by Meredith Flory
Near my daughter’s first birthday, we got lucky in finding a used wooden play kitchen for about $20. We’ve added felt food, tiny pots and pans, wooden toy kitchen utensils and more to it over the years. It’s become a favorite toy. However, I quickly learned that children desire real experiences in the real kitchen as well. While my youngest still loves imitating me and bringing me plastic cake and imaginary coffee from the toys, my oldest regularly asks to help cook dinner and I willingly oblige.
Sometimes this task is easier than others and I understand the reasons why many parents are hesitant to allow their children to help. Maybe you do not feel confident with your own cooking skills or maybe dinner is a stressful time for you and you dread the messes that a child might add. Maybe your children are older and you’ve asked them to help, but have been met with resistance. Or perhaps you are worried about safety around kitchen items like knives. I am sympathetic to these issues but cooking is a skill that will serve that child when they do become an adult, leading them to make healthy and economical choices.
For parents who are comfortable in the kitchen, it is easy to start looking for age appropriate ways to bring a child into the kitchen. Letting young children pour and stir in premeasured seasonings, put toppings on salads or pizzas and helping with basic clean-up challenges fine motor and listening skills. Talking while you work can begin to introduce nutrition concepts such as food groups. School age children can work on reading skills by following recipes or work on math skills through measuring or converting ingredients. Older teens have the opportunity to develop responsibility and creativity in the kitchen and gain valuable family time, when they help cook meals.
For parents who aren’t sure where to start, several companies have developed tools to help families reap the benefits of homecooked meals. You may have heard of or tried meal service subscriptions but did you know there are subscription cooking boxes aimed at children?
I had the opportunity to speak with staff at Kidstir (www.kidstir.com), a service that has 12 months of themed cooking kits, and got to try their products. Prices start at $12.95, and there are subscription and individual kit options as well. Kidstir provides a shopping list, recipes, instructions, activities and kid friendly tools for the kitchen. I received the “Soup’s On!” Kit with instructions for three types of soups, an activity booklet, giraffe training chopsticks, and a cheese grater shaped like a turtle. Aparna Pande, the founder of Kidstir, says, “I was inspired to start Kidstir because I wanted my children, and all children, to feel confident and empowered about food and cooking.”
My daughter has recently been interested in ninjas and the week our sample arrived had checked out books on Japan from the library. One of the soup recipes in our Kidstir box was for a ramen bowl and we were able to connect the instructions on using chopsticks, the printout on different types of Asian noodles and the ingredient list to a book we had found on Japanese cooking and crafting. What a treat! As an educator, I appreciated that the box gave options, rather than one recipe, allowing the child to become more involved through decision making, and allowing the items in the box to be used on several occasions. There was also a suggested book list on the theme of soups for our next library trip. Children that can read can explore this information themselves, making this a valuable kit for a variety of ages and the giraffe and turtle tools would be appealing to both boys and girls learning to cook. Pande is leading the company from both professional experience and as a mother of twin boys. She shares that she was thrilled to learn that her customers are “close to evenly split between boys and girls” and that they create kits “with an eye to make sure the design was modern and fresh.”
If messes and safety in the kitchen makes you nervous, the Kidstir box has you covered as well. One of our handouts was on safety, with information about stove-top cooking and chopping an onion. After reading the handout, I allowed my daughter to chop mushrooms with my help, a task I had not let her try before. While the onion instructions were more appropriate for a slightly older child, we could use the same information for her to try a softer item that needed less force – she was so excited and did a great job. Pande explains, “Mom and dad don’t have to worry that they’ll forget that one important safety tip in the heat of the moment or forget some key aspect of the process and have the whole project lead to a meltdown. We do the planning so families can have fun in the kitchen. We break it all down, step by step, to make the experience safe, enjoyable, and successful. We also talk about the fact that the cooking is a place to experiment, that ‘failures’ can turn into unexpected successes, and that sometimes, it’s okay just to laugh and give it another go!”
If you have a reluctant cook, other companies have begun to develop items to entice children into the kitchen as well. Juli Anna Vonderharr is a military wife, mother of three, preschool teacher and a Pampered Chef consultant (www.pamperedchef.com). She shared with me how their line of kid friendly cooking sets, in bright colors and made for tiny hands, is helping her customers bring their children into the kitchen. Allowing children to have their own kitchen items can be helpful such as the oven mitt, which she shares are machine washable and “a little longer for safety.” One of her favorite sets is the Kid’s Pizza Set, which encourages making pizza from scratch with a baker’s mat, small round pizza stone and a rolling pin and pizza cutter for small hands. She explains that she relates to other parents who don’t feel comfortable in the kitchen and that there are messes made and things burned by herself and her kids, but that there is nothing wrong with finding a starting point, such as making the pizza with pre-made crust and sauce. She shares that the first time she let her two oldest make pizza, “They were so excited they couldn’t stand still long enough to chop anything straight…it looked more like a Picaso painting than a pizza,” she says. “But in the end, they said they loved their “chunky pizza.” By making it a habit to use their pizza set on Friday nights, her kids have come to prefer making it at home, and says it helped her children in “learning what flavors blend well, rather than ordering one already made.”
Pande believes the importance of understanding what we are eating at any age and how it is not just a practical skill but a positive emotional experience is important. She explains, “Food is our source of energy, strength and nourishment. We must know what is going into our bodies and how it was prepared. This is how we can be healthy and feel good. This is also how we can feel satisfied and grateful. When we know how to cook, we can truly appreciate good food and those who prepare it for us, even when we haven’t made it ourselves.” Vonderharr raves about the math, cleaning, and safety skills her children have learned through cooking, but states that most importantly, “they have learned respect and courtesy for the one who has put much time and effort into preparing food for others” even when it isn’t their favorite. That sounds like a pretty big payoff for a few kitchen messes.
This article appears in the March 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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