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The Joy of Cooking…With Kids

 By Breanna Callahan, Southwest Health Marketing Coordinator

Have you ever been busy in the kitchen, trying to get dinner made, and you are constantly being interrupted. “What are you making? Hey, what’s that? What are we having for dinner? Can you lift me up so I can see what’s in there? Do I like that?”

This was happening to me. My dear four-year-old couldn’t hide her curiosity. Meanwhile I wanted to get dinner made! So, I thought, maybe I should just involve her rather than trying to “shoo” her away. And that’s what I did. At first, I wondered if I really should involve her in cooking. She’s only four; she can’t even reach the top of the counter. She doesn’t know how to measure. She doesn’t have the coordination to get things out of the oven without burning herself. Is it safe?

After I thought about it, though, I realized that maybe this was a good learning opportunity. She could learn about kitchen safety, discover where her food comes from (what?? It just doesn’t appear already made?), and gain an appreciation for what we eat. She can learn that the stove is hot, that temperature can change a food’s consistency, and that even though the outside of the oven is cold, the inside is very hot.

So, I thought about how I could put this into action. I realized immediately it would take baby steps. I wasn’t going to have her help me make Thanksgiving dinner right out of the gates. (Who am I kidding, I don’t even make Thanksgiving dinner—my dear mother-in-law does!). I wasn’t sure at her age what she would be capable of, but I knew she would at least be able to watch while I showed her what I was doing.

At first, I would let her pour something into a bowl. Then do some stirring. Now she is to the point where I let her help me make scrambled eggs (retrieving ingredients, measuring, adding ingredients to bowl, stirring and clean up!).

So now I’d like to take this opportunity to share a few tips that I learned through my experience cooking with a child:

  • Get a sturdy step stool, so they can reach safely.
  • Don’t expect perfection, and don’t be in a hurry. It’s going to be messy and take longer than cooking by yourself.
  • Teach them about food/kitchen safety, washing their hands, and being sanitary.
  • Start with easier recipes with fewer steps.
  • Never leave them alone in the kitchen. Stand close to them, supervising and assisting, during the entire process.

Despite my initial hesitation, I have really come to enjoy cooking with our daughter. I enjoy spending time doing something besides playing pretend (“Mommy, you get to be the little sister!”), watching TV, or letting her put play makeup on me (that’s a scary sight!). I appreciate that she is learning a skill that she will be able to use the rest of her life. After we make something together, she is excited to try a bite.

Besides the enjoyment and unique activity, there are other reasons to involve children in the kitchen. A few include:

  • You get to spend quality time together screen free.
  • Because of the various steps, children can learn how to follow instructions. They also learn the importance of following instructions (If you cook it too long, it burns. If you leave out the sugar, it tastes like chalk).
  • Kids enjoy being involved. It makes them more interested and increases their knowledge of healthy food.
  • Educational benefits include learning how to read recipes, using math skills, and realizing the effect of temperature on food.

Our daughter has come a long way. She has learned she needs to wash her hands before and after cooking. She has learned that she’d rather let mommy crack the eggs (it’s no fun picking egg shell out of a bowl), and she can stick with stirring them. And, to her dismay, that you can’t taste test the cookie batter…and if you decide to, mom will see the chocolate in your teeth and you are busted (and getting a lecture on what salmonella is).

A few of our favorite things to make together are banana bread, scrambled eggs, and meatloaf. In fact, making scrambled eggs together on Sunday mornings has become part of our routine. A favorite part. As Food Network’s Guy Fieri said, “Cooking with kids is not just about ingredients, recipes, and cooking. It’s about harnessing imagination, empowerment, and creativity.” That makes me happy. I am glad that something I enjoy so much can bring her joy and memories, too.

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