My first paid job after culinary school was teaching kids to cook at a cute little school outside Boston called Create a Cook. I'd worked with children before and even used cooking as a way to teach English to kids when living in France, but hands-on cooking classes? This was a crash course in teaching up to 12 kids a full menu. Crazy and hectic but always a blast is how I would describe it.
Now with a toddler running around and wanting to help Mommy in the kitchen, I'm trying to incorporate all the things I did back then into cooking time with my daughter. Here are five things that I learned while teaching kids how to cook that I'm happy to pass onto you!
1. Skip the kid-friendly kitchen tools.
I know there are a lot of cooking tools, utensils, and gadgets out there for kids. In my experience, not all of them work very well, they take up more space in your kitchen than you want, and the kids will probably outgrow them fairly quickly.
While a kid-sized apron is a good idea, let your kids handle real kitchen tools as much as possible or look around your kitchen or house for alternatives. As long as you supervise, disposable plastic table knives can cut up lettuce, fruit, or cherry tomatoes; forks can stand in for whisks; and even a round plastic toy can be used as a rolling pin. Take a look around, you probably already have something that will work!
2. Give kids choices.
Kids can feel frustrated because so much of the decision-making in their lives is done by their parents or someone else. You want kids to be interested in food and cooking? Give them choices, whether it's the vegetable to have for dinner that night while you're out shopping at the grocery store, the type of berry to mix into the pancake batter, or the toppings for their morning yogurt.
Kids are much more likely to show an interest in and eat the finished product if they've been given the opportunity to participate along the way. And to be honest, does it really matter if you put cheddar or mozzarella cheese in the scrambled eggs in the morning?
3. Let kids taste along the way.
When teaching the children's cooking classes, I encouraged them to taste as much as possible. I would start with the ingredients, then let them taste things as they were being mixed together, and finally let them taste things as they were cooking. It was a great way to keep them engaged, encourage them to try new things, and show them how the flavors and textures of foods change during the cooking process.
And while you might not let them taste cookie dough that has raw eggs in it, getting to lick the whipped cream off the spatula or mixer attachment is something every cook, no matter how young or old, deserves!
4. Don't stress about mess.
One of my favorite memories is when two little girls turned on a mixer filled with flour to high. Poof, and they were covered in it! After a moment of shock, we all dissolved into peals of hysterical laughter, especially after I dubbed it a "flour shower."
I'm a neat freak in the kitchen, but not when kids are around. Stressing out about mess is no fun, and the kids will pick up on that. Kids don't have a ton of fine motor skills yet, so expecting them to cook cleanly is a bit of a lofty goal. Instead, build in extra time for cleanup, and remember, you should encourage your kids to help out with cleaning too, as it's all part of the process of cooking.
5. It's delicious because they helped make it.
Criticism has no place in the kitchen when you're cooking with kids. Try to stay positive and encouraging, even if those pancakes come out misshapen or slightly dense. I realized pretty quickly that cooking with kids isn't about the end result —it's about the process, having fun, and just enjoying whatever food comes out of it when it's all over, even if it isn't perfect.