Tips for Teaching Children to Cook

July 16, 2021  |  By Peg Kern
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Making Neapolitan pizza during an Amalfi Coast cooking vacation.It should come as no surprise that food and time in the kitchen are a big part of not only my work life, but my family life as well. I was raised with the whole family around the table at dinner time, TV off, no exceptions. I learned to cook first from my mom and grandma, then from friends, chefs, and experimentation. And while I have worked in restaurants and as a private chef, time spent as a child in the kitchen was the foundation for everything else.

Kids enjoying a cooking class in Evora, Portugal.When I travel for work, I frequently combine it with a family vacation. When that is the case, I always make my husband and kids participate in the cooking classes. And they love it

As we started a second COVID summer in June, one in which we really didn’t want to do camps and organized sports, I started to asking myself, how can I use this time to teach my kids to cook?

My boys, almost 11 and 13, spend a lot of time in the kitchen with me, but it is usually helping me. Cooking shows are some of our favorite things to watch: “Great British Baking Show,” “Top Chef,” “Chopped,” “Nadiya’s Time to Eat,” even funny ones like “Nailed It.” They’ve watched Julia Child and Jacque Pepin.

So how to leverage this interest into cooking? And why bother?

Why Teach Kids to Cook

Learning to chop onions during a cooking class.There are a lot of answers to this question, and I’m sure some of them are obvious:

  • they can feed themselves as adults
  • they give me a break from having to feed everyone every night since cooking is not my husband’s thing
  • they can impress girlfriends or boyfriends once they start dating! (and entertain friends their whole lives)

But there are other reasons as well. Learning a skill is always worthwhile, and there is little as practical or as damned satisfying as being able to make good food. It makes you feel awesome, and why wouldn’t I want my boys to experience that sense of accomplishment, that sense of their own capability, especially as they head deeper into the angst of adolescence?

Chopping leeks during a cooking class.Chores are a big deal in our home, and no, they don’t get paid for them. (I don’t get paid for them, either!) One reason why we emphasize chores is to instill a sense of family responsibility, in which we all take care of each other and our shared home. So when they created a meal for the family, they feel great at what they’ve made, but also at the act of service it provides.

Cooking is also a way to expand kids’ palates. I make them include a vegetable or vegetables and sometimes steer them toward a particular recipe. I like to think that the more they cook food, the more they appreciate it.

And finally, cooking and eating are the best family time. Cooking together, or just keeping your kid company while they cook, and then sitting down to eat what they have made is awesome.

Tips for Teaching Children to Cook

Plating a dish of spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce.So how do you teach kids to cook? I use a one-two-three method:

  1. Use cookbooks as inspiration.
  2. Be present (but not helping) the first time.
  3. Practice makes perfect.

Each week my kids have to choose a recipe to prepare for dinner one night. The rule is, if it requires some consultation from me the first time, that is fine, but it has to be something they think they’ll be able to make on their own after practicing it once. The other rule is, they have to make the list of needed ingredients, and they have to do this early enough in the week for me to get them.

Stirring the pot.I have a few “easy” or “basic” cookbooks they consult for this. The pictures are always enough to inspire them. One of them is a slow cooker cookbook, so if they want they can throw it all in the slow cooker in the morning and that’s it!

As they advance, they may decide to move on to more elaborate cookbooks (hello, The French Laundry!) but for now, this works for us.

A delicious dinner prepared by a child.Step two is to assist the first time they make a recipe, but not to do too much. For instance, they have to get out the pots, pans, cutting boards, whatever – but with my advice if needed. (No, not that one, yes, the bigger one, I would use the chef’s knife, etc.) They have to get out the ingredients (the canned beans are on the bottom shelf of the pantry, the extra butter is in the fridge downstairs, etc.).

Making homemade soup for the family.If there is a skill they don’t yet know, like chopping an onion, I’ll demonstrate by doing half of it, and they have to do the other half. The trick is to be there and give advice, but don’t jump in. This can be HARD! It would be so much quicker and easier to just do it myself most of the time, but that will not make them self-sufficient in the kitchen.

The final step is to make them make the same recipe again. I make them do this before moving on to a new one, because we don’t mind having the same thing two weeks in a row, but you can decide the schedule that works for your family. In our house, they cook once a week, so they will learn two new recipes per month and will prepare each of them twice. Once they have a large repertoire, feel free to mix this up!

It would be so much quicker and easier to just do it myself most of the time, but that will not make them self-sufficient in the kitchen.

What Can Children Cook?

Making pizza dough during a cooking class in Naples.My kids have cooked some great things over the years during the cooking classes they’ve taken with me during our travels. Some memorable dishes were oil-poached cod, strawberry cake, and lemon sorbet. And perhaps the best of all of them, homemade pizza in Naples. Yum!

Making lemon sorbet in Sorrento during a family cooking vacation.My older son started making dinner for us the easiest way possible, with boxed waffle mix. “Breakfast for dinner” became a Thursday night staple. (OK, he quickly added homemade whipped cream and fresh fruit, so it wasn’t quite as basic as it sounds!)

There are some obvious choices when kids start cooking: pasta and tacos come to mind, because my kids love them. There is little so useful as knowing how to make a quick tomato sauce from scratch!

Delicious minestrone with pesto.And there are some not so obvious choices: crepes, also because my kids love them! Soup is another great staple. It’s usually full of vegetables, and there are so many soup recipes, it’s always possible to find one everyone will eat. Serve it with garlic bread, also made by them, and you’ve got a perfectly satisfying meal.

Happy kids during a cooking class in Portugal.Even if your kids don’t want to try out for the next Master Chef junior, they can learn to make simple, tasty dishes. From there, they may want to get more elaborate, and lucky for you if they do! Regardless, they will have learned a valuable life skill, and will have a fun time doing it.

By Peg Kern

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