Kids Cook!

Bri DeRosa (Red, Round or Green)

Bri DeRosa (Red, Round or Green) › I like to think of myself as a young, cool, urban fringe locavore, but the reality ...


My kids cook!

This school year, my two boys–ages 7 and 4–decided to take on a major responsibility at our house: cooking dinner.

They’ve always helped in the kitchen (I even used to drag them, in their high chairs, as near to the counter as possible while I prepared food, and would hand them utensils and vegetables to play with), and they both have an inflated sense of their own self-importance and competence at handling “grown-up” stuff right now. Cooking dinner seemed like the next logical insane step for them to take.

You might think I would have said no, but all that means is that you haven’t yet met me and begun to absorb the level of crazy I’m willing to allow into my life. I bought them knives and designated Friday night as Kids Cook time. We started this experiment in September, and it’s now December. We’ve missed a few weeks here and there because of other commitments, but basically, we’ve kept it going this long and I don’t see things stopping anytime soon. I’m happy to announce that both of my children still have all their digits, there hasn’t yet been an ER visit, nobody’s required significant first aid, and everything has been edible.

These accomplishments probably make me qualified to provide at least a few modest tips on getting kids into the kitchen.

Notice, by the way, that I didn’t say “cooking with kids”–I said “getting kids into the kitchen.” Our Kids Cook nights are generally not a glorification of Mommy cooking with dubious child labor assisting her along the way. Most of the time, the boys actually do the cooking, with a little guidance from me every now and again. And we are all still most assuredly alive, not maimed in any way, and relatively happy with the arrangement.

Our Kids Cook nights are generally not a glorification of Mommy cooking with dubious child labor assisting her along the way.

Here are a few of our tricks.

The Don’t-s:

1. Don’t even think about getting kids into the kitchen with you if you’re nervous about how neatly they’ll work. When people tell me that they can’t let their kids help because the mess is too big, I wonder whether they remembered to tell the little ones that the top goes on the blender before you press the button. Seriously–kids are messy. Kids with food are messier. Kids making food, at least food worth eating, are the messiest of all kids, and they should be. You didn’t learn to cook without spilling, dropping, or splattering. Multiply all your early cooking messes by a factor of ten, and if you can handle that image without breathing into a paper bag, you can go ahead and let the kids into the kitchen.

2. Don’t hover, nag, or tell them they’re doing it wrong–unless there’s an immediate safety concern. When I told my boys that they needed to crush some cornflakes for a recipe, I was treated to the wonderful discovery that jumping on the bag and rolling toy trucks over it are the two best methods for creating beautifully textured crumbs. As long as the task gets done safely, let it go.

3. Don’t let them off the hook for cleanup. Cooking may be the fun part, but it’s not where the job ends. On Kids Cook nights, the boys make the meal, help with the tidying of the kitchen, and set and clear the table. They’re on KP from beginning to end, just like their dad and I are every other night of the week–and they aren’t. only welcome the responsibility, but they take extra care in setting the table nicely and presenting their dishes to us.  They’re proud of their work.

The Do’s:

1. Make the tasks and expectations clear enough for your child to understand. The most effective way we’ve handled Kids Cook nights is for me to write out a very detailed, step-by-step list of tasks for the boys. My older son reads well, so he helps direct the activity while his younger brother does most of the fetching and carrying. We start from washing hands and go all the way through with instructions like “Get out a cutting board.” and “Find a big bowl.”  Remember: what’s intuitive to you might not be logical yet for a kid just learning their way around the kitchen.

2. Involve them in the choices. It would be easy to just come up with a limited list of things you think your kids could handle, like English muffin pizzas. But, I’ve found that when I let the boys tell me what they want to make, we discover they have more skills than I would have given them credit for. Items like chicken parmigiana (with from-scratch marinara sauce that they made themselves) and steak weren’t on my mental list of things I would have suggested to them, but we’ve accomplished them both, and the boys have stayed motivated and excited because they get to plan the menus with me.

3. Supervise carefully. It seems obvious, but I need to say it–mainly because by now I think you may have an image in your minds of my kids burning down our house while I read a magazine in the other room. I’m there, I’m watchful, and sometimes with the harder tasks I’m hand-over-hand with them–like when my older son learned to pan-fry breaded chicken, or when my younger one learned to cut tomatoes with a real knife. I hang out in the kitchen with them while they cook; I just don’t do it for them, and I force myself to intervene only when it’s really necessary.

4. Thank them. My husband originally initiated this in our home, and I think it’s been surprisingly valuable. When we sit down to eat the food the kids have cooked, we make sure to hug them, kiss them, and say “Thank you so much for your hard work to make food for our family tonight!” What I’ve found is that not only is it just a nice reinforcing way to praise their efforts, but it has made them more conscious of being grateful when Mom and Dad do the work to get dinner on the table every other night of the week. Now that they know what it takes to make a real meal for everyone, and they know how good it feels to be recognized for that work, they are more freely thankful and less critical when a not-so-favorite dish appears before them.

How do you get the kids into the kitchen in your house?

Photo credit: Bri DeRosa