Learning about food and kitchen skills as kids are essential life skills that can (and in my opinion, should) start earlier than you might think. And, it’s never too late either. Teaching my kids to cook has made me rethink some of the ways I do things, and I’ve learned things too in the process!
Do you remember how old you were when you started helping in the kitchen as a kid? Were there specific jobs or tasks you were allowed to do, or were expected to do? How old were you when you could fix yourself a snack, make parts of a meal with help, or make a full meal on your own?
Kitchen skills can start young
When I taught home ec years ago it was in a middle school with grades 7-9. One of my first lessons with seventh graders was making a smoothie. There was no cooking, but it got everyone used to the idea of a recipe, of working together, and the prep, clean-up, and eating method we’d follow for the rest of the term. I distinctly remember that more than one kid in that class had never touched kitchen implements before and was so excited to finally be able to have hands on the equipment.
Growing up in a family where it was expected that we learned to be functional in the kitchen, this was an eye opener for me. It really made me appreciate the skills my parents had instilled in me from a young age, and that they had the time to do it. I acknowledge that families have differing capacities for working with their kids in the kitchen; there are varying interest levels in kids and ability levels in adults. Having seen the benefits of teaching kitchen skills early on I encourage you to find pockets of time to work with kids on kitchen skills. As an unintended consequence maybe you’ll be inspired or motivated too!
Kitchen skills are more than just cooking
When you aren’t actively working in the kitchen you can talk about food-related issues: budgeting, grocery shopping, and meal planning. Driving in the car together is a great way to multitask on this, and if your kids are old enough to take notes, they can make a shopping list or calendar right then. I’m a paper and pen person for grocery lists and calendars, but I’m sure many could make use of talk-to-text or grocery apps.
Make the space kid-friendly
Having the right tools is an essential step for everyone’s enjoyment (and safety), and can be the difference between “helping” and helping. Consider your workspace and tool size and look at table height, counter height, step stools, and equipment size. Kid-sized aprons are always a hit (and easy to make yourself if you sew), or re-purpose an adult-sized one with a clothes pin or chip clip to cinch it smaller where needed. Be mindful of your own child’s impulse control and remove access to things that alarm you. Do monitor the temperature of ingredients, and potential for injury. Constant vigilance until you’re comfortable with their skills!
Knives for toddlers sound scary but there are some kid-friendly options out there that do actually cut some produce. We used a Pampered Chef one many years ago but it doesn’t seem to be made anymore; this three-pack looks like a similar alternative. Establish safe and effective knife skills early and progress to a paring knife as soon as you can.
Up the interest level
Involving kids in the choosing of the thing to be made is usually helpful, or giving them choices of ingredients can up the engagement level too. Of course it’s a bonus if they get to eat what they make, and the sooner the better! I asked my kids what their first memory is of working in the kitchen and muffins were high on the list.
Don’t complicate or over think what to make if this is new to you. Involve kids in what you make anyway. If you aren’t much of a cook then give them basic skills such as safe ways to use the microwave, safe food handling practices, and the like. Don’t forget about basic hygiene too, with hair back and hands clean.
Where to start?
Start with what you make anyway. Kids love to measure and pour, so budget some extra time to enable them to do just that. Work your way up to using the correct words for the tools, and where you can, throw in some math as well when it comes to the measuring cups and spoons. They’ll be learning fractions without even realizing it.
If you’re up for it you can even let them experiment. My kids both loved to invent their own recipes, and host taste testing events with fancy garnishes and a hand written menu. I have a distinct memory of my much younger brother doing this as well, and being tasked with oohing and aahing (and tasting!) a chocolate “cake” that had apparently incorporated some of the compost into it, as there were onion skins and old spaghetti noodles sticking out the top. Hopefully my 12 year old self was discreet while spitting it out, but what I still remember is how immensely proud my four year old brother was with his creation.
Consider ability, not just age
There are no age ranges on the below list – kids’ and parents’ (or grandparents or anyone who spends time with a child!) ability, base knowledge, time, and interest will vary. Toddlers can do many of the starter tasks; older kids who haven’t spent any time in the kitchen might need some introductory lessons on how to do the starter things. Sure, they’ll tend to have a longer attention span, more dexterity, and may be able to read, but that doesn’t mean they’ll know how to do something they’re tasked with. Be mindful of safety always, and make it fun so they keep coming back!
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