When I am entertaining and a grown-up guest who’s been hovering a bit too close for my kitchen-comfort asks “How can I help?” I steer them toward a stool on the other side of the island, pour them a glass of wine, and request that they entertain me with a story while I put the finishing touches on the meal. If they are adamant about “helping,” I hand them a peeler and a pile of carrots (weather carrots are on the menu or not). In the homestretch of meal prep, my kitchen, is well, mine, so stay out of the way, thank you very much.
It is funny that my instinct is to kick adults out of the kitchen; when it comes to kids, I do the opposite. My niece and nephew could be in the other room and I will holler for them to come tray up the crudities or stir the risotto. I don’t know if it is because I am so short I see eye-to-eye with most 8-year-olds, or because I hope to get an infusion of energy from hanging with the under-12 set, or even because, without fail, my little dietitian heart goes aflutter when kids reach for vegetables. Cooking with kids is just one of my things.
It can certainly be stressful to have wee ones underfoot, and I totally understand parents’ reluctance to include kids in meal prep on busy weeknights when the goal is to put a balanced, edible dinner on the table in the shortest amount of time possible. Kids ask questions that pull away your focus; they spill vital ingredients; and they make you nervous when they wander dangerously close to flames and sharp objects. Having kids “help” in the kitchen can be like having an intern (no offense interns) making more, not less, work for the cook.
Here’s the thing – the point of inviting and/or insisting kids help in the kitchen is not at all for their help. It is an opportunity for them to learn by way of doing, which in my experience is one of the very best ways to learn. There is evidence to support that children who assist in meal preparation may make healthier food choices overall. And while my kid is yet unable to tell me about his day, I’ve heard from other parents that sometimes the best way to get info out of children is to participate in a task together and keep your ears open. Want a rundown on the most recent drama in or out of the classroom? Hand your kid a bag of potatoes and a vegetable brush, point them to the sink, and tell them to start scrubbing.
Obviously kitchen tasks for children need to be safe and age-appropriate. While a 13 year old might be able to expertly whisk egg whites to stiff peaks or even julienne a bell pepper, a 6 year old needs a task of the “remove the peas from the pod” variety. With a little prep on my part, I have found there are a few dishes kids can make almost entirely on their own. My go-to salad for 4 to 6 year olds: a cup of diced red bell pepper, a bag of frozen corn, an opened can of beans and a colander for them to rinse, a bunch of washed cilantro for them to rip by hand, chili powder, a teaspoon of salt, a lime cut in half, and a big bowl with spoon. You get the idea. I usually set them up at my table, but I am thinking about investing in a learning tower (or convincing someone to make my son an Ikea-hack version).
Making pizza is another fun activity: Dough to be spun and stretched, sauce to be spread with a spatula, and cheese and toppings to be artfully (or not-so-artfully) arranged by hand.
Maybe getting kids into the kitchen is unrealistic for the everyday, but how about on the weekend? Set aside the simpler prep for small hands and use the kitchen table, or like I do with grown-ups, put them on the other side of the island. In terms of helping out with mealtime on the regular, there are plenty of non-food specific tasks for kids. Setting napkins, silverware, and condiments out on the table in advance of mealtime is perfect for little hands eager to help, and while it might start as a fun game, eventually it will evolve into a helpful habit.
I like to avoid perpetuating the myth that making dinner every night is as easy or as quick as it looks on television; the earlier kids can not only see, but participate in the culinary efforts leading up to family mealtime, the better for all, on so many levels.
How do your kids help in the kitchen? Got any fun, little finger-friendly recipes? Please, share in the comments!
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