How to Get Your Kid Involved in Cooking

Yesterday on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, food journalist and writer Michael Pollan discussed the importance of cooking your own food instead of outsourcing it to some restaurant chain to make for you. (Pollan has a new book out called Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.)

Pollan talked about how the marketing efforts on the part of these corporations make it sound as if they’re saving you time in the kitchen, when really they’re just convincing you to purchase their food-products, which are often loaded with sodium, fat, and cholesterol, and prepared with substandard ingredients. This has been happening since the seventies, when Americans began a conversation on how to divvy up the work at home so that both men and women could be out in the workplace. Back then, KFC even put out billboards that showed a bucket of fried chicken paired with the words “Women’s Liberation,” as if fast food frees women from oven bondage, rather than clogs their arteries.

That conversation is still going, as NPR host Rachel Martin asked Pollan how she would find the time to cook dinner every night, what with having three kids to deal with on top of a full-time job. “Where’s your husband?” Pollan asked her. And aren’t your kids old enough to help?

Here in our household, my wife and I both like to cook, and — though usually one of us spearheads dinner while the other tackles clean-up — we love cooking together. Our son Felix, now almost four, is often involved in the food prep too. “The most important thing we can teach our kids for their long-term health and happiness is how to cook,” Pollan said, and I couldn’t agree more.

For parents who are new to cooking, or feel a bit of anxiety in the kitchen, delivering a delicious meal to the table can be intimidating enough — forget including a child or children in the process. But have no fear! Felix has been helping out in the kitchen before he could stand on his own, tearing up greens in his highchair. We’re kind of obsessed with food and good eating, so, no surprise, he is too.

Click through to learn some of the ways in which we’ve gotten our little chef involved.

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  • Aprons for Dad, Mom, and the tot too! 1 of 8
    Aprons for Dad, Mom, and the tot too!
    Unsure how to get your child involved in the kitchen? Don't worry! I'm here to help...
  • Washing greens 2 of 8
    Washing greens
    My son can spend hours "cleaning" things — in other words, playing with stuff in water. Set a colander or salad-spinner in the bottom of the sink, throw something leafy inside, fill a tub with water, and Felix is set for a good fifteen minutes. Often, the problem is getting him to stop washing the greens. "This one still has dirt on it, Da-da," he'll tell me. While he's busy washing kale, chard, spinach, or lettuce, I'll either prepare something else, or saute onions and garlic at the stove. So he's not only helping, but it's a great way to occupy him nearby when my attention needs to be elsewhere.
  • Making Piles of Vegetables 3 of 8
    Making Piles of Vegetables
    Sauteing onions, garlic, pepper, and carrots for a sauce or stir-fry? Give the little one a bowl, and have him or her toss the veggies in after you slice them, or give your child several bowls to make a few piles. Sure, you could just leave your slices on the cutting board, but what's the harm in a little busy work? The exposure is good for 'em. Felix knows that onions hurt his eyes and garlic makes your hands sticky and spicy to lick, and after tasting them a few times, he learned to love carrots and cucumber. The veggie piles make a satisfying sound when they hit hot oil, so your kid will know they did a good job. Don't forget to hold them up so they can see the cooking!
  • Slicing Mushrooms with a Butter Knife 4 of 8
    Slicing Mushrooms with a Butter Knife
    It's amazing what a butter knife can and can't do! It won't cut your child's skin, but it can push through soft mushrooms, and also chunks of mozzarella or feta cheese. Ok, I'll admit, I could do the job faster and with less mess. (Sometimes mushroom caps litter the floor by the time Felix is done!) But this is the start of building knife skills. A slip due to carelessness might make a tiny finger smart, but no lasting damage will be done. Instead, a healthy respect for the knife's blade and usefulness will begin to develop. The risks far outweigh how good Felix feels contributing to the dinner.

    Photo via flickr
  • Scrambling Eggs 5 of 8
    Scrambling Eggs
    Once my son got past the stage of putting everything into his mouth, he enjoyed scrambling eggs in a bowl. He also likes mixing salad dressing and, when we make fish cakes, stirring around the bits of salmon and bread crumbs and mayonnaise. He's even figuring out how to crack the eggs on the side of the bowl — with a little help, and the sacrifice of an egg or two to the floor. So give your child a spoon or fork and let 'em go to town.
  • Mashing Things Up 6 of 8
    Mashing Things Up
    Give him a tablespoon and half an avocado, and Felix will make guacamole in no time! He'll even suck on the lime while he does it. For a more hands-on experience, I pour tinned whole tomatoes into a bowl and he squeezes them into a pulp for sauces. The more sensual the experience is, the better, I think. Food is something to feel, smell, as well as taste; don't be afraid to let your child have a close encounter! Also—connections can be made between feels and textures. Squishy avocados are soft while crunchy carrots are hard. And tomatoes become softer when you cook them. This is real world knowledge, people. The only way to come by it is by doing.

    Photo via flickr
  • Grating Cheese, with Supervision 7 of 8
    Grating Cheese, with Supervision
    This one requires the eyes of an adult. Give your child a hunk of cheese and show them how to shred it with a grater. Be careful to make sure that they don't knick their hands, though as with the butter knife, an injury of this sort isn't major, and will teach them respect of the instrument. Mostly, though, that's not an issue around our house, because grating cheese takes some strength and coordination. Usually Felix conks out before the block is worn down too much!
  • Kneading Dough 8 of 8
    Kneading Dough
    Here's another hands-on activity: making dough for pie, quiche, bread, pizza, or pasta. The first two involve breaking cold pats of butter into delicious pea-sized gravel, the latter doughs consist of egg or yeast with flour and water. They all require different amounts of kneading and feel different, but one thing's the same: kids love playing with it. Break off a small chunk and let your child knead alongside you. If you're making a pizza, they can have their own. Or take the buttery pie dough and let them make a jam-rollup for a special treat.

    For more food and parenting advice, check out How to Transform a Picky Eater into a Little Foodie and The Importance of Instilling Good Snack Habits in Your Kids.

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