Brandon was only eight the first time his parents gave him $20 and said, “How about you make dinner? Figure out what you want to make, and we’ll take you to the store so you can buy the ingredients.”
“We had tacos and raw carrots and Five Alive at that meal — plus dessert!” says his stepmom, Michela Barnhart. And while one of his parents was always on standby in the kitchen, “just in case,” Brandon managed it pretty much on his own. Now nine, Brandon is well on his way to becoming a competent cook.
“I just never want to be one of those moms of a teen who doesn’t know how to do anything,” says Barnhart.
Why get kids this young cooking? After all, it’s not exactly faster, easier or neater than doing it yourself. Barnhart takes a long-term perspective: By 18, Brandon will be an adult and responsible for 100 percent of his needs. Then how is he going to get there? I figure by nine he should be able to meet about 50 percent of his needs. So cooking is a part of that.”
But there are immediate advantages as well. “Young children tend to be picky eaters, and often they are more inclined to eat things if they have helped prepare them. That in itself is a good reason to cook with them,” says home economist Pam Collacott, owner of the Trillium Cooking School in North Gower, Ont.
It’s also a great opportunity to teach children about nutrition when they are still receptive; you can talk about incorporating several food groups and safe food handling. There’s math involved, and a certain kind of reading skill required. It’s even a cultural experience, says Bonnie Conrad, a registered dietitian in Halifax: “You can talk to them about what that recipe means to you — this was my grandma’s favourite recipe, this is what it reminds me of.”
Start with an easy meal
Snacks, lunches and breakfast foods are often less daunting than dinner dishes. Collacott suggests involving your young chef in a weekend lunch or brunch, when you can take things at a more leisurely pace. “Then you can have time to explain things. Show him how to do it properly the first time and then move on to having him do it himself.”
At this age, a child using sharp knives, appliances or the stove requires your supervision, but towards eight, kids can be learning to use these tools. Show your child how to cut safely, and then let her chop the celery or quarter apples. Though she’s a long way from julienning carrots by hand, she can use a peeler to skin them. She can make a fruit smoothie in the blender, with you making sure she’s operating it safely.
Don’t limit it to desserts
“Don’t always just do sweet stuff,” Collacott suggests. Baking cookies is a big attraction, of course, but kids can also enjoy making salads and the dressings to go with them, pancakes and specialty sandwiches. “I remember one of the first things I ever made was a tuna bun — you make a tuna salad and you put some cheese in it, put it in a bun, wrap it in foil and that goes into the oven.” Collacott’s daughter invented her own sandwich: whole wheat bread with peanut butter and Cheerios. Tacos, sandwiches and pizza all lend themselves to a make-your-own approach: Just put out the ingredients and let the kids put their own combination together.
One thing Barnhart has focused on is teaching Brandon how to read and follow a recipe so he won’t always need his parents to show him how. Mixes and kids’ cookbooks are good places to start because the instructions tend to be simple. Stay available, of course, to answer questions. “It’s going to be really simple stuff at first, but as they get older the instructions get more complicated. But they will know: This is how I do it, one step at a time,” says Collacott. “That’s going to serve them well their whole lives.”
Accept the messiness
Barnhart has a systematic approach to teaching her kids to cook independently. “At first they can help beside you — this is the easiest stage because you are doing the things that might make the biggest messes,” she says. “The next step is the hardest. It requires the most planning: You set up the ingredients and stuff and then you let them combine everything. This is where the messes can happen. I found it helpful to just say, ‘Oh well, you can clean it up.’ At first Brandon resisted cleaning up himself, but now if he spills something and I do the cleanup, he thanks me. He has taken ownership of the accidents without the blame.”
Finally, Barnhart puts Brandon in charge of the whole process, from getting out the ingredients to cleanup, with a parent available if he needs help.
Some cooking tasks will be beyond reach for some years: You don’t want an eight-year-old dumping out the boiling-hot pasta water or carving up a chicken. But with instruction and practice, chances are your child will surprise you with what she can do. And you’ll both have fun in the process.