When you’re first starting out teaching kids in the kitchen, it often feels like a lot of extra effort. It can be tempting to just do things yourself. When I was in the midst of those early years, I had to remind myself that my job was NOT to train my kids to be dependent on me, and it was not to routinely do what was easiest for me, however tempting that might feel. My job was to train my kids to be competent adults some day. Yes, you can wait to train kids til they’re older. But there’s something wonderful about harnessing the natural enthusiasm that is in young children, and really letting them run with it. They won’t be competent at first. But they will improve quickly. They’ll enjoy gaining skill. And by the time kids are in elementary school, they can become truly useful in the kitchen.
Real Helpers, Ages 6-9
Here are some of the things that my elementary-age kids do in the kitchen:
–Fry an egg and make their own toast at breakfast time. A couple mornings a week we plug in an electric skillet and a toaster and let kids cook their own eggs and toast. Even a 6 year old can learn to do this safely if you supervise him or her the first time and talk about how to avoid getting burned.
—Measure dry ingredients for cookies and mix them in a bowl. Kids at the older end of this age group will eventually be able to make cookies all on their own. But for most elementary age kids it can be challenging to remember all the details. So I usually start by marking one portion of the ingredients in the recipe (usually the dry ingredients) and having them mix all those items in a bowl. This gives them practice reading and following directions without be responsible for the entire recipe.
— Form cookie dough into balls. Making uniform sizes and straight lines is easy for some kids and hard for others, but most of them enjoy this job. Another good job along these lines is forming bread dough into rolls. (Need inspiration? Try this recipe for monkey bread.)
—Peel potatoes and (later) cut them into cubes. When kids are just learning to cut potatoes, I cut each potato in half myself, and lay the cut side flat on the cutting board so that they are stable and won’t roll around. Then I show kids how to keep one hand on the handle of the knife and the other hand with the heel of the palm on the flat back edge of the blade, keeping all fingers away from the knife. They can use this same approach for chopping sweet peppers. I watch very closely at first and make sure they’re actually following my safety instructions before I let them do this job routinely. Occasionally even when I am watching, a kid will accidentally cut himself. But the more they practice, the less often it happens.
— Peel garlic, zest lemons, or grate ginger, carrots, or cheese. Having someone to do these simple prep things can really help speed a recipe for me. As they work, they’re also watching me work, gradually becoming familiar with the rhythm of various recipes, and learning how things are done.
—Make salad dressing. Often in the midst of cooking dinner, I don’t feel like I have time to make a batch of salad dressing, but simple recipes like these are a great place for young cooks to start. I usually have kids gather all the ingredients to start, then put them away ingredient by ingredient as they are used. That way they’re less likely to forget which ones they’ve already added.
— Empty and load the dishwasher, once they’ve been instructed a couple times. The other day I had the rare experience of being home alone with my 7 year old. Typically the older kids are the ones who do dishes around here. But that day she and I were it. I asked her to help me and set to work, thinking she’d need quite a bit of guidance. By they time I got leftovers put away, she had the dishes rinsed and was stacking them neatly into the dishwasher. Apparently in helping her 16 year old sister in the kitchen for the past few weeks, she’d learned more than I realized. So often kids are much more capable than we ever imagine. So stand back and let them at it!
I’ll describe cooking skills for ages 10 and older in another post!