Children should learn to cook.
It’s a basic life skill, after all, being comfortable enough in the kitchen to pull a few ingredients into a simple meal. It’s healthy – a hungry 13-year-old who can cook, home alone after school, may decide to stir-fry some leftover rice with whatever is in the fridge; his noncooking peer is left rummaging through the pantry for anything that can be eaten straight out of the box or bag. Cooking is a source of pride for the children who can take care of themselves in this way, or feed a friend or sibling. They’re capable of cooking, they know what to do, they can get it done.
Given all that, who would think there were arguments against involving kids in the kitchen? But this summer, as Motherlode’s K J Dell’Antonia and Cooking’s Margaux Laskey wrote the Kids in the Kitchen series, we heard plenty of them, particularly when it came to younger children. Margaux was starting early, with a 3-year-old beside her taking on any tasks she could handle, losing interest often and even more frequently making a mess. K J’s kids are long past that stage, but they went through it, each in turn. Now she has them chopping, sautéing and grilling anything they can, sometimes over their protests. From easy sheet-pan chicken to pizza in the oven and on the grill, both families stayed committed to weekly cooking together all summer long.
Why sit a 3-year-old at the cutting board when an older child can do so much more? Plenty of parents are reluctant to encourage a toddler or preschooler to abandon that episode of “Masha and the Bear” in favor of stirring a pot. By dinnertime, the household cook is often out of patience. Some kinds of “help” don’t get food on the table. Children spill, they switch the mixer to high when your back is turned, and they’re not safe around stoves and knives. Letting them do most things takes vastly longer than just doing them yourself.
As for older children, maybe they’re “just not interested.” Sports, homework, pressing social obligations … they’re busy, after all. They barely have time to get to the table, let alone put food on it.
But there are good reasons to encourage kids in the kitchen at any age. With young children, that early investment pays off – eventually. Older children may not be grateful now, but the time will come when they need to put food on the table, and it will help to know you boil the water before you dump in the pasta. Start now, and you may reap the benefit of a child who can take over dinner once a week or once a month.
Here are five reasons you should get your children involved in the kitchen, whether they’re 3 or 13.
Children who cook become children who taste, and sometimes eat. Involving children in the process of cooking – picking out the watermelons and tomatoes and plucking the herbs to add to a tomato and watermelon salad, for example – greatly increases the chance that they’ll actually try the finished dish. And hey, they may discover a new favorite. Or not. But cultivating a welcoming and open-minded approach to food can grow adults who approach life similarly. Arms open and mouth wide to new tastes, cultures and attitudes.
Children who cook say “I can,” not “I can’t.” Sliding a spoonful of raw chicken or a piece of breaded fish into hot oil (as K J’s children did making ketchup chicken and an outdoor fish fry)? Daunting. Making dinner for six people at age 9 ( A 9-Year-Old Makes Pasta With Tomatoes and Mushrooms)? Intimidating. A child who can do those can look at any restaurant dish and say, “I could make that.” That’s an attitude that can carry a child beyond the kitchen.
Cooking is a way to talk about healthy ingredients. Children who have made ice cream and caramel (like strawberry-rhubarb ice cream with a caramel swirl) know what is supposed to be in ice cream. They know they didn’t add any guar gum. If they’ve made no-knead bread, they’ll know that good bread doesn’t need sugar. When you flip over packages in the grocery store, they’ll understand that you’re looking for things you can’t pronounce, and they’ll join you. (They may, in fact, police your shopping more than you’d like.)
Cooking brings cooks of all ages closer. For better or worse, you will get to know your children, and they you, more deeply when you cook with them. For better, you will share recipes, techniques and anecdotes that you learned at the elbows of mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers long gone. For worse, you will huff and puff and whine and lose your patience when they accidentally spill heavy cream all over the kitchen table while making mini-shortcakes with berries, but they will love you anyway, teaching you, the one who’s supposed to be the grown-up, about unconditional love and ready forgiveness. Via nytimes.com
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