Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cooking with Kids

I'm an enormous control freak! Needless to say, it's very hard for me to give up power to anyone in my kitchen, particularly a 2-year-old mess beast. But I know how important it is to let kids in on the cooking fun, and I know how much my daughter really wants to help. So, I changed me and let the mess and the many mistakes happen.

About a year ago, when my daughter was nearly 2-years-old, she became very interested in cooking. After all, I cook all the time, and children want to emulate their parents. We bought her some kiddie kitchen stuff: a little kitchenette, some pots, pans, and utensils, and some wooden play food. This held her for a while, but she wanted the real thing. I finally gave in.

My daughter's first cooking talent was peeling garlic. I gave it to her thinking that she would struggle with it for a while and then just leave it and find something else to do. Nope! She worked that clove! In about 10 minutes, she had a bruised but perfectly edible, peeled clove of garlic, and I chopped it up and used it!

Next, she became my leafy green processor. I sat her down on the floor with a bunch of leafy greens, told her that she needed to put the leafy part in the salad spinner (we wash leafy greens in there, too), and to put the stems on the side. She did a fabulous job! Then she saw what fun it was to actually spin the leaves dry, so that became her job, too. Along with learning some skills and being a genuine help to me, she also became very interested in leafy greens. As she was doing her work, she would sneak little bits and pieces into her mouth.

My daughter is very interested in cutting things, but she knows she can't quite handle a knife yet. We've taken to calling my small frosting spatula her "special knife", and she has her own cutting board. Often, while I'm cooking dinner, she'll sit on the kitchen floor working on a piece of bell pepper or a carrot or some ginger with her special knife. So far, she's managed not to obliterate anything so much that it was unusable in any way (admittedly, sometimes it goes into soup).

We started doing more baking together about 4 or 5 months ago when she was nearly 2 1/2. I measure, and she dumps things in the bowl. She stirs, but I usually need to give everything a few more strokes after she's done. She's also done a fair amount of decorating of cookies. We use products that don't contain artificial flavors and colors, like Sprinkelz, and we make our own piping icing out of chocolate or white chocolate (fair trade & organic, of course) and a little shortening (Spectrum makes a good non-hydrogenated one). Today, we made some granola together, which she loved, since the mixing could be done with her hands! What fun!

When we make food together, or even if she's just playing in the kitchen while I'm cooking, my daughter is well aware of what goes into her food. No sneaky chef here. Even when I use the food processor, it's never to mask vegetables ... it's always for the sake of texture. My daughter often asks for tastes of various ingredients while I'm cooking, some of which are a little weird to eat on their own (one of her favorites lately is noshing on cilantro ... well, it's not bad for her!).

I've noticed my daughter's food vocabulary blossom incredibly. Even her knowledge of technique is impressive, I think. When I boil water for pasta, she always reminds me to salt the water. When we do cut-out cookies, she tells me that we need to press hard, and gets very excited when she almost goes all the way through the dough, saying "I made an impression, Mom!" She tells me whether ingredients are sharp, spicy, crunchy, etc. She's got a great sense of kitchen safety. "Don't go near the oven, Ma. It's on right now." "Be careful with the knife, Ma. Don't cut yourself!" She's my little safety watchdog!

I've discovered, partly through observing my daughter and partly through conventional wisdom, that cooking with kids is so much more than teaching them how to cook. Sure, that's a valuable skill on its own, and one that will help kids grow up with self-reliance and the tools to keep themselves healthy. But learning about food also helps kids expand their palates, learn about greater issues of health, learn about foods in their natural state and where they come from, and learn how to relate to food. Celebrating food and its preparation with children lets them understand the miracle of it so that they don't take it for granted, and so that they feel the honor in every bite. That lesson alone will help them make the right choices for their bodies and for the planet that grows their food.


richerandslimmer.com said...

Wow, that was such a sweet post. I hope you two have lots more of these experiences together.

Living A Whole Life said...

I have twin girls (5 next week) that love to cook as well. I enjoy our time together in the kitchen because it not only give us an activity, but we are actually getting something done, like dinner.

I feel the same way, they have learned a lot about food and as we cook we discuss what is nutritious and what is not and why we eat what we eat.

My hope is that the three of us cooking or baking together will be one of things they remember about me/us when they get older. It's not so much about the food after a while as it is the time spent.


Healthy & Green on the Cheap said...


I agree that I'd like this to be my parenting legacy also. I can't think of a more family thing to do than cooking together, and yes, the time spent is at least as important as the food itself.

Lucky you to have two helpers!