Let’s face it, most kids love to cook. It’s fun, it’s messy, and it allows them to play with their food free of parental disapproval. Cooking with your kids can be a joyful experience, and a time for family bonding and teaching your kids a necessary life skill. It can also be a harrowing, exasperating experience which can leave you with more gray hairs than you started with. Hopefully, by following the tips and guidelines listed below you can increase your chances at the former while decreasing the possibilities of the latter.

Remember: safety first. Safety really starts the minute you and your child enter the kitchen, not just at the oven or stove, or around knives. Teach them that the first task is to always wash their hands and that they should also do so between each task, any time they touch their head, hair, or body, and if they cough or sneeze. Good hygiene helps prevent the spread of germs, a lesson kids are never too young to start learning.

Parents are often afraid to give their kids knives, but I’m a believer in starting them young.  Let your three- year- old have a table knife. Those dull, slightly serrated knives aren’t going to do any damage to their precious hands, but they can still be used to cut up softer fruits, vegetables, and cheeses. This gets them used to holding a knife so by the time they are seven or eight you can introduce the real knives. This also gives you plenty of time to teach your young one the proper “claw” grip for holding the food they are cutting, in which the thumb is tucked behind the fingers, which are slightly curved inward ensuring no stray fingertips are in danger of slipping underneath the blade of the knife.

No matter how careful you and your child are, there is going to be an accident at some point. Whether they burn or cut themselves, it is inevitable. Keep a small first aid kit in the kitchen for just such emergencies.

As a final safety tip, make sure that you talk to your kids and make it very clear that there is no cooking going on when you, the parents, are not home. My daughter is nine years old, very comfortable in the kitchen, and is now home alone for about two hours each afternoon.  She is very aware that while home alone, she can make herself a snack, but she is not to use any of Dad’s knives and there is no using the oven or the stove. Just remember that, just because your child is a whiz in the kitchen doesn’t mean that they would know how to handle themselves in a major emergency like starting a fire or seriously cutting themselves.

Expect everything to take longer. Teaching your kids to cook is probably not best done when you are in a rush to get a meal on the table or have some sort of deadline you are trying to uphold. Cooking with kids takes time. Not only does it take time to explain to them how to do things, but it also takes about twice as long to get everything done. While my daughter has become much better at using a knife, just the thought of cutting herself often makes her a little leery, and as such, she is very methodical and slow.

Expect the mess. Children are still developing their fine motor skills which often means they are clumsy and messy. That’s why, no matter how slow they seem to stir something, it always seems that about a quarter to a third of it ends up outside of the bowl and on the countertop or floor. This tends to be the most frustrating part of cooking with my daughter and I have to constantly remind myself that she doesn’t spill things because of her lack of focus but because she just isn’t that coordinated yet.

Mix it up a bit. Do you remember the first thing you helped cook? If I had to guess, it was probably cookies. I know it was mine. And that is what I helped with for the longest time.  Baking is a “no-brainer” when it comes to cooking with kids. It is safe: no cutting or stirring pots of hot food, it’s easy, and kids seem to love stirring, but it only teaches them one set of skills. Get them involved when making most of your meals. That doesn’t mean they have to do everything, but let them help. You would be surprised how excited they become over doing the most menial of tasks. My daughter usually whines and grumbles if I ask her to go get me something, but when we are cooking together she will happily make ten trips to the fridge or pantry to get something I need, and it makes her feel like she was an important part of making the meal. She also happily cleans up any messes made either by herself or by me.

Make it more than just about cooking. Use this time to teach your kids about food and nutrition. I am a firm believer in being honest with my daughter so we have had conversations about where our meat comes from. She knows that beef is cow, pork is pig and she understands, in a rough way, where eggs come from and what they are. This is also a great time to talk about nutrition and healthy eating. My daughter hates most vegetables, but we have found two ways to stack the odds in our favor. The first way is to tell her that the veggies came from the farm that Mom volunteers at, once a week, to earn her worker share of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). The second way is to get her involved in the cooking of those vegetables.  She’s much more inclined to eat them, and not put up a fight, if she has been involved in the cooking of those vegetables.

Don’t underestimate your kids. Don’t relegate cooking with your kids to cookie baking, or Saturday morning breakfast with scrambled eggs and pancakes. You’ll be surprised how quickly kids learn. Move beyond those kid- friendly dishes and teach them all the techniques they will need to be a well- rounded cook. And while you are at it, encourage them to read cookbooks, not just those for kids, but your cookbooks also. Have them pick out some recipes they want to try and eventually have them plan an entire menu for a meal, helping them to ensure that they create a well- balanced menu and not just one full of their favorite foods. This is also a great time for you to maybe explore some cuisines that you have wanted to explore before. Pick up a cookbook on Indian or Thai cooking and together you and your child can explore new foods and new tastes. This gives you a chance to explore a cuisine that you always wanted to learn about and it gives your kid a chance to expand their tastes.

Have fun. Cooking with your kids should be fun!  Forget about time frames.  Don’t worry about the messes.  Enjoy spending time with your kids, because before you know it, they are going to be involved in so many activities you may hardly see them. Take this time to revel in your child and help them learn important lessons that they will carry with them for life.
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