Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Little Chef - Cooking with your child

The thought of letting your child be your sous chef in the kitchen may cause you to shudder, but it's less of a  big deal than you think.  Actually, it can really be quite fun, for you and your child.  It just takes setting up the right situation and having the patience to move a little slower and get a little messier. 
Not convinced yet?  Read on. And if you are all-for cooking with your child or better yet, already do, keep reading to find out all the benefits this fun activity actually has for your child.


The joy of including children in cooking is more about the process than the finished product, so adjusting your expectations a little can make it a more successful experience for your child and for you.  It often takes a little release of control (on your part) and allowing for some margin of error.  For example, take making cookies from a mix with a 4 year old.  If you allow him the opportunity to really participate (not just watch you, because let's face it, that's just no fun for him), then you might end up with a few egg shell shards in the mix and part of the batter on the counter.  That's ok.  Repeat that to yourself if you need to; "That's OK!"  Just take a look at him as he cracks his first egg and feels the squishy yolk, stirs the batter cautiously at first and then with increased speed and control, slightly improves his pouring abilities within the span of making a batch of cookies, and marvels at his finished product.  Think of what you have helped him to gain in those few minutes: confidence in succeeding at something new, better pouring skills, a little increased strength from all that stirring, new respect for you for letting him cook, and some quality time with you.  Isn't that worth a few egg shells in the cookies and a little batter on the counter that will take you an extra 30 seconds to clean up?

Here's where letting your kids help cook actually works in your favor - The older the child, the more they can do, and the bigger help they actually are in the kitchen. Think about that - they can actually HELP you!  So start working on the pouring, measuring, stirring, and chopping skills when they're young so that they've got the experience to do it more independently in a few years. Can you picture your middle schooler making you breakfast in bed or your teenager cooking dinner for the family one night a week?  I'm telling you, if this sounds good to you, then start cooking with your kids now!

Cooking with a toddler can also be accomplished while avoiding a disaster in the kitchen.  Cooking with two toddlers is also possible - that's right, I said possible, not impossible .  Here's an example from my own kitchen; this actually happened this evening:  We had stir fry on the menu for dinner tonight and I included my 3 1/2 year old daughter and my son, who just turned 2, in the prep work.  I washed the vegetables myself (although my daughter could have easily helped with this), and cut only the green pepper into long, thin slices. I set each of my kids up with a cutting board, a bowl for the cut up veggies, small portions of vegetables at a time (green peppers, green beans, and mushrooms), and a crinkle cutter that they use to chop (a dull vegetable cutter; see the picture at the bottom of the post).  My daughter got right to work once I gave her instructions and a quick demo on how to chop each type of vegetable - she's been using the crinkle cutter since she was 2 and knew what to do.  My son needed some hand over hand assistance to control the crinkle cutter and the vegetable at the same time when he chopped, but I slowly let him take control until he was doing it all by himself successfully - (did I mention he just turned two, like a couple of weeks ago, and he doesn;t have any special skills; in fact, using the cutter is fairly new for him. So see, a typical toddler can help).  They chopped everything but the carrots and were incredibly proud of themselves.  Instead of cutting the veggies myself, my efforts were spent helping them do it and I think it probably took about the same amount of time, if not less since there were two of them working.  And instead of playing with their typical toys while I cooked, they practiced some new skills that will be very beneficial to them in the future. Of course my son cut the veggies in pieces that were too long or too short and he started to mess around with the scraps before I had a chance to clear them out of his way, but I expected these things to happen, so for me the whole thing was a success. Their assistance ended at the conclusion of the prep work, even though they asked to do more.  My husband finished this meal as planned, but the take home message here is that kids can be involved in any part of the making of a meal, it doesn't have to be the whole thing, especially if they are young like my kids.

Suggestions for Cooking with Kids
1. Choose age appropriate tasks - young children do well with short, simple tasks like stirring and dumping ingredients, with an adult's assistance.  As children get older and have improved coordination, allow them the opportunity to practice things like pouring, measuring, cracking eggs, etc. 
2. Keep it simple - Your child doesn't have to make the entire meal or recipe with you for it to be a successful experience.  Choose parts of the recipe or meal that your child can most easily help with or choose something simple to start with if you want your child to help with the whole thing. 
3.  Have realistic expectations - Plan on getting messy.  Plan on it taking extra time.  There's the potential that you might even have to start over, although I have yet to need to do that.  The finished product may not resemble your best work, but that's not what really matters.
4.  Have patience - Keep your child's abilities and attention span in mind when choosing tasks for them to be involved in.  But do allow them to get involved, not matter how much harder you think it's going to make cooking, you just might be surprised how much fun you have.
5.  Choose the right time - If week nights are chaotic for you and a mad dash to get dinner on the table before bed time, then choosing the weekends to cook with your kids is probably the best situation.  Allowing children to participate in cooking does not have to happen every day for them to enjoy it and learn new things, but by doing it on a somewhat regular basis provides them with the opportunity to improve their skills.
6. Use kid-friendly cooking utensils - They really do make these and sell them at stores and online.  Look for small whisks, spatulas, crinkle cutters (for kids to chop with - they have a dull edge), even a kid size apron makes them feel like the real deal (and keeps the food off the clothes).
7. Remember that cooking with kids is about teaching them and having fun. 

The Benefits for Children
The opportunities for children to participate in cooking tasks provides many benefits that affect a number of different areas of development that carry over to other things and future, more complex abilities (such as writing; interesting how cooking as a young child can have a far-reaching affect like that).
- Strength: Stirring, lifting, and carrying improves upper body strength which is needed for motor skills, such as handwriting and sports.
- Coordination and control: Dumping ingredients, chopping, stirring, cracking eggs, measuring, and pouring, etc. work on coordination skills and refining the amount of pressure or speed they use to improve control (coordination and control are important for just about everything!)
- Sequencing: Following directions in order improves sequencing abilities (not to mention memory), which is important for lots of daily tasks and also for writing and school tasks
- Reading: If your child is old enough to read, following recipes works on reading skills, comprehension, and new vocabulary; if your child is learning to read, looking for words they know or sounding out new words on ingredient containers helps to improve reading skills; and if your child is not yet a reader, looking for familiar letters or numbers on containers and learning new vocabulary is also important for future reading
- Sensory experience: Feeling the variety of textures involved with cooking is important, especially for young children who are still developing their understanding of the objects in the world around them; feeling food textures and becoming comfortable with them can also help young children and picky eaters expand their food interests
- Math and Science: Older kids can work on addition, subtraction, and fractions in real life situations, which helps to improve their retention of these skills; simple arithmetic, counting, and concepts such as more/less can be taught to younger children through cooking; and science concepts can be introduced to kids of all ages through cooking, such as temperature, how different ingredients affect the outcome of the recipe (chemistry), etc.
- Confidence: Helping, creating a final product, and learning new skills are all confidence boosters for children.  Cooking builds confidence in a postive way that watching TV or playing video games cannot.  Confidence affects many aspects of a child's life and is incredibly important as they get older and become more independent.
- Values: Spending time with family while cooking, cooperating, and enjoing the final product together or sharing it with someone else teaches and reinforces values that cannot be taught by watching TV, even if the show was about values.  Being part of the process and having good role models is what is so important.  Taking the time to cook with your kids shows them how much you love them and how much you care.


Crinkle cutter photo - the handles are small and the blades are dull; perfect for young children to use:

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