Cooking with kids: Recipe for disaster?

Experts say kids should be involved in meal prep. Ian Mendes isn’t so sure.

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Illustration: Rachel Idzerda

Only 12 percent of Canadian kids help their parents make dinner on a regular basis, according to a recent study. Can’t say I’m surprised, because I’ve been down this road myself. We’ve all heard experts say kids should be invited into the kitchen, but after the first few times, you realize the experience never unfolds the way you imagined. But despite all that, if you’re still intent on raising a cute and efficient little sous-chef, I feel it only fair that I give you pinch of the sad, messy reality to accompany your pie-eyed dreams.

You think: It’ll be a sweet and relaxing way to spend time with my kid.

Reality: It’s ridiculously stressful. You constantly have to be on high alert for potential catastrophes.

“Watch out for the boiling water!”

“Be careful with that knife!”

“For crying out loud, do not pick your nose while you’re grating cheese!”

You think: Having an assistant will get meals on the table faster.

Reality: Pack a lunch, because you’re going to be there a while. That recipe that says it requires 20 minutes of prep? Go ahead and double it if you’ve got a sous-chef under the age of 10. (If your kid is younger than five, I recommend having a bottle of wine on hand for yourself.) It’s also a good idea to double your ingredients, because half of them will end up on the floor (or in her mouth, in her apron pocket, etc). I’m afraid to move our oven and fridge because I’m convinced I’ll find 150 dehydrated peas under there from the time we tried to make a casserole with the kids in 2013.

Patience, you’ll find, is the key ingredient when cooking with kids, because while you’re trying to stay on task, they’ll be peppering you with rapid-fire questions.

“Can’t we just leave those little bits of eggshell that fell into the bowl?”

“Can we put cheese on everything?”

“Daddy, why are you crying? We haven’t even started to cut the onions yet.”

In fact, most cooking experiences with young children end with the parent simply saying, “You know what, sweetie? I’ll just do this by myself.”

You think: All the counting, measuring and mixing of ingredients will teach my kid some good math and science skills.

Reality: It will actually become a great lesson in basic subtraction. “So, if we started with 75 choc­olate chips, and I’ve only got 11 now, how many did you just eat when Daddy said you could sample two or three?”

You think: We should watch MasterChef Junior together! It will inspire our kids in the kitchen.

Reality: Your kids might get inspired, but you’ll feel like a failure as a parent. It’s like the producers got together in a boardroom and said, “How can we make parents feel completely inadequate? I know! Let’s have some eight-year-olds make beef Wellington!”

If you haven’t seen it, this is a show where renowned chefs yell at young children because their soufflé is too soft or their lobster reduction is off by just a touch.

Meanwhile, if they put a TV camera in my kitchen, you’d see my daughter struggling to open a box of Pop-Tarts by herself, and my other daughter putting frozen Eggo waffles into a toaster that isn’t plugged in.

Want to get your kids excited about cooking? Forget food TV. I suggest the movie Ratatouille. After all, your child’s culinary skills are probably more in line with a cartoon rodent’s than they are with the nine-year-old kid who’s been making frittatas since she was in Pull-Ups.

And start by making easy meals your kids actually enjoy. The kids on MasterChef make tuna tartare, but there’s not a five-year-old on Earth who would eat it. Try something like macaroni and cheese from scratch, which has just two or three steps and is virtually impossible to screw up.

That way, the only thing boiling over is the water for the pasta—and not your temper.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2016 issue with the headline, “Recipe for disaster,” p. 38.

Follow along as Ottawa-based sports radio host Ian Mendes gets candid about raising daughters, Elissa and Lily, with his wife, Sonia. Read all of Ian’s The Good Sport posts and follow him on Twitter @ian_mendes.

Read more:
Cooking With Kids: 5 easy dinner recipes
The only 5 things your kid needs to know about food
6 tips to help your picky eater

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