Kids in the Kitchen

Getting past the picky by getting kids more involved in the kitchen

by tj wierenga

The scent of warm bread rising, chocolate chip cookies baking, a stew simmering in the Crockpot or pancakes sizzling on the grill…we all probably have special food-related memories from childhood. While parents today are often more stretched to the limit in time then our ancestors were, home cooked meals shouldn’t be put aside. Even busy families can make a better effort to create new culinary memories and teach cooking skills to the younger generation.

Ever want to pull your hair out in frustration over your child’s poor food choices that seem to be deadlocked on chicken nuggets, or over their refusal to try anything new? This problem seems to be universal for parents, and one remedy is to involve kids in the cooking process. “They will be more likely to try new foods”, encourages MSU/Yellowstone County Extension Agent Bernie Mason, “if they have had a part in preparing the food.”

Research indicates that children who learn some basic cooking skills stand a better chance of eating healthier as adults. Kids helping in the kitchen is a great idea and we encourage it”, said Mason. In addition to the added interest in foods, “it also helps them develop skills such as hand-eye coordination, math and reading skills as well as set the tone in preparation for life.” As they start with fresh ingredients and see them turn into delicious meals, the kitchen becomes an invaluable classroom. And in today’s troubled economic times, home cooked meals are often a wise financial decision.

“I love the idea of kids being in the kitchen,” said Copper Colander’s (2440 Grant Road, Billings) Culinary Center Coordinator, Carrie Sullivan. “It’s quality family time.   Kids love to help out in the kitchen; the most important thing is to keep it age appropriate for safety reasons.” To help get budding chefs off to a good start, Copper Colander is offering Create-a-Chef cooking camps this summer, broken down into four age groups:

For ages 5-7 “Curious Chef” camp teaches skills such as kitchen safety, adding and measuring ingredients, and preparing simple yet satisfying lunches for themselves.

For ages 8-11 “Growing Gourmets” camps will teach kitchen safety, basic knife skills, filling and leveling measuring cups, reading recipes and labels, the purpose and use of various cooking tools as well as the microwave oven, writing out shopping lists and help with menu planning.

Junior High age “Jr Chefs in the Making” camp curriculum includes knife and oven safety, planning and shopping for meals, the purposes and use of electric mixer, blender, grater, and other kitchen appliances (with supervision), and following steps to prepare simple recipes.

“Chefs in the Making” camps offer high school students a fun and beneficial summer option. The curriculum includes kitchen safety, shopping techniques, budgeting and cooking. Students are taught to prepare meals including international foods, such as Mexican and Italian. Emphasis is placed on planning balanced menus for family meals.

As children mature and take greater interest in cooking, they will enjoy specially designed cook books and recipe holders which can go off to college or out into the world with them in time.

Kitchen skills can be introduced to children at a very young age. From helping to make sandwiches, washing fruits and vegetables, to tearing up lettuce for salads even 3 year olds can learn the joy of cooking. As the kids grow older and with more practice, additional skills can be taught such as snapping beans, husking corn, adding ingredients that are pre-measured and so forth.

Writing shopping lists, learning measurements and reading recipes out loud are great learning tools for kids. And by the time they are 8-10 years old, they will be mastering the art of opening cans, choosing vegetables at the grocery store, helping to plan menu’s and using basic kitchen appliances.

Children learn very quickly, tend to enjoy helping out in the kitchen, and typically have energy to spare. Remember that it is a lot more interesting to kids when given their own responsibilities rather than just watching—so keep them busy to keep it fun. And keep in mind that no matter how organized and prepared you are, your kitchen will most likely reflect the creative process when you are done…but clean up is an important life skill to teach, as well. The ‘order restoration’ process will be much easier if you teach children to put ingredients away once they have been used, to keep cooking and food preparation areas clean as they go, and to put used utensils and dishes straight into a sink of warm, soapy water. Your encouragement and praise will go a long way in helping your budding chefs gain confidence and pleasure in their culinary efforts (as well as hopefully increasing their willingness to try the new foods that they have helped prepare), so ignore the extra work and focus on their good efforts.

Bon Appétit!SFM

TJ Wierenga enjoys cooking with her two young children, and really appreciates hubby Mark for his excellent clean-up supervision afterwards!