One evening we were all chilling out in the backyard of a holiday rental and my eldest asked if he could help with the barbecue. Delighted to have a helper, my husband taught him how to cook steaks to different degrees – I like mine close to cremated while my husband is more of a ‘could almost walk off your plate’ type. Meanwhile, my youngest and I got busy with the salads and some boiled spuds. Sitting back and enjoying the meal 15 minutes later, we decided it had been such a lovely experience they could be responsible for a meal once a week.
Fast-forward two years, and I now have an older son that can cook a magic burger, fry up a mushroom and toast treat on a Sunday morning, and a younger son that bakes like a dream – his lighter touch means, unlike my cakes which are 1cm high and could be used to fix paving, his creations are light and fluffy, and raise to the full expected height. They both make their own breakfasts most days and prepare their own lunches before school.
One thing I’ve noticed as they have gotten into cooking is there are a range of benefits beyond not having to do it myself. For example:
- We talk – Cooking is a time my youngest and I both relax and he is more open to tricky conversations. D and M’s aside, cooking is a very social time and we might sing along to the radio or just share jokes.
- Cooking opens their creativity – I’ve always found cooking an intrinsically creative task, and enjoy cooking ‘off piste’; starting with a recipe but playing around with flavours. My youngest has become very good at working out what ingredients go well together to put his own spin on things.
- Their diet has improved – Cooking with your kids is one of the best ways to end the battle of the healthy foods. As foodie scientist Michael Pollan says, “If you cook, you’re not going to have fries every day – homemade French fries are delicious, but they’re a pain to make.” He says there are things built into the process of cooking that guard against those very tempting, but ultimately not very healthy, foods. “You don’t even have to worry about what you’re cooking because you will naturally gravitate toward simple things.” It’s also widely acknowledged kids are more likely to eat something they’ve made themselves.
- Cooking teaches maths and reading skills (and budgeting if you take them to the shops to pick out ingredients) – As well as reading and understanding a recipe, cooking teaches kids everything from fractions to temperatures.
- It boosts their self esteem – Nothing gives children a boost of pride like successfully completing a task, and my kids love watching other people enjoy the fruits of their labour!
- They’ll eat better as adults – My kids now confidently prepare a balanced lunch and breakfast after slowly learning to take over the reigns, and this is a skill they will need later in life. While children do learn healthy behaviours from observing their parents, it will become even more ingrained if they do it for themselves.
Tips for cooking with kids
As well as accepting all requests to help out in the kitchen from your kids, there are ways to ensure success and enthusiasm about wielding a skillet or peeling the veg. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way:
- Start simple and slowly back off on the help – Let them peel while you chop until they ask to have a go or let them pour while you measure, until they are ready to try themselves. Even just letting them stir to get started will spark their interest without overwhelming or putting them off.
- Pick foods they enjoy – If they have dishes they particularly enjoy, start with those. For example, if your child has a sweet tooth, you are far more likely to succeed if you start out teaching them to make biscuits or cakes (and it means you can bump up the health factor.) Sushi was a good example from our kitchen, my youngest loves it and it is simple and fun to make.
- Grow your own – If you have the garden space, you can further inspire your kids into cooking by teaching them where food comes from. Obviously you won’t be able to grow all your ingredients, but you could try a stir-fry with your own freshly picked veggies, a jam made from your own strawberries or a pasta sauce with homegrown tomatoes and herbs. If you don’t have the space or the inclination, involving them in food selection at the supermarket will also do the trick.