbs & Spices
Different cultures use different spices as staples, so go exploring and talk with friends. Spices add an intensity of flavour, or combine to create taste profiles that shifts food from bland to wow. Taste is a sense that actually develops as we grow older, so if your child doesn’t like something today, don’t despair. You can try again soon enough.
Keep in mind that most herbs are also pretty easy to grow in the smallest of gardens, so fresh versions are an option.
Kids love to break eggs. Even if they aren’t helping you with anything else, call them into the kitchen to break the eggs. Be prepared for accidents, so break and separate into a bowl before adding them to recipes.
Give yourself lots of time to prepare a meal with a kid. Make a habit of getting all the ingredients ready before you start anything, and plan to waste a bit of food while learning to cook. Things will get broken or squished or dropped or burnt. It’s okay.
Get used to eating imperfect dishes and “unique” flavours. Nothing is more discouraging to a young chef than making something nobody wants to eat, so be ready for anything.
Always keep your kitchen clean. A clean space is safer, easier to work in, and healthier for everyone. Don’t wait until the end of the meal to clean the kitchen. Take advantage of little moments to get rid of trash, tidy your tools and prepare for the next step. Whether you use microfibre cloths and water, or industrial strength bleach and disinfectants, be sure to understand how to handle food safely and keep your hands and work surfaces clean.
Cooking with kids can be fun and rewarding. It takes little more time and a lot more planning, but it is something you can do everyday, and a skill they will use for the rest of their lives.
What have you learned about cooking with kids?