Cooking and baking with your kids is a rewarding and memorable experience. And it teaches them skills they can use for the rest of their lives. Author Mardi Michels shares tips on how to make it successful.
When I tell people that I teach kids to cook, I often get looks of incredulity. They think I’m very brave, and patient. Many would never even consider cooking with their kids. Busy schedules mean time is crunched and because cooking with kids takes longer, many parents don’t imagine it’s doable. But it is. And on top of that, it’s fun and richly rewarding.
I’ve been teaching kids to cook for more than 12 years and there have been so many high points. Take the time one of my students, then aged 11, told the audience of a major breakfast television show here in Toronto that he had hosted a pop-up restaurant for 30 people, where he cooked them gnocchi from scratch using a recipe from our club. My heart just about burst with pride. And I regularly get emails from parents with photos of the meals their kid has cooked. Once, I had a student bring me a three-course meal in a cooler with “reheating instructions” and a printed menu, long before restaurants had perfected the same setup due to Covid.
Need more evidence that cooking with kids is worthwhile? Consider my Wednesday evenings at the moment. So much is going back to “normal,” and Zoom fatigue is real, yet I have more than 20 participants from my school community including students, families, faculty, staff and their families joining me online to prepare dinner together once a week.
Cooking is an important life skill that isn’t taught in many schools these days. Even if you’re not whipping up meals together every day, spending time in the kitchen with your kids is not only something you (and they) will treasure, but it’s a skill that will stand them in good stead later in life. And it’s not hard. All it requires is a bit of planning and a few tips.
Let them decide the menu
Kids are more likely to eat what they’ve prepared themselves–or helped prepare. So while it’s tempting to choose “better-for-you” recipes, start with dishes that they choose. Kids LOVE looking through cookbooks and watching cooking shows, so use those for inspiration. Once you’ve settled on a recipe to make together, you’re halfway to them being excited to eat what they’ve made!
Organization is everything
Even when cooking solo, organization can make or break a meal. When you’re cooking with kids, organization is even more important. It’s the difference between wanting to repeat the experience and, well, not.
Read the recipe. Then read it again.
And a third time–the whole way through. Anyone cooking or baking, whether with kids or not, should make it a habit to read a recipe the whole way through, a couple of times, before starting. With kids, this is an important part of teaching them to be good cooks and bakers, essentially a delicious form of reading comprehension.
Make notes while reading the recipe
Do you have all the ingredients and equipment you need? If not, what do you need to get? Is there a substitute? Where will you buy it? How long does the recipe take to make? Work backward from the time you want to sit down to eat to get an idea of when you will have to start. This is especially important with recipes like bread or cookie dough, which might require rest time. As an experienced adult cook and baker this still trips me up from time to time. So, yeah, read the recipe all the way through.
Go grocery shopping together
Shopping together is the overlooked part of cooking with kids, but it’s so important. Helping them understand what they need and where to get it are key parts of success. Discuss where you might go to buy the ingredients–for produce, think a farmers’ market or a dedicated fruit and veg store. They’re great places to shop because you can ask to weigh ingredients. (Math anyone?) This is a skill worth learning as many recipes now give weight for produce because you can bet that my idea of a “medium onion” won’t be the same as yours.
If you’re shopping at a supermarket, teach kids to read labels (for things like weight) so that they’re buying close to the right amount of ingredients, which means no waste (another shopping skill worth mastering). It might be a big learning curve for some kids, but you can bet they’ll be glad they learned to shop early.
Once you’ve got your ingredients and equipment, and you’ve made sure you have enough time to complete the dish before you want to eat it, you’re ready to cook.
With younger beginner cooks, I like to print out the recipe so we can cross off each ingredient and each step as we use and complete them. This helps kids get a sense of how recipes work and what workflows look like. For recipes that are written paragraph-style, I mark up the printouts with highlighters–highlighting the ingredients and the steps where they are used in the same color to make it easier to follow.
Prep the kitchen
Make certain the kitchen is clean to start with and the dishwasher is empty, if you have one.
Set out ingredients and equipment in the order in which they’re called for in the recipe.
Make sure you have suitable-sized aprons and lots of paper towels and tea towels for spills. Set out a food scrap bowl.
Make sure the workspace is reachable by your little chefs. I don’t let my students sit down when they cook because proper posture when using knives and things like cheese graters is important and will prevent accidents. You might need a step stool for them to reach the countertop so they can work comfortably.
Have hand soap at the ready and encourage handwashing, not just before you start but in between steps, especially when handling raw meat and eggs. If your kids aren’t comfortable touching raw meat, have disposable gloves available (also helpful for chopping hot peppers).
Flexibility is your best skill in the kitchen when cooking with kids. Know that, even if you are super organized, things won’t always go perfectly. It’ll get messy. It might even get chaotic. You might spend longer cleaning up than you do cooking and eating. But if you have fun and you make something delicious, a little bit of mess pales to their feeling of accomplishment. Time spent making food with your family is never time wasted.
Know when to pivot
If things go wonky, turn them into teachable moments. Kids cut the onions too big? Look at the recipe–does it REALLY matter if they are not “small dice?” If so, pull out the food processor and chop them finer. If not, teach your kids to adjust the cooking time or to cut the other veggies in a similar size to ensure an even cooking time.
There’s almost always a way to salvage kitchen mistakes, unless something is burned. Your plated dishes might not look like the photos in the cookbook you’re using but who cares? Although, given a chance, kids LOVE to get fancy while plating food and they’ve seen a lot of it on Food Network, too, and some of my students are really good.
In the end, cooking with your kids not only nourishes their bodies, it also feeds their creativity, curiosity, and desire to master skills to become independent. It’s one of the most loving acts you can offer them.