Cooking With Kids: 7 Tips To Awaken Their Inner Chef

by Gennefer Gross

Kids are curious creatures, full of wonder and questions. So. Many. Questions. So, it’s no wonder that watching you in the kitchen will undoubtedly conjure their own interest in cooking. And while you don’t want to quell their desire to learn, you also don’t want to blow up the kitchen in the process! But fear not, these handy tips and kid-friendly recipes will feed their minds and bodies without fanning the flames. Literally.

1. Prep Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself. When dealing with kids in the kitchen, it’s critical to prepare it beforehand by hiding away anything potentially dangerous like a knife block or cheese grater, and depending on your child’s age, you’ll want to be sure to kid-proof any cabinets with unsafe or hazardous items inside. You’ll also want to clear off your countertops of everything but the cookware and ingredients you’ll need so there’s no room for error… or wandering hands.

2. Expect Ripples In The Time-Space Continuum. You’re setting out on an epic journey, exploring new food worlds together, so time and space as you know it no longer exists. Everything will take much (much) longer than it normally does, so be mindful of that and focus on every step in the process. You’re probably used to mindlessly breezing through the steps, but this is new frontier for them. Helping your kids understand each element of the recipe and taking care in getting it right will allow them to absorb the experience, stress-free. This will also require a heaping helping of patience, so set aside extra time to keep everyone calm. Carry on.

3. Bless This Mess. These are kids, so let’s face it, things are going to get messy. Likely, very messy. You can try to do a little damage control beforehand by putting a plastic table cloth or old towel down on the floor to catch spills, or sheets of wax paper along your work station for easy cleanup, but the best advice is to simply embrace the messes as they happen, and have a little fun with it. Sometimes getting messy is good for the soul, and no great stories ever came from being neat and tidy. So, go ahead and get your hands (and face and countertops) a little dirty. Your kids will thank you for it.

4. Play With Your Food. Let your kids touch every ingredient you use – even raw meat and eggs – so they can understand different textures and how it feels and differs before and after cooking. Give them free reign to squish their hands into ground beef, dip their fingers into egg batter, or slide them along the skin of a potato before you peel it. This will help them understand the effects of slicing, baking, and frying different food items so they develop an appreciation for the art of cooking, and can hone their style by experimenting with their own recipe ideas next time (with your supervision, of course). But be sure they know to always wash their hands and use the opportunity to teach them about foodborne illnesses from raw meats and the importance of thoroughly cleaning vegetables.

5. Savor The Senses. Like with touching food, you should also allow your junior chefs to smell and taste everything along the way so that all of their senses are engaged. Give them a whiff of spices so they can learn to identify them, a lick of batter, or a spoonful of sauce before it coats a bowl of pasta to see how various flavors work together, and how mixing certain ingredients changes the way it tastes. This will help them develop a sense of what to add to enhance a dish, discover their personal preferences, and make them more open to trying new foods once they’ve invested in the preparation of it. Even basking in the scents of chicken and herbs roasting in the oven, watching onions turn golden brown on the stove, or listening to the sizzle of frying bacon will teach them about timing and the way food responds to heat and various cooking techniques.

6. Drop Some Knowledge. As you undergo each step in the recipe, be sure to narrate what you’re doing, sharing key cooking vocabulary like ‘marinate’ or ‘caramelize’ and utensil terms they’ll need to know such as ‘colander’ and ‘spatula,’ or the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon. What’s second nature to you is brand new to them so take the time to spell it all out. Show them how to use a measuring cup to teach them about math in a practical way. Talk about the origins of the ingredients so they can learn about culture and geography, as well as the science behind techniques like sautéing and boiling. When you present facts in an interesting way, they’ll absorb and retain the information better. The kitchen classroom  is now in session!

7. Up The Fun Factor. Remember that you’re not just indoctrinating your young ones into the culinary arts. You’re connecting with them, and just like breaking bread brings people together, baking it does, too! While cooking is a great skill to have, it’s also a way for them to spend quality time with you, and can be a wonderful bonding experience so let loose and have some fun. After an afternoon of laughs and tasty treats, your kids will want to try more recipes, which means more special memories for both of you.

Now that you’re ready to get cooking, here are three simple recipes to start them off:

Mini Pizzas

Pizza is one of those foolproof dishes that everyone loves — especially kids — and this recipe couldn’t be easier. It also has some cool additions like hot dogs and cheddar cheese for a fun twist on a traditional pie. Better yet, let them pick some different toppings so they can take ownership of their creation. Maybe they’ll invent the next craze like pineapple on pizza!

Teddy Bear Burgers

Burgers are another beloved food item for kids, and this one brings some whimsy to your typical meat and cheese experience with a teddy bear bun. Not only will your kids love assembling them, it will expose them to new flavors like black olives for the eyes and a cherry tomato nose. Think of it as a salad in disguise, wrapped in a buttery carb hug. And with potato chip ‘fur,’ they won’t even realize they’re eating some healthy ingredients.

Sesame Chicken Nuggets

The only thing better than chicken nuggets are chicken nuggets stuffed with cheese, and creamy smoked Gouda is a great way to expand their palate, tucked inside a familiar item. Feel free to swap it out for other cheeses they might want to try, too, so they can personalize their dish. You really can’t go wrong stuffing foods with pretty much any cheese. Mmm… cheese.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to let their creativity flow by asking them what they might like to add to the recipe (even if it may not seem like the best choice). Experimentation is the cornerstone of cooking, and if you give kids the confidence to try new things, it will extend beyond the plate into all facets of their lives. And, who knows, the next Top Chef may be right under your nose.

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