Last week, the boys challenged each other to a bake-off. Inspired by the Kids Baking Championship on Food Network, they set out to find a fun dessert to make from scratch and asked me to be the judge. And that’s how we ended up with two three-tier cakes in our kitchen the day after Halloween… As if the sugar rush wasn’t already sufficient.
Each of the boys baked their own cake. My older son, who doesn’t bake quite as often, needed some help from me with his buttercream frosting. But they did most of the work themselves and ended up with pretty solid-looking (and tasting!) cakes if you ask me.
Well… my younger son forgot to add sugar to his batter, so it wasn’t quite what we were expecting. Judging the two cakes turned out to easier than I expected. But this oversight is not indicative of his general baking skills.
Both of my boys are pretty competent in the kitchen, especially when it comes to baking. They enjoy their work product much more when it’s filled with sugar, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that their baking skills translate to cooking skills as they get older and need to feed themselves.
The road to their kitchen competency has been a long time in the works. I’ve been encouraging them to join me in the kitchen and get their hands dirty since they were very young. I think learning to prepare food is a really important life skill on its own. It also helps them appreciate where their food comes from, what it looks like before it’s a full meal, and why we shouldn’t waste it.
Food waste is one of the leading environmental concerns because it’s a serious waste of resources (production, transportation, etc…) and produces large amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas) when it ends up in the landfill. Processed foods full of chemicals and wrapped in lots of packaging have an even greater environmental impact.
Knowing how to prepare their own meals and understanding the nutritional elements of what they are eating helps prepare them for life and better understand the environmental consequences of the food on their plates.
Teaching Kids to Cook is a Long-Term Investment
Cooking with kids, especially when they are young, may not be for the faint of heart. Lots of people have told me they wouldn’t have the patience to endure the mess, mistakes, and mental stress of having little hands digging into all the bowls and batters.
But with a few simple tricks and tools, and a dose of patience, it can become a great opportunity to spend time with your kids and introduce them to wonderful, healthy food options, likely expanding their palettes and interest in exploring food.
Including my boys in the kitchen has been so great in more ways than I can count! They grew to enjoy cooking and baking early and even imitated it in their play when they were younger. We melted more than our fair share of plastic balls in the oven when we accidentally pre-heated it for real meals not knowing one of the boys had made “ping pong ball muffins” earlier in the day. That actually happened. More than once.
As we head into the holidays and meal prep is a focal point of many holiday events, I wanted to share with you a few tips for cooking with kids and share ways I get the boys involved in the kitchen no matter what I’m making.
When they were younger, they were almost always up for helping me. As they’ve gotten older (9 and 11 now), they’re sometimes super interested and sometimes would much rather go play video games. Go figure.
But over time, they’ve developed some pretty stellar cooking and baking skills. They won’t win any Food Network Kids Baking Competition, but they know how to find and follow a recipe, measure ingredients, and prepare food enough things to feed themselves if they need to.
Without further ado…
Let’s start with kitchen expectations
To maintain your sanity, it’s worth setting some reasonable expectations about working with kids in the kitchen. It’s not the same as cooking or baking on your own. But like teaching kids any life skills, it’s important and necessary to welcome them into a learning environment and give them space and grace to make mistakes.
Accept it. Your kitchen will be messier than when you cook alone.
Plan for it. Preparation will take longer.
Expect it. Something will go wrong. (I have flour all over my counter and floor every time we make cookies…)
Embrace it. And get creative. Find tasks for the kids to do throughout the process. These steps may not always be necessary but will keep them occupied while you complete tasks with which they cannot help. (Eg. Throwing eggplant skin scraps in the trash one by one while I cut off the skins on the next eggplant. Or washing potatoes for far longer than necessary just because he likes it or because he can’t help with the step I’m currently doing.)
A few helpful tools and supplies for cooking and baking with kids
Buy it. A chopper that is. It’s awesome. It’s not foolproof. You still need to work with them, but it will give your kids a chance to chop up veggies or other items even when they can’t yet use a traditional knife.
