Wednesday, 24 May 2017

My Top Twelve Tips for Cooking with Children

Lotta getting ready to cook
I've written before about experimenting in the kitchen with kids through baking, it's something we do a lot. Today I'd like to say a bit more about other kinds of cooking with our children. Firstly I should mention that I think helping your children learn to cook is a real gift parents can give them. I think it's a life skill that's up there with reading and writing and self-care. We hear a lot in the media about the importance of healthy eating and that is made much easier if you know a bit about ingredients and how to cook them. 

I remember when I first went to university, I'd never lived away from home before and I arrived with a good set of cooking utensils and plenty of recipes I'd been making regularly for quite a few years at home. In fact I'd often cooked for my family, up to three or four times a week. A lot of my fellow students however were not in the same boat. They were ill equipped both materially and in terms of the knowledge they had of food preparation. That translated to them mostly eating some form of ready made food from ready meals to jarred sauces etc. By Christmas of my first term I was regularly trading friends a home cooked meal for a couple of beers. 

Lotta (4) chopping

I would like to know that when my children leave home they know how to cook well. In fact I want them to know about every stage of the food process from growing seedlings to when to harvest and how to store and preserve excess. In that vein they've always been encouraged to help with cooking our meals. 

Now I have to be honest with you this isn't always fun. I would hate for anyone to read this and imagine this perfect situation where we cook together joyfully every time. In fact often the kids ask to help at the most inconvenient moments, usually when I'm in a big rush to get the food ready in time for us to go out. And don't let me get started on the mess they make! When they bake they are encouraged to clear up after themselves but often when they help with the cooking the clean up happens later and apart from clearing the table they're often not that involved. To give you a few examples, think carrot peel everywhere but in the composting bin, tomato juice dripping off the edge of the counter and down the drawers or soup or tomato sauce splattered all over the ceramic hobs. 

A very young Maya kneading dough

However, despite the inconveniences there are many advantages of involving them in our family's food preparation. Maya's pride when she made pasta for herself and her brother one day when I was sick in bed and her dad was really busy with other stuff. Lotta's sense of accomplishment when she helps mummy by chopping the vegetables. Noah deciding he'll give those courgettes a try after all because he helped cook them. And we do have a lot of fun, with the radio on, dancing and singing while we cook.

There's a lot of information available about cooking with children. Jamie Oliver's website for example has loads of features including advice and recipes. Here are a few of my ideas about cooking with kids.

Photo birthday food
A birthday spread the kids helped prepare

Top ten tips for cooking with kids   

I'd just like to mention that I have no formal culinary training. This a list of things I do with my kids. In our household all knife use by our younger children is always adult supervised as is any cooking around hot food be it on the hobs or in the oven. 
  • Provide a washable work space - table cloths are a no-no as are precious wooden counters or tabletops. Make sure wherever they're working will be easy to clean afterwards because they will make a mess. I've found a very large plastic mat to very useful. 
  • Make sure you have plenty of time. Kids can be very slow, rushing them will spoil the experience and might compromise safety.
  • When the above isn't possible delegate tasks that aren't as urgent. For example when one of my kids wants to do some chopping but I'm actually in a real rush with the savory food, I explain the situation and ask them if they'd like to chop up some fruit for desert instead. If that's not possible I set them up on a parallel board with a small amount of what I need. The important thing is not to turn them away, nothing kills there interest quicker. 
  • Give your non-readers a recipe with pictures instead of words they'll love the independence.
  • Explain what you're doing. Giving a running commentary on your own actions might feel a bit strange at first but it means any child helping you in the kitchen will be absorbing understanding of how cooking works.
  • Involve children in meal planning. Talk about what they like to eat and how you need to mix things up to get a balanced diet. Talk to your kids about what a balanced diet is, what we get from our food and how that helps our bodies. Tell them what's in the food they're preparing and eating at the time. 
  • Ask their opinion. If there are options in your meal talk to them about them, see if they want toasted nuts on their stir fry or to steam or sauté the vegetables. 
  • Teach safe knife use. Children are going to use knives if they're cooking and clearly we don't want any chopped fingers. My advice is firstly make sure the chopping board won't slip (you can put a damp tea towel under it for example). Secondly, demonstrate safe knife use - kids learn best by imitating so show them how it's done. More info from another mum here, I really like the playdo suggestion and it's certainly a way my kids have gained practice. And lastly, don't be tempted to use a dull knife, if they get cut it will be much worse and actually makes the whole job riskier because the blade won't cut smoothly and the child will have to use more pressure and may not maintain good grip and finger safety.*
  • An older child will really enjoy being in charge of a full meal. They'll feel a sense of accomplishment putting the food on the table. Help them with the planning and be available in case they need any help. 
  • As well as knife safety teach heat safety. From the beginning small children need to be aware that ovens and hobs are hot and can burn you. Especially nowadays with modern technology where there's no flame to see kids can get confused about how dangerous hobs are. They also won't necessarily know about heat conduction, that a pan will be hot if you touch it or that dishes that come out of the oven can burn your fingers. Older children as they get more independent will need to learn things like how to boil a kettle** and pour from it safely and how to be safe around boiling water. At each stage just remember that it's lack of experience which is children's biggest challenge and that as long as you provide the information they need and model safe behavior they should follow suit. 
  • If for whatever reasons you don't feel comfortable with your child using knives or hot things, or they're just too small (that really depends on your child) there are still loads of things they can do. It's great to start young so get them spinning salad, kneading bread or pizza dough, mixing pancake mix, arranging cut up food on plates, spreading things - anything that they can say I did that about really.
  • For home educators or parents wanting to stick in a bit of math practice measuring is great. Start out with cups and spoons, your kids will be able to familiarise themselves with notions like halves, quarters, thirds. Kids who are just beginning to read numbers will have a great time telling you when to stop as you measure out ingredients or doing it by themselves. If they don't know the number yet you can also show them it written down thus helping their recognition skills. And older kids can use addition when weighing ingredients and division or multiplication when recipes need sizing down or up.
*Although with the appropriate knife safety there should be very few accidents, things do happen and making sure everyone knows where the disinfectant, sterile wipes and plasters are as well as what to do if you cut yourself is a good idea. Similarly teaching your kids what to do if they burn themselves is good common sense. 

**Did you know making a cup of tea is one of the earlier brownies (like girl guides) badges! 

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