It seems like “cook with your kids” is the parenting advice du jour. If your kids help in the kitchen, they may turn into better eaters with a more adventurous palate. If your kids help in the kitchen, they will have valuable self-sufficiency skills. If your kids help in the kitchen, you will create wee gourmands who appreciate what you made for dinner instead of asking for toast. Again.
Sure, any of those outcomes is possible, but they are also not guaranteed. If you let your kids help you in the kitchen and they still, STILL, will not eat that cherry tomato you helped them slice up, will you consider it all a flop? A failure that you don’t feel like repeating? What if you encouraged your kids to help make dinner and all that happened was that you had fun together for half an hour? Is that a waste if it doesn’t bring down obesity numbers? Or if everyone still wants toast for dinner?
My kids do help in the kitchen, at least the 2 year old does. He loves to make eggs. He will often ask to eat eggs for breakfast just so he can help make them, and then he often will refuse to eat them. I get irritated at this behavior, but it seems pretty typical for a kid his age; I mean, he doesn’t like to clean up his toys after playing with them, either, right? I try not to see the wasted eggs, the wasted groceries, the wasted money, the wasted food (and then, typically, I solve all these problems by eating them for my own breakfast, but that is probably another post).
So, here is my “advice” on having kids help in the kitchen.
Allow for messes. No one (not even grown ups) likes to try a new activity while someone who is better at everything hovers around them going, “Wait! Not that way! Oops, ohmygod, you spilled! Hold on, I’m going to clean it up. Wait! Don’t touch anything until I have a rag ready! I said wait!” So, I try to be a little zen for five minutes about the messes. The best parenting advice I ever got was from my brother: “No matter what happens, you can always wash your hands later.” And kitchens are pretty much designed to be scrubbed down every so often.
But I don’t tempt fate: I don’t make anything with red food coloring.
Allow for bad measurements. In the book Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman talks about how French children bake their own cakes. When I first read it, I had this moment of panic, because if you’ve ever talked to someone who was passionate about baking, or if you’ve tried to bake much yourself, you know that measuring is super important. People who don’t like to measure are supposed to buy their cupcakes at the store or something. Little kids are not going to measure anything right, unless you are holding their hands the whole time. I let them do the best they can on their own and then use my judgement on whether we need another small scoop of sugar or flour or whatever. Then I adjust the baking time if it looks too stiff or too runny, and we might eat a bad cake every once in awhile. It’s ok.
Let them push the buttons. Have you noticed? Kids like doing that.
Wear costumes. We are fans of special cooking aprons. It lets everyone know who is the chef in the kitchen today. Finn calls his “my napron.”
Sometimes I let them do stuff I think is a bad idea. I’m not suggesting letting anyone climb into a hot oven or anything, but … they will want to use the whisk on those eggs. They will want to stand on a chair next to the stove. They will want to cut something up. I let them try. I show them how to do it in a way that makes it feel a little safer, and then let it happen.
Line everything. Use cupcake liners or parchment paper or tinfoil or whatever. It’s no fun if the final masterpiece won’t come out of the pan.
Encourage patience. Mix all the ingredients up and then wait while it cooks. Later, everyone can have a taste. It’s called patience. I know I wish my kids understood it better.