Love it! Your kids will love feeling involved, spending time together, feeling like a valuable helper, and getting to create their own meals. And you’ll love spending time with them too.
Eat it. Chances your kids eat meals they prepared themselves increase exponentially relative to a meal with which they had no involvement.
I also want to give a quick shout out to The Kids’ Table, a cooking school for youngsters here in Chicago. They offer cooking classes starting at age two (though I asked for and received permission to start T at 18 months). We don’t go anymore because it’s not really feasible with J being so young now, but hopefully we’ll be able to go when both boys are older. Attending weekly classes there for a few months really highlighted some great ways to involve kids in the kitchen. It’s a bit of skill to learn how to do it without losing your mind and every ounce of patience.
For the most part, T uses the standard kitchen tools I have. We have one special tool, this chopper, that allows him to help with chopping tasks that he could not complete with a knife.
Thanksgiving Meal Menu Items ~ How T May Help
Seasoned Grilled Chicken in a Peach BBQ Sauce ~ chop peaches (after I peel them) and hold the hand blender in the pan to puree the peach BBQ sauce
Garlic Mashed Potatoes ~ press or chop the garlic, mash the potatoes, add in any herbs or spices
Sweet Potato Biscuits ~ scrape baked sweet potato into a bowl, pour all ingredients from measuring cups / spoons into the mixing bowl, mix the ingredients, cut the biscuits from the dough, place the unbaked biscuits on the pan, remove the baked biscuits from the pan with a spatula (he’s learned to respect hot pans and plates so he understands to keep his hands away from the pan when taking them off the tray)
Pumpkin Bread & Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies ~ pour ingredients, turn on and off the stand mixer (he’s a pro at using this thing)… and of course, eat a few chocolate chips while he pours them into the batter
Other Ways T Helps Cook & Bake
Banana Muffins ~ T mixed all the ingredients, put all the muffin wrappers in the tin, and helped me add the batter to the tin
Homemade Poptarts ~ T mixed the dough (as described above), helped flatten the dough (which would often require a bit of fixing from me, but he didn’t mind), and stirred the strawberry filling as it cooked on the stove
Kale and Cheese Calzones ~ T shredded a heck of a lot of cheese. He also tore up most of the kale and helped me mix the dough.
Homemade Bread ~ My mom ALWAYS makes bread when she visits (and we use most of the dough for pizza). Things get a little messy, but T loves to dig in and get his hands dirty.
Banana Blueberry Pancakes ~ T’s gotten quite good at using a spatula, one of his favorite kitchen tools. He has endured a slight burn or two when dealing with hot pans, but nothing serious by any means. We watch him closely while he’s helping us (obviously).
Homemade Fudgsicles ~ T peeled the banana (interesting ingredient but it worked out quite well), poured most of the ingredients into our Magic Bullet, and worked the Magic Bullet. He did a good portion of this on his own.
T cleans potatoes and he loves to hold the hand mixer when we make carrot ginger soup. (He stands on a chair or a stool so he’s tall enough to reach the stove.)
Above he used his chopper to add the Reese’s to a homemade chocolate peanut butter ice cream recipe we made.
And below, I helped him pack the brown sugar when he just about a year old. As you can see, cooking with little guys isn’t the most efficient or cleanest way to get things done. To pack the brown sugar with a one year old, I got down on the floor and made a pretty nice mess. But it’s been totally worth our time together and his growing appreciation for food and cooking!
How About You?
So who’s cooking your Thanksgiving dinner (or for those of you who don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, who’s cooking your next regular meal or your next celebratory meal)? Maybe your little kiddos and friends can contribute? Take a second look at those tips above. Know someone else who might want to get their little ones involved in the kitchen? Share this post with them! And if you’re not cooking your next meal, share these tips with whoever’s whipping up tonight’s dinner for you.