Kids Cooking - NZ DadsKids can cook – did you know that? They don’t just inhale food or get fussy about their favourite snack. They can actually cook! It is an extremely important life skill, teaches them measurements, gets them involved with their food (so less fussing) and who knows, they might enjoy it.

But how do you convince them? Start them young and being patient are the first tips I have to give, but I hope you might find these ones helpful too. But it might help if you view it like a craft activity, a bit of fun with a lot of mess – it might save your sanity!

First step: Try reading books with your child that involve food in a positive way – then encourage them to help you make those meals.   Or for younger ones read to them a story where they eat that snack mentioned the story. It might encourage them to try new foods too. “In the Night Kitchen”; Bread and Jam for Frances” and the infamous “Green Eggs and Ham”, for example are easy readers. (More details below.) Try it on the 2-5 year old.

Second step: When they are ready to play “chef;” have your little beastie watch you cook; make sure your little cook is in a safe and comfortable position but not too far away from the action. Have them help with small jobs like helping to measure ingredients, stirring, greasing pans, handing the utensils and then licking the bowl!

Third step: As they grow more confident have them make simple recipes such as fruit salad, mini pizza or cupcakes as it’s all about instant gratification. Make them responsible for after school snacks once or twice a week till they are ready to tackle more complex meals.

Don’t dictate the menu – (at the least try not to, might be more realistic). However there are rules:

  • Ensure that there are representatives from the fruits and vegetables, protein and whole grain food groups. It might mean your 6 year old might serve pickles, whole grain crackers and peanut butter, but technically it fits the rules. Vegetable, grain and protein – all present and accounted!
  • Challenge them as they grow. Make the menus more sophisticated and gives them reasons to try new foods – if they make it, they may just eat it.
  • Let them make decisions and take the lead. Don’t try to control the experience. They might throw apple slices in the pancake mix but it might taste better than you think. Bananas and bacon actually is a great breakfast. (Sneaky tip: Peanut butter on toast with banana and bacon is a great hangover cure – seriously! The bread absorbs the remaining alcohol, peanut butter is protein, banana replaces the potassium and the bacon – well, you gotta have grease in your first meal after a big night -right?)
  • They might need supervision with the stove; but they can cut with dinner knives, not the sharp ones. Graters are easy enough for children from 5yrs to use, use smaller bowls for mixing as little hands can’t hold on to big ones and mix at the same time and a stool that is sturdy is a great way for them to be at the bench level where all the action is happening.
  • If they use the leftovers in the menu, that’s okay, but only as part of the meal – not the whole thing. At least they are learning to economise and to avoid waste.
  • Let them to experiment – as the old saying goes “Teach them how to think, not what to think.” Mistakes can be seen as opportunities to learn about heat, patience and sorts of other life skills. Remember if they burn the dinner or the food is too revolting – you can fill up with fruit for dessert (and maybe sneak a takeaway after the little chefs are in bed.)
  • It’s a good opportunity to have them use all their senses. Have them taste the (suitable) food raw and then the difference a bit of cooking makes. Ask them to use a clean spoon to taste, not fingers. Let them see how onions with oil browns; how the meat sizzles, the texture of cooked pasta and the smell of a fresh cake out of the oven.
  • Expect a mess – lot of mess! Try by keeping the area tidy by putting a plastic tablecloth down on the floor and a huge pile of sponges handy but be prepared to clear up together. Remember to have them wash their hands before and during cooking (you too!) Talk or with older children, have them to read out the steps beforehand and get out what will be needed and plan who’s going to do what.
  • Top tip to reward the cook of the month: Make their own recipe box. Every month the child selects a recipe, writes it up on a card, and then cooks it. If they are really keen encourage them to think (then try) ingredient substitutions (eg shallots instead of onions – more subtle flavour and no tears!). Give them a reward for the perfect meal like a kitchen tool such as a wooden spoon or apron.

My children have been cooking since 5 years old and now at 10 and 12 they have to plan and cook a meal once a week. Not all are winners; (who can forget the “Fish and Fennel dish from Hell” and the “Smoke Alarm Chorus of 2010”?) but mostly its edible, sometimes they wow me with a dish – they are improving all the time.  And best of all- I get out of cooking 2 times a week!

*1 “In the Night Kitchen” is a popular picture book by the same guy who wrote and illustrated “Where the wild things are”; Maurice Sendak. First published in 1970 it depicts a boy’s dream through a baker’s kitchen where he assists in the baking of a cake that has to be ready by the morning. 

“Bread and Jam for France” by Russell Hoban and Lillian Hoban is a delightful story about Frances who is a fussy eater, the only thing she likes is bread and jam, not soft-boiled egg or chicken-salad sandwich. But cunning Mum comes up with a plan.

3 “Green Eggs and Ham” by my personal guru, Dr Seuss – oh come on! You all know the mantra- “Do you like green eggs and ham?” asks Sam-I-am.

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