After attending quite a few cooking classes with Trent (since he was two-ish), I’ve had the opportunity to see how other people teach kids to cook and in that I’ve encountered the bad, the ugly and the good. I’m not going to dwell on the ugly or the bad, but rather I’d like to share a few tips which were good.
How to make it Happen What I suggest is that you plan a cooking day or a trip to the farmer’s market. Plan it as if you were making a trip to the park, the zoo, or the beach. Make it fun and make it an event. If you can do it more often – then go for it! Whatever you manage to do is worthwhile.
The Empowerment of a Little Chef
Kids often want to “do it themselves” – the “Let me do it” phase. The most amazing idea I’ve seen for allowing kids to cut up food is the use of a stainless steel table knife and regular cutting board. With just the barest hint of a serrated edge, a table knife becomes a useful cutting tool which is unlikely to cause injury and requires considerably less supervision. (I wouldn’t suggest giving table knives to a dozen pre-schoolers and leaving them alone for 20 minutes or even five, but table knives are pretty blunt and within reason quite safe.)
This way, little kids are empowered with a responsible task of chopping and they are often respectful that they are being given that privilege. A common table knife is an amazing learning tool and will cut soft vegetables, fruit, cheese and even (cooked) chicken. Another option is to use a plastic knife with a serrated edge although it is not as useful for harder foods it will do the job for fruit and soft cheese.
Note: Don't worry about form or beauty. Pieces cut by little chefs are likely to be haphazard in size and shape and that's fine. Cooking with a young chef is not an exact science and perfection can come later.
Cooking & Shopping or Cooking in-Season Great cooking requires great ingredients. Learning where the food comes from, how to make a choice, where you go to shop or choose your food; be it farmer’s market, grocery store or backyard.
Learning to choose a ripe tomato, or a sweet melon or just knowing what produce is in-season, is part of the lesson. Take your child to the farmer’s market as a field trip if you don’t do it regularly, or just spend some time in the produce section of the grocery store. Talk about what vegetables are in season. Let children choose and buy something for a cooking project and integrate it into a meal. Let a child choose something to eat (an apple, berries, lettuce, something that strikes their fancy) and help them to make the best choice.
Stymied by a vegetable or fruit yourself?
Learn together - it’s okay not to know everything. Or look it up when you get home and share that moment of learning with your child. If you don’t know how to cook it, or choose it, or ripen it, then ask questions and learn about food together.
Talk About The Ingredients
You may still choose to make strawberry shortcake in February from grocery store strawberries which are grown in South America. Talk to your children about where the strawberries are grown and why there are no local strawberries you can buy right now. Tell them how strawberries taste different in June.
Tell a Story about the Ingredients
Talk to them, and tell them a story about the ingredients that they are using. Your little chef is listening. If you don't know the story off-hand, read the label or look it up later, and make it a research project. The flour is wheat sown in a sunny field and reaped by the farmer who threshes it and then takes to the mill to have it ground into flour. The apple comes from an orchard in the fall. The bees made the honey by visiting flowers and collecting the dusty pollen. Check your library, too. There are children's books written on cooking themes which tell stories. (Like How to Make an Apple Pie). Stories can inspire field trips. You might take a trip to a farm, grain mill, fish docks or an orchard.
Easy Cooking Projects (Involving chopping...)
The key to successful cooking with little chefs is the set-up. Make sure all of your ingredients and tools are ready and in place that way you can give your child 100% of your attention.
Here are some ideas as to what you can make with your little chef and a table knife and cutting board.
Have your little chef core the tomatoes, stuff them with basil, and measure out the oil & vinegar and add the seasonings. My little chef loves to turn the crank of the food mill, however you can strain soup through a colander very easily, too. Cutting off bad spots on the tomatoes is a good lesson to learn.
You make the broth and while it’s simmering, they cut up the cooked chicken, celery, cooked potatoes, etc. You can take the trimmings and add it to the broth to strain out later. A great lesson to teach is that unappetizing vegetable tops and stems, along with the peels, have value in stocks or broths. Note: You may have to help with carrots (and any other hard root vegetables) as they are hard to cut with a table knife - if you have a food processor, it makes short work of carrot chopping (and is lots of fun for little chefs to use). Once the broth is strained, add the vegetables and simmer until they are tender.
Cheese & Crackers
You can make crackers in a food processor and bake them yourself or you can use store-bought crackers and top it with a nice cheese cut up by your little chef.
Fruit Salad – Difficult fruits, such as pineapple or mango, may require help but usually once a fruit is cored it’s easy to cut up.
Smoothies - Have your little chef cut up the fruit and measure out the milk, yogurt and juice.
Salad - Wash and tear lettuce, cut tomatoes, cucumber, etc. Make the dressing.
Juices & Ice Pops - Chop, Puree or Food Mill then Mix (if required) and Freeze (optional).
Scones (with cheese or herbs or fruit) - fun to make, with cutting, measuring and mixing and then shaping or stamping. The parent will have to bake and cool them.
Fruit Sorbet or Ice Cream - Have your little chef chop up the fruit, measure ingredients and use the blender/food mill, food processor and ice cream maker. Freezing something is lots of fun!
Make Real Food Please use real ingredients – and good quality ones. Don’t skimp here. If you are making something to eat choose the best available ingredients. Your children will taste almost all of the things you cook with together. If you are baking, choose non-aluminum baking powder, good quality butter, sugar (or honey or maple syrup), farm eggs, real vanilla, good quality chocolate, etc. Make icing from icing sugar. Use natural food colors.
What you choose to use makes a statement. Kids remember labels, shapes and colors even if they can’t read. Good quality ingredients taste different and children will will grow up remembering that taste.
For example: I really don’t care if canned icing brings back a memory for you – don’t buy it and don’t let your kids eat it.You want their "icing memory" to be of vanilla beans, milk, butter and real chocolate. Not to mention the memory of making the icing, rather than eating it out of a can. Cooking & Gardening
If you can, plant a garden – be it a pot on a windowsill or your whole backyard. Gardening can be easily combined in your cooking lesson. Buy a plant instead of a bunch of leaves if you can. Choose organic when you can. Choose locally grown and in-season fruits and vegetables. Teach children about washing the produce.
The basil or herbs become an element to pick for the soup. Lettuce picking makes a salad. Because children learn to understand seasonality through gardening, it makes more sense to them when you say "Strawberries are not in season", when the strawberry plants in your garden are under a foot of snow. (They also learn that cosmetically imperfect fruits and vegetables are just fine. - Jack)
Harvesting is a big deal for little gardeners. They will take a great pride in items used in a recipe that they grew and picked themselves. Whatever’s ripe or ready in the garden becomes an element of the meal even if it’s a tiny one. For instance perhaps there is only one little baby squash in your garden – not enough for soup or dinner – pick it any ways and supplement it with farmer’s market bought squash or grocery store produce, or just serve it by itself. Just picking an herb to add flavor, links the element of the garden to the kitchen. Composting Optional
When you are cutting and trimming fruits and vegetables, make a pile for the compost heap (if you have one). We call taking out the compost – “feeding the worms”. If you don’t have a compost pile, you can dig a hole in your back or front yard and bury the trimmings for a quick lesson. Some schools and communities have a shared garden to which you can deliver compost items. Fill a brown paper bag and place it inside of a plastic or biodegradable bag to transport it. If you don't have a compost heap – or very little time – then talk about how the trimmings rot and eventually turn into soil.
Got kid? Need Tower!
The Learning Tower ranks as our best purchase ever, for our child. Used almost every day for more than 4 years, it's simply great for allowing your little chef to cook or play cook in your kitchen. More here.