“Mom, can I help make dinner?”
When I hear my kids ask this, I am usually torn. “Yes, I would love for you to help me!” grapples with thoughts of “it would be so much easier to make dinner alone.”
While tempting, they’ll stop asking if they hear “no” too often. But we do want them to ask. After all, comfort and confidence in the kitchen is a life skill. When my children request to help, it sometimes feels a bit overwhelming. I’m not an expert, but here are my suggestions for encouraging your curious young cooks while keeping your sanity:
Make a date: Cooking dinner in the incredibly short interval between school, practices, and bedtime is no easy feat. If my sons ask to help when time (and/or my patience) is in short supply, I make plans for us to cook a meal together on an alternate night. Discuss ideas for your “cooking date” in advance. Just be ready to follow through with your promises!
Choose things that your kids will enjoy eating: Interest will wane if the final product isn’t something they enjoy. I keep things familiar when possible. Let’s be honest — it’s more fun to make something you want to eat. Additionally, when they enjoy a meal they helped prepare, they will feel a sense of accomplishment. In our home, we make a lot breakfast foods together: pancakes, eggs, and french toast. (My kids would eat breakfast foods three meals a day if they could!) We also bake often because they inherited a sweet tooth from their mama.
Embrace the mess: I am not known for my neatness when I cook, so when my children are involved messes are undoubtedly magnified. The best times we’ve spent together in the kitchen, however, have involved some chaos. Kids love hands-on experiences! Let them dig their hands into ground beef to make meatloaf or allow them to frost a cake with reckless abandon. Ensure their engagement by keeping it fun. Ignore the mess and be present in the moment.
Let go of perfection: Not all cooking experiences go as planned. My son and I once baked banana bread from scratch. The final product was clearly lacking an essential ingredient. I assured him our next one would taste great! Guess what? It did! He still brings up our botched foray into baking banana bread (say that 3 times fast), but it became an opportunity for him to see that we all make mistakes. Also, no one likes a micromanager. Embrace misshapen pancakes, flat meatballs, and unevenly sized cookies. I always tell my kids that as long as something tastes good who cares how it looks?
Keep it Simple, Divide & Conquer: Gauge your child’s attention span and skill level appropriately. My 3 year old is happy mixing ingredients in a bowl, pouring yogurt into a blender for smoothies, or adding fruit to pancakes. My 6 1/2 year old gets into “the weeds” more. He’s rolled mini hot dogs in dough for pigs-in-a-blanket and breaded chicken cutlets. Using a box of cake mix, he can complete most of the pre-oven steps with limited supervision. While these tasks may feel simple to us, they’re fun and serve to foster their interest. If a recipe is more complex, you can still involve them even if it involves chopping, slicing, or other tasks for which they might not be ready. For instance, if we are making an apple crisp, I take charge of peeling, slicing, and coring, and they mix the topping to sprinkle over the apples.
Create traditions: In the midst of the holiday season, it’s an ideal time to begin annual kitchen traditions with your children. It could be making a pumpkin pie every Thanksgiving, baking peanut butter blossoms for Christmas, or introducing them to a family staple. In fact, I hope to introduce my oldest to our family tradition of making French meat pies this upcoming season. Involve them in the process of creating this tradition from start to finish: search for recipes together and take them shopping for ingredients. They’ll be thrilled to see your project through from start to finish.
When children are active in the kitchen, they are also enjoying built-in math and science lessons as well as an opportunity to develop their gross and fine motor skills. Additionally, there are other teachable moments from which they can benefit, such as the importance of food safety. Capitalize on these opportunities, and say “yes, I’d love it if you could help me” more. Your kids (and their future life partners) will thank you for it; not to mention that the memories you make will last a lifetime.
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