Oh yes, I did. I used some fancy-pants words like “sous chefs”. Don’t worry. I don’t have a fancy-pants kitchen. My counter rarely has a beautiful and efficient “mis en place” arranged. My floors are perpetually a mess (toddler and preschooler and kids, oh My!). There is not a fancy thing about my kitchen. Well, maybe the faucet, which is a nice Moen faucet…installed by the people who lived here before we did.
I digress. This isn’t about how un-fancy and chaotic my kitchen is. This is about having kids help out in the kitchen.
Before you think we suit up in aprons and get along nicely, let me be honest. I have aprons, but rarely wear them. They hang like decor on a wall. I am also one to ask (demand?) kids to leave the kitchen when they are being uncooperative and behaving in general like wild monkeys. Not only do I have little time or patience for that ish, but refusal to listen and behave can be dangerous in the kitchen. Helping is seen as a privilege (because they love it!), and I am not afraid to take that away.
On the other hand, once a kid is committed to a meal and helping, they are expected to learn age-appropriate skills while prepping and don’t get to ditch the job just because it is a beautiful day. My goal is ultimately for each of my crew to have a solid working knowledge of cooking and be comfortable in the kitchen. Skipping out on cooking day is not going to get them anywhere near that goal.
About that goal: My husband and I both think cooking is a super handy and important skill. If I have anything to say about it, and I do, being the Mom and all, each of my kids will be cooking one night a week before they move out, and able to cook decently for themselves when they do move out. I have my work cut out for me! That’s FIVE kids to teach to stir, measure, chop, saute, scramble.
So, how does this happen in my kitchen? And to answer a dear friend’s question, how do I remain calm and give up perfection when I let kiddos help me?
I kid. Mostly.
To answer the perfection question first: There is no perfection in my kitchen (or house at all, for that matter), so that part is easy! Imperfection is the name of the game. This is not a French cooking school, nor will I ever care about keeping things diced in the same sizes, or care that one meatloaf is bigger than the other, as long as they’re close enough in size and shape to cook evenly. And, since this is all about learning, a few mistakes along the way are part of process. Things will boil over, burn, be underdone, taste awful…and that is how they learn to be more careful, take their time, taste as they go, and follow the recipe (or not, but to also think carefully about what they make up on their own).
How do I remain calm? Weeelll, sometimes I do have a glass of wine while I’m cooking. Or I’ll snack while cooking. I promise, eating and drinking enough (WATER!) through the day does wonders for my own mood and ability to handle the crazy that naturally comes with parenting. Also, I only allow one kid to help at a time. This alone has saved my sanity. I used to let two kids help, and then they were fighting over whose turn it was to stir, who added more to the cookie dough, who got to stand right next to me…and it was madness. I got tired of that and started the one-kid-per-week helping with one meal routine. I keep it to one per week, because, let’s be honest, I don’t have time and energy for more than that right now. When they are older and more helpful (read: independent and can chop without direction), then they can help more often. Also, I remind them of the safety rules for the kitchen, and that if they can’t follow the rules and listen to my directions, they must leave. Simple as that. Meanie? Maybe. But it helps me stay calm.
Basics of making this happen:
One kid helping with one meal per week. That kids chooses the menu, helps clean and prep veggies, measures ingredients, and participates in the cooking until the food is on the table.
Listen to directions, no grabbing, no goofing off (but we can still have fun), or you kicked out of the kitchen.
Expect messes, have kid help clean up.
Start early, as in, at least 30 minutes earlier than you usually start preparing dinner. Extra time means you can take your time and not rush to have dinner on the table. Kids need time to learn and practice.
Encourage and praise your child as you go.
Be open to adjustments and suggestions from your child. If they want to add a different spice to the sauce, smell it together and decide if it might actually be a good addition. Take their ideas seriously and give them a chance. But don’t ruin a whole dinner because they want to add cinnamon to meatballs, or garlic to banana muffins. Somethings won’t work. Explain why.
Take deep breaths when you’re on the verge of thinking it was a horrible idea. It’s a horrible idea to NOT include your children in cooking. (barring serious reasons, of course) It is a wonderful thing to let your children not only help, but learn how to prepare and cook, and bond with you in the process. It is a wonderful time to establish healthy food habits, talk about the day, and enjoy some one-on-one time. It is a wonderful opportunity for your child to learn, create something, and feel accomplished for making a meal. So, when you are freaking out that there might be too much salt, or the mess is going to take forever to clean, or whatever, remind yourself that those things are fleeting, but the memories and lessons are lasting and most important.
I realize now that this can be expanded even further! Come back tomorrow for more, including age-appropriate tasks, favorite meal ideas, and more.