Learning Together: Kids in the Kitchen

I did not grow up learning to cook. My mother did all the cooking and only rarely would allow us kids to do a small task. She was quick and efficient and had no patience for us in her domain. She often baked after-school treats for us, and I fondly remember her meals for special occasions. I aspire to make pozole and tortillas as amazing as hers! But when I was first out on my own, I had no idea how to turn on an oven or cook a simple meal. I learned over time some simple tasks and continue to work at getting better. Once I had kids of my own, I knew I wanted them to learn at least some basic kitchen skills and have a few memories of us cooking together in the kitchen. Here are five tips for how to make that happen:

1. Start them young. My kids always wanted to be with me in the kitchen. As babies, they played with bowls and spoons while I tried to cook. By three, my son sometimes helped mix and add ingredients. I continued plugging away at my own cooking so I could provide healthy meals for my family. We got “mom and me” aprons and had a little fun trying a few things. He often “washed dishes” while I cooked or cleaned up. Messes were made, and things would have been easier without his “help.” But he enjoyed it and so did I. When my daughter was born, it was a little harder to have both in the kitchen at the same time. Who am I kidding? It was definitely harder. But we kept at it, and we have priceless memories of baking cookies for Santa and cupcakes for ourselves.

2. Use kid-friendly cookbooks. Actual cookbooks were great as my kids got a little older because the kids loved the pictures and I loved the step-by-step instructions. Simple recipes, good pictures, and things my kids could identify with were key. It was good to have a limit of choices. Online sites were overwhelming to begin with, but we eventually tried out Honey Nut Cheerio Granola Bars, (Dora the Explorer’s) Sopa de Estrellitas, and as an after-school snack, Crunchy PB and A Wraps. Heck, we still dig out those fun cookbooks on occasion.

3. Start simply and make it fun. In my kitchen, smoothies and muffins can be a meal. Simple cooking is my kitchen mantra! My kids and poor husband know the limits of my culinary skills. I have no problem with my kids making simple desserts, popsicles, and smoothies. My kids always love making these, and it gets them in the kitchen! I have even allowed them to use our juicer to create some delicious (and some not-so-delicious) concoctions. We all love trying out new recipes. 

4. Keep adding age-appropriate tasks. Now that my kids are older, they can take on more difficult tasks. My mostly easy meals lend themselves as great building block recipes for the kids to improve their skills. My 14-year-old helps chop up items to add to salads, stirs pots alongside me, and helps prep meals. He and his sister have made breakfast for the family on several (OK, a few) occasions. My son knows how to turn on the oven, use the microwave (duh), and the toaster oven. He can use a can opener, operate the hot air popper for popcorn, and the electric kettle. My daughter toasts her waffles, knows the difference between a teaspoon and tablespoon,, and can crack an egg. She often reads recipes out to me and my son while we measure and prepare ingredients. She loves to help fill dough for empanadas and sort and clean dry beans.

5. Don’t forget about the other tasks in the kitchen. I have taught my kids that there are things to do before sitting down to eat and after eating. My son hand washes dishes and can fill and run the dishwasher. He takes out the trash and recyclables. My daughter helps empty the dishwasher, sets and cleans the table, and sweeps the kitchen. It helps me, and they learn additional responsibilities. 

Grocery shopping is on my list of things to do with my kids. I don’t mean the kind of grocery shopping with kids where they whine and throw things into the shopping cart—they are born knowing how to do that! I want them to help me make a weekly grocery list and then help me purchase those items. They are planning to make dinner a few more times this summer, so my goal is to have them make a list and shop for the items necessary for their meals.

Don’t be afraid of allowing your kids to help in the kitchen, and try to avoid being too impatient with them. You will both learn together. Cooking is important for both healthy eating and budgeting. Yes, your kids might make a mess or two, break something, or perhaps even end up with a minor kitchen injury. But with your help and guidance, they will also be learning a survival skill and a sense of responsibility while making memories with you. You might even eventually get a night off from your own cooking! 

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