My six-year-old is really interested in helping me cook,” a friend told me. “He’s eager to learn, and he wants to do more than just rip up lettuce. But I’m not sure if it’s safe at that age to let him cut things or stand at the stove.”
Safety is important. But so is learning real-life skills, and fostering an interest in healthy food.
Barbara Finley, a Vancouver chef and developer of Project CHEF: Cook Healthy Edible Food, a school program at the Vancouver School Board, believes young school-aged children can stay safe and get involved in the kitchen.
“Children are very capable at that age. I start my cooking school programs at five years. I think more important than the actual cooking is the whole development of attitudes toward food. Studies show that if kids are involved in making the food, there is a far greater likelihood that they will eat it.”
Finley teaches six- to eight-year-olds how to use a knife (see Cutting Carefully) but also stresses basic safety precautions: “I tell kids they can’t use knives, the stovetop or the oven unless an adult is there. And to wear closed-toe shoes, in case they drop something sharp or heavy.” Of course, just having an adult beside you at the stove is no guarantee of safety — kids need to be taught how to hold a pot handle, to stir slowly so boiling food doesn’t splatter, and that burners remain hot even after they’re turned off. Finley also teaches food safety and the importance of kitchen cleanliness and handwashing.
Two ingredients Finley considers too dangerous to use around children are “molten sugar (for candy making, for example) and hot fat, like deep frying.” The potential severity of an accidental burn is just too great.
What to cook
When asked for a good thing to cook with kids, Finley replies, “What are you having for dinner tonight?” Of course kids love to help bake cookies or other treats, but everyday “real food” is also interesting to prepare.
What to make
“Children love to eat pasta and love to make pasta by cranking it out of a pasta maker,” she suggests. If you don’t have a pasta maker, you can still have your child choose an interesting dried pasta and make your own tomato sauce. Chopping, simmering, spicing, tasting — your child’s interest may remind you how much fun this actually is, when you take time to enjoy it.
If you have plenty of time, a great cooking activity is making bread. “Nothing is more miraculous than bread,” enthuses Finley. “To see how the dough starts as a little baseball-sized lump and grows into this huge fabulous pillow — and the smell when it’s proofing! It’s a lovely sensory activity and a wonderful science lesson.”
In fact, says Finley, cooking with kids is full of lessons. “It’s math, it’s science, it’s culture, it’s working together and teamwork. Cooking teaches everything!”
Vancouver chef and cooking teacher Barbara Finley shares these tips for teaching children to cut safely.
• Set up your workspace. Use a non-skid stool or chair to raise your child to the proper height. Put a damp paper towel under the cutting board to prevent it from skittering around. Clear away clutter so he can focus on what he’s doing.
• Use a paring knife. It’s great for small hands but still very sharp.
• Hold it right. “The index finger needs to be placed in the little notch up near the blade and the hand is wrapped right around the handle so you are close to the blade but not on it. If your hand is too far back you don’t have control,” says Finley.
• Protect your left (hand). Finley teaches kids to hold their other hand — the one holding the food — like a claw, not spread flat; with the heel of that hand resting on the cutting board for stability. “I say if you can see your fingernail marks in what you’re holding, you’re doing a good job.” With this hold, if the knife does slip, you’re more likely to slice into the nail or the tip of the knuckle, rather than the end of the finger.
• Put it away. Finley teaches kids to put the knife down at the top of the cutting board so they always know where it is. And when they’re done, it goes on the counter beside the sink, not left on the workspace where it might get covered by a tea towel, or dropped into soapy water, where a dishwasher might accidentally grab it.