This article originally appeared in a private magazine.
Whenever I see kids in the kitchen, they are baking - whipping up batches of cookies, brownies, cakes, and muffins. There is something idyllic and fun about that, a delightful little slice (pun intended) of childhood. But how often are kids in the kitchen helping to cook dinner? Tearing lettuce, cutting tomatoes? Not very often. Why? Is it because kids are not interested? Is it because we shoo kids out of the kitchen, so we can have some peace and quiet while we get our Julia Child on? Is it because our kids are so busy playing the violin, lacrosse, swimming, and doing homework they don’t have time? Is it because they make giant kitchen messes? Is it because as a culture we don’t value home cooking anymore?
Here’s what I know. On average, Americans now spend twenty-seven minutes per day preparing food (1). Yet the average American spends more than five hours watching live television per day, thirty-two minutes per day watching pre-recorded television, about an hour on the computer, and an hour on a phone (2). Michael Pollan, in his latest book, Cooked, calls this the cooking paradox, we enjoy watching other people cooking on television (think Food Network), but not actually doing it ourselves. Trust me, I’m not trying to put women back in the kitchen and out of other jobs. No, I think girls and boys should learn this life skill early, so they can care for themselves and others throughout life.
If our kids never step foot in the family kitchen to learn to sauté some chard or cook salmon, what will they feed themselves when they move into their first apartment and beyond? Ramen noodles for all? A scary statistic that I often refer to is that one in three children born after 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime. One. In. Three. Staggering. Many experts blame processed food, fast food, take out food, and frozen food for obesity and diabetes epidemics. Some experts think these epidemics would not exist if people ate primarily home cooked food.
Here is why I think teaching our kids to cook is a valuable way to spend our precious, scarce time, and worth the inevitable mess and inconvenience.
Time spent with our kids is limited, and doing something productive together is time well spent.
Teaching our kids something we enjoy, or learning a new skill together (if you are a cooking novice) is relationship building.
Cooking offers great opportunity for learning. There are many math and chemistry lessons to be had in cooking.
Cooking for children is confidence building. Children feel tremendous pride when they help prepare family meals.
Children who contribute to household chores are more responsible, more connected to their families, and build self-esteem when they help.
Children are much more likely to try the food they cook, which increases food repertoires and bolsters nutrition. (Don’t pressure them; let it come naturally).
Food and smells have an incredible ability to evoke memories - build positive ones with your children. When I make my childhood recipes, it takes me back to 10-year-old me, and my mom spending time in the kitchen.
What can kids do in the kitchen? Every child is different, but here are some ideas for typical jobs for different ages. Constant kitchen supervision is always important. Consider your child’s capabilities when deciding which tasks are appropriate for them.
Ages 6-7: cracking eggs, grating cheese, peeling raw fruits and vegetables, using a microplane zester, using measuring cups and spoons, mixing, stirring, forming cookies and patties, tearing leaves, cutting cherry tomatoes with a butter knife, rinsing beans, slicing and scooping avocados, etcetera (3).
Ages 8-9: the above plus using a can opener, pizza cutter, scooping batter into muffin tins, pounding chicken, scraping down unplugged electric mixer bowl, skewering food. Some children this age are mature enough to work at the stove; others are not (3).
Ages 10-12: experienced children can begin to cook independently, at first with very close adult supervision to assess their skills and ensure they are safe. Less experienced children still need adult supervision and instruction to learn the above skills (3).
Pesto is a favorite of mine. Add pesto to just about anything, and it is terrific! And let me tell you, freshly made pesto is oh-so-much better than anything off the shelf. Try making some nut-free pesto with your children; it is a delicious project. My basic recipe is 2 ½ cups fresh basil leaves, 3 cloves garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, ¾ cup olive oil, ½ cup parmesan cheese. Throw it all in a food processor, and voila! One of my easiest family dinners is to mix 1 ½ lb. ground turkey with 1/3 cup pesto and ¼ cup parmesan cheese, and ¼ cup bread crumbs. Have your children help mix and form patties. Cook these as sliders in a skillet over medium heat until a meat thermometer reads 165 when inserted in the middle of the burger. Serve with tomato sauce or cheese, lettuce and tomato, and enjoy as a family!
(1) Pollan, Michael. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. New York: The Penguin Press, 2013. Print.
(2) Hinckley, David. Average American Watches 5 hours of TV per Day Report Shows, New York Daily News, 5 March 2014. Web. 22 December 2014.
(3) Negrin, Julie. Easy Meals to Cook with Kids. New York: Authorhouse, 2010. Print